Goals for restoration or repair

Discussion in 'Clock Repair' started by James Foster, Oct 5, 2019.

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  1. James Foster

    James Foster Registered User
    NAWCC Member

    Dec 13, 2010
    Clockmaker @ Your Time Clock Repair
    East TN
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    I suppose I am going through a professional crisis. In determining my goals in my horological profession there are several things I feel I need to consider.

    Most clocks I come in contact with started as tools to tell the time to be at work. If they broke, the goal was to return them to service quickly and not be so concerned about invisible repairs. Closing pivot holes with a punch or using Rathbun bushings made sense to avoid time consuming disassembly.

    As time passed it became important that clocks stayed in service and warranty repairs were to be minimized. Improving bearing surfaces became a popular goal which could minimize those returns. Filing, polishing and/or burnishing pivots started to make business sense as well as installing bushings.

    Now the repair market allows as much time to perform repairs as I find necessary. So I have the option to decide what I want to do. By that I mean since a clock is not primarily considered a tool but more a symbol of something, do I want to preserve the condition working or not, basically putting the mechanism under glass? Let’s say I do want to restore the function. Do I want to make it work better than new? Okay sure. Well if I file, polish and/or burnish pivots to make improvements then why not install Butterbearings to improve power transmission and remove the variable of material impurities. Quartz movements are more accurate and less expensive. If I’m willing to change the design some by making the bearing surfaces slicker than the original hasn't that opened the door? Then why not change to a quartz movement? I’ve heard it said “it doesn’t matter what you do to repair the clock, just polish the case. That’s all the customer will appreciate”. I'm not advocating changing mechanical movements to quartz. I guess the point I’m trying to make is the minimum I’m willing to do will not do damage relative to accepted practices. The customer won’t know the difference so I’m the only one I need to please.

    The majority opinion on the message board as to how to repair a clock seems to be a moving target or at least the “best practices” techniques were communicated from mentors teaching protégés. These techniques typically were influenced by goals that are no longer relevant to a clock being a symbol rather than a functioning tool. Everyone is the authority on their chosen technique with more effort being a waste of time and less being an abomination. After all “I’ve been repairing clocks for x number of years and I know best.” I understand actually recognizing the function/value/place a clock holds has evolved threatens the methods of repairing that have been practiced for decades. But I can’t get excited about doing something everyday when I don’t have a clearly defined goal or condition I’m trying to achieve. Putting my head in the sand, or loading the wagon when the mule is blind doesn’t work for me.

    Another choice is to restore to the condition at the time of manufacture using like techniques. Even if I adopt that convention there are interpretations and practicality does sneak in. Jerry Kieffer’s methods are the most consistent with this convention and the least contradictory with his stated goals. But, I really don’t enjoy turning dials enough or have thick enough skin to suffer the ridicule that appears to go along with proposing criteria to use to perform restorations that attacks so many peoples perception of the “right” way to do things. What audiences would I be playing for? As iterated above I’ll be sure and polish the case.

    A scene comes to mind from the Big Band Theory. Sheldon Cooper paid Walowitz, an engineer and the only character from the original group of friends that did not have a Phd, a compliment. This was out of character because Sheldon had always minimized the significance of his profession. Walowitz showed surprise that Sheldon paid him a compliment. Sheldon said, “ Oh I see the confusion. I've never said you weren't good at what you do, it just that what you do isn't worth doing.” If you consider the goal you are trying to meet is making the clock just as it came off the production line and that pivots were not polished or burnished as part of the manufacturing process, then even if you can make the pivot surface like glass it doesn't have value because it is not part of your goal.

    Clocks are losing value and popularity. Given the glut of supply and the lack of a generation that has any personal connection to or even remembers having to wind a clock to be somewhere, when expected, the probability of a re-insurgence in values is rather bleak at least in my lifetime. Considering this prediction a lot would have to happen before clocks are near worth the effort or investment to gain the skills to restore clocks to a condition as time of manufacture.

    I’m not looking for opinions on what you think I should do. The only thing for which you are an authority in this industry is what makes you happy. I’m just venting!


    bangster likes this.
  2. kinsler33

    kinsler33 Registered User

    Aug 17, 2014
    Science teacher, writer
    Lancaster, Ohio, USA
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    Well, you might just be weary of fixing clocks. If you're doing it for a living, you have to consider if you're making enough money or if it's worth considering some of the other stuff that needs repair out there, from bulldozers to aircraft radar. The repair standards on most other mechanisms are a good deal more rational than you'll find in horology, and my sense is that all of it is pretty enjoyable if you like to fix things.

    You should also consider your physical health. Weariness in a long-held profession can be a sign that you're simply feeling a bit feeble.

    Having said all that, I agree that mechanical clock repair is generally not listed among the jobs of the future. Aesthetics and a love of technological history aside, a lousy $4.00 quartz wall clock is pretty much the final triumph of horology. Perfect accuracy, no winding, cheap, no noise with the new ones, it just hangs there and tells you what time it is. Same deal with the quartz watch.

    I have always had some sort of a repair shop, presumably because I enjoy the machinery and the quick (not instant) gratification that comes with finally getting the thing working well. Lots of pride there. But I haven't been all that concerned with which items I fix. I started with bicycles, and then drifted into home appliances along with minor plumbing, heating, and electrical repairs, and no I wasn't licensed. Since I couldn't seem to learn electronics on my own I took a home-study electronics course: National Radio Institute, may it rest in peace. Excellent program, and when I was teaching electronics myself I gleefully and freely stole ideas and labs from NRI. And so I repaired electronics, mostly home audio, for 20 years, at which point it became too cheap to repair.

    So now I do clocks, and what I realize is that I like the customers just as much as the repair work. I don't think I'd be happy if I never talked to the people who own these creaky old devices.

    As to this forum, it's important to remember that many--perhaps most--of the members truly love clocks and are both repairers and collectors, and anyone truly enamored of a particular sort of device is likely to have very strong opinions on the care and maintenance of their particular treasure. All of which is to say that you won't find perfect rationality hereabouts. Clocks are old-fashioned clunky mechanical items that rattle, and some of us are trying to apply industrial superfinishing techniques to their loose, zero-speed bearings. (Confession: I like to polish stuff to see it shine, so I have fun with pivots.)

    I, however, am not a collector of clocks any more than I'm a collector of bicycles or stereo receivers. What I seem to collect is old Sears catalogs, which are great historical material and lots of fun to read.

    It's not unusual for a guy to decide to change his life around, often radically. That's how I wound up being the world's oldest graduate student (along with my wife Natalie, who did the same.) Our respective departments never quite understood that they were shepherding us through a mid-life crisis.

    Mark Kinsler
  3. wow

    wow Registered User
    NAWCC Member

    Jun 24, 2008
    Retired Music Minister
    Pineville, La. (central La.)
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    I went to the Creole regional clock Show in New Orleans Friday and Saturday. It was a successful show for me in several ways:
    1. I sold a bunch of tools I had acquired that I didn’t need.
    2. I sold a few clocks and bought one.
    3. I took two of my grandsons and enjoyed time with them.
    4. I spent time with other clock enthusiasts and talked about clocks and their future.
    5. I was able to help others and receive help with clock repair projects.
    6. I ate some wonderful Cajun food.

    All of this “made me happy”.

    The discouraging things I saw, however, were the people there who did not sell and felt like the show was a wast of time and money for them. Several people spoke of the possibility that that show would be the last for the Creole chapter due to poor attendance. I saw many nice clocks that did not sell at ridiculously low prices. There were very few younger people there. My own two grandsons were more interested in swimming and playing on their phones than learning about clocks.

    Yet, it was exciting to see people who still really enjoy collecting/repairing/researching clocks and watches. Many people I talked to still do not plan to “give up” on restoration of historical timepieces.

    Making a living in horology is reserved for a few, I’m afraid, but making oneself “happy” collecting/repairing/researching is still a very real possibility.
  4. woodlawndon

    woodlawndon Registered User
    NAWCC Member

    Jan 18, 2017
    Woodlawn, Ontario
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    I always enjoy these philosophical discussions. Let me give you my perspective from a relative newby. I don't feed my family with collecting and repairing clocks, I entered into this for my own enjoyment and have really dove in head first, I love it. I love all things clocks, I have an expanding clock and book collection, I love the research just as much as the repair and the clocks themselves.

    As for standards of repair, I have taken the approach that I will perform them to the best of my current ability and the tools I have at hand, both are growing. I went and read every single post in the repair forum with 2 goals in mind: The first was to see what type of repairs I would be coming across and second to see the best methods of dealing with them. I decided I would try my best to do them to high standards, no shortcuts, at least for now. I will use the likes of Jerry Kieffer as my standard, obviously I will never get there but I'm going to try.

    As for interest in horology, my local Chapter rented a booth at a popular, local country fair last weekend. I volunteered to help out last Sunday and was blown away at the number of folks that stopped by, we had clocks and literature on display. I must have spoken to hundreds of people, it was so much fun. Of course the most common question was, "can you fix my clock?" but we also got new members to sign up and many more that wanted more information. There is still lots of interest out there in mechanical clocks, it seems like almost everyone has a non-working clock in their basement or attic passed from a family member. I had a blast, imo the interest is there but obviously more exposure is required. Just my 2 cents.
    bruce linde likes this.
  5. bruce linde

    bruce linde Technical Admin
    NAWCC Member

    Nov 13, 2011
    oakland, ca.
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    i'm not sure i see the same 'lots of interest out there in mechanical clocks' that don does, but i have to agree with his and will's perspectives...

    clock repair is not my career, but i've accumulated a collection that includes better than average clocks and have been through each and every one of them. yes, they're mine... but i see me as more of a caretaker, responsible for getting them to their next 'owners'. kind of hard to call an 1825 banjo clock 'mine' when i'm just the latest person it's ended up with.

    i began collecting in earnest during a dark time... end of a relationship, diagnosed w/ prostate cancer, dog diagnosed w/ liver failure, friends with brain tumors, parkinson's, pancreatic cancer, dementia, etc. when i'm 'clocking' (i.e., working on my babies), i find it totally mindful and enjoyable... and there's no traffic, politics, BS, etc. ... definitely makes me happy, and happier overall.

    i've learned a lot, and have lots to learn. i wish i could inspire more interest in antique/mechanical clocks in those around me, but rest assured that everyone i come in contact with is well aware of my little clock addiction.

    quick anecdote: i have new tenants... young emergency room docs. they've seen my clocks. one of them just traveled to chicago and facetimed me while i was eating breakfast, face filled with excitement because she stumbled into a clock museum there and was walking around showing me every clock. she wouldn't have even noticed them before, and was now understanding one-handed tall case clocks, chronometers, seconds pendulums, etc.... obviously someone who needs a clock (or two)! :cool:

    we share a passion, even if there are many different approaches and perspectives to that passion.

    at least this part of life is good. thank you all for being there, and being so generous with your time, knowledge and experience. you've made a real difference in my life.

  6. shutterbug

    shutterbug Moderator
    NAWCC Member

    Oct 19, 2005
    Self employed interpreter/clock repairer
    North Carolina
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    I think a lot of what the OP says about pleasing oneself is appropriate. When you take pride in both your work and in the finished project, it's a win/win.
    I think Butterbearings are appropriate for modern long case movements, like Hermle's. They are destructive too, in that much more material is removed when they are inserted into plates, and that can't be reversed without great effort .... so I don't use them in older movements.
    My satisfaction comes from taking a dead clock and seeing it spring back to life after my repairs are complete. I tell myself that I keep it on my test stand for two weeks to really test it for reliability ..... but perhaps it's also to just admire my work for as long as I can get away with it :D
    Bruce Alexander likes this.
  7. R. Croswell

    R. Croswell Registered User

    Apr 4, 2006
    Trappe, Md.
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    Jim, I'll be brief. If you are working on someone else's clock, and especially if you are getting paid to do so, you have an obligation to your customer to make sure that you understand what their expectations for the clock being repaired are, and you also have an obligation to inform the customer regarding what options you are considering as well as other available options. You are not the only one that you need to please. Considering a time saving or cost cutting shortcut method and assuming that the "customer won’t know the difference" is not the way to do business and build a satisfied repeat customer base.

    Should a 200 year old clock look 200 year's old or like the day it was made? I'm afraid that's not your decision or mine to make. Should it be restored mechanically so it is indistinguishable form the day it was made or should it just be made to run reliably? Does it really matter what tools, methods and materials are used? Should the mechanicals be altered in an attempt to make the clock better than new? The answer to these questions is not entirely up to the clock repairer. If the customer just leaves it up to you, you will surely become known for the quality of service you offer. If you pander to customers who demand cheap prices and don't care how you make it run or what materials you use then that's the customer base you will build and the reputation you must like with.

    That's what I think.

    Kevin W. likes this.

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