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From Cubicle to Clock Repair

How I took the leap to following my passions.

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This article appeared in Make: Vol. 40.

This article appeared in Make: Vol. 40.

Being a dedicated automaton maker, I started to learn how to repair antique clocks because it seemed like a good way to commune with the master automaton-makers of old. I didn’t expect that it would turn into an occupation that would allow me to leave my cubicle-based job for good, but a few factors made it possible.

Preparing for the Leap
In some respects, I’ve been preparing for this change in jobs for a long time. I’ve saved some money. I’ve amassed a huge collection of tools. I’ve taken courses on small business, jewelry making, machine tools, and wood finish repair. Over the last couple of years, I’ve also taken a bunch of clock repair courses with the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors (NAWCC).

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Just Plain Lucky
In one important respect, I just got lucky. By chance, I met Bob Frishman, owner of Andover, Massachusetts-based Bell-Time Clocks, at an antique show. Bob has been collecting, fixing, and selling clocks for 33 years and is active in the horological world. I got to know Bob, and he eventually asked me if I’d ever considered doing clock repair for a living. With Bob’s invaluable guidance, I took the leap in July of 2013, and I love my new job.

Making Things
I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished anything if I can’t point to something tangible at the end of the day that I either made or fixed. Clock repair requires both fixing and making — mostly with wood and brass, my two favorite materials.

Learning Every Single Day
There are so many different types of clocks, with so many different possible problems, that I’ll never know all there is to know. I like that. Every day I gain new knowledge — some of it handed to me, some hard-won.

Keeping a Venerable Trade Alive
There aren’t enough qualified clock repairers these days, and few schools teach the trade. However, the clocks are still around. If they aren’t cared for, I fear they’ll be scrapped. I can’t claim to possess exceptional expertise or a long, illustrious career, but I’m proud to be next in a long line of clock repairers.

The Tools
The tools of the trade are so diverse, so specific, so traditional, and so arcane. I love them all. My favorite is my watchmaker’s lathe, also an antique, made in nearby Waltham, Massachusetts.

It Fits Where I Live
On the two-block walk from my home to my repair shop, I walk on cobblestone streets, past old brick buildings and an old steam locomotive, within sight of a large tower clock, and over a canal that once powered the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts. Many consider the city to be the cradle of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, and the entire downtown is a National Historical Park. Working on old machines in this setting, I feel connected to the history that surrounds me.

New Understanding of Automata
My original motivation holds true. I’ve seen some antique clockwork automata for a second time recently and realized that I understood what I was seeing in a new way. I now know the names of those funny little parts, what they do, and how they were fabricated. More importantly, I know why a clockmaker would be uniquely qualified to make a lifelike machine. Eventually, I’ll incorporate what I’ve learned into my own automata.

Customers Actually Want to See Me
When you visit your car mechanic, you may or may not be there by choice. Sometimes you simply must get your car running again. It’s not the same with clock repair. Customers have definitely made a choice to have their clock fixed. They have a complicated, delicate machine that they treasure for whatever reason. Perhaps it’s clever, perhaps it’s beautiful, or perhaps it belonged to a grandmother. Perhaps all three things are true. It’s an honor to be entrusted with these heirlooms and gratifying to see a customer’s face when they hear their clock chime for the first time in years.

See more of my work at AutomataBlog.com and ClockFix.com.

Dug North

I am an artist who creates contemporary wood automata with humorous and magical themes. I write on the subject for blogs, magazines, and books. I also consult on various mechanical and automaton-related things.


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