Saturday, April 27, 2013

Buy an automaton, save hundreds of antique machines from an ill fate

As some of you may know, I like tools. I love learning about them, what they can do, and increasing the number of things I am able to make for myself. I've been dreaming of buying some miniature machine tools for years. I've held off on the purchase because I didn't know if I could justify the expense. Perhaps that money would be better spent elsewhere or simply put in the bank for a rainy day. Still, my desire for these tools -- a Sherline lathe and mill to be specific -- continues to burn inside of me.

In an effort to commune with the great automaton makers of old -- many of whom were watch or clock makers -- I started to learn about clocks and clock repair last year. It's a fascinating subject that has captivated my attention recently. It is gratifying to be part of a venerable craft and tradition, and to bring old machines back to life. I've been fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of several people who have provided me with expert advice on the topic. I've also found an outstanding mentor who is teaching me the details of clock repair and restoration. I took four courses on clock repair and miniature machine tools in the last year -- one of which was on wheel and pinion cutting at the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors School of Horology.

Over the last year, I've come to realize there is good reason to own the Sherline tools that I've long desired. You see, when a gear (called a "wheel") in an old clock or automaton is badly damaged, it's not always possible to repair it. To make matters worse, these wheels don't always conform to a standard, so you can't simply buy one from a clock supply company. You can hunt for junk clock of the same model, but there is no guarantee it will ever come your way. What does all this mean? If someone doesn't take the time to machine a new wheel, then that clock will never run again. If a clock will not run, it is thrown out, used for parts, or robbed of its remaining parts for uses that don't always sit well with me. If a new gear were to be cut, the clock would, in all likelihood, run for another 100 years or more.

At the moment, I have one automaton for sale. I realized today that, by complete coincidence, the price I set for the piece matches the cost of the tools I need to cut my own clock wheels and pinions. I'm not particularly superstitious, but I'm going to take that as a sign. I envision the following sequence of events:

Step 1 - Sell this automaton that I designed and made

Step 2 - Purchase Sherline machine tools

Step 3 - Cut custom clock parts like this one I made in a class

Step 4 - Save hundreds of antique clocks from an ill fate

So what tools am I talking about? Here they are:

  1. Sherline 4400B Lathe Package
  2. Sherline 5400A Deluxe Mill Package
  3. Sherline CNC Rotary Table

These are the exact same tools as those used in the course I took on wheel and pinion cutting, taught by master machinist, Jerry Kieffer. I expect to be fixing clocks for a very long time. I think it is fair to say that these tools will save hundreds of antiques from being destroyed. They are, of course, capable of producing more than just clock gears. In fact, with these two tools, almost any small part can be fabricated! That's a prospect which I find truly exciting.

I would prefer that antique clocks continue to serve their intended function. In fact, I feel an obligation to make sure that happens. If you agree and/or are in the market for an automaton that I have made, please consider purchasing The Unwelcome Dinner Guest automaton or drop me a line using the contact form.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for putting such a human face on your blog by explaining your passion for these beautiful machines and your desire to rescue them. Your links to the School of Horology and Sherline are really interesting and caused me to research classes offered in machine shop work in my own community. I would enjoy hearing more about the class you took in machining gears.

Hope you find a buyer for your automata to fund your equipment. I look forward to the projects you will create once you acquire these excellent tools.

April 30, 2013 at 3:07 AM  
Blogger Dug North said...

Thanks for you comment. I really appreciate it. I took an introcuction to machine tools at my local vocational school. It was very affordable and I learned a lot. The classes at the School of Horology are excellent. The miniature machine tool classes are taught by Jerry Kieffer. If you don't know of his work, check it out at They have a course on the use of the Sherline lathe, one on the Sherline Mill, and one on cutting large and small gears for clocks (known as "wheels" and "pinions"). It uses both the lathe and mill. It is mainly focused on replicating an existing, non-standard gear, a broken antique clock wheel, for example. It was outstanding. At the end of all of his classes, Jerry shares a slew of his secret tips and tricks. These alone are worth the prices of the class, especially if you come with some questions in mind. He's a recognized expert in this field and a good instructor.


April 30, 2013 at 8:19 AM  
Blogger E said...

I too wish to learn about horology, since what I used to do is closely related to automata making. I have found a few dead clocks whose mechanisms were either cheaply made according to what info I find about it online, or were severely damaged to begin with (finding these at thrift stores may be the reason why...) and that is when I relegate their parts to other things. I have read that clock repair is 20% theory and 80% practice, but as with organ-building, I had a mentor to teach me. So far, after I moved away, finding a mentor in regards to horology is harder than trying to figure this stuff out by myself. How did you do it? When you started out with the whole gamut of automata/clocks, where did you begin? I need some guidance.

April 27, 2014 at 2:24 PM  

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