The time doctor keeps clocks tickingThe large sign at the foot of Bruce Patterson’s driveway says “By Appointment” in bold black letters set against a bright yellow background.
By: By Tom Lindfors, New Richmond News
The large sign at the foot of Bruce Patterson’s driveway says “By Appointment” in bold black letters set against a bright yellow background.
The moment one steps through the doorway into his clock repair shop, the visitor is transported to a forgotten era once filled with majestic wooden grandfather clocks and ornate, jewel-like mantel clocks all accompanied by a symphony of ticking and tocking.
There are clocks of every sort standing tall along the wall, sitting on tables and edges of heavy old-world desks, some awaiting the clock smith’s attention, others already fixed, and still others to whom this workshop is home.
The furniture matches the majesty of the time pieces, oak and other woods from the desk in one corner guarded by two tall grandfather clocks to the oak card catalog style set of drawers containing the cacophony tiny parts required to repair broken time pieces.
Patterson and his wife started out in the antiques business many years ago.
“My wife and I had a lot of antiques in the house and we decided to open a booth in an antique mall and we did,” he recalled. “We rented a booth, put up one clock and rest is history.”
Just as soon as they put out that first clock, people began asking about where they could get their clocks repaired. That question eventually led Patterson to enroll in a two-year Clockmaking Certificate program at St. Paul College. It’s also where he met Joe and Janelle Juaire, instructors and owners of the J. Clark Clock Co. in Stillwater, Minn.
Joe handled the watch side of the business while Janelle dealt with clocks. The distinction between clocks and watches is one Patterson took to heart.
For him, the difference is a matter of size and function. He’s never really had any interest in watches and finds their diminutive nature a challenge for his not-so-nimble fingers. Patterson said he has always had an instinctive ability to take things apart and put them back together. He repairs only clocks and only clocks that wind or use weights to regulate, no electric clocks
Eventually the front half of his building housed his antiques business while the back half he dedicated to his clock repair business. When it became evident that neither was capable of paying the mortgage, he sold the building, and moved his clock repair business into his home along the Apple River, north of Star Prairie.
Now the majority of his business comes from referrals and the phone book with a smaller percentage generated by his website. As you might expect, house calls are a mandatory part of his business. Large floor clocks like grandfather clocks are difficult and delicate to transport, so most folks prefer that he come to them.
For $50 an hour, this time doctor performs a surface cleaning. “I take the movement out of the case. I clean the exterior, dig out as much of the black goo as possible, clean the movement as best I can (using an ammonia mixture) without disassembling it, dry it, re-oil it and put it back in the case,” he explained. “If that doesn’t work, I estimate the cost to replace it or overhaul it.”
Because clock smiths are few and far between, Patterson services a several-county area. These days the cost to travel greater distances usually requires that Bruce string together several stops on each trip to make it worth his while, meaning that your repair may have to wait a bit until he has assembled enough clients along the route to make the trip.
This also explains why assisted living communities are golden in more than one way in Patterson’s line of work.
“I know when I go to an assisted living place, I never have to worry about making a second or third appointment. I make it the first appointment of the day at 9:30 a.m. because I know I won’t get out of there until three or four in the afternoon because Gladys will tell Tom, who will tell Beverly, who will tell the other Gladys at the end of the hall,” he said. “I’ll have four clock repairs on the spot and two to bring home with me. They all have at least one clock with them.”
Bruce acknowledges most clocks embody a specific history for their owners. He estimates most of his customers are 50 or older. People form attachments to their clocks because they have usually been passed down from generation to generation, with some having traveled great distances while others have known only a single home.
Patterson said he believes people of a certain generation “like to have one or two mechanical clocks around the house.”
The No. 1 reason Patterson gets the call is clocks stop ticking, and most people think they have overwound their clocks.
According to Patterson, that usually is not the case.
“To be honest, that doesn’t exist,” he said. “Tightness is what stopped it, but the problem is the dirt. Because the spring can’t expand, it gets stuck to itself. Clocks make their own dirt. You could have a clock in an operating room, after 10 years it’s going to be as dirty as any clock in your house.”
Although he might be a local legend in assisted living circles, Bruce relies on the Internet when he gets stumped by a particular clock. Online you get the sense that clocksmithing is an exclusive fraternity.
There is a wide spectrum of quality when it comes to the machines used to measure time. Patterson prefers to work on American clocks because they are loose when compared to their tighter German and French counterparts.
But, he admits, although they are less finicky than their foreign cousins, they also don’t keep time as well.
“The higher quality, the tighter fitting movements are all going to keep much better time than one of these (American clocks), always,” he said. “Because there is less free play and backlash, it’s just going to work better.”
Perhaps the most enduring feature of a clock is its chime. Sitting amidst Patterson’s family of clocks, they almost call out to him like children with their different voices all set slightly off from one another so as to create a conversation.
Ultimately for Patterson, the attraction isn’t so much about time as it is about mechanics.
“If you want to get into it, clocks are all about mathematical ratios,” he said.
They represent the epitome of routine, of order, a mechanical way to trap time.
If you’ve got a problem clock that needs repair, you can find Patterson’s shop, TRA Clocks, at 410 State Road 65 just outside Star Prairie. Or give him a call at 715-268-6885 or visit him on the web at http://www.tra clocks.com.