Building a real grandfather clock
An English Regulator -The Wilding precision dead beat escapement
My main hobby throughout my life has been building with Meccano. I have a large selection of reusable gears, shafts, bearings, strips and girders and with them table top engineering is possible. Any structure or mechanism can be built, and around the world expert Meccano builders do wonderful things.
What would happen though is I attempted to build something with metal from scratch, using a lathe and a drilling machine. This idea must have been formed many years ago when I did a technology course at the Cape Technical College in Cape Town. I produced a centre punch used for making a punch mark in a sheet of metal when hit on the head. The key moment came 30 years later when my family moved to an apartment where there was a small workshop on the balcony. This set my mind working on the possibility of acquiring a few machines and perhaps attempting to make something. I ordered a very small lathe and a drilling machine, and a few essential hand tools and associated equipment. I also ordered a set of plans for a very simple electro-mechanical clock.
I built an interest in clocks after a very special visit to the Royal Observatory Greenwich, where I saw the Harrison clocks working for the first time. It was Harrison who won the Longitude Prize in 1760 for his work on inventing a clock that could tell the time accurately at sea, desperately needed for navigation and to save countless lives. I wondered then if I could build some of his mechanisms in Meccano, and succeeded with a grasshopper escapement long case clock. My interest in clocks was confirmed and I went on to build twelve more in Meccano and even published a book on the subject. Along the way, I became a member of the British Horological Institute, receiving their special monthly magazine, and visiting Upton Villa, their headquarters, where they have an excellent museum. I found that I had learned to converse with horologists. I Ionged to attend one of the BHI course in clock making.
The finished clock awaiting a case
One of my Meccano clocks attracted the attention of a member of the BHI, Mr John Warbey, and he wrote to me about it. After some correspondence, I went to see him and at once developed an excellent rapport with him. One of the rooms in his house was given over exclusively to a wonderful workshop, one in which he produced exquisite clocks and a few of them were working in his lounge and study. The workmanship was extraordinary.
The going train
An idea jumped into my head – would it be possible to learn some clock making techniques in his workshop? When I asked him and suggested visiting him over a four day period, he agreed, and so a long relationship over the next three years began. During those four days, I learned to use the lathe and how to measure accurately to a thousandth of an inch. We discussed which kind of clock would be practical to make and we consulted John Wilding’s list of clocks which were extensively detailed. In the end we settled on a precision Graham dead beat escapement long case clock. When I went home, I opened my dormant workshop for the first time, and bought the metal that I knew would be needed - brass plates and rods as well as a few special tools. In this way, bit by bit, my clock became a reality. I visited my friend four times, and during each of these sessions there were intense discussions about the clock and how to do this and that and overcome problems. During one of those visits, I discovered that my teacher was himself building the same clock.
The day came when my clock was complete. After three years of intense hard work, I could see my clock gleaming in the half light, challenging me to start it up. With the help of a friend, we bolted the back plate to a wall in my study and hung the heavy pendulum in place. When I placed the mechanism in front of it, I could not bear to see if it would work, and hesitated to start it for two whole days. It was a huge act of faith to have laboured for so long on something so uncertain.
The moment had come and I could delay no longer. I gently set the pendulum in motion and put some finger pressure on the winding drum. I could see immediately that it was going to function as the clock ticked a few times. I went for a walk, had a stiff drink and thought about the next steps. What was needed was an adequate driving weight in place of my finger. I loaded the cylinder weight with lead sinkers and started the pendulum oscillating. My teacher had told me that I would know when the weight was enough by listening to the action, and he was so right. The clock has not stopped since that moment, and the most extraordinary thing is that it keeps almost perfect time.
Michael Adler 2013 - 2016