General information on dial types and their care

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The following page is general information on the various types of clock and timepiece dials and their care. I hope you find it interesting and informative, I have tried to cover queries that have been asked over the years, but if the answer to your question can't be found, please do contact me and I will try to help.

Brass dials. - Brass is an alloy of mainly copper and zinc with other metals such as tin and lead often present. It can range from a bright yellow to an orange red colour. Often the alloy mix is somewhat haphazard particularly in old brass, this can lead to blemishes or spotting, which will never be removed no matter how hard you polish!. Brass dials are subject to corrosion and marking from airborne pollutants as well as the acids found in fingerprints. It is always best to use gloves when polishing and avoid touching the brass once it has been cleaned, as fingerprints if left, will etch into the surface. Repeated cleaning of brass will over time wear away the surface and over zealous cleaning is to be avoided, especially on any engraved areas. Most proprietary metal polishes contain abrasive material, so use sparingly. If you do want the brass to look clean and shiny it is best to apply a protective lacquer to the clean, dry, dust free surface. The lacquer should be evenly applied, so as not to leave bare patches, which will oxidise faster.

Brass was often enhanced by Ormolu plating. Ormolu was a method of plating with high carat gold using a mercury base. Although producing a beautiful finish it was a very dangerous process, by which the mercury was evaporated off to leave the gold. This type of gilding is now not available, due to the hazards of mercury. I advise against trying to clean Ormolu yourself, apart from the odd dusting with a clean cloth.

Silvering on the other hand is a less dangerous technique, whereby silver nitrate is applied to the brass to give a soft silver lustre. Silvering is often done over engraved areas that have been previously filled with melted wax. If the wax has turned crumbly and cracked it should all be removed before re-applying. The dial must be scrupulously clean before re-silvering, but if the brass is old and has blemishes, be aware that these may show through in the finish. Ormolu and silvering are both thin coatings and will be worn away by rubbing or applying chemical cleaners.

Painted dials. - Painted dials can take many forms, painted on steel, wood, zinc, glass and various other materials. Wooden painted dials are often found on Black Forest clocks, and are prone to shrinkage cracks and woodworm, all of which can be dealt with. Zinc dials are often found on American wall dial clocks. Due to the flexible nature of the zinc the paint tends to come away from the surface over time. Glass dials can be found on French vineyard clocks, glass is painted on the reverse and then covered with an opaque layer of paint to show the design. Reverse glass panels can also be found in a variety of clock cases. Steel dials are the types we normally associate with English longcase. The main drawback to steel is that if kept in a damp environment the steel will rust and show as 'foxing' through the paint, eventually causing the paint to blister and fall away.

Screen printed dials. - Printed dials can be found on many clocks dating from the late 19th century onwards. The print may be on brass, tin, zinc or an alloy, either with a painted or silvered base. If the dial is brass or brass plated, the silvering is much as described above and applied with silver nitrate and can be restored. Printed dials are even more prone to wear by fingertips and cleaning, hence many 20th dials lack visible numerals.

Enamel/Porcelain dials. - Enamel is often found on small dials, French clocks and watches. Enamel dials are fired in a kiln and can be prone to chipping as with any other porcelain. The numerals and patterns are normally applied to the dial before the final glaze and then re fired. Although you can normally wipe a damp cloth over enamel or porcelain, I should stress that often retailers name etc are 'printed' or 'painted' onto the dial and this will wipe off! So extreme caution should be taken before attempting to clean. I do not undertake the restoration of these types of dial, but I can highly reccommend Lynton Dials

Card and other dials.- Other materials used to make dials include card, celluloid, copper, bronze. Card and celluloid dials can be copied and replaced. Bronze should be left well alone to preserve the patina, unless suffering from severe corrosion/bronze disease.

General Care - Clocks and their dials should be kept away from damp, humid environments and I strongly advise against trying to clean any dial apart from a light dusting. Do not allow plastics, glass cleaners or other possible contaminants such as air freshener aerosols to touch the dial surface. Any strong acid or alkali substance will act as a solvent. Through my own experience I have seen a brass dial which had rope laying on it, leading to a very deep etched rope pattern, which was impossible to restore. Bubble wrap that had melted into the surface of a dial and I have also known someone use what they thought was a clean cloth on a dial, only to watch the numerals disappear! The cloth had previously been contaminated with meths or white spirit.

To restore or not to restore? - I am often asked whether a dial should be restored or not. This is always such a hard question to answer (if I was unscrupulous I would always answer yes), but this is a very personal choice and in the end only the owner of the clock can decide. Do you wish to see it as it was when new, or perhaps just lightly restored to retain the features? It may be that you wish to have a copy dial made, and to keep the original. There are purists who prefer a clock and its dial to look exactly as found, with any damage, wear etc, and to be left well alone.

If there is a makers name or similar and it has become illegible, then you are in danger of losing vital information about the clock, and thereby losing some of its value. Sometimes just light retouching is all that is required to keep the legibilty and the stability.

On the other hand I do not believe in turning a dial into something it was not. I try in all instances to keep as much of the original as at all possible, and to restore in a sympathectic manner. And lastly, If you do decide to restore the original dial, make sure that you or your restorer keeps a pictorial record of the dial before any work is done.

I have tried to keep the above information as concise as possible, but if you have any queries or any information you feel should be added, please get in touch.

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