The Church of the Clocked Screws

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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About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.


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