Heirloom Clock

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This article is from Issue 8 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Mark time by the generation

A country piece with straightforward construction and pleasing lines, this grandfather of clocks is a challenging project sure to become an invaluable family heirloom.

A tall-case clock has a special presence in a home. The face watches over the comings and goings of a family, one generation to the next. The ever-present and familiar rhythm of pendulum and chime give the home a heartbeat. 

This clock is based on a late 18th-century original tall-case clock that graces the parlor of an Ohio Quaker homestead that was a prominent stop on the Underground Railroad. Behind the original clock, a secret passageway inside the wall connects to a steep, narrow staircase that allowed fugitive slaves to reach a hiding place in the attic. 

As clocks go, this is a country piece with simple construction and pleasing lines. It begs you to pull out whatever figured wood you’ve been hoarding for a special project. I’ve made several versions of this clock, one faithful to the original in walnut, and this rendition in figured maple.

Getting started

For this project you’ll need about 30 board feet of 4/4 lumber and about 6 board feet of 6/4. In addition, you’ll need 6 board feet of ½" secondary wood for the case back and structural pieces. Historically, pine or poplar was favored for the back since it acts as a soundboard, giving the chime a warm tone. For hardware, you’ll spend about $90 for quality reproduction brasses. 

The movement I used for this clock is supplied by David Lindow, who manufactures sturdy, period-correct timepieces.

More than any other piece of furniture, to build a tall-case clock is to build an heirloom. I like to think that one of my grandchildren many generations removed may be inspired to take up woodworking while listening to the steady ticking of one of my clocks. Expect to spend about $1,600 on a quality movement that includes a hand-painted dial. You can, of course, select a different movement, but it may affect the proportions of the clock. Usually the dimensions affected are the depth of hood from dial to hood back (this example is 7¼"); the dial (This dial is typical of the 18th century and measures 12" x 17"); the width of the waist to provide room for the pendulum swing (this waist is 11½"). 

Tall-case clocks came in a variety of styles, but they all had a few things in common. The case is made up of a series of three boxes. The hood – which houses the movement and provides access to the dial and hands – is a separate unit that rests on the molding on top of the waist, and can be removed by simply sliding forward and lifting up. 

The waist shelters the long pendulum from air currents, pets and children. The waist extends 3" down into the base to which it is permanently attached; it also extends up into the hood where it provides a support for the seat board (a platform to which the movement is attached). The base provides stable footing and is proportioned to provide overall balance to the entire piece. All three boxes have a ½" rabbet milled into the back edge, into which the clock back is fitted. The back is nailed into the base and waist but not nailed to the hood, so it can be removed to provide access to the movement. 

Many of the style variations in tall-case clocks are accomplished by changing the decorative moldings that are attached to the basic case, but the inner construction remains similar. 

Build the hood 

The hood consists of two mirror-image sides which are through-dovetailed to accept an inner top, and tenoned on the bottom to secure it to an apron. The dial is displayed through a ½"-thick half-lapped frame face-glued to the front edge of the hood sides. 

The hood door repeats the dimensions of the dial frame, but is ¾" thick and uses mortise-and-tenon joinery for strength. Above the door is what’s called the “gallery.” In many clocks this can be ornate, but in this piece it is the essence of simplicity – a straight piece of 15/16" stock with a decorative bead. The hood is capped off with crown molding, and a solid top with a molded edge. 

Begin by routing a ½" radius on the bottom edge of one side of your apron stock. After routing, set your table saw for a ¾" rip to separate this molded edge (Fig. 1). Reset your fence to 13/16" and rip the remaining stock to construct the inner apron frame. This is a U-shaped frame, open toward the back of the hood and held together on the corners with half-lap joints. Crosscut the two sides and one front piece to length, and then use a dado setup to machine the half-laps (Fig. 2). Glue and clamp this assembly together (Fig. 3). 

Once the glue is set, glue the molded strip onto the outside edge, cutting tight miter joints at the corners (Fig. 4).

Set the apron aside and pull out the remainder of the parts for the hood. Joint, rip, and crosscut to final sizes listed. Starting with the hood sides, use a dado setup with a sacrificial rip fence to cut the rabbet on the inside back edge of the hood (Fig. 5). Reset the dado and remove the material for the tenons on the bottom outside edge of the hood sides across their width, using a crosscut box to nibble away the material (Fig. 6). 

The windows on each side of the hood are optional. I use a template and a flush-cut straight bit to establish the window shape (Fig. 7), followed by a ¼" piloted roundover bit. Use a piloted rabbeting bit to machine a ¼" rabbet to accept a pane of glass on the inside. 

Lay out and cut the through dovetails on the top of the hood sides (Fig. 8) to accept a piece of ½" secondary wood for the inner top. Before glueup, dry-fit the top to the sides and center this on the apron. With the back edge of both sides and apron flush, trace the mortise locations directly from the tenons (Fig. 9). Remove most of the material for the mortises with a drill, and square up the inside corners with a chisel (Fig. 10). Glue and clamp the hood sides, apron and inner top, taking care that the assembly is square (Fig. 11). 

The dial frame is dimensioned so the inside edge overlaps the clock dial by ¼". For reference, the clock dial will be a 12" x 12" square, topped by an arch with a 5" radius. Use a dado setup again to machine the half-lap joints. Wait until it is assembled to cut the arch, as this can be fragile. Make a jig to rout the arch, as you’ll also use this to rout the door. I use the jig to lay out the arch (Fig. 12) and then remove most of the waste with a jigsaw, being careful to cut close to the line so I can get a smooth radius with a flush-cut bit (Fig. 13). 

Remove the frame from the jig and rout a ¼" roundover edge treatment on the inside edge. Again, use a chisel to square up the inside corners where the router bit couldn’t reach. 

The dial frame is simply face-glued flush to the front edge of the hood sides with the bottom resting against the apron. Rout a ¼" bead on the bottom edge of the hood gallery, and glue this to the hood butted up against the top of the dial frame. 

The hood door is similar to the dial frame, except it is ¾" stock and the joinery is mortise-and-tenon. Cut the stiles to size, then chop ¼" x 3" mortises 2" down from the top of each inside edge, and ¼" x 1" mortises ¾" up from the bottom. All mortises should be 7/8" deep. Mill the top and bottom rails to size, and cut tenons to fit the mortises in the stiles.The dial opening is identical, except a ¼" rabbet is routed into the back of the door to accept a pane of glass. Use a ¼" roundover bit to decorate the inside edge. 

To align the hood door and set the hinges, place a temporary shim under the door on the apron about 1/16" thick, then trim the door height so that there’s also 1/16" clearance at the top. Place the hinges on the right side of the frame and use them to lay out the mortises. I space them by eye. Note that the hinges have offset leaves; this is important for setting the hinges on the waist door, but on the hood these are used just so the exposed hinge barrel matches the hardware on the waist door. I cut the hinge mortises with a chisel. 

The crown molding will wait until final assembly. The hood top has a decorative edge treatment on the two side and front edges, a 1/2" roundover on the bottom, and a wide shallow chamfer on the top. You can use a panel raising bit to create the chamfer, or use a hand plane (Fig. 14). Center the top on the hood flush with the back; glue in place. 

Build the base and waist

The base and waist sections are straightforward, with the fronts rabbeted and butt-jointed to the sides. The base front will most likely need to be glued up since it is 15¾" wide. I leave it oversized by 1/2", and trim to final size after glueup. While the glue is drying, cut the remaining waist and base parts to final size with the exception of the waist door. The door is sized from the finished opening. Remember that if you’re installing a different movement, leave an extra inch on the waist sides – you’ll need to cut the sides to center the dial in the frame once you have secured a movement. Mark in pencil on each piece, top/bottom, left/right. 

Lay out and drill the holes now on the waist sides to attach the waist to base and secure moldings, as these are difficult to drill after assembly. Mark a reference line 3" from the bottom on the waist side and 53/8" from the top. These lines establish the location of the doorframe and molding on the waist. Lay out the mortises and tenons for the waist front (Fig. 15).Cut the stiles and rails to size and, as with the hood door, cut ¼" x 3" mortises on the inside edges of the stiles. The upper mortises are located 3" from the top, while the lower mortises are 3" from the bottom. All four are 1" deep. Cut tenons in the rails to fit the mortises in the waist stiles. After layout, chop the mortises in the waist stiles. It is also a good time to cut the hinge mortises, as this is more difficult after assembly. 

One construction feature unique to tall-case clocks is the hinge arrangement and the flush-set door on the waist. Hinges are always on the right side, with the door mounted so it appears to have a lip overlapping the entire frame. The overlap is an optical illusion, as it has a thumbnail edge treatment all the way around the perimeter, but on the hinge side the lip on the back side of the door is only rabbeted 1/16", just enough so that when the door is closed the thumbnail covers the door opening. The shallow rabbet is so that the lip will not bind against the doorframe.

I position the spacing of door hinges on the waist stiles by eye. The door hinges are special, with one leaf longer than the other. The hinges are set into the door so the hinge barrel centerline is aligned with the front plane of the door face. The short leaf on the door hinge attaches to the door, and the long leaf is fitted to the door stile. 

I make up a depth gauge to set the door hinges to the correct depth. Holding the gauge flat against the door stile, butt the hinge firmly against it and use a sharp knife to lay out the mortise (Fig. 16). Carry the marks over the edge and mark the mortise depth with a marking gauge, using the hinge itself to set the cutter. Chop the mortise with a sharp chisel, being careful to keep shy of the layout lines (Fig. 17). Once most of the material is removed, place the blade directly in the knife lines to finish it off. I cut the mortise so the hinge sets flush, but you may cut it slightly deeper when fitting up the door. 

Now you can fit the tenons on the rails to the mortises in the waist stiles. The arch on the door rail is fragile, so cut it after glueup. While the waist front is in clamps and under tension, drill the ¼" holes to drive pegs into the mortise-and-tenon joints (Fig. 18). 

Rip some ¼" peg material in the table saw and use a spokeshave to make the pieces octagonal with a slight taper on one end. Drive them into the holes with a dab of glue and trim off the excess with a shallow gouge flush to the surface (Fig. 19). Do the same with the mortise-and-tenon joints in the hood door.

I use a jig to achieve a smooth arch, but since this is hidden when the door is closed, you can cut it with a jigsaw and smooth the radius with a rasp. Glue this face frame assembly together and set it aside. Turning back to the base, remove the clamps from the base front and trim it to final size. Set up the dado blade again with a sacrificial fence. Cut the rabbet for the case back on both waist sides and base sides on the inside edges. Reset the dado for a ¾"-wide cut and machine the rabbet to join sides to front on both waist and base (Fig. 20). 

Reset the dado to make a ½"-wide dado crosscut on the inside bottom of the base to accept the base bottom. Dado all three base pieces with the same setting so the dado will align. Then cut the ½" bottom to fit. 

Dry-fit the base parts together, checking for gaps where the parts join. I use a shoulder plane to ensure the glue line will disappear (Fig. 21). Glue the base together with the bottom in place. Glue the doorframe assembly onto the waist, lining up the waist stiles with the reference marks laid out earlier (Fig. 22). 

Once the waist and base are glued up, make spacers to bridge the gap between the waist sides and base sides. I use scrap material and orient the grain parallel with the base sides. I also make the spacers extend 4" into the base and glue on a 1" strip to form a lip for the waist to rest on (Fig. 23). This makes assembly easier. 

Build the door

With the door opening established, you can build the door. The door should be ¼" wider and the height should be 3/8" greater than its opening. Crosscut the door 1/16" longer than your finished height. Make up a template to rout the door arch and use double-faced tape to position it so the router removes that 1/16" extra and brings the door to final size (Fig. 24). 

Forming a tombstone archway with a router bit involves a little handwork on the inside corner detail. Once the arch is routed, mark where the corners intersect and use a chisel to square up the corner (Fig. 25). Install a 3/16"-radius roundover bit with a pilot bearing. Set the depth so that you achieve a fillet that is 1/16" deep and rout the entire edge. 

Once the thumbnail is routed, finish off the inside corners of the tombstone arch. Mark the corner where the fillet intersects with a marking knife, then use a chisel with a skewed edge to re-establish the fillet back to the corner. Once the fillet is defined, use a knife to connect the inside corner of the arch to the intersection of the fillet, then gently blend the thumbnail radius back to the line (Fig. 26). 

Now you’re ready to machine the rabbet on the back edge of the door. Set your dado blade so that from the bottom of the door lip to the door face is ¼". Cut the rabbet ¼" wide on the door bottom and left side (lock side). On the right side, which takes the hinge, cut a shallow rabbet just 1/16" wide. On the door top use the dado to nibble the material away.

Setting the door hinges is a repeat of the earlier process on the stile, except that the mortise locations are transferred to the door directly from the stiles. The door mortises are cut through the thumbnail edge treatment so the hinge barrel almost blends with the thumbnail molding (Fig. 27). 

Use the lock to lay out the lock mortise, which is just like chopping a hinge mortise with a much thicker edge. Establish the depth of the mortise, laying the lock upside down in the mortise, and then mark out the area to excavate for the lock mechanism (Fig. 28). Test-fit the lock in the mortise, but don’t drill the holes for the screws until you test-fit the hinges to be sure the lock clears the door stile. I recommend using steel screws to test the hinges, as you may need to make several adjustments to hinge and lock mortises for a perfect fit.

Once the lock set, drill a ¼" hole lined up with the center of the keyhole. Flip the door over, lay the brass escutcheon down and center the pin in the lock like a bull’s eye in the escutcheon opening. Trace around the edge of the brass and excavate the material with a veining chisel. Work carefully up to the line until the brass slides into the cavity, but protrudes 1/32" (Fig. 29). Permanently install the escutcheon after the final finish is applied by placing a dab of glue on it and tapping it in with a block of wood. 

Prepare the molding before assembling the case, referring to the profiles on page 21. All three moldings repeat a theme, and were no doubt originally created with the same molding planes. They are all built-up moldings made up of several simple parts glued together. Note that the ogee profile is shallow on the base molding and gets progressively bolder the higher up the case. It is the same profile, just ripped down smaller on the table saw to achieve the effect. Set up an ogee bit in a router table and machine the ogee profile on your 6/4 stock. Rip the profile off and repeat. Repeat the process for the smaller elements like the bead detail and glue the sections together to form one solid molding.  

Assemble the case

To assemble the case, start with a level foundation. Take a scrap of thick MDF or plywood and shim it on the shop floor so that it rests level with no wobble. Place the base section on this, and use a block plane and level to trim the base bottom so it rests flat. Set the waist into the base. 

Use a long straightedge butted against the base and parallel to the waist to help judge that it is vertical (Fig. 30), and place shims under the waist sides to adjust. The back edges of the base, waist and hood should all be flush. 

Secure the waist to the base with screws. To attach molding between base and waist, cut the section for the front and leave the side sections long. You may have to trim the miters on the side pieces several times to get a tight fit; only then cut them to length. On the original, the molding was attached with small brads, typical in period construction. Whether you use brads or secure with screws from the inside, use a small amount of glue near the miters. Leave the remainder free of glue, so the case can breathe without pulling the miters apart. 

Move to the top of the waist and attach a mitered section of molding across the waist front, flush with the door rail. Make sure this is leveled carefully. Then attach only one side section of molding making sure the miter is tight and the molding level. Next set the hood on the molding and mark a line under the apron for the remaining side (Fig. 31). The hood may be slightly off square, and this will ensure that that it has a solid bed to rest on. Fit the miter on the final side molding and cut to length. Attach the crown molding on the top using the same method you used for the base.

Cut a piece of ½" pine or poplar to fit the opening in the back; nail it into the miters in the base and waist, but not in the hood. I cut the back so the apron on the hood slides snug under the opening cut for it (Fig. 32). This prevents the hood from tipping forward if someone pulls downward on the hood door. 


I like the feel of a hand-planed surface, and nothing matches the clarity it gives the grain, so all flat surfaces are finished with a hand plane. I use a low-angle smoother to finish tiger maple, and rabbet and shoulder planes to fit-joint surfaces to ensure that joint lines are nearly invisible. Try to avoid pulling ill-fitting joinery together with clamps as they are more likely to fail. Whether you finish with a plane or sandpaper, spray with a bit of water to raise the grain. Remove the stubble with fine sandpaper or a Scotch Brite pad, and apply water-based aniline dye. I used an “antique maple” color which is basically an amber hue. 

I follow that up with a quick wipe and removal of brown glaze to really pop the fiddleback stripe, or go directly to the finish coat. I pad on thinned shellac for my final topcoat, applying as many as six or eight coats until it tells me it is done. I rub down with extra-fine steel wool about every third coat. I like to use old wavy glass for the hood when I can find it. Install it with glazing points and putty, mixing a bit of pigment into the glazing putty on a pallet to make the glazing blend into the door. 

When installing the clock in a room, I use strips of veneer underneath to get the case to sit without wobble. I also like to secure the clock to the wall with a couple of hooks and some picture framing wire, just in case a toddler decides to climb up and possibly topple the clock. If you install the clock on carpeting you may need to attach it securely to a cleat mounted on the wall so that the case doesn’t sway on the less-stable carpet. 

Save your drawings and router jigs – once this clock is on display in your home you are sure to receive requests to build another from admiring relatives and friends.

George Walker

George R. Walker is a 20-year woodworker who specializes in building reproduction furniture originating in eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania. Walker has taught classes at the Marc Adams School in Indiana, including one on building this clock. He and his wife Lisa live in Canton, Ohio.

Planer, jointer, table saw, router table, dado setup, drill/driver, chisels, dovetail saw, jigsaw, clamps, marking gauge, marking knife, straightedge, spokeshave, low-angle smoothing plane, rabbet plane, shoulder plane

Variety of sandpaper up to 220-grit
Double-faced tape
Small brads or screws
Glazing points
Glazing putty
Scotch Brite pads
“Antique maple” water-based aniline dye
Brown glaze
Amber shellac
Extra-fine steel wool

Reproduction Brasses
Left-hand door lock, #TCB-009, $25.81
5/8" keyhole escutcheon, #L67-008, $4.91
Left-hand brass hook, #J86-611, $11.88
Tall-case clock hinge (4), #H18-068, $20.30

Ball & Ball
(800) 257-3711

Clock Movements
David Lindow
(570) 937-3301

Merritt's Clock and Watch Supplies
(610) 689-9541

Custom Dial Face Painting
Kathi Edwards
(770) 943-5676


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