Vintage Alarm Clock sales on the web since 1996

 

Here are answers to  

Frequently Asked Questions  

about windup alarm clocks.

by The Alarm Clock Doc

Q: Where can I buy an alarm clock made in the USA?

 

A:  Sadly, when Westclox closed it's doors in Norcross, Georgia, in 1999, it was the end of alarm clock manufacturing in the United States.  Most other manufacturers moved their plant overseas by the 1970s.  Westclox was the last holdout.   The majority of our restored clocks were made in the US, and we can sometimes offer new-old-stock clocks when we can find them and they are serviceable.

 

Q:  What does it mean when a clock is overwound?

 

A:  That is an interesting question.  Often, one sees clocks advertised on eBay and elsewhere as “not running, probably over-wound.”  The fact is, there is no way to over-wind a clock.  Specifically, if a clock is wound fully, eventually the winding key will no longer turn.  At this point, the spring is tight and capable of delivering the most power to the clock.  This will not cause the clock to stop.

 

When the condition of a clock is described as “over-wound,” there is always another underlying cause for why the clock will not run.  The clock ends up fully wound because winding is the first thing we try when a clock has stopped.  It is difficult to determine the cause without inspecting the movement.

 

Q:  My alarm clock winds, but not very tight.  The clock only seems to run for about a half day.  What can be done?

 

A:  When a clock winds but the spring does not become significantly tighter, the cause is usually a broken mainspring.  Most often the mainspring will break near the inside of its coil.  If this happens, no power can be delivered to the movement.  However, if the spring has broken on the outside of its coil, it will sometimes partially wind, then “slip.”  If it is wound to just before this slip occurs, there may be enough power available from the spring to run the clock for a short time.  In either case, the spring will need to be replaced or (in rare cases) repaired.

 

Q:  My clock is running slow (or fast).  How can I adjust the speed?

 

A:  This is a very common question.   It is so common, that clock manufacturers have tried many methods to make adjusting their clocks self-explanatory.  Typically, on the back of an alarm clock, you will see a crescent shaped opening.  Just inside the opening there is a lever that can be moved to different positions within the opening.  In one direction, moving the lever will shorten the effective length of the hairspring and speed the clock up.  The other direction will slow the clock.  Here is the rule:  To make your clock run faster, move the lever to F. (or +, or "Faster").  To make it run slower, move the lever to S. (or -, or "Slower")  Move the lever in small increments and move it slowly.  A movement of the lever by only 1/8" should make your clock run 5 minutes faster or slower.   Some clocks do not have the crescent -shaped opening, but have a "screw head" adjustment.  (The "Clock of Tomorrow" and some later style 8 Big Bens have this feature.)  The same rules apply with this type of adjustment.  Point the slot to "F" to make your clock run faster, etc.

 

Q:  Hey Doc, I've tried your instructions for adjusting the speed, but no matter what I do, my clock runs 2 minutes fast (or slow).  What's wrong?

 

A:   In their repair manuals, Westclox often points out that alarm clocks are not precision timepieces.  Their accuracy will vary during the day, but as an overall average, you may be able to make your clock accurate to only 2-3 minutes/day.  There are exceptions, but you can wear yourself out trying to improve their timekeeping.  Remember, a peg leg Big Ben from 1915 only cost $2.50 when it was new.   In 1915, you could also spend $300.00 or more to purchase a jeweler's regulator that would be accurate to seconds a day.  There is a trade-off here.  While a Big Ben is very dependable (and fun!), it was not intended to be a precision instrument.  A Big Ben can also wake you up, while a jeweler's regulator can only put you to sleep.

 

 

Q:  How often should I have my alarm clock collection oiled?

 

A:  We recommend that an alarm clock be inspected and re-oiled every 2-3 years, especially if the clock is wound on a regular basis.

 

 

Q:  Can I oil an alarm clock with WD-40 or sewing machine oil to get it to run again?

 

A:  One of the worst enemies of clock movements is WD-40.  While it is an awesome lubricant meant to be used for general household uses (like door latches, hinges, rusted bolts and power tools), it is NOT suitable for clock repair.  Clocks oiled with WD-40 may run for a short time, but will soon gum up again—and this time for the worst.  WD-40 is a natural enemy to clocks.  It gums up the fine movements, runs out onto dials and stains them, and contaminates clock-cleaning solutions when it inevitably becomes necessary to properly clean the movement.  Please avoid this material, even as a temporary fix.

Sewing machine oils are generally highly viscous in nature, and won’t stay put on the small pivots found in clock movements.  Although they don’t do anywhere near the damage that WD-40 does, they will also tend to run out and stain dials.  There are some very good clock oils available on the market today and, when applied to a properly repaired and adjusted movement, will provide excellent protection from wear—and tend to stay where put.  Also remember that proper oiling of a movement often involves more than one type of clock oil or grease.  There are also some moving parts within a clock that are not oiled.  The trick is knowing which are which. 

 

 

Q:  When should a clock movement be cleaned?

 

A:  When new, the moving parts, friction areas, pivots and bearings within the clock are oiled to minimize metal-to-metal resistance (called friction) that is ever present in any machine.  Over time, these metal parts rub or roll against each other and, even in the presence of fresh oil, rub off small metal particles.  These tiny particles are held in suspension by the oil and are generally not a cause of great concern.  However, with time, dust and dirt from the outside get into these friction areas and cause the oil to dry out.  Also, over time, oils tend to thicken.  All of these factors combined result in a pasty abrasive gunk where there was once oil.  This gunk often acts as a grinding medium and causes the movement to wear out.  If left alone without oil, most clocks will wear themselves out.  If you’re lucky, the oil will dry to the point where it stops the clock before more serious damage is done.

 

How long this takes depends on the oil, the environment, and of course, the design of the clock.  A clock oiled every 2-3 years has an infinitely better chance of lasting than a clock that is never cared for, oiled with the wrong lubricant, or even over-oiled.  Over-oiling attracts more dirt and drags oil out of critical areas leaving friction areas dry of oil.  Over-oiling also stains dials, ruins paint, and leaks out on you. 

Even clocks that are meticulously oiled on a regular interval cannot escape an eventual cleaning.  It’s very difficult to say how long the interval between cleanings should be.  It largely depends on the quality of the previous cleaning and repairing, how well the clock has been cared for, and its degree of use and wear.  These factors are best evaluated with a movement inspection by the Doc.

 

 

Q:  What does “luminous dial” mean on an old alarm clock? 

 

A:  With respect to vintage clocks, “Luminous dial” refers to hands, numbers, dots, etc. that are painted with a material that continues to glow after the ambient light in the room is turned off.  It does NOT refer to an electric backlight behind the dial, as we see in newer electric clocks.  These are usually referred to as “Lighted dials.”

 

A little known fact is that the old luminous paint was mildly radioactive--actually, a form of radioactive cobalt and/or radium, mixed with phosphorescent paint. Everyone is familiar with the concept of phosphorescents, as they are used to coat the inside of TV picture tubes. When electrons strike the material, it glows. It is similar with luminous paint.  Of course, it has been a long time since radium was used in luminous clock dials.  The newer material is an acrylic material consisting of a long-persistence phosphorescent material, sensitive to photons (light).

In the old days workers who would use their mouths to point up the brushes to paint luminous material on aviation indicators and clocks ended up with tongue, throat, and lip cancer.   We are not aware of any recorded health hazard with these dials installed on the clock in normal use.   Remember, however, that the half life on the old radium paint is in the many hundreds of years.  It is advisable to avoid scraping it off the hands and touching it. The phosphorescent material dies off, but the radium remains alive and well for a long time.  Please read on.

 

 

Q:  How can I repair the luminous paint on the hands of my old alarm clock?

 

A:  One point of view holds that it's possible to do this job yourself.  However, for best results, the hands must be carefully removed and the old luminous material stripped.  There are problems with this.  First, safely removing the old hands will require special hand pullers.  We have seen hands that were removed by untrained personnel with pliers or screwdrivers.  It’s a shame to see these clocks because the hands are often permanently damaged and the dials badly marred.

 

The other problem is that many vintage clocks used a radium-based luminous paint, which must be disposed of carefully.  It must not be scraped off on the kitchen table and left laying around!!  This material is at least mildly radioactive, with a half-life into the many hundreds of years.  The fact that it doesn’t glow anymore simply means that the phosphor-based additive is “dead.”  However, the radium is still alive and well.

 

We recommend you send the clock to us.  We have the equipment and processes to safely and properly repair the luminous hands.

 

 

Q:  Doc, I see that you list a manufacture date on most of the clocks you sell.  How do you know these dates?

 

A:  The way I date these clocks is simple. These are NOT patent dates. Whenever I give a manufacture date on a Westclox product, it is actually a date stamped on the movement that gives the month, day and year. Sometimes, especially in the later years, it was only the month and year. Westclox did not do this for historical purposes, but to identify a movement for the purpose of supplying repair parts. Slight variations in the movement design, noted by the date, would help identify the exact part needed. The only way to see this date is to dismantle the clock and movement. Gilbert and Ingraham also dated many of their clocks, but not in the same manner as Westclox.

 

Q:  The plating on my Big Ben has worn to where I can see a brassy color.  How can the shiny silver color be restored?  Can I buy something to do this myself?

 

A:  Actually, the shiny “brassy” color you are seeing is actually a copper plating that is underneath the nickel plating, which is what gives the Big Ben its silvery color.  Over the years, from repeated polishings, wear and tear, the nickel is eventually worn off, revealing this copper plating underneath.  

 

To be honest, I wish there were a simple way to replace this lost nickel.  There are brush plating kits available from Caswell Plating (www.caswellplating.com).  You will have to be very careful with handling the supplied chemicals, and will have to buy some very strong acids to “pickle” the surface before doing the work.  These chemicals are hazardous if used by an untrained individual.  Brush plating will sometimes yield ok results; sometimes the results aren’t very good.  It depends on the degree of wear, the condition of the remaining nickel, and, of course, whether or not the surface is corroded or rusted.

 

The real trick with replating, however, lies in the surface preparation.  To properly restore an antique clock case, the old plating must be removed.  The substrate must be very carefully cleaned and then rebuilt.  Layers upon layers of copper must be applied, then buffed, and finally, the nickel plating done.  The equipment and chemicals that are needed to accomplish this are out of the reach of most clock restorers. 

 

 

Q:  My metal-cased clock has a dent in the top, apparently it took a pretty nasty fall at one point. Can this be repaired?

 

A:  In many cases, minor dents can be repaired in a metal clock case, to almost as-new condition.  This is done with a variety of tools, punches, and dies, much like doing autobody work in the miniature.  In the hands of our trained curators, damage can often be repaired and the clock case replated or repainted, depending upon the original finish. 

 

 

Q:  Are there any books that will help me identify and date some alarm clocks in my collection?

 

A:  I would highly recommend the Tran Duy Ly series of books on antique clocks.  Tran Duy Ly has written books for collectors of Ingraham, Sessions, Waterbury, New Haven, etc.  There are always sections on vintage alarm clocks.  The information is very useful from the standpoint of the collector and the repairman.  Often movements are listed complete with parts lists and pictorials.  They are great for identification. 

 

Another very good book for the collector is 20th Century Modern Clocks by Mark V. Stein. 

 

Be aware that for alarm clocks, the current values listed in these books may be misleading, and are periodically not current.  When current, prices are often average, and in no way represent the value to a collector for a particular style, year of manufacture, or condition.  We have seen clocks sold at prices from 1/10 to 10x the values listed in these guides.  It all depends on what you are looking for.

 

 

Q:  I want to get into clock collecting and perhaps at some point repair.  Can you recommend some good books and organizations to help me get started?

 

A:  Yes. There are several very good books.  Here is a short list: 

 

Clock Repair Skills by Steven Conover

Practical Clock Repair by Donald DeCarle

Handbook of Watch and Clock Repairs by H. G. Harris

Clock Repairing as a Hobby by Harold C. Kelly

Clock Cleaning and Repairing by Bernard E. Jones

 

We also recommend you subscribe to Clockmakers Newsletter.  Steven Conover is the editor.  You will find him to be pragmatic and very much an authority on clock movement repair as well as clockmaking.  He is also a prolific writer and has published many books on clock repair, which you would find very interesting.  You can get more info (and even subscribe on line) at www.clockmakersnewsletter.com 

 

Of course the organization of choice is the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors (NAWCC).  The membership rates are very reasonable and it gives you access to regular Marts in your area where you can get great deals on old clocks for your collection.  You can get all the information you need at their impressive website at www.nawcc.org.