Clean It Up but Keep It Original – Seven Hints on Restoring Antique Clocks

Ken and Susan Markley, who run Old Timers Clocks on GoAntiques.com, have some great tips on bringing a luster back to that old clock on the mantle.

For more than 20 years, Old Timers Clocks has sold all sorts of antique clocks, including tall case, mantle and shelf varieties. Although some are housed in porcelain, cast iron, brass and gilded pot metal, the majority of antique clocks have wooden cases. In order to hold down costs, we always try to purchase only those that are clean and undamaged and retain their original finish and patina. However, some excellent examples of 18th- and 19th-century clocks need a little case work to restore them to marketable condition while, at the same time, attempting to retain as much of their original finish and case components as possible.

Over the years, we’ve found a few products and techniques that produce wonderful results in restoring wooden clock cases with minimal effort and no value-reducing alteration to the finish and dial. These are some of our favorites:

1. Mechanic’s Hand Cleaner: This easy-to-obtain and inexpensive product is available at all auto parts stores. It contains lanolin, which will remove years of accumulated grime from the wooden clock case onto which it is applied, and leaves a rich, low luster sheen when dried. Just soak a T-shirt pad with the hand cleaner (any brand will do as long as it lists lanolin in the ingredients) and rub gently onto the surface of the clock case. The grime will disappear like magic. You won’t believe your eyes. After the cleaning, wipe off any excess cleaner and allow the case to dry overnight. Years of soot, smoke and plain old grime will have disappeared and the original grain of the wood will look like it did 100 years ago. Plus, the wood will have received a good “feeding” to boot.

2. Send out for Dial Cleaning: For dial cleaning, you might want to send the dial to a professional, such as The Dial House in Atlanta, where they do superior dial cleaning and restoration. On the other hand, you can try mixing Ivory dish washing solution with equal parts water and apply this ever so gently to the dirty clock dial with a T-shirt pad—a little at a time—until you see what the results might be. If the first small area that you clean doesn’t seem to respond, QUIT and try a product that experienced clock restorationists have been using for years on dirty dials: Maguire’s Cleaner and Wax Liquid, which is available at most auto supply stores. This product is usually associated with car body cleaning and waxing but it often works like a charm on clock dials. Again, start with a small area on the dial and continue to gently rub the cleaner and wax onto the dial surface. Some dials respond beautifully and others just sit there without noticeable change. If it works as well for you as it has for us, you’ll have saved a substantial amount by not paying to have it professionally restored.

3 Get Ivory Replacements from old Piano Keys: Some clocks have an ivory insert around the door lock. These ivory “escutcheons” are frequently damaged or missing altogether due to the bad aim of the clocks former owner who jabbed the key into the ivory instead of into the key hole. These ivory escutcheons are often in the shape of a diamond and can be neatly replaced if you have a source of ivory. Since it is illegal to export ivory from the countries where elephants still exist, the best legal source that I have found is old piano keys. Many piano repairmen have damaged or discarded keys and will sell several for a reasonable amount. The ivory from these old keys is often yellowed a bit, which makes it look just right for your antique clock door escutcheon. A Dremel tool with a cutting knife attachment or just a plain old Xacto razor knife from the local hobby store can be used to cut the ivory to shape and size. I always start with a piece of thin cardboard and by trial and error cut it to fit the diamond shape of the keyhole escutcheon and then use the cardboard template to trace the pattern onto my ivory piano key. A little contact cement or epoxy will hold the new ivory and complete the restoration.

4 Use Wood-Glo to Restore Stripped Finish: We sometimes will buy a clock whose original finish was stripped by former owner, leaving a dull, flat-looking wood case. A product that I am really pleased with because it’s easy to apply and results in a great finish on the case, is produced by a company named Albert Constantine. Its product is called Wood-Glo. This company located in the Bronx, New York, and offers this excellent product that can be applied to a dull and lifeless clock case wood with a small brush. When dry, it leaves a low-luster finish that looks so much like the original that even I might mistake it for the original finish. This is a simply spectacular product and it comes in small cans so there isn’t a lot of waste because of occasional use only. You will probably need to order this product directly from Constantine in the Bronx. Google will get their address for you. Caution: The user should mix the product well, but NOT by shaking the can. Although shaking works with wall paint, shaking Wood-Glo creates little air bubbles in the liquid that are hard to “pop” when painted onto a clock case. To mix, use a stirring stick and do the job slowly and thoroughly before brushing it onto the case. By the next day, you’ll be very pleased with the result.

5 Behlen Touch-Up Sticks: Touch-up sticks that look like magic markers are made by the Behlen company. They come in many wood shades and are usually available at most antique malls. Just remember, you can always make a touch up darker but never lighter, so start with a lighter color and work darker until you reach the desired shade. The sticks are labeled with wood names such as Mahogany, Walnut, Maple, etc. They do wonders in “erasing” those little chips from veneer.

6 Create Duplicates of Missing Case Ornament or Finial: A company named Micro Mark sells a two-part product that, when mixed together, makes a putty-like substance similar to play dough. This then can be pressed onto any clock case ornament or finial so that it encapsulates the ornament to create a mold. After removing the mold, you can pour epoxy into it and, when hardened, the putty like blob is easy to peel off, leaving the hardened epoxy duplicate of the similar missing ornament from the clock case. These epoxy duplicates can then be glued onto the case to replace the one that was missing or broken off and when stained (Mico Mark also sells wood-color stains for this kit). You’d be hard pressed to tell it from its counterpart on the other portion of the case.

7 Refresh with Howard’s Orange Oil: Another product that I often apply to old clock cases that don’t need a new finish—but just a “refreshing” —is Howard’s Orange Oil. Just soak a T-shirt pad in the orange oil and apply it to the clock case. Wipe dry and then let it sit over night. In the morning, the case will look much as it did many years ago before the dust and smoke of years made it a bit “tired.” The case will have a low luster sheen that customers appreciate.

These few suggestions have saved us countless hours of work and expense in restoring and preserving antique clock cases and dials. I hope they serve you as effectively as they have our staff here at Old Timers Antique Clocks.

Ken and Susan Markley are the proprietors of Old Timers Clocks on GoAntiques.com or you can view their current inventory on their Web site.

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  1. Nick Ryan says:

    Hi Guys, reference item 3. You can also use a nut called the Tagua nut, they are cheap and plentiful, i have often used this nut to replace missing ivory pieces, it can be carved and shaped and stained to look old and will take a polish.

    regards, Nick

  2. Nancy C. McDaniels says:

    Hello, My 85 y.o. mother recently moved in with me. She brought with her a 100+ y.o. cedar cased mantle clock which her father built. It’s very fragile and needs to be restored but I’m afraid to touch it. Could I,at least use some wood glue on a piece of wood that is broken (split) on the front of the clock? I’ve been holding it together with scotch tape. It fits back together perfectly. Also, is there any particular type of cleaner I could use to clean the case?

    I live in Sarasota, Fl. and would like to find someone to restore it as best as possible. It’s a very sentimental piece and was hand carved. Thank you ! Nancy McDaniels

  3. Gregory Watkins says:

    Nancy, this comment comes direct from Ken Markely:

    Wood glue would be fine to reconnect the loose piece on your clock. To restore the finish, I would recommend that you buy a jar of NEW LIFE Furniture Masque and rub it onto the surface of the clock case using a small pad of cotton (T-Shirt material). That will remove old grime and scratches and restore a lovely low-luster to the wood. Wipe off any excess after you have gently rubbed the wood on the case.

    Let the clock stand for about 24 hours until the finish has dried. This will NOT remove the original finish, but will restore it nicely. You can buy this product at most antique group shops and antique shows, or you can order a jar directly by calling the RAMAX WOOD CONDITIONER COMPANY in San Antonio, Texas at 1 800 732-7061.

    If you decide to have a professional do the work, go to any reputable antiques dealer in your community to obtain the name of a cabinet-maker or look under ANTIQUES and/or CABINET MAKER in your local Yellow Pages.

    - Ken Markley