Saturday, December 31, 2016

Time is of the Essence

Always Time to Work

It is normal at this time of the year to reflect on the past and look forward to the future.  I find this very strange.  I enjoy my life and craft and find myself in my shop at the bench working on something every day.  I do not see any difference between week days and week ends, holidays and non holidays.  What changes is the trash pick up schedule, whether the school across the street is open or not and if there is any mail in the box.  Other than that, no difference.

Since I work and live in North Park, an older historic commercial district in San Diego, this day to day normalcy is compounded by the fact that the weather rarely changes.  Except for a few weeks of the year when it rains a bit and other weeks when the temperature drops to 60, there is no indication of the seasons.

I have enjoyed this lifestyle, earning my keep by restoring antiques for 47 years now, with all but a few the early years in the same location.  I walk to work and open the door at 7am, read my emails and turn on the glue pot, remove the clamps from the day before and then, promptly at 8am turn the "open" sign around in the window.  When I feel like it, somewhere between 6pm and 7pm, I turn the sign to "closed" and walk home.  It's a nice routine.  On some days I ride my bike instead of walking.

In any event, I cannot fail to notice the news and talk that another year has ended.  As Pink Floyd
sang on The Dark Side of the Moon ("Time") "The sun is the same in a relative way but you're older, shorter of breath and one day closer to death."  I turned 68 two weeks ago and I now have approximately 32 years left to finish all the projects I started in my life.  I am not sure that I have enough time...

So, this post is about "time."  Something that we can measure but cannot see.  Of course, we can see the effects of time.  Things get old and die.  But we cannot hold time in our hands or feel it with our fingers.  Time is ephemeral, as the wise men would say.  We are aware it exists and cannot ignore it.  It rules our lives.  We are subject to its rule.  Time is our master.  It will exist long after we all are gone.

Jim Croce sang "If I could save time in a bottle."  For me the solution is to put time in a box.  I make clocks.  Mechanical, old fashioned pendulum clocks, the kind which were first invented around 1650.  Using lead weights to convert potential energy to kinetic energy, driving a precise set of gears with a constant escapement to turn the hands of time.  Using gravity instead of electricity as a power source.  Using human power to raise the weights every week and letting the earth pull them down.

I have made 5 clocks in the past 15 years.  Each one found a home before it was completed.  I did not advertise any of them.  Over the year it takes to complete a good clock, some person would discover it and meet my terms for adoption.  Each clock is different, but I tend to make clocks that stylistic date from 1690 and have square brass dials.  I like olive wood and it produces a dramatic surface with a nice polish.  It is getting harder to find, as is most of the old stock exotic woods.

Clock #6, Completed and Standing Tall

I have just completed clock #6, which has been a project for the past year.  The origin of this clock is a clock I was asked to restore some 20 years ago.  It was the property of a famous actress in Hollywood, and she had owned it all her life.  It was from a world famous clock collection, the Wetherfield Collection, and had been sold by Arthur S. Vernay in New York, when that collection was broken up in 1928.  At one point, after I had restored it for her, I managed to secure a cash offer of $175k from an English clock dealer, which she refused.  Even though I encouraged her to take the offer, she just said, "I would rather have the clock."

I understood exactly what she meant.  When you entered her home, the first thing you saw was this clock.  It spoke immediately of class, culture, education, maturity, and stability.  It had a heart beat, which quietly permeated the home, and would announce the hours with a charming bell.  It had a face, and hands, feet and a waist, and the face was surrounded by a bonnet.  In every aspect it was a person.  A physical presence and reminder that we are all humans, measuring time's passing.

Waiting under the Plastic is Clock #7

This clock had a dramatic surface, decorated with boxwood and ebony pinwheels of all sizes and covered in figured sawn olive wood veneers.  All the moldings were carved across the grain, giving it a vertical thrust, forcing your eye to travel from the feet to the top, relishing every detail of the construction.  It was made by Joseph Windmills, in London, around 1690.  In the book, "The Wetherfield Collection of English Clocks" it is illustrated on page 22 as figure #14.

Joseph Windmills, London 1690

I started this project by finding online a period set of clock works in good working condition.  I then had David Lindow, in Gravity Pennsylvania, fabricate a new brass face, which was then engraved by Valdemar Skov, in Maine.  David also made a fine set of hands to complete the works.  I had the works cleaned and adjusted by Paul Smith, who has been in business here in San Diego nearly as long as I have.

I always start building my clocks with the back board.  In this case, all the secondary wood is tulip poplar.  Historically, English clocks are made of oak, but I cannot find the proper old growth white oak here in California, so I use poplar or beech.  There can be no confusion in the future as to the possibility that my clocks could be sold as period clocks, even if some dealer were to remove my name.

It takes many weeks of work to apply the skin.  All my clocks are covered in sawn veneers which are quite thick, 1.5mm.  All elements are glued using animal protein glues.  All the molding is hand carved across the grain, which takes some time.  I cannot use simple molding planes, since the grain is going sideways.  It must be carved and then scraped and sanded to shape.  The profiles were taken from the original clock, when it was in the shop for conservation.

Progress around July 2016

On the sides I use sausage sawn veneers and oyster sawn veneers.  On the front I use oyster sawn veneers, with highly figured cross banding.  In the pinwheels I used Gabon ebony and English boxwood, with each triangle trimmed to fit by hand with a hand plane.  The nice thing about using sawn veneers is that you can work the edges like real wood.

Clamps on...Clamps off

It takes a lot of clamps...Fortunately, I have a lot of clamps.

This clock has a very special owner, now that it's completed.  She is 101 years old.  I have worked for her and her family since she was my age, nearly 4 decades.  I have carefully moved her from one residence to another, as necessary, transporting all her precious antiques personally.  She has kept together a great collection of art and antiques from her ancestors, and lives surrounded by beauty.

Her daughter purchased one of the Treasure Boxes, first series, and it sits in the main room in a place of honor.  They both desired a tall case clock made by me and I thought that this would be the year to fulfill their wishes.  I am pleased that I was able to complete the task by the end of the year.

They have recently purchased a nice condo in the older part of San Diego, where this clock will be delivered.  I expect to have it in place, beating away the seconds, in the next few weeks.

The photos that follow detail the surface decoration:

Today I stand at my bench, working on wonderful projects, at the end of another year.  I know that next year will start tomorrow and I will be faced with more wonderful projects to complete.  There is always a good reason to come to work and a genuine satisfaction every day when I decide to go home.  The one inescapable truth is that, regardless of how much more time I have left, it is time itself that will survive.  I hope and believe that my clocks will also survive me, beating away the seconds for centuries yet to come.  I know Joseph Windmills had similar thoughts back in 1690.

Life is good.