Clock design

One of the first things that I realized as I’ve been researching my next project is the maker of the clock case is not always known. It’s all about the maker of the movement that interests people. There are exceptions where well-known cabinetmakers are listed, but the exceptions are few.  The clock maker’s name usually appears on the face of the clock.  Sometimes, if the piece was commissioned, the person that bought the clock is shown “Warranted to insertyournamehere”.  Sometimes the name of the printer that made the clock maker’s label is better known than the cabinet maker.  It’s really interesting (to me anyway).

I’ve been reading and finding as many images I can on the subject of Roxbury Tall Case clocks.  Generally they weren’t called “grandfather” clocks until much later.  Like any other type of furniture the designs went through a lot of stylistic changes, but probably not as many as other forms of furniture.  It seems that once a design was set it stuck around for a while – it didn’t change with other fashions.  You can still buy a Howard Miller clock that at least has roots in the 18th Century.  When I first started making furniture, I thought I would make a Craftsman-inspired clock that Norm had made on his show.  I still think it’s an attractive piece, but it’s not longer what I want to do.

A few years ago I stumbled on a photo in Albert Sack’s The New Fine Points of Furniture: Early American: The Good, Better, Best, Superior, Masterpiece.   This was the first book that I would page through and just imagine I could make some of the amazing pieces if I learned a bit more.  It was also interesting because I started to understand how proportion really affected the finished piece.  In that book I first saw a Roxbury clock made by Samuel Willard.  I thought it was fantastic.

Samuel Willard is one of the most well-known and celebrated clock makers of the 19th Century and is still known today.  Aside from a few major innovations, patents (The “Timepiece” and a lot of production clocks, he’s also known for the Franzoni sculpture clock in Statuary Hall of the Capitol building.  He was friends with Jefferson.  He was an important guy in the clock world.  Several of his brothers, including Aaron also made clocks.  His sons (and nephews) also made clocks.  If your name was Willard you could probably make and sell clocks – even though only a few of them ever worked together.  All of them worked in and around Roxbury (Boston) and that seems to be where the style originated.

Later I realized the clock in the Oval Office was a remarkable Roxbury, with the case attributed to the Seymour shop and the works thought to be by James Doull.  Link Here.

So I’ve been dreaming of making one of these for a number of years.  I also knew I had to improve my skills.  As I’ve been building, thinking and researching more I think I can pull it off now, but it will clearly be the greatest challenge yet.  I’m excited.

First I need to decide what path I’ll take.  A straight reproduction of another piece or a piece of my own design, inspired by my research.  I’m not sure on that yet.  Then I need to do some drawing.  It might be strange to have a reproduction of the Oval Office clock in my living room – perhaps something of my own creation in the style of Roxbury is best.  There are a few plans out there for tall case clocks, including two available to SAPFM members on their website that are somewhat specific to what I want to build.  I’ll surely study those to better understand the construction but I won’t copy them outright.  I always have to make it just a little harder.  In the end it’s so easy to stylize the final piece, beyond the basic construction.  Then I need to gather the materials – luckily that will be easy.  And I think I have a friend from college that will do the dial painting – that’s a whole other thing.

Last summer I had a chance to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC and looked at a few clocks in their collection.  Two are sadly behind glass, this one made by Aaron Willard Jr. with a case by John Doggett:

AWillard_DoggetThen downstairs in one of the large galleries you find this magnificent piece by Doull and Thomas Seymour – similar to the Oval Office clock:

DSC_1052You can take your graceful swan or goose neck mouldings at the top of a clock.  That fretwork at the top is just so cool.  The proportions on these are so wonderful.  I’m inspired every time I look at these fantastic pieces.

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3 Responses to Clock design

  1. Gil Sanow -- the old man says:

    I notice that none of those you show have a glass door to show the pendulum — when did that appear?

    • psanow says:

      I noticed that too. I don’t know for sure, but looking at pictures and some web articles it seems that it may have become popular with the “Regulator” clocks of the mid-19th Century. My theory is that as more emphasis was placed on accuracy (industry, train travel, astronomy, etc…), the precision was increased. Almost all the Vienna Regulator clocks show their the drive and time keeping parts. As they did this it seems the pendulums became more ornate. As clock makers worked to increase accuracy they worked on ways of compensating the movements by using mercury in the pendulums to change the location of the mass. The crazy bling-ed up massive gridiron pendulums were apparently another way to change the location of the mass in the pendulum in a precision manner. If you create something like that you want to show it off. I think they were showing off just how sophisticated and thus accurate their regulating pendulums were.

      Based on what I’ve read the earlier high style clocks of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries used very basic materials for the pendulum and weights, so you wouldn’t want to show them. It’s remarkable how the backs and other unseen parts of period furniture are very rough and almost seem an afterthought. Don’t spend time on parts that don’t earn money. Sometimes the weights were little more than rough cast iron, and the pendulums were brass bobs on wooden sticks. I think the clocks were as accurate as possible for their time but not remotely to the standards of today. Instead of glass to show off the plain utilitarian parts they used very ornate veneers and inlay to create interest in the waist. It’s interesting that in some of those earlier clocks they did have view windows on the sides of the hood; I assume as a place to see if the movement is running (frequently no second hands). Finally I sometimes see a small round window at the center of the pendulum bob’s travel even in early clocks – again it would seem to confirm it’s running – but those seem rare.

      Wow, that got long.

      • Gil Sanow -- the old man says:

        Interesting — I knew there had to be a reason.. You have seen the clock your Uncle Len built for himself — the whole lower body is glass and the pendulum (purchased) is quite ornate.

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