You might be surprised to hear that the response we get to the question, “When was the last time you oiled your clock?” is, “never.” Oiling your clock’s movement regularly is one of the first steps to helping it keep running smoothly. Clock maintenance isn’t something to feel intimidated about, and you’d be surprised just how simple and easy it is to keep your clock in prime condition so that it lasts for generations. Whether you’ve got something old or new, traditional or modern, what you’ve got running behind the dial generally works just the same way, and we’re here to help you learn just how to keep it going—so just read on!
1. Why does my clock need to be oiled?
Properly maintaining your clock’s movement can greatly extend the life of the clock, so if you have something that’s been passed down through your family, or if you have a piece that you love, oiling it is just one way to show it a little love in return. Clock movements are a series of gears, cogs, levers, and chimes all working seamlessly together to keep time. Just like your car’s engine needs oiling to keep running, so does your clock—just not nearly as often. If your clock has stopped working, oiling it should be the first course of action to seeing if you can get to work again. If that doesn’t do the trick, your movement may need to be replaced. You can find our article about replacing your clock’s movement here to learn more about how to replace your own clock movement.
2. How often should I oil my clock? What about cleaning it?
Clock movements should be oiled every 3-4 years, making it a fairly low-maintenance item considering its longevity. People often think that oiling and cleaning your clock are synonymous terms, but clocks don’t need to be cleaned as often as they used to. Our homes run much more efficiently and have better air filters than they did in years past, meaning that less dirt and dust finds its way into the movement of the clock. We don’t all live on dusty backroads, burn coal and wood in the fireplace during the winter, or even have animals shedding fur and bringing in dirt from outdoors, so cleaning your clock only needs to be done every 6-8 years. That said, everybody’s home is different, so assess your own home environment in order to gauge when your clock needs to be cleaned. If it looks clean, it probably is.
3. What do I use to oil or clean my clock?
Movement manufacturers today recommend that clock owners use a synthetic oil because of its resistance to breakdown and aging. Modern movements have a baked-on lacquer finish that petroleum-based products can dissolve, ruining your clock movement. A good practice is to keep the instruction manuals that come with your clock at purchase and read the manufacturer’s list of suggested products, especially while the clock is still under a manufacturer’s warranty. Emperor Clock sells a synthetic clock oil that comes in a handy applicator for easy use. You can find it here.
To clean your clock, use an alcohol or electrical contact cleaner, which you can usually find at your local hardware store or supermarket. Even rubbing alcohol on a cotton swab or Q-Tip will work to clean it without harming the lacquer finish. When in doubt, just call your local clock shop and take your clock in for a cleaning.
4. How do I oil it? Is there anything I shouldn’t do?
When oiling your clock, make sure to only oil the bearing points on the front and back plates. First, remove the movement from the cabinet and free it from the dial face. Make sure that your movement is cleaned prior to oiling it, as oiling a dirty movement will significantly increase the wear process. Never oil gears, levers, washers on automatic beat setting mechanisms, clock hands, chains, or the teeth or leaves on wheels as they must remain dry in order to function properly. Never spray anything into the mechanism, and make sure to only use approved products. Products like WD-40 should never be used to oil your clock as they contain traces of water and can cause your movement to stop working, or rust the pivots. Figuring out how much oil to use is tricky, and depends on several factors such as the type of the clock, the size of the pivots, the location of the moving parts, etc. However, a rule of thumb is to apply only as much oil as necessary to cover a wheel pivot where it protrudes through the movement plate. If too much oil is used, the extra oil will run down the movement plates, carrying oil away from the wheel pivots. Start with just a small drop of oil.
The pivot is where the wheel shaft rotates in the front and back plates of the movement. You can also oil the anchor pallets, bearing surfaces on chain wheels and cable drums, and some types of dead beat escape wheel teeth.
This photo shows what pivot points look like on movements. They will usually vary in size and placement. The red circles mark the points where you would want to apply oil.
If you’re one of those magical people who’ve had their clock for 20 years and never oiled or cleaned it—don’t! If it is running properly on its own, just leave it be. As the adage goes, don’t fix what isn’t broken!