The Church of the Clocked Screws

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I clock my screws, meaning I orient the slot in the screw heads so they are all vertical or horizontal. But I don’t think it’s a mark of superior aesthetics. It’s just something I do, like lining up the silverware on the dining table just so. I can’t help it.

Some people who don’t clock their screws, however, take perverse glee in sending me photos of beautiful antiques with their screws un-clocked. And the images come with a note saying something like: “I guess James Krenov was a moron and didn’t clock his screws, you elitist meat wrapper.”

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Yesterday I took a drive to Columbus, Ind., one of the country’s repositories of excellent post-war architecture. Check out the Wikipedia page. Or the NPR story on the town. Or the great Kogonada-directed movie, “Columbus.”

My favorite building we toured was the First Christian Church, designed by Eliel Saarinen. Considered one of the first modern church structures in America, the building offers nod after nod to the cathedrals and churches of Europe. Yet the building, completed during World War II, is a complete break with the Old World. Even after 75 years, the church feels a beacon of hope, optimism and light.

One of the prominent features of the interiors is the extensive wooden lattice work, which is affixed with tens of thousands of perfectly clocked screws.

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One of the women on our tour gasped when this was pointed out. “How,” she asked, “did they do this?”

I opened my mouth for a second and then shut it.

Clocking screws is not a matter of over-torquing or under-torquing screw heads. It’s a simple matter of thinking about the problem for two seconds and devising a simple solution.

Screws are mass-manufactured items. The slot and the worm of a batch of screws are consistent across all the screws in a box. Now add to the equation a pilot hole (or counterbore) that is the same diameter every time. How can we use these consistencies to clock the screw?

If you don’t know the answer yet, try this experiment. Drill a pilot hole in a scrap of wood. Start a screw in the pilot with the slot facing 12 o’clock and 6 o’clock. Screw it down until it is snug. Note where the slot ends up. Let’s say it ends up at 1 o’clock and 7 o’clock.

What would happen if you started the next screw with the slot pointing to 11 o’clock and 5 o’clock?

— Christopher Schwarz

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48 Responses to The Church of the Clocked Screws

  1. Do you have to take time zone into account?

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  2. Baker Tool says:

    I worked

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  3. I’ve tried this before and I’ve found that there’s an unknown and mildly random factor: the worm doesn’t take at the same place everytime.

    Sometimes it takes a quarter turn before the worm bites and starts pulling the screw in. Sometimes it’s instant.

    I even went as far as to try using a weight on a screwdriver and attempting to get ‘perfectly clocked screws’ in an engineered wood-like product (read: pulp and glue). No success.

    At some point, each screw is going to have more or less torque than its siblings to be clocked… and that’s totally fine. I think there’s probably folks like me that think you can achieve consistent torque and consistent orientation. You get one or the other, and the other is going to just be ‘more or less’.

    And that’s ok.

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    • Hi Robert,

      Here’s how I fixed the problem that you are having. I built two campaign chests – back to back. All that hardware – days and days of it – gave me a feel for how to press the worm into the wood and get very consistent results.

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  4. Steve OeLaurin says:

    I know all about “clocking” screws, but in simple electrical work. Much to the head-shaking tsk-tsking of family members who accuse me of odd OCD, I always finish electric outlet plate screws with the slots in exactly the same orientation as the plate itself. (I even can’t help “fixing” others’ mistakes when I find them.) It gives me a strange sense of satisfaction when I step back and observe the symmetry and straight lines. I’ll admit to under- or over-torquing to achieve the right clocking, so I’m glad to learn of your experiment for a better way.

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    • Steve LeLaurin says:

      Just noticed my last name shows up in error on my comment … my last name starts with “L” and not “O” … guess I didn’t “clock” my typing well enough.

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  5. Eric Meyer says:

    “If you don’t know the answer yet, try this experiment…” This is one of those things that is so simple once it is pointed out that your are kicking yourself that you did not think about it earlier.

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  6. meghanlostartpress says:

    My parents live in Columbus and I find something new to love about it every time I am there. Now I have something else to check out on my next visit.

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  7. Chris, when you say “aligned with the grain of the wood” are you referring to the wood to which a piece is being attached? Several of the horizontal pieces in the photo clearly have the screw clocked against their grain. Or do you always clock vertically?

    In exterior applications, clocking (vertically) makes good sense as it provides a way for precipitation to runoff the screw. I’ve heard it’s required on some naval applications.

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  8. Tom Blamey says:

    I too am a devotee of the Clocked Screw.
    I first noticed this trait when I admired fine Firearms. I consider it an attention to detail that is not missed if not present, but adds a point of quality when it is present.
    All hail the Screw Clocker.

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  9. Richard says:

    I would ask about the Phillips or Torx head, but thought better of it.

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    • Bert Vanderveen says:

      These needing clocking too… There is a reason that 360 degrees is dividable by 4 and 5 and 6…

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  10. johncashman73 says:

    They should be embarrassed at the arrangement of the door handles in the top photo. All of the hardware is arranged the same. The two end doors should have the handles as a mirror image.

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  11. Next time you think clocking screws is too much, just think about polishing the back of them:

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  12. Mike Siemsen says:

    I work in multiple time zones. It makes sense in the church photos where the screws are part of the overall design.
    that being said, “God is in the details”.

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  13. Peggy Schneider says:

    Eliel Saarinen’s last church was Christ Lutheran in Minneapolis. The Minnesota Woodworkers Guild hosted a tour last year. It was very interesting. There was also some original mid-century furniture inside.

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  14. Todd D Reid says:

    My father worked one summer in ’67 at a yacht builder in Holland MI and every screw on the yachts had to be clocked. If it wasn’t to the foreman’s liking then it had to be plugged and redone.

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  15. Curtis Lee Zeitelhack says:

    Like you, I appreciate the aesthetic of the Saarinens. As for the rest of your post, it’s, well, a bit “screwy”. 😀

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  16. pathdoc75 says:

    I am 76 years old, an amateur woodworker for decades, and my dear Dad, now deceased, was a machinist of the old school type. He was trained by a several years long apprenticeship as was the norm back in the 1920’s. He was a perfectionist and he made everything , including our home and many of its furnishings. If screws were used, they were clocked even if it was on a temporary jig. So I too grew up watching him and have always “ clocked screws” as well on everything I build that has screws. So you are not alone or odd because you do it. Personally, I think it looks tidier, more precise and quite indicative of careful craftsmanship; whereas others may think it is a bit A.R. The choice is really what each maker prefers, and not a right or wrong way.
    Cheers.
    Michael O’Brien
    Alabama

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Daniel Williamson says:

    As a millennial, I only read digital clocks, so I’m completely unaware of the context of this post.

    That said, I like that all the slots are faced the same way on the screw heads. I wonder how that’s done? Oh well, I guess I’ll never know. That guy must have just been lucky. Gonna move on to the next Instagram story.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. johncashman73 says:

    I know there were shortages of wood (and everything else) during the war. Parquet floors in gymnasiums were popular because they used a lot of short pieces.

    I wonder if part of the design in these photos was a result of wartime shortages.

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    • The story of this church is fairly astounding. When it was designed, it was supposed to feature a huge swastika on an exterior wall. And the war overtook that. The entire steel superstructure required an act of Congress to complete because of the requirements of the war effort.

      Seeing what the architect and builders did under such incredible pressure is humbling. And don’t get me started on the bell tower. Freestanding. No steel structure.

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      • jenohdit says:

        That crack that runs up the tower concerned me when I saw it but I was on my own with no guide. Was there any mention of that or of the renovations of the main building? Columbus is going to have a lot to deal with as those buildings age.

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  19. aaronkessman says:

    Ugh ever since I read your first posts about screw clocking it stuck in my head. I tried to dismiss it as too ocd for my own good, but it stuck and now I clock all mine too. Even on electrical stuff. Curse you!

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  20. Tom Bittner says:

    I too clock screws but I never thought of it as “clocking”. Like the fellow before my dad was a toolmaker and everything had to be “ Ship Shape and in Bristol fashion”.
    As a child we rebuilt a lapstrake runabout (wooden boat) this had thousands of brass screws. Each slot had to be parallel to the grain even though it would be covered up with putty…..
    All my switch plates are aligned the same.

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  21. OneBigMarine says:

    Chris, I clock mine, and teach my apprentices to do the same. My wife tags it to all my time in the Marines, I did it long before that.

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  22. Jerry Spinks says:

    In 2001 I was fortunate to have the opportunity to remove (and scrap) a 19th century, hurricane damaged pipe organ from the chapel of a downtown Charleston, SC church. I salvaged as much of the wood as I could and every one of the antique screws. Most of the wood and many of the screws have become furniture or gone into the conservation of antique furniture. Most of the wood is gone, but I still have a considerable number of screws. I’ve been a woodworker for many years and am embarrassed to admit I’ve never heard the term “clocking a screw,” but have been doing it since I first picked up a screw driver. For me, it just feels and looks natural!

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  23. mcdara says:

    Once again, you made me laugh out loud. But the line “you elitist meat wrapper” coming from a troll, I find highly doubtful. It’s just too good.

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  24. Architecture is Awesome. 💕

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  25. Lorenzo says:

    I struggled with clocking screws and an old timer I worked with came over, bashed the screw in the pilot hole with a hammer and remarked “ screw drivers are for getting screws out, not in”

    I didn’t follow his advice, but I’ll admit it was hard to see the difference.

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    • Luke Maddux says:

      Not sure if you’ve abandoned comments on this or not, but do you ever feel like there is a time when clocking/timing brings a look which is too uniform for the work at hand? I think these doors are a great example of where it works, but would you ever say there is a time when it simply doesn’t?

      I think I’m among the most anal retentive/OCD people I know and I, personally, just can’t do it. Its just that when it’s done it’s the only thing I can see. Just opinion of course.

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  26. Steve says:

    As an electrician turned cabinetmaker, clocking screws comes completely natural and is an expected part of quality workmanship. All the screws for mounting plates are slotted and all should be clocked vertically if you want to avoid the jeers from coworkers and clients. It’s just part of the trade (or is if you’re a decent electrician, at least).

    Clock your damn screws, you hacks!

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  27. AlanWS says:

    I have no beef with those who clock their screws; it seems to me one of many odd compulsions that I don’t understand. I think random orientations look better. It might look interesting to set them in orientations that would make a pattern, but all parallel seems boring.

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  28. jim shuster says:

    the Studley chest has clocked screws.

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  29. Frank Clark says:

    My good friend Pete and I are both members of this Church. We work on a lot of projects throughout the building as volunteers. We feel privileged to be able to do this. He and I refinished the outside of the doors in the photos and we “re-clocked” some of the screws that were a little off. Every exposed screw in the original church building is clocked. We added a wing that includes classrooms for our preschool and staff offices in 2001. The quality if materials and workmanship for the addition cannot begin to compare to the original building. If you ever get a chance to come to Columbus (Indiana) make sure you stop by and visit. You’ll be astonished at the way things were done.

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  30. Charlie says:

    Henredon furniture had a nice campaign group in their retail line. On the campaign brackets they clocked their screws vertically. They indicated their research showed that historically the campaign furniture builders did this because the furniture was designed to be shipped and this often meant shipped by boat. Vertices alignment allowed any salt water or moisture to drain off the screw helping to prevent rust. I sold their furniture for years and never found a screw on a campaign piece that was not clocked.

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  31. johnleeke says:

    My dad always clocked his screws at 2. One time, in the 60s, we visited a project where he had worked on all the windows back in the 30s. He could tell which windows somebody had been fiddling with because the screws were no longer clocked at 2. He figured their work was probably alright though, because all those windows were re-clocked to 6, and not left at random like a less careful worker would have done.
    I clock at 12. That way the screws are nice and tight, and the slots don’t collect dust.

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