Do you have what it takes to repair clocks for a living?

Dean Bull Clock Repair
6822 Kary May Drive
Traverse City, Michigan 49684

Originally written January 28, 2011
Updated and edited, January 27, 2015

Do you have what it takes to repair clocks for a living?

This story is a bit technical in some ways, but if you can stick with me, I think you will enjoy it. Each repair on each clock is unique, but there are some typical aspects and common themes.

The subject clock is the grandfather clock everyone would love to have. It was made in 1905, before Westminster chimes became the standard for grandfather clocks; back when Germany was producing the best clock movements that will ever be made. The elegant walnut cabinet stands seven feet tall and two feet wide. It was made by Colonial Manufacturing, Zeeland, Michigan. It strikes a “bim-bam” at a quarter-after each hour, then two bim-bams at half past, and three at a quarter to the hour. Then it counts the hour on the hour with a majestic four-note chord. Without proper service over the first half-century, one bearing (called a bushing hole) became badly worn. Then it was poorly repaired in 1960. It only ran for a few months, and then sat idle for nearly fifty years; in a living room in Traverse City, Michigan—they did not know who to trust.

The owner died in early 2010, and the clock was left to his son. The son contacted me to explore options in restoring the antique to original condition. I had to confess that in spite of over 35 year’s experience, I had never encountered this particular mechanism. The German maker is well known for making small shelf clocks, but not grandfather movements. It is routine to encounter clocks one has never seen, regardless of many decades of experience.

There are just many many ways of making clocks, and it would seem that pretty much all of them have been tried in the 600 year history of humans making mechanical clocks. In addition, the mechanism had been improperly assembled and thus, the bim-bam strike and the hour chords were both operating at the same time, rather than ‘taking turns’. Having never seen this mechanism, this was conjecture on my part, along with more conjecture that I would be able to figure out the correct sequence, and make it happen reliably.

The customer approved my estimate and we loaded the clock into my van. Back in my shop the restoration unfolded much like I had anticipated, but there are always unforeseen issues. Case in point: A pivot is the end of the axle of a wheel. Each gear/wheel has two of them, one at each end. The pivots turn in the bushing holes and thus the gear is disciplined to remain in its correct position so it can do its job—transfer mechanical energy to the next gear in the train of gears, among other things. The rear pivot of the second wheel in the ‘time-train’ was deeply scored and was not repairable. Normally, I can cut the old pivot off, drill a hole in the end of the axle and insert a new prosthetic pivot. This was not an option for this particular problem. Instead I used a creative and unorthodox technique that I developed about 20 years ago. Instead of replacing the original pivot, I used the axle as if it were a pivot. This involved making a special, much larger bushing (brass sleeve) and attaching it to the inside of the bearing plate. It involved some precision lathe work, along with some engineering geometry and some silver solder. When the 1960 repair was done, the hole got carelessly moved. I succeeded in reestablishing the correct location for the bushing center. In the process, I increased the amount of surface area on that bearing by several hundred percent. That will be the last bushing that wears out on this clock, and it will take several hundred years for that to happen. There were a few other bushings that needed to be restored. Next the escapement needed work—it is the part that literally makes the clock tick. I restored the ‘lifting planes’ of the anchor and polished them. I also made new leather inserts for the gong hammers, using a technique I developed in the 1970’s. (My customers are always thrilled with the improved sound.) In addition, all the pivots are polished; everything is cleaned and freshly lubed with proper clock oil. I also resolved some other minor problems. Then I installed adjusting feet so the cabinet can be properly leveled.

After the first week or so of testing, it developed an intermittent stoppage. It needed a subtle adjustment to the levers that control the bim-bam and strike transitions—I had to learn that lesson the hard way, and will probably never use that information again. As I write these words, the clock is running very nicely in my shop. Since it will be shipped some distance, the testing will continue for several weeks, just to be certain my work is truly done.

OK, now to the reason for me telling this story. Clocks are very important to people. That is a major understatement, please don’t miss it. And it makes little difference if the clock is a priceless antique grandfather clock handed down in the family since 1700, or a $30 cuckoo clock that Uncle Fred brought back from Germany just after WWII. When people wind their clocks, they store their bodily energy in the weights or springs. When they hear the clock ticking or chiming and striking, they get that energy back in the form of sound. That exchange process sets in motion a powerful emotional bond between the clock and the one who winds it; and it extends to others in the household as well. It is a fondness that defies words. It is one of the little things that make life richer and fuller than it would be otherwise. It also makes no difference whether the customer is wealthy, poor, black, white, purple, male, female or something in between. When the clock no longer works properly, neither does the routine of their life.

Clocks are VERY important to people. And if you can fix them, you become a hero. I have witnessed big tears running down the cheeks of my customers who hear Aunt Minnie’s clock striking for the first time in 30 years—women and men. I have little old ladies give me hugs when I see them in the grocery store, because I fixed a clock for them and it is still running many years later. And they are just thrilled that they can introduce me to their friend and brag that they know me. Does your current job have fringe benefits like that?

Lucrative is a word I hesitate to use in describing clock repair. It took me 30 years to figure out that it takes at least 20 years of on-the-job training, just to become proficient enough at repairing clocks to make a living at it. And when a new problem rears its ugly head, you get to again learn how very UN-cleaver you are. It is very humbling, indeed.
I have been self employed repairing clocks since 1974; which followed 4 years as head of the customer service department at Colonial of Zeeland, in Zeeland, Michigan (We manufactured about 25,000 grandfather clocks each year). In the past two years alone, I have seen many clocks that were unprecedented in my experience. That is when I re-enroll in the school of hard knocks, and start the old bartering-time-for-tuition process again. In the early days, I just thought I was inadequate and struggled along with my thick skull, fully convinced this one seemingly insurmountable problem would be the last. As it turns out, the job was just a whole lot bigger than anyone could have predicted. And tough new problems are endlessly part of the job. “So suck it up and fix it, no matter how long it takes or how much whining you have to endure from yourself.” Can you see where I am headed with all this? I would love to pass along some of the knowledge and skills I have learned. I am hoping there are some people who read this, or maybe just one, who are young enough and motivated enough to embark on such a path. Hiring this person/these people as an employee is not an option. You will be self-employed. The more experience with clocks you have, the better. Mechanical reasoning is an essential skill for the job. Youth and determination for the long term are essential as well, along with some integrity and the right attitude. The details will have to be negotiated, but an initial conversation will not cost you anything.

Start by writing to me: Tell me why you think this might be a good career choice for you. Then maybe we can sit down and have a conversation about it. Maybe you have already done some clock work and need some coaching. Trust me, I can relate. I can only wish I would have found a coach like me 35 years ago…but alas, there was none. Please do not call. Write to me.

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