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From Issue #38 March 13, 2014

Winding Down

A clockmaker counts his remaining ticks and tocks.

By Tom Bentley

Allison Rider doesn’t just keep track of time. He feels it. That’s because his workplace is a symphony of time-tracked sounds: bongs, chirps, and musical notes, some on the quarter-hour, others on the half, and a resounding chorus when synchronized hands hit the hour’s crest. Rider is a clockmaker, a craft that seems to be losing currency in a digital age. And age, an expression of time, is inherent in Rider’s work: at 88, his time is well past the half-hour.

Rider had the first of several heart attacks in the early 1970s, when he was a co-owner of an apple-juice processing plant in Watsonville, California, where he still lives. The doctor’s prescription included ordering him to get out of juicing and into a less stressful trade. Because he had woodworking skills, he began assembling grandfather clock cases from kits. He stretched those skills further when he started making the cabinets on his own. When he started putting in the movements—the inner workings—to sell as complete clocks, he knew that he had to expand his skills.

“When I started putting movements in, I realized I had to learn how to repair them,” he explains. “I went to school in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to learn general casework, and things like reverse painting on glass. Later, I got my certification as a certified clockmaker from the American Watch and Clock Institute in Ohio.” Among his other schooling is expertise in music-box making.

Because some of the clocks Rider repairs are well over 100 years old, parts are scarce—so he makes them. “Mainly bushings wear out, and we fabricate them. We have gear-cutting equipment to replace gears,” he says. He showed me a delicate old table clock for which he’d fashioned ornately wrought hands using metal cut from a fuse-box cover.

Old clocks don’t reveal their secrets easily. “Auto mechanics today work on one manufacturer’s products and become acquainted with all the idiosyncrasies of those particular cars. With clocks, they go back hundreds of years, and there’s a different personality in each one,” he says. “They require patience to fix them right. I might work on a clock for a month; it takes time to determine where the problem resides.”

Such patience was necessary in figuring out the workings of a puzzling clock from the late 1700s. In those situations, time—antique time—is part of the problem, but patient use of time the solution.

Rider says that one of his most interesting clocks was found in a garage: a 1931 Riefler that was at the Yokohama Naval Observatory when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Rieflers were then considered the most accurate clocks in the world, often used for scientific purposes. “I came into possession of the clock after the war. It was on top of a steel tube in either a nitrogen atmosphere or in a vacuum, with a blast cover over it,” says Rider.

His customers are mostly older people. He has several grandfather clocks in the shop that were owned by people who have passed away and whose children didn’t want the timepieces. He recognizes that knowledge like his might get washed away with the waves of time. “It won’t happen in my lifetime, but times change. Probably there will be some of it carried on, but old clocks will get pushed aside and replaced,” he says, without a trace of rancor.

Just looking at the remarkable collection of delicate pliers and unusual tools in his workshop, amid the ticking and whirring of gears—the punctuations of now, now, now— is a soothing pleasure. Asked how long he’ll continue working on clocks, Rider says, “My cardiologist won’t let me quit.”

Rider just keeps on ticking.

Photographs courtesy of Alice Bourget.

Tom Bentley is a published journalist and essayist, fiction writer and editor, and business writer and editor.

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