Winding spring driven clocks

Several times a year folks call thinking something is wrong with a clock they have just purchased, had serviced, or inherited.  Typically, the complaint is that the clock is fully wound but won’t run or strike, or that the clock has run for a week and one side winds and takes plenty of turning, but the other side won’t wind at all.

In American spring wound clocks from Seth Thomas, Ingraham, and most others, the springs typically are wound in opposite directions.  If you look in the back of the clock, you may notice this allows the springs to expand outwards into the empty space between the movement and the clock case.  Many of these open spring clocks wind the strike side (left hand winding square) in a clockwise direction, and the time side (right hand winding square) counter-clockwise.  There are some brands that wind in the same direction, and some that wind exactly opposite.  Ansonia clocks are particularly unpredictable in which way to turn the winding key.

If you feel carefully, you will always be able to feel a bit of spring tension when you turn the key in one direction, even if the clock is fully wound.  That is the direction to turn to wind that spring.  If you turn the key in the opposite direction, you will simply feel a hard refusal to move, not even the smallest bit of springiness.  After a week of running and striking, both springs will need winding.  Quite simply, if the key will not turn, try the other direction.

When winding a clock, please do not let the key snap back as you move your hand for the next turn.  The clicking sound you hear as your wind a clock is a ratchet and pawl mechanism.  Both parts are made of a brass, and over the years continued banging back against the ratchet will eventually cause excessive wear resulting in failure of the winding mechanism.  If the spring unwinds suddenly the clock can suffer significant damage, just as much harm as a broken spring can cause.  If the winding ratchet mechanism fails while you are winding the clock, the key will spin very fast and may cause injury to your fingers.  If you are lucky and the spring is fairly weak you may just have a few stinging fingers and a surprised look, but with strong springs real injury can result.

Last but not least, many early spring wound clocks, particularly those from the early 1800’s, only run for one day on a winding.  The most common American time and strike clocks, such as the tambour and kitchen or gingerbread clocks, run for 8 days.  Winding once a week is required.  Many, but not all French round movement clocks will run for 14 days between windings.  Anniversary (400 day) clocks run better if wound every six months.  When a clock is wound so rarely it is easy to forget that winding is required.

More than once a person has picked up a clock, then called a bit over a week later to tell me the clock I just serviced has stopped.  When asked if they have wound the clock, there is often a moment of silence followed by “Oops…”.  No harm, no foul, customers can always call with questions.  🙂

I hope this information is helpful,


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