Combine Your Creativity With Some Maker Skills To Build One-Of-A-Kind DIY Timepieces
Time is an illusion, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make sense of it.
Sure you can live a simple life marking the path of sunlight across the ground or charting the stars to figure out the best time of year to plant your crops. But thanks to 30,000 years of horological advances, making a DIY clock is easier than ever.
How does a clock work? How can I build my own timepieces? Isn’t making clocks, well, hard? Don’t fret. Let’s take a quick trip through the world of clock design and get you started as an aspiring timekeeper.
Different Clocks You Can Make
Before we jump into the finer details of how to make a clock, we’ll be examining different kinds of custom clocks that are approachable by the amateur horologist and what literally makes them tick. There are many more means of keeping time, but these types ought to cover the most accessible clock construction designs for you to get started:
Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. Brrrrring! Analog clocks were, and continue to be, some of the most popular timepieces for good reason. Mechanical clock mechanisms have been made for centuries, to the point where mass production has dramatically reduced the cost of a reliable clock module to nearly nothing.
Clocks with hands can be styled and scaled to fit nearly any room. And depending on how much time you’d like to spend (pun intended!), they can be made in an afternoon or meticulously crafted over the course of months.
To brainstorm all the different ways you can make a clock the analog way, check out this post with a collection of 50 cool and unique wall clocks.
The geometric style of the wall clock on the left looks a bit like branches spreading out from the trunk of a tree, and the round clock on the right gets a bit met with its design that uses the shape of analog clock hands to mark each hour. Clever!
For more ideas on how to make a clock the old-fashioned way, this wooden clock is great start for a beginner build. While it will still require some careful craftsmanship, user Marvay goes into detail behind the math for clock mechanisms to get moving.
Upping the ante, Dean over on Dean’s Photographica has documented his beautiful build and demonstrated his expertise in putting machine tools to use in pulling working parts from brass stock.
For truly masterful work, look no further than Chris (aka Clickspring) over on Makezine. He’s made a gorgeous skeleton clock from scratch and documented the whole build process. We can’t recommend his videos highly enough. Not only does he take care to explain in depth what he’s making and how the process works, but he does so in professionally edited videos (that he also makes) that are on par with any educational tv show. His YouTube channel is one of the best examples of DIY small-scale machining around, and they’re a treat to watch.
For those who want to make a clock the new-fangled way, check out these ideas:
Making precise gear shapes by hand takes tremendous skill and patience. If you want to skip hours of intimate time spent with a scroll saw and get to the having-a-working-clock step, then this 3D printable clock design might be for you.
If you’re looking for another fast way to get your personalized clock in hand, then why not give these laser cut clock faces a gander? Sarah Mino in Chicago has embraced the laser, too, and created a collection of elegant clocks that might be to your liking.
The endless customization options available when making personalized clocks are part of the fun of design. This whimsical laser cut clock makes use of a mechanical iris mechanism over the clock face.
Gears? Where we’re going, we don’t gears! Digital clocks forgo the need for winding, tuning and general maintenance required for analog clocks (aside from batteries!).
Thanks to the inherent physical properties of crystal oscillators or the carefully run frequencies found in power lines, getting access to a reliable electronic means of keeping time is now exceedingly cheap and easy for the average maker to acquire. (See what we mean with this kit via Adafruit.)
Most digital clock designs take advantage of an integrated circuit called a real-time clock, or RTC, which can provide a consistent time source for a microcontroller. RTCs often require backup batteries to keep time (usually in the form of coin cells). However, some varieties incorporate beefy capacitors or integrated batteries that can keep time for months or years without additional power. How Stuff Works pokes a bit deeper into the operation of digital clocks for the curious.
Nixie Clocks: Prior to the development and mass production of LEDs and LCD display technology, Nixie tubes were one of the only electrical ways to display digits. Nixie tubes have an individual filament per digit that can be stimulated to glow given the proper voltage.
While in their heyday they weren’t used to make a clock (as they have relatively short lifespans when compared to more modern electrical display components), there has been a resurgence in the last few decades among DIYers to turn these simple components into timepieces. Just look at this one from Braden Kowitz.
However, there are a few barriers if you want to make a clock of the Nixie variety:
- They haven’t been produced in quantity for decades. Because the Soviet Union was among the last producers through the 1980s, you’ll often find auctioned pieces shipping from Ukraine or the Russian Federation.
- Driving the filaments requires 120 volts or more, making the circuitry a bit more dangerous to handle.
- While expensive, high-voltage transistors exist to control the digits (you need 10 per tube!), there were, of course, dedicated driver ICs back in the day. These are now increasingly rare and sold as NOS (new old stock) from the same Eastern European nations where you’d find tubes.
All this to say, they’re a pain to build. But they are sooo worth the effort for a truly unique clock. Since their design requires a bit more engineering skill, there are Nixie clock kits for those who just want some glowy vintage goodness on the desk.
Binary Clocks: It’s half past 10010 and you’re going to be late for the 10011 showing at the movies! Of course, I doubt anyone actually speaks like that, but this doesn’t mean you can’t keep time in binary like all the cool robots do.
Binary clocks are some of the cheapest digital clocks to make as they only need a handful of lamps or LEDs to represent the bits that represent the hours and minutes. Just look how Andreia Bohner designed this one.
For fun, binary clocks can also be hidden in plain sight until illuminated like this little one over on Hackster.
For those needing precision timekeeping, look to the sky. High above the earth are a handful of some of the most accurate clocks around. The Global Positioning System, as well as Galileo and GLONASS, is constantly broadcasting ultraprecise time data for all the world to hear. If you have an unobstructed view of the sky, it might be practical for you to stick a GPS module in your next digital clock. GPS modules often report their geodetic data in the NMEA protocol, which is human readable ASCII strings that are packed with information. You can learn more about NMEA data here.
Whoever said you needed to read a clock in order to get the time? Speaking clocks are a great alternative for those folks who with impaired vision or for people looking for a visually subtle, talking timekeeper like this one from RNIB.
Although Jeff Bezos would rather you use it to buy products, the Alexa service is pretty reliable as speaking clock. We’ve used it as a voice-controlled clock and alarm for months and enjoy it quite a bit. Now, we’re not suggesting you grab the latest Echo, but instead reach for a Raspberry Pi, which can now run the Alexa voice service.
For those among us who live more equatorial lives (sorry Greenlanders), the daily journey of our sun’s light across the planet is a pleasant way to count the hours and minutes. There’s good reason sundials have been used as clocks for millennia, they’re dead simple to make!
A sundial consists of two main components:
1. The gnomon, which is the rising piece that casts the shadow.
2. The dial itself, which has markings for the hours as the clock face.
You will, of course, also need to know your current latitude and the direction of true north to make any sense of this basic timepiece. Here’s a good-looking example from Christoffer Undisclosed, although he does admit the timekeeping was off by a couple minutes.
For those who don’t want to throw down for the latest sundial collection from Tag Heuer, then you might want to check out this crafty alternative over on Wikihow.
If you need to outdo your hipster friends at the next social gathering, it’s hard to beat this sundial watch, which is sure to instantly acquire attention (whether wanted or unwanted). It’s debatably useless, but that’s not the point. You’re sure to win the quirkiness contest betwixt the oh-so-cool masses.
And, of course, Pinterest is ever full of creative ideas and has a fair collection of sundial designs that you might want to tackle.
There aren’t many rules when it comes to clock design, and as long as it tells some form of time, then we reckon just about any device can be called a clock. These examples dial up the creative possibilities and should provide inspiration for your own ideas:
Hongkiat has assembled a collection of designs that range from the bog standard two handed, to the utterly absurd that would make Salvador Dali proud.
Craving some electromechanical simplicity to help you count the hours in the day? This unusual clock by Harry Stafford makes use of a motor and chain to drag numerals round and round as the day goes by.
Clock designs needn’t be overly complex. Some guy named Leo did say simplicity is the ultimate sophistication after all. Maiko Kuzinishi has created a successful business as a clock designer and transformed her illustrations into pieces that she and many others enjoy.
While most digital clocks have seven segment LEDs or humdrum grayscale LCDs as their face, they needn’t be so bright and blocky. At first glance, this laser cut gear clock might appear to be analog in nature. But it’s really by a pair of stepper motors controlled by an Arduino microcontroller.
For even more ideas on how to make a clock, Bored Panda has compiled these 25 cool and unusual timepieces. Check out the Uomino, an appropriate clock for people always on the go since it quite literally gives the impression that time is running away, as well as the “little time” clock with microscopic numbers that can only been seen clearly when the magnifying glass clock hands hover over them.
Clock Making Tools And Supplies
The mark of a craftsman is the ability to get the most out of average tools to make robust designs from raw materials. But unless you are a retiree with years of experience, it helps to have all the right tools to get the job done in a reasonable amount of time.
Kits also allow you to skip most of the time-consuming aspects of making a clock. Of course, there are plenty of kits on eBay that incorporate the necessary bits such as the core mechanism as well as clock hands (which you could easily swap).
If starting with a readymade mechanism to make a clock, then all you really need is something for the clockface, a means of making a hole in the middle and mounting the mechanism to the underside. These tools will get your started:
- Clock Core Mechanism
- Hand Drill
Getting into the intricacies of making your own gears and mechanical assemblies requires a much greater investment in tools and materials to get going. Although not absolutely necessary, these tools allow you to make the most of your home workspace and time:
- Milling Machine
- Hand Files
- Small Bit Set
- Drill Press
- Scroll Saw
- Band Saw
- Center Punch
- Tap & Die Set
In addition to the basic tools above, you’ll likely need the following for any digital build:
- Soldering Iron
- Wire Strippers
- Helping Hands
RTC: One of the most common varieties is the DS1307, which is reasonably accurate and dirt cheap. But for a few dollars more, you can also get a DS3231 for exceptional accuracy over time.
MCU: Nearly any microcontroller is able to communicate with an external RTC, but most modern controllers have one built in! Our go to is the Teensy 3.X series, though you will need a backup battery to keep your time.
Display: Seven segment LEDs make for a classic look, but there’s really no limit to how you can turn that digital time into something that humans can read.
Clock Making Plans
The amount of knowledge and skill required to take raw materials and turn it into an accurate device is quite high. But like most crafts, there are thousands upon thousands of templates, tutorials and clock kits to aid in your timekeeping design journey.
Check out the LOL Clock plans on Thingiverse. This design uses individual LED lights for the display instead of an LCD screen.
The National Association of Watch and Clock Makers, NAWCC, has compiled a hefty list of kits and plans galore to make a clock. There’s plenty of design rabbit holes to fall into there, though they skew towards more complex builds and ideas.
If you’re hankering to build something a bit quicker and would rather focus on a creative materials, Architecture Art Designs has assembled this collection of inspiring DIY clock faces such as these made from recycled magazines and colorfully crocheted yarn.
From bizarre glowing abstractions, to classic mid-century staples, Instructables has an endless slew of clock tutorials for you to follow along.
If you’ve had your fill of sundials, Pinterest remains chock full of craft imagery and links to basic designs to build.
You can also keep tabs on the state of our lunar companion with this moon phase clock. Sure, It won’t help you stay on track for your latest deadline, but it does make for an excellent show piece.
And if you want a different take on time-telling, check out this word clock along with the tutorial here.
Selling Your Clocks
Making clocks for personal use or for giving to family and friends is great. But what’s better? Making clocks to sell for a profit!
In the past, makers who want to profit from their creative passion typically sold at craft fairs and boutiques. And while those avenues can still be successful, the market has moved online. In fact, 96% of Americans shop online. So it makes sense to have visibility where people are buying.
The most popular places to sell handmade goods online are Amazon, eBay and Etsy. But they’re not the only ones. Small Biz Trends put together this list of 25 more places to sell handmade products online. So when you’re making clocks to sell, check out the options so you can make an educated decision on which site is the best fit for your particular products.
The Time To Make A Clock Is Now
It’s easy to see that you can spend as little or as much time as you want in building a clock. But keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be a grand undertaking to make something useful that you—or your customers—can love.
So what are you waiting for? Stop wasting time and start your clock-making journey today!