On the terrible craftsmanship of clock cases

We have two long case clocks in the workshop here at the moment. The one on my bench is an oak bodied piece standing nearly 3 meters tall with the hood on. It appears to be from the late 1700’s and realistically only needs a few relatively minor repairs done on it. The other case is possibly a little younger, mostly mahogany, and has some more serious damage. The body of the other one has some substantial cracks through it and one of the feet is very loose, making it a bit tippier than you want your two and a half meter tall holder of delicate glass and brass work.


Mahogany Long Case Front

I have worked with one other long case before, a Welsh clock from the mid 1800’s. All three of these clocks were both beautiful and downright terribly constructed, ignoring every fundamental rule of fine woodworking you might have learned in the last few decades. These are prized possessions of incredible value and prestige and they are sloppily banged together garbage craftswork.

Sort of.

What this really brings to my mind is what we value in craftsmanship. So much of what is talked about these days in regards to why good craftsmanship is important is quality in a sense of longevity. We talk about heirloom furniture. We talk about how ikea furniture will fall apart in a few years, where as this perfectly dovetailed cabinet with mortise and tenoned frame and panel doors will last a hundred years (most people don’t dare say more than a hundred years). Well, I have an oak and pine box on my workbench which has joinery no finer than nails and glue blocks. Design for wood movement was never considered with this piece. Grain direction shifts dramatically throughout the body work, and there is no freedom of movement (the obvious cause of the massive cracks and other damage found around the pieces). Yet, despite all of that, they have each lasted well over a hundred years, over two hundred years in many cases. Why?

Back of oak long case

What is even going on here?

Oak long case interior

The entire construction is glue blocks and nails with grain direction shifting regularly and timber quality all over the place.

Well, I think it’s pretty easy to take away from this that not only the quality of construction is relevant in the longevity of any good. How we treat it, how we value it, how we care for it and work to keep it in good order might play a far greater role in how long our items last then the value of their initial construction. Your cheap as chips flat pack dining table could last centuries if you treat it properly and are willing to put effort into maintaining it and repairing it.

In my job at The Bower I wanted to design furniture items that would last. It was important to me (and still is) that if I am going to add a new product to the world, it had better be worth it. I struggled with trying to ensure that we built things capable of lasting forever, but with a price tag suitable comparable to the cheapest outlets. I stand by the value in this endeavor, but it is not just my responsibility. The longevity of the piece is not alone in the crafts person’s hands. We all need to value and aim to make last whatever it is we already have.

These clock cases look good to people who don’t know about construction and even to those who do. They are treasured, and people make an effort to keep them around. That’s the only reason they are still around, because I am telling you right now, it has nothing to do with their quality.

Mahogany long case front

A massive crack right through the front of the long case due to bad design

Oak Long Case

Terribly constructed, and yet loved and lasting