Collecting Antique Clocks Oak Longcase Clocks with Brass Dials - plain or fancy
Oak was used in longcase clock making from the earliest times (c.1660) until the end of longcase clock making (c.1870), though in terms of brass dial clocks the end was about 1800. But it was not used in the same manner throughout that period of over two centuries.
The earliest clocks were costly items, made for wealthy clients, principally served by London clockmakers, and rich timbers were used such as walnut and olive-wood. Cheaper versions were made from about 1690 by provincial clockmakers and for these oak was used, being a far less costly timber, though occasionally pine was used at a lesser cost still. These earliest oak cases were simple by intent, partly because London styles (which they copied in simplified form) were themselves still simple, but partly because there was little point in offering a clock in cheaper materials if the sheer extravagance of styling made it into a costly clock anyway. Fruitwood and solid walnut were sometimes used as alternatives to oak at about the same price, but these woods were very prone to worm, were not too popular, and have far less often survived.
The earliest longcase clocks (let's say about the year 1700) were made in eight-day form, but also, as country versions, in thirty-hour form, the latter being about half the price of the eight-day. At this earliest period an eight-day clock (without case) would cost about £5.00, a thirty-hour one about half of that. An oak case for a longcase clock in simple form at this early period would cost about one pound - whether for eight-day or thirty-hour made little difference. A pine case, usually sold originally with a painted surface, cost about half the price of oak, at ten shillings (£0.50). Against these costs a London eight-day clock in its case of fine walnut veneers (very different in cost from solid walnut) might cost thirty pounds.
Simplicity was everything in this early period, in terms of both clock and case, because it kept the price down to such as rural customers were willing to pay, and kept the height down to fit within the ceiling of the less grand homes the clock was aimed at. These very factors have meant that this type of oak clock is ideally suited to many of today's customers, who seek simplicity and small stature to fit well within a limited modern ceiling height. This type of case is often called today a 'cottage' clock or perhaps a 'farmhouse' clock, these being modern terms we have coined to describe that small, homely type of clock, with which we feel comfortable and which does not stand pompously looking down at us in the way a mahogany 'Chippendale' clock might. So oak cases, initially almost always of oak alone with no other woods added as trimming, began in an atmosphere of simplicity and many rural examples retained that simplicity of form and construction for about a century, until the brass dial faded from popularity in favour of the white dial about 1790.
But not all oak clocks were restricted to this simple, early style. There were provincial customers who wanted oak but wanted a bit more of a flourish, perhaps greater stature, perhaps more showy cabinetworking skills, and the country casemaker could certainly accommodate such requests. Newcomers to clocks are often surprised to find that that many oak examples are in fact of 'mixed woods' in that the basic oak body is decorated with fancy trim in other woods such as mahogany. By popular demand some oak cases retained the simple outline but took on a little fancy work in the form of crossbanding (or other trim such as lateral mouldings, hood pillars) in a fancier wood. This trim was usually in walnut or fruitwood from about 1730, generally switching to the instantly popular mahogany, once its import made adequate supplies available from about 1760. Plain cases in oak alone continued to be made, but increasingly by about 1760 or 1770, they carried some amount of trim in various forms but most often in the form of crossbanding.
Crossbanding was initially a veneered border of cross-grained wood, its purpose being to give strength to the edges of doors, panels, etc., to prevent damage from the occasional bump. If long-grain veneer were used in crossbanding, it would splinter and chip away from any knocks, and this is why long-grain crossbanding is hardly ever seen. Cross-grain gave a strength, which resisted chipping, but it also gave decoration, in so far as the wood's grain was at a different angle to the main panel itself, thus providing an interesting border of contrasting colour - the more so if this crossbanding was in a different wood from the main panels, which it nearly always was. Although crossbanding began with a function, it gradually became more of a decoration, and ultimately was used in places where it would never receive a knock or bump, thus illustrating that it was purely for show. When new, oak clocks were stained before polishing, to give a rich red or deep brown colour, whichever was desired. Some oak clocks however were left with the wood almost a bright yellow colour in order that the dark brown mahogany crossbanding would contrast all the more - demonstrating again that the crossbanding was by now more for show.
On an oak case the crossbanding was almost always in a denser wood, and usually one of contrasting colour. Oak cases cross-banded in oak are known, but are very unusual. More normal was for the cross-band wood to be a richer and finer-grained wood (fine-grained for strength), such as walnut before about 1750 and mahogany thereafter. In very rural areas clocks made entirely and only of oak continued to be made till the end of the brass dial period. But so much had crossbanded decoration become the norm, that it is in fact unusual to find an oak clock after about 1770 without crossbanding.
Generally speaking we would expect cheaper clocks to have cheaper cases, so that a simple thirty-hour clock would have a less grand case, even in oak, than an ordinary eight-day, and even more so than a costly eight-day such as one with a rolling moon. The reason was essentially one of cost. Put an expensive case onto a cheap clock and it priced itself out of the cheaper end of the market it aimed at. It follows that the grander oak cases (without, or more usually with, crossbanding) perhaps those having swan-neck pediments, fluted hood pillars, fluted quarter-columns to the trunk, and so on, would tend to be those housing eight-day arched dial clocks, especially those with moon dials, though there are occasional exceptions. The customer was the man whose preference counted, and, although the clockmaker might suggest what would be suitable, the buyer always had the option to insist on his own specification. At the exceptional end of the scale oak cases are occasionally found in 'Chippendale' style, with masses of crossbanding, blind fretwork, and all the showy embellishments we would usually associate with high-fashion mahogany cases.
However, when we think of oak, we think essentially of simplicity of styling epitomised by the time-worn patina of a cottage clock..
Copyright © 2013 Brian Loomes
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