David R Agnew is a respected Craftsman Decorator from Newport Pagnell in the UK and in this article he gives a step by step account of the methods and techniques involved in the complicated and delicate restoration process of the Clock Dial at St. Firmin’s Church in North Crawley.
A diary slice of the Clock Dial restoration.
David R Agnew LCGI
Just started this today, should have been six weeks ago, but have been waiting for
the faculty from the diocese to arrive.
So…arrived this morning to instruct the scaffolders’ of my requirements. So thought,
while I was waiting for them to erect it, I would start having a poke around, taking
pictures & documenting the job.
Scaffold being erected
The job consists of three items, the clock dial, the leaded window underneath the
dial & the gilding of the weathercock -which has already been completed.
So, poking around I went into the church & found the door leading to the tower, as
for me, this would be the route to access the scaffold. Up a winding stone staircase
which is only 2′ width & terminating at the clock room, where there is a door in the
far corner which takes you to the back of the dial.
First thing I notice is that where I need to work, it is completely filthy, covered in cobwebs and
years of dust etc, this was going to be my first job -clean up. I can’t stand working in a mess
before the work even starts! I do this, because I want to get absorbed in my environment,
working in old buildings takes on a different pace for me & it helps you to take in & notice
tiny details when not rushed or jumping straight in.
However, I knew that the first day would be about thinking the job through and formulating the
work plan in my head -time spent thinking is never wasted.
I decided to investigate the window, and discovered that I could take this out from the inside,
fortunately, it is in it’s own wooden frame which is in pretty good condition, so will refurbish
the frame. The leaded window itself has not faired well, and I have decided that I will just make
a new one, the lead cames are very thin and with so much glass missing, it isn’t really
economical to repair. The window is approximately 120 years old and I would guess it was
installed the same time as the original clock movement and dial etc. The iron tie bars, which
are there to help support the window, are unusual to me, they are thin at one end. This is
because the thin end has been driven onto the frame and then secured with a clout nail in the
flange at the other side. All the ones I have seen in the past have just been the same
thickness and built into the frame, or a fixing flange at each end -so, just a little detail I picked
up on. The whole window, will be taken back to the workshop, where I will take a rubbing and
make a new one based on that.
After doing the rubbing I take the old panel apart, soak all the reusable glass in ‘Krud Kutter’
–a sugar soap type cleaner. I have been fortunate in the past, as I have always saved old
glass from when I have had to do repairs on box windows and the like, so I have plenty of
spare bits to make this window complete with all old crown or muff glass.
Second morning, I am still missing the tarps to keep the weather out, so the
scaffolders’ have to come back for that. Anyway, thought I would have a close look
at the dial. Firstly, I wanted to establish what material it was,and yes, it did turn out
to be copper. The previous paint job was very rough, not to our usual painting
standards. Although the gilding seems fairly bright & in reasonable condition, the last
job is not entirely honest, as you can make out, that who ever did it, didn’t paint the
whole dial with a system, then sign write and gild in the proper manner, because you
can see where the numerals have been gone round and where it is grey in between over
all, is not a very tidy job. When it is viewed whilst 40 feet in the air and from a
distance, it isn’t noticeable.
Nevertheless, I proceeded to take measurements of the numerals and make notes. I
then covered the whole dial with drafting film and took accurate tracings of the existing
layout, when I get the latter back to the workshop, I will lay it out on the drawing
board to make the final adjustments to accuracy and then prick it to convert the draft
into the working drawing for later transfer.
With all the note taking done, I then started to prepare the copper dial. I abraded
the existing coating with 60 grit, using mechanical sanding with extraction, because
of the dangers with possible lead paint being present. The whole Is in very sound
condition, so washed down, after sanding with ‘Krud Kutter’ and then applied a first
coat of Rustoleum Alkythane, a satin finish industrial coating which weathers by
erosion. Colour RAL 5009
Now I turn my attention to the dial back boarding. Most of the moulding has
decayed, so I need to sort some new out. The existing mould consists of three parts,
I didn’t think it was particularly special, but the fact that it is made up from three
different components lends itself to fail on the moisture ingress front. After removing
the lower five sections around the base board, It was quickly becoming apparent,
that the base boarding itself had decayed in several places. This lead me to ask
questions about the integrity of it fixings. Should I just patch up, with new hardwood
mouldings and just screw the copper dial back on? No was the answer. The effort for
the scaffold, the cost of doing all the signwriting, painting and gilding would just be
A date on the board was 1957 signed ‘EB’ the style of mouldings and the whole feel of
this dial ties in with the date. We think ‘EB’ is a local builder called Eddie Brandon. I
felt nothing was going to be lost, or no architectural feature of any note would be
destroyed by deciding that this boarding had seen its life and if I was going to do
things with integrity, then I needed to make a new one. Thinking about it, this board
had served 60 years, so maybe the one before this, had lasted about the same, if it
was installed the same time as the movement. The copper dial itself certainly ties in
with the movement, as it bears the same maker’s name.
I would make a new one from English oak and do it in the same way as the last one two
layers, horizontal boards overlaid with vertical boards, each board
thickness15mm making a total of 30mm. I commission the local joinery shop to
machine up my requirements. In the meantime, I apply another coat of Alkythane to
the copper dial and head back to the workshop to make a start on the window.
Having had a phone call to say my oak was now machined up, I went to collect this and
start with earnest. Laying the boards out, I start to screw them together, using
stainless steel screws of course, as the tanning in oak will corrode steel ones. I first
make a square with the boards, then find the centre by marking diagonal. Using a
compass I mark out 1240mm, being the diameter of the dished copper dial. I can
now determine where to mark out the mouldings and cut the board to the octagonal
shape. Lovely to return back to the technical drawing days and summon the rules of
geometry, It’s been so long, I thought I’d forgotten!!!
There is a space between the back of the clock dial bottom and the top front of the
window beneath. This little board, takes up this space and the window splay. The other
one as you can see from the picture, is riddled with woodworm and decay. So….made
a new oak one, but thought I would include a quatrefoil for ventilation, which I later
covered with pierced aluminium mesh.
With all the glass cleaned, I cut some new quarries from old glass, so that it is ready
for assembly with new lead came. Whilst I am at it, I did measure up for some very
small slit windows which are in the access turret. Currently, one has a pane of float
glass in and two more have a wood frame covered in decayed chicken wire, it won’t
take me long, so may as well make these three and I can finish it all off together, as I
loathe making up and using lead light cement, which is worked into the leaded panels in order to weather proof them and stiffen them up.
The slit windows will need a little frame, so I machine some simple frames from oak,
they are only very slim -about 6″ in width, so I just butt join them with glue and
mechanically fix them with brass screws. I added stop chamfers to the inside of the
frames just for a bit of detail. Luckily, they seem to fit in their new home, so just pointed them in lime with mortar of course.
When joining the mitres, I decided to use Repair Care, Dry Flex 4 hour, flexible
epoxy resin as my secondary fixing, used in conjunction with Repair Care, Dry Fix
stabiliser which is applied before the resin. I used stainless steel screws as my
primary fixing, which were screwed in from the back, about five screws in each
moulding section. It is my hope that this will stand the test of time, if the mitres do
open up, at least the end grain will be completely sealed with the stabiliser, to thwart
moisture ingress which had claimed the last moulding design.
I wanted to do something creative with the mitres, I had in my mind about flattening
off the mitres with an infill piece, possibly protruding into the spandrels to fill that
space. I thought I would cast some lead detail such as small Tudor roses, or just
domed buttons to place on the flat areas. Anyway, another time perhaps, but in the
end, I decided I would terminate the inner bead of the moulding into a protruding
18mm hardwood ball, as this would not be vulnerable as a moisture trap at the lower
part of the dial & when the rest of the frame is blue, I would gild these to accentuate
this tiny detail. After drilling a shallow hole & countersinking the bottom, I stuck
them in with Repair Care Dry Flex SF.
I thought I would do something else creative with the centre, rather than just drill a
hole for the shaft for the hands, I decided to do a quatrefoil & routed a V groove for
the vertical and horizontal registration lines. A bit bizarre & over the top for something
that isn’t seen, but I thought it would be fun & appropriately ecclesiastical.,
somebody will see it one day. After abrading everything with 80 grit, I then apply one
coat of low build stain to penetrate the timber and afford some first coat protection.
The old dial back boarding, it is completely shot, so am pleased I made the decision
to remove it. The old dial fixings, were through some rusty straps at the back, I do
not intend to re-use these as the primary fixing, although I will at least drill two
more holes and bolt it, to lock all the old and new together, thus leaving them there.
I then coated them up with ‘Owatrol’, to inhibit further corrosion. At the same time,
whilst it is accessible, I coated the back of the motion works board with Sadolin
quick drying preserver.
I used four stainless steel 6″ studs which are resin fixed to the stone wall. In
addition, to support the weight, I drove in two stainless steel spikes 300mm x 15mm
x 10mm thick at the lower angles of the octagonal board for extra security in
supporting the weight.
Hauling the dial up fourteen meters was no easy task, I rigged up a gantry gallows
bracket on the scaffold and used a block & tackle to half the weight. Luckily, I did not
have to do this on my own, helped by my brother, Richard Agnew and North Crawley
resident and friend of the church, John Plummer.
The juncture between the back of the clock dial boarding and the stone wall, was fairly
tight on one side, but on the other there was a gap of around 1″ -enough for small
birds to get in behind. Previously, this was taken up with mortar. When I took down
the old dial, it was very damp behind, so felt it would be better to maintain that air
gap, but stop moisture getting in. I used the existing lead flashing and dressed this
over the top and two angles. Then, I thought I would dress some lead down the
vertical sides, to seal this juncture. I used code 4 flashing and fixed it using copper
nails, after trimming to shape I then applied patination oil to improve its appearance.
The return flash was pointed using lime mortar for elasticity.
Bringing back into play the draft tracing taken earlier, now made into a working
drawing, I start to transfer the original layout using chalk. I used 20 hour gold size and
proceeded to gild the next day using extra thick pure 24 carat gold leaf. Conditions
were very windy and fairly cool, I managed to lose a couple of leaves and the size was
gluey to apply. I double gilded the hands and the faults the rest of the gilding, before
applying one last coat of Sadolin Superdec opaque satin finish -six in total and five
coats of Alkythane for the copper dish.
The oak infill piece with the quatrefoil vent mentioned earlier, I think this picture
explains its function more clearly. I left this finished in Sadolin Classic low build
The job is finished now, with the scaffold down, here are the overall pictures.