Brian Loomes
Originally published in Antiques Bulletin Issue 600 May 1995

From their very beginnings in about 1660, longcase clocks have been made in a very limited variety of woods, the most humble of which was pine. Fashions for different woods changed only slowly over the years. The earliest long cases for finer clocks were veneered in ebony which gave way in the late 17th century to burr walnut veneers. Japanned or lacquered cases in the oriental taste were a popular alternative in the early 18t.h century, the base woods beneath the lacquer usually being a mixture of oak and pine. By the mid 18th century mahogany arrived as the superior timber, after which cases for finer clocks were made in this wood, used both as solid and veneer, right up to the end of long case clock making in the third quarter of the 19th century.

Plainer, country clocks were housed in oak or sometimes in solid walnut, which seems to have been no more costly than oak. At the bottom of the scale came pine and elm (sometimes a mixture of the two woods), cases of both these woods being originally finished with a painted surface, often black polished to resemble the much costlier ebony and known as ‘ebonised' . During the 18th century when there was little or no inflation as we know it today and a simple country oak case cost £1.00 when new, a similar case in pine could be bought for less than half that price. A case in walnut or mahogany could easily cost ten times the price of an oak one, though of course that extra cost was in the much more ornate styling as well as materials. Over the years the ebonised finish of the earliest pine cases would become shabby, and such cases were then often painted by the owner, the colour being a whim of the moment, and a pine case may have been a dozen different colours over the generations.

The way pine cases were finished when new changed with the prevailing taste in finer woods. In the walnut period the pine surface was often painted to imitate walnut. Later examples, made after about 1750, were often 'scumbled' to look like mahogany. Some pine cases went through several different finishes, and these scumbled surfaces can look very convincing until seen at very close quarters.

Today's fashion is usually to strip pine cases down to bare 'waxed' pine, with all the nails and knot-holes showing, which of course were never intended to show when the case was new. Some lament this situation, urging that instead we should preserve the original finish and that is an argument which could well hold but for the fact that the painted surface we see today is anything but original. Not only are we usually looking at a surface which might be the sixth or seventh carelessly applied coat of paint the clock has worn during its chequered life, but that paint is often in dreadfully crackled and blistered state from exposure to sunlight and is unpreservable.

Pine (and elm too) often suffered badly from woodworm. Ironically it was usually the painted surface we now remove that protected and preserved those that do survive. This very high destruction rate means that an early clock in pine (an example from the late 17th or early 18th centuries) is quite an uncommon survivor.

Pine was ideally suited for a simple cottage style of case which called for no great complications in the making. By the early 19th century mahogany cases, with their much more complicated styling, became increasingly popular. The result was that pine fell from favour as it would not easily lend itself to these more ornate mouldings, shapes and styles, although occasional examples are met with of Victorian cases in pine in the general style more often found in mahogany, such examples usually being stained and French polished to give the impression of a mahogany finish. The scarce survival of pine cases from the 17th century and the decreasing use of pine in the 19th century will often mean that most of the pine-cased long case clocks we see are 18th century examples.

The cheaper nature of pine cases means that they were used primarily for cottage or farmhouse clocks at the lower end of the price range. This had a bearing on the kind of clock housed in such a case, the great majority being thirty-hour clocks. Eight-day examples are far less common in pine except those Victorian examples just described with a simulated mahogany finish.

Buying a pine clock in unrestored condition, that is still in its perished paint finish, can be a hazardous business because the condition cannot be judged accurately until the paint has been stripped off, at which point it may be found to be badly woodwormed. This is especially unfortunate if disfigurement from worm damage happens to be on highly-prominent parts such as the case door or elsewhere on the front of the case. A further unexpected factor sometimes found in stripping such a case is that it might be constructed from several woods, principally pine but with some sections of other woods such as elm. A clock which was to be painted could have had parts made from any available timbers readily to hand, which would be hidden by the paint finish. It is uncommon to find a stripped pine case in totally original condition as far as the timber is concerned and one has to expect some degree of replacement of badly wormed areas. This applies most often to the feet and base area and sometimes to the backboard