Saving Time

Doug Sparks on November 1st, 2016

The Valley’s Antique Clock Preservationists are Caretakers of the Past

If you visualize a clock repairer as a grim and pale craftsman examining dusty relics while squinting through a magnifying glass, Bob Frishman might surprise you.

His shop is well lit and clean. An ergonomic workbench is raised to prevent him from stooping. The atmosphere is meditative. There are no clanging bells or harsh alarms. Frishman is an horologist, an expert in the history of timekeeping. Aside from repairs, he also does what he calls his “missionary work”: writing, lecturing and teaching about timekeeping.

Frishman had been studying horology and clock repair for 12 years when he abandoned his job as a Washington, D.C., speechwriter and returned to his hometown of Andover to open Bell-Time Clocks in 1992.

If more than a decade of preparation seems extreme, remember that people who make a living dealing with time seem to understand it differently than the rest of us.

Clock repair is complex. From balance wheels and pendulums all the way to strikers, fusee gears and chimes, complications arise at the level of microns. Many old clocks were designed by “the smartest guys of their time,” Frishman says, referring to the elite engineers and artists who, beginning during the European Renaissance, possessed the seemingly magical ability to harness miniscule whispers of energy to power machines that charted the course of the infinite.

As a result of last decade’s collapse in the antiques market, excellent clocks are now affordable to people who otherwise would be unable to collect them. Frishman has much to do if he is going to help preserve our ability to keep them running. As he explains, guidance counselors aren’t exactly pushing their students into the clock repair business. The influence of steampunk science fiction on movies and video games has made metal gears and other older technologies more interesting to younger people, and with the dominance of digital culture has come a growing appetite for usable cultural artifacts of the pre-digital era, most notably vinyl records. But if the complex knowledge needed to repair clocks is to survive, it will have to outlast trends and fleeting nostalgia for bygone eras.

Clock repair specialists Jim McKenna (left) and Bob Frishman (right) provide a service that requires an usual amount of patience, focus and study.Photos by Kevin Harkins.

Clock repair specialists Jim McKenna (left) and Bob Frishman (right) provide a service that requires an usual amount of patience, focus and study.Photos by Kevin Harkins.

Another notable clock repairer in the Merrimack Valley is Jim McKenna, who works in his hometown of Dracut. McKenna opened his shop in 1997 after working out of another shop in Lowell for several years. He lives surrounded by vintage banjo, beehive, lyre and regulator clocks. These pieces offer an unexpected commentary on the Merrimack Valley’s history.

“There isn’t anything I do that I don’t love,” McKenna says. And one of the things he loves most is history.

As a boy, he was fascinated by antiques, and he earned his first clock as payment from a farmer in exchange for help gathering eggs. The clock was broken, and McKenna fixed it. He later dropped out of school to work in a series of seemingly unrelated jobs, such as repairing flathead engines and doing special effects for movies. This disparate set of mechanical and design skills formed a strong foundation for learning how to repair rusty clockworks.

If you live in or near the Merrimack Valley, you’ve likely seen his work, such as the clock on the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church on the Chelmsford town common. His biggest and most complex project to date was the clock at Lowell High School. McKenna believes that it was designed in such an ornate way that it never functioned properly. He installed GPS units during the repair and claims that it is now the most accurate clock in Lowell. When it was first built, he says, Lowellians were driving Studebakers.

To emphasize this sense of the past, McKenna gently unlocks a grandfather clock door to reveal the writing on the inside label — an itemized list from a Lowell repair shop, dated 1950. Horologists thus speak to each other across decades, and even centuries.

For craftsmen like Dug North, mastery of the trade requires the rational mind of an engineer and the intuitive eye of a painter. Photo by Adrien Bisson.

For craftsmen like Dug North, mastery of the trade requires the rational mind of an engineer and the intuitive eye of a painter. Photo by Adrien Bisson.

Dug North, whose downtown Lowell shop opened in early 2014, came into the profession via an unconventional route. He was working on a degree in science and technology when he first learned about contemporary automata, mechanical toys powered by cranks and clockworks. He began building them himself. As these creations, often friendly-looking monsters, became increasingly ornate, he turned to horology for help. The gears of the automata paralleled the pulleys of antique clocks. Along the way, he met Bob Frishman.

Frishman recognized in him the rare combination of engineer and artist, and suggested he join the next generation of clock repairers. North quit his job in Web design to pursue the trade full time.

“I’m not one to believe in signs,” North says, “but when I entered this space for the first time and saw this,” he says, pointing out the window, “I knew.” He stood facing one of the most iconic images in the Merrimack Valley, the clock tower of Pollard Memorial Library.

From his studio, North sells clocks and performs overhauls — the complex cleaning process used to keep valued clocks functioning properly. There is no such thing as a simple cleaning in the clock world. Clocks must be taken apart, and their intricate parts filed and burnished by hand. Because the amount of energy required to power them is so small, North says that most of what he does amounts to friction reduction. This is no easy task. Clocks, from the simple to the baroque, represent “10,000 ways to accomplish the same thing,” according to North.

North often works late into the night. He reads little other than books on clocks. This focus is seemingly, and perhaps deliberately, at odds with the pace of modern life. And he continues to design contemporary automata, which he keeps on display in his studio.

Frishman spoke of the “mystic aura” that antique clocks possess. He says that whether you purchase or inherit an antique clock, you become a caretaker of something that transcends mere symbolic value. It was cranked and keyed by ancestral hands. It woke up families for breakfast and sent children off to school. Even at night, in the seeming silence, it ticked away the unwinding hours. Designed to signal the present time, antique clocks reflect a living history that Frishman, McKenna and North tirelessly seek to preserve.

Bob Frishman,
Bell-Time Clocks
Andover, Mass.
(978) 475-5001

Jim McKenna
Antique Clock Sales and Restorations
Dracut, Mass.
(978) 957-7954 

Dug North,
Antique Clock Repair
Lowell, Mass.
(978) 501-2931



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