My Grandfather Clock!

The first time I heard the term ‘Grandfather Clock’ being used was in a song. I remember being in middle school and we got a new music teacher. She had a tough job as this was an all boys school at the time and most of us could’nt carry a note. Of course, she could not expel the whole batch, so she thought she would teach us something that we would be able to remember. The famous song ‘My grandfather’s clock’ written in 1876 by Henry Clay Work. I still remember some of the lyrics ….

My grandfather’s clock was too large for the shelf,
So it stood ninety years on the floor;
It was taller by half than the old man himself,
Though it weighed not a pennyweight more.
It was bought on the morn of the day that he was born,
And was always his treasure and pride;
But it stopped short — never to go again —
When the old man died.

My fascination with clocks was fed in the most unusual ways.   About the time we were taught this song, I got to see a grandfather clock for the first time. Our cricket ball went across the wall into the adjoining compound that was part of another school. I jumped over the wall and noticed the main door to the building was ajar and inside against the wall stood this magnificent clock. Standing taller than me majestically on the floor. I was entranced by the slowly swinging pendulum. And just stood and admired this beautiful clock. Over the years, the only places I did get to see these beautiful clocks were in museums. Occasionally they would appear in antique shops. Prices were prohibitive and owning one was definitely not an option.

File:Antique Grandfather Clock by Grantham Clockmaker 18th century.JPG

Years later I saw an advertisement in the local paper for a grandfather clock that was for sale. We went down to see it, and although it was not affordable at the time, I became friends with the maker of the clock, Dr. Piedpet. Dr. Piedpet was a medical physician who decided that making clocks and restoring vintage cars was a more satisfying profession than treating patients! We became good friends and swapped ideas and talked about various projects that we were undertaking. Dr. Piedpet was my mentor and inspiration for many years until his demise some years later.

One day Dr. Piedpet called and gave me some sad news. He told me very in a very ‘matter of fact’  way that he was given 3 months to live as he was in a very advanced stage of cancer. He also gave me a commission that I thought was impossible for me to fulfill at the time. He wanted me to make a grandfather clock for a customer that had ordered one, and had made part payment for it in advance.

I told Doc that i would do my best. Two months later, we went down to the hospital to visit Doc and give him the news that his clock was complete. Doc was very feeble, but he sat up and ran through the specifications with me. He was glad that I completed the assignment. About two hours after we left Doc we got a call from his son, Srinand, to inform us that Doc had passed away.

But the end to this story was different from the words of the song.     This clock began its life when my old friend died.

Owning a grandfather clock remained a dream after Dr. Piedpet’s clock went to its new owner. But the only clocks available were cheap mass produced gaudy replicas. After years of waiting I managed to acquire a genuine antique grandfather clock. This is a beaut, made in the UK in the late 1700’s, she stands about seven feet tall .  The pendulum is just over three  feet long and there are two weights that come down on pulleys. This is the most majestic clock in my collection. Grandfather clocks are the amongst the largest of the domestic clocks that anyone can own and just like the words of the song they are’ ….. too large for the shelf, so it stood ninety years on the floor’ !!



Dr. George Daniels is known as the ‘god of Watchmaking ‘ in the field of horology.   I came across Dr. Daniels’s book ‘WATCHMAKING’ in the early 1990’s. This is an all time classic in the field of watchmaking. WATCHMAKING by GEORGE DANIELS

The British Council library in Bangalore had a copy in its reference section. In those days we could borrow reference books on week ends with the librarians permission, on condition that we returned them first thing Monday morning!

The book was a beaut, a real treasure and I ended up photo copying the entire book. The book dealt with every aspect of watchmaking , theory as well as practical details on how every single part was made …I mean literally!

The book became a daily reference and I learned to apply the techniques on my newly acquired vintage watchmakers lathe. Soon I could turn balance staffs and make other small parts.

I made inquiries about contacting Dr. Daniels, (those were pre internet days!) but had no success. The occasional news item in the British Horological Journal was my only way of keeping in touch with what was going on in the international arena of horology, and in particular mechanical horology. There were the occasional articles about Dr. Daniels sometime. He was known to be a recluse and the then Secretary of the BHI, Helen Bartlett was the only conduit to Dr Daniels who lived on the Isle of Man.Dr. George Daniels

Abraham Louis Breguet was one of the most famous watchmakers who ever lived and every one of his creations were masterpieces. Dr. Daniels was commissioned with the job of documenting and restoring many of Breguets masterpieces. He wrote another book titled “The Art of Breguet” where he describes some of Breguets watches and clocks.

Dr. Daniels was also passionately fond of vintage cars and had a few really priceless specimens. He had restored them and actually took them out and raced them to make sure they were up to speed.

Some time in the late 1990’s I was invited to Switzerland by the watchmaking company Breguet.  They were celebrating 250 years of watchmaking and there was a a gathering of about 2 dozen watchmakers from around the world. I was the only Indian. Imagine my surprise and delight when I suddenly spotted Dr. Daniels in the audience. He was one of the guests and for some strange reason no one seemed to be talking with him!

Author and Dr George DanielsI went up to him and immediately started speaking with  him,  about his watches, why was he here, etc, etc… It was an exhilarating 10 or 15 minutes that we spoke.  He asked me to write to him and let him know what I was working on.  When I asked for his address, he just said     “The Watchmaker, Isle of Man”!!!    I did’nt get down to writing to him, but it was the impossible dream come true to meet the man from whom I learned so much and still inspires me every time I pick up his masterpiece – ‘Watchmaking’.

Time Travel or Travel Time?

Carriage Clock 1   Carriage Clocks are real masterpieces of engineering.   Characteristically heavy, they most often have rectangular cases with a glass front and  glass sides as well, these clocks are amongst the most collectible of all clocks. Made predominantly in France and the UK, there were variants produced around the world. French Carriage clocks usually have a heavy case made from brass, a base unit, four pillars, a top plate with the all important handle to carry it around – usually in a horse drawn carriage on journeys! The dial was almost almost always white enamel with a plain clear chapter ring. Some versions had an auxiliary small alarm dial. The case came fitted with glass panels (usually beveled) on all sides including a large door at the back.

The top also had a glass window under the handle where you could see the all important ‘escapement’!Carriage Clock Escapement 1 The escapement is what became the most characteristic and telling features of the carriage clock. It was made by specialists and placed horizontally on the top of the main movement while the rest of the works were mounted vertically in the traditional manner. The horizontally placed escapement insulated the delicate balance from the bumps and shocks that would almost certainly damage any other escapement while the carriage bumped along the dirt roads in those days.

Carriage clocks spawned an industry of their own, from movement makers who made the larger parts and assembled the complete clocks. Other parts like the platform escapements were made by specialists who did nothing else. The escapement is the actual timing mechanism that gives the clock its timing accuracy. It measures time by the to and fro motion of a vibrating balance wheel – kept in motion by by a lever that very gently nudges it every time its direction of rotation changes. The lever is in turn actuated by an escape wheel that provides the nudge or impulse to the lever while it is itself constrained to move one tooth at a time by the rocking action of the lever.

Carriage Clock 2 Enamel dialThere were separate case makers who made the standard elegant brass cases and there were some who made more elaborate cases with enamel, engravings   and sometime decorated panels. The enameled dials were another industry and so too were the felt lined carrying cases for additional protection. Keys were double sided sometimes –the larger square for winding and the smaller for setting the time!

Carriage clock AmericanThere were lower priced versions of carriage clocks made in America and elsewhere that are equally collectible. Cases were made of stamped sheets of thin brass or iron and then nickle plated. Movements were more traditional and did not have a platform escapement. Almost all these clocks had pin lever escapements that were easier to mass produce. The stamped cases  sometimes had very ornate decorations in relief. To add more character, most had a striking mechanism and some were fitted with musical alarms that concealed in an aperture in the base.

The nature of this precision timepiece led to some carriage clocks being made with additional complications with alarms and repeater mechanisms. Carriage Clock 3 CaseThere were some that had complicated calendar mechanisms as well. This particular clock became such a classic in terms of design elegance as well as function, that production continued well into the twentieth century and there are some makers who continue to make them to this day. Unlike most other clocks, carriage clocks give you a peek into the mechanism so that you can almost always see what makes them tick!

Busy Bee

The ‘BEE’ clock, made by the Ansonia Clock Company in Connecticut, USA is a classic! A small tin can – actually brass plated with nickel / chrome, is about two and a quarter inches in diameter and about the same thickness.  Packaged in pretty yellow or orange coloured tins with a picture of a nice bee on the side and a view of the Ansonia Clock Factory on the lid, they are on every collectors ‘must have’ list.


They were marketed as 30 hour clocks. One  classic feature was that the winding mechanism was built into the rear cover. This meant that the main spring was almost the entire diameter of the clock and was in a sense separated from the rest of the movement. It was fastened into place with a convex spring clip that held it to the rest of the movement. Two small legs screwed into the case at the bottom and a small bow on the top served to fasten the movement withing the ‘tin can’ or drum. Most had a plain paper dial while some had slightly more ornate dials –usually a stamped brass centre to the chapter ring. Most of the Bees have an engraving on the winding lid, ‘Pat Apr 23 1878’ and ’Made in the United State s of America’. The clock won an award in an exposition in Paris the same year.

BEE CLOCK 5 tin topI discovered an almost identical clock made in the United kingdom in my collection. The winding mechanism in principle is almost identical to that of the Ansonia Bee, except that unlike the Bee, it uses a more traditional rachet wheel and pawl click mechanism. ‘Patented in Great Britain and France ‘ and ‘Made by the British United Clock Company’ in ‘Birmingham England’.

Even after more than a century, these clocks work beautifully when restored and serviced. There have been some later imitations using more traditional movements with a smaller contained main spring. I have a Japanese one made by Seikosha. It looks just as pretty but the differences are apparent when you look at the back. The Japanese one has an enamel chapter ring with an ornate pressed brass centre.

BEE CLOCK 6 AlarmThe Bee also had a more complicated version that had an alarm. The gong, comparatively large and dome shaped sat on top of the clock.

These clocks came in beautiful wooden boxes unlike their smaller cousins.   Some of these basic ‘Bee’s’ were made so that the standard ‘tin can’ drum could be inserted into a more ornate case with a cylindrical aperture.

O f all the clocks that i have come across, the Bee is the most aptly named, and still creates a buzz!

Going round in circles!

Monday started with me trying to match a bunch of clock movements with their cases and dials. I  did not imagine the task was so complicated! Years ago I picked up the entire stock of a clock maker who had closed shop. This comprised of a huge amount of movements – the mechanics that make a clock work, and an assortment of clock cases. I assumed I would be able to do the matching of movements to the cases quite easily, but the years between acquiring the lot and putting them together had resulted in an additional problem of monumental proportions. Mud from termites, rust, grease and fluff had caked the parts together. Cleaning each movement and then doing the necessary repairs gave me some satisfaction. I had decided to work on a particular type of clock called a ‘Dial’ clock or the ‘Gallery’ clock as they do in America.


Gallery clocks have a plain round wooden case. They are simple and elegant, the wood work essentially the same as that of the Drop Octagon, with the corners rounded off, and the extra drop eliminated with a smaller pendulum. The face is then turned in a lathe to round off and sometimes add embellishments like a turned bezel. In most cases the case is a clean flat round rim of polished wood around a dial. A brass or steel bezel ring holding a protective glass is mounted on the case to provide access when setting the time or when winding.

After getting the movements I thought belonged to particular cases I was confronted with another problem. Although the movements of many types and styles of clocks look similar – almost identical in some cases, they function with different pendulum lengths! For instance Drop Octagon clocks and a lot of Dial or drop Dial clocks have virtually identical movements.

Below : A typical antique Clock Movement

 675_Ansonia_AfterThe only difference is in the gear ratios that allow for longer or shorter pendulums. And it is virtually impossible to tell unless the movement is timed to determine the correct pendulum length! And this was what I was up against! So I nailed a board to the wall and mounted the movements that I serviced on the board. Then it was a job trying different pendulums and timing each. Its not hard to get an approximate length of pendulum required. Doing the final regulation takes time as the job requires monitoring over a period of a few hours and sometimes days before one can set the clock to function accurately. Of course there is much joy and satisfaction in going through all these complicated procedures. So different from a   battery operated clock or watch!  But that’s the difference between one of these   mechanical masterpieces and their characterless electronic replacements!

Out of the five movements I serviced,  three belonged to Drop Octagon clocks and not their Dial cousins!  After matching the selected movements again with their cases, I put them back on to their testing board while I set about sprucing up their cases. One needed the back board replaced and the other needed joints to be tightened  up again. Then it was time to give them a light sanding to get them smooth  after the touch up. Bits of hardened glue , scuffing and abrasions all had to cleaned off and smoothed. The sanding also prepares the surface to accept the French polish that gives the wood a nice gloss while emphasizing  the grain in some cases. Polish also acts as a preservative by replenishing the natural oils and waxes in the wood. Then the brass bezel rings that hold the protective glass that cover the dial had to be buffed and polished till they shone again.

A Brass Bezel on a Dial Clock

And now to get some round disks of glass cut to fit into those bezels! This is something that I could not do at home. So it was off to find a guy who made picture frames. Fortunately he had the required attachment to cut circles out of glass. Not many of these guys keep this compass like tool to cut circles! I was told they do not have circular picture frames! ‘Then why do you have this tool? ’ I asked. ‘For people like you’ he replied! Then he thought for a bit and said that they do get orders for circular mirrors. Apparently people like to have circular mirrors in their bathrooms!

Anyway, the dial clocks got their bezels and glasses and now are ticking merrily on the wall! These clocks are a bit tricky to set up and will stop working if they are not exactly vertical! And this depends on how the movement is mounted and set up initially. I got some requests to examine clocks that stopped working immediately after they were brought back from a clockmaker. The problem was that the ‘crutch’ was disturbed when in transit. The ‘crutch’ is a link between the escapement and the pendulum and the crutch needs to be set when the clock is vertical. If this is not set, the clock goes out of ‘beat’ (and uneven ‘tic toc’ ) and eventually stops.

A Platform Escapement on a movement.

Setting the crutch in a Dial or Drop Octagon clock involves removing the hands and dial. Not a pleasant task after everything is closed up and looking good. To deal with these problems some slightly ‘improved’ designs had clocks with platform escapements that needed no pendulums and worked in any position. And now I have just discovered I have two Dial clocks in my collection with platform escapements in my collection that need attention! I’m going round in circles.

Gone Cuckoo!

My fascination with horology started when I was about 5 years old. Our English text book at that time – Radiant Readers book 1 (or 2) had a story on the life of John Harrison, the famous English clockmaker. There was a picture of Harrisons H1 – this exquisite piece of engineering that did not look like any other clock  I had ever seen – four dials, and a whole lot of levers and springs and stuff that looked great! I had never seen any any clock that looked even vaguely like it.

                                John Harrisson’s H1

I could not get any further information on that masterpiece then, but a visit to the Salar Jung museum in Hyderabad a few years later had my fascination and passion for clocks revived. There was beautiful clock that had automatons, a man hammering something on an anvil and another man who came out from behind a door and struck the hour on a gong – every hour. It also had many small dials around the big large one in the centre. I did not know what all the other dials were at that time, but I was sufficiently inspired to start dis- assembling some of my grandmothers clocks to make my own clock with a man chopping wood. Of course, the experiment was short lived and I had to hear ‘remember how you opened up my clocks and destroyed them’ almost for most of my adult life! Now, years as I better understand the principles of horology, the dream of making clocks and automatons is still alive! I have only made one grandfather clock, but I have restored dozens of vintage clocks and watches. Horology is an all encompassing hobby now. My collection consists of most of the classic specimens of various types and styles. Cuckoo clocks are amongst my favourites.

One of the characteristic designs has a little bird – a Cuckoo, appear on the hour and make a distinct ‘cuck coo’ as many times as the hour, every hour and once every half hour. Cuckoo clocks are the closest the common man can come to owning a clock with some form of automata. The little bird is an elegant masterpiece of simplicity and design. Rocking on a pivot (the perch), you can actually see the birds beak open and close with each chirp! The mechanism also opens a door, pushes the bird out, the bird cheeps the required number of times, and then the bird withdraws and the door closes. The innards of the clock contain the cheeping mechanism comprising two bellows with differently tuned whistles that produce the ‘Cuck Coo’ sound. In addition to this the clock mechanism has a system of counting the required number of cheeps, an open and shut mechanism for the door and lever system to push and pull the bellows. Most of the basic clocks also have a gong which is struck with a hammer immediately after each ‘cuck coo’. Beautifully complex and simple at the same time! The elegance of the cases is another story altogether!

All of them are some form of bird house which has a door that opens where the Cuckoo makes her appearance. Most are traditionally made of wood with carved trim usually depicting leaves and birds – Cuckoo’s of course! Others depict hunting scenes and have a stags head on top complete with antlers! Some have saddles and guns! Some are just plain typical Swiss or German mountain cottages! More complex styles include a musical movement in addition to the Cuckoo. A small tune plays along with the birds. Some Cuckoo clocks do not have birds at all! Birds are replaced with figures that dance and appear through one doorway and disappear through another, whilst the music plays.

Recently I decided to involve myself with some restoration of my Cuckoo clocks. Most of the problems were with the bellows and whistles – the part that makes the distinct ‘cuck coo’ sound.

Cuckoo bellows 01

Traditionally, the bellows were made with paper thin leather, but now a type of flexible paper similar to currency notes is used. Leather stiffens and cracks with age rendering them dysfunctional. Sometimes the leather is eaten by weevils or cockroaches. I removed the old remnants of leather and carefully cleaned the parts of any traces of old glue. Then a piece of bellows paper was cut to the desired profile and glued to the whole assembly. About an hour later when everything had dried, I carefully folded and formed the accordion pleats that give the bellows their unique function. Then the movement was dis-assembled, cleaned and re-assembled. After every moving part was lubricated, the bird was re-installed into her renovated home. She’s all set and ready to chirp again! But maybe its not the bird who’s gone cuck coo this time – its me!