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How to Build a Wooden Gear Clock

Robert is an author, artist, graphic designer, and photographer. He writes about Survivalism and Futurism.

Drawing of Galileo's wooden pendulum clock. Public domain in the United States.

Drawing of Galileo's wooden pendulum clock. Public domain in the United States.

How to Build a Clock

One day I will find the time and the money to sit down and make my own wooden clock. Until then, I've done all the research needed, figured out what tools to use, and learned about the different parts of a wooden clock. Here, I'll share what I've learned.

Initially, it's hard to understand how a clock and its gears all work together, but it's actually very simple. This article discusses the following:

  • How wooden-gear clocks work.
  • The tools required to make a wooden-gear clock.
  • How to build a clock, with visual aids and a video.

This article is about making a wooden-gear clock from a plan purchased online. The most popular plans are Clayton Boyer clocks. Building a wooden-gear clock entirely from scratch requires mechanical and mathematical knowledge that's beyond the scope of this article.

The Parts of a Gear Clock

Here is a very basic list of the different parts of a wooden clock:

  • Power source: What keeps the clock going? In the case of most homemade clocks, the momentum is created by a swinging weight, or pendulum, which moves the gears as it swings back and forth.
  • Escapement: A device that controls the energy that escapes from the movement of the weight, slowing it down and allowing the energy to be spaced out over time. The escapement is built out of an escape gear, escape lever, and the pendulum. As the pendulum swings, it moves the escapement lever in and out of the escape gear, stopping it from spinning. The escapement is what makes the tick-tock sound.
  • Gear train: When mounted on the frame, the gears for the second, minute, and hour hands interlock and roll on each other. This mechanism is called the gear train. The different gears are explained in detail below.
  • Gear: Clock gears are actually made of four parts: the wheel, the arbor, the pinion, and the pivot. The wheel is the toothed circle that turns, hooking the other wheels with its teeth. The arbor is the axel of the gear. The pinion is a small wheel held to the main wheel by the arbor, which is driven by the other gears. The pivot is a tube of polished metal at the end of the arbor which reduces friction with the plate.
The three gears of a clock.

The three gears of a clock.

How do Wooden-Gear Clocks Work?

As shown above, roughly, a clock usually has three gears in its gear train, each moving one of the three hands indicating seconds, minutes, and hours.

The process of making a clock work just right is a little tricky and it will take some trial and error to make it keep time, but that is part of the fun of the project. Learning as much as you can about how clocks work is the first step to building your own.

You may want to take a moment to flip through some books on the subject. You can either buy books from Amazon or your local book store, or you can do what I did and go to your local library and check out some of the books they have have on clock repair. Clocks have been around for several centuries, so there is plenty of information on the art of clockwork and its history, which I really enjoy learning about.

You can also spend some time on YouTube and watch everything possible about clocks and how they work. You will be amazed at the amount of information available on some of these websites. I know I was.

Gear diagram of a wooden clock.

Gear diagram of a wooden clock.

Clock Gears Diagram

The rough diagram above shows how the gears of a wooden clock interlock and move to keep time. The yellow, red, and dark blue gears aren't connected to each other, rather they interlock with each others' pinions (the green and light blue wheels), which are affixed to the main gear wheels. This changes the speed by which the driving gear moves the next and is determined by the size and teeth number of the pinion.

In the diagram above, every time the yellow gear turns one full rotation around its sixty teeth, the red gear turns a total of six rotations. The yellow gear is pushing the green pinion, making the red wheel, also with sixty gears, move faster than the yellow one. Every time the red gear turns one full rotation, the blue gear turns ten times. The gears on a wooden clock will operate under the same principles, and allow the second hand to run faster than the minute hand, which will run faster than the hour hand.

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Building a Mechanical Wooden Clock: Select a Pattern

Most amateur clockmakers—also known as horologists—will want to make their wooden clock from a plan. There are many places online to purchase patterns, but the most popular seems to be Clayton Boyer clocks, and many of the YouTube tutorials about wooden clockmaking concern Clayton Boyer plans. You can also purchase books and kits from Amazon.

What Kind of Wood Should I Use?

You may be asking, what is the best kind of wood to use for a wooden-gear clock? There is no single answer, but you want to use a wood that is hard and strong enough not to split, and fine-grained for smoothness and detailing. You don't need fancy exotic wood, a good birch plywood, maple, or oak should suffice.

Materials Needed to Build a Wooden Clock

Because of the precision required in cutting and sanding the teeth of the gears, escapement wheel, and other parts, making even a simple wooden clock demands access to power tools and a woodshop.

The materials you need will vary by the clock plan you work with. Here is the minimum of what you need to make a mechanical wooden-gear clock:

  • Wooden-gear clock plan
  • Wood
  • Scroll saw
  • Band or Miter saw
  • Drill press or hand drill
  • Clamps
  • Spray adhesive (to adhere the plans to the wood)
  • Wood screws and washers
  • Wood glue
  • Dremel sandpaper or sanding wheel
  • Safety gear: goggles, work gloves, sturdy shoes, and a thick apron.