Watchmaker’s hands create a lifetime of work

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DAMASCUS, Ohio – If you were to ask someone who’s been in the same business for 20 years – self-employed for more than 10 of them – what keeps business thriving, expected answers might be a strong economy, demand for their quality product, and the need to keep up with new and changing technologies.

But ask Mark Baker and he will tell you the opposite, since his shop is booked months ahead by customers driven by good old-fashioned sentiment and antique value.

Baker owns Baker’s Clock Repair in Damascus, Ohio, a two-man shop that specializes in the repair and restoration of all antique, vintage and modern clocks.

“People really associate a clock or watch with the person who gave it to them,” Baker said, noting the desire to keep a timepiece in working order often serves as a way to remember relatives, friends and events.

“Just about every person who comes in here shares a story behind the piece they bring to me,” he said.

Baker remembers one particular customer who had lived in the northern Columbiana County area for years but had moved down South. After the man’s father died, he inherited an heirloom antique grandfather clock and, years after the move, discovered a clipped newspaper ad for Baker’s Clock Repair stuck in the bottom portion of the broken clock. Although the entire case didn’t make the trip back to Damascus, the inner guts, or movement, returned to Baker’s shop for repairs.

Early collector. Baker’s interest in clocks started nearly 30 years ago when, at age 12, he received his first clock. The Seth Thomas humpback was a gift from a family member and is still included in his growing personal collection of more than 50 timepieces.

The young Baker found time during his childhood to tinker with clocks between his education at West Branch schools and working on the family dairy farm. In the spring of 1981, he decided to pursue a career in horology – the art and science of time and timekeeping – and enrolled at Gem City College’s School of Horology in Quincy, Ill.

The college is one of only 10 schools across the country that teach the art of watchmaking and clock repair, he said. He quickly advanced through the six-month program designed to let students learn and progress at their own pace.

“Everything came so naturally. Growing up on the farm, I had learned a lot of mechanical skills and how things work, so those skills definitely paid off,” he said.

After graduation, the certified master watchmaker went to work in clock and watch repair in Salem, Ohio, and then opened his own shop in 1991 at his present location, at the corner of U.S. Route 62 and Valley Road in Damascus.

His most recent shop addition is his neighbor and friend, Victor Pacura.

“We’re neighbors, and one day we were out there talking, and he was saying how he was so backed up in the shop,” Pacura said. Although he had no prior experience with clocks or watches, Pacura did have mechanical skills and before he knew it, found himself beside Baker in the shop, learning as he went.

Like clockwork. The first timekeeping tools were sundials, and the first mechanical clock was made by an Italian blacksmith as an alarm clock for a monastery, according to Pennsylvania clock historian Donn Lathrop.

About 1200, tower clocks appeared all over Europe. These only had one hand and were very inaccurate – within two hours a day.

With increasing sophistication came the smaller mechanical clocks that the wealthy could keep in their bedrooms, or use as an alarm to wake servants. These usually ran for only 30 hours a winding, and still weren’t very accurate.

The first watch appeared in about 1500 and, though still lacking accuracy, served as a toy for the wealthy, according to Lathrop. Over the centuries, with the invention of the hair spring and other improvements, it became more accurate and smaller until it evolved into the small jewel known as a wristwatch.

It wasn’t until the 1820s that watches became more affordable. They also became a status symbol, and anyone who wore a watch was regarded with the highest respect.

“Today’s watches are seen by a lot of people as inexpensive and jewelry items, but in the day and age when watches were first made, people used to work for weeks to afford one,” Baker said.

Early American clocks and watches today sell for “anywhere between a couple hundred to hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Baker said, but price has nothing to do with size in the world of collections.

A New Yorker paid $3.6 million for a replica of a pocket watch made for the Czar of Turkey. The pocket watch was supposedly the most complicated made to date in the late 1920s, according to Baker, and “ranked high since it was made by the top of the echelon, Swiss watchmaker Patek Philippe.”

Flea market finds. Baker adds to his personal collection by searching flea markets and antique shops and sales, where he also picks up timepieces beyond repair to add to several other boxes of used parts in the shop.

“You can look around and pick up an old clock or pocket watch that you wouldn’t think of fixing, but inside you’ll find parts that are extremely usable,” he said.

For example, he recently acquired a 1810 pair-case pocket watch that he believes will run well once a new chain, found in another broken piece, is installed. Replacement with a new part would have cost nearly $75, but can be done with recycled parts at a fraction of the cost.

The pair-case watch consists of the circular watch in a metal case, as well as an extra metal case designed to allow the face to show while offering more protection to the mechanical parts.

Customer choice.

“I always try to fix things the best I can, but with the least cost for the customer,” and customers always have the choice on how he approaches the repairs, Baker said.

With most newer clocks, it’s usually cheaper to replace the movement with a brand new one by the same maker, but in older clocks, a complete overhaul of the original parts is required.

“On some of the older ones, I can pick some of the dirt out and buy it some time, but eventually a lot of them will need a complete overhaul,” Baker said.

Whenever possible, especially in older pieces, he restores both the movement and face, including glass enamel, painting, plating, mechanical work, and woodworking.

“What I aim for is to conserve the original materials and equipment, and preserve the piece for the next generation,” Baker said. He also discourages refinishing of the outer case in order to keep the originality of the piece.

Time commitment. He spends a good portion of his time fixing others’ mistakes – those of the customer and other repairmen alike.

“Usually when a clock or watch stops, somebody will try to get in there – pry it apart, get in there and scratch around – and end up doing more damage than good,” he said. He’s seen pieces “with rigged weights for pendulums” that have stripped gears and torn up the movement, creating more problems.

Once a clock winds up in his shop, Baker plans to spend up to five hours on it, but said that it’s not unusual to spend a whole day on a clock. He figures on two to three days for grandfather clocks, and makes house calls on the larger pieces.

Other projects have taken considerably longer, including the movement restoration on the first high-grade regulator clock at the Allegheny Observatory. The astronomical timepiece, made by Charles Frodsham and dating back into the 1950s, required complete relacquering of the plates and resilvering of the dial. Baker estimates he put nearly 60 hours into the project.

Challenges. Currently, work is backlogged up to three months, but Baker doesn’t apologize for the time he requires to repair a piece. “There are so few watchmakers doing this, and doing it properly. The manual work is complex, slow and tedious, and can’t be rushed,” he said.

Repairs in Baker’s shop include cleaning inside and out, and a trial period to test performance in his shop.

“I know that my work won’t be back in soon, so it’s good value for the money,” he said of his guarantee on anything he’s fixed.

While the delicate and often microscopic pieces are “somewhat mentally daunting,” Baker’s biggest challenge is balancing his workload and talking to and educating customers, he said.

“I’ve got to spend time talking with the customers and instilling confidence in them,” he said, noting the apprehensiveness of some customers to leave their treasures with such a young repairman.

His time is also at a premium because, unlike many jewelers who farm out their repair work to private shops, he’s got to accept the clock from the customer – a task accompanied by conversation and time away from his bench.

A portion of his work time is also spent tracking down original parts, a job that has been made increasingly difficult with company mergers and closings. Despite his affiliation with the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute and other organizations, Baker still finds difficulty in obtaining parts from makers who often won’t sell to anyone unless they are factory-authorized jewelers.

Quitting time. At the end of the day, Baker knows that there is easier money elsewhere in other occupations, but wouldn’t trade his six-day-a-week profession for anything.

In a solitary vocation that focuses on time – and timepieces – Baker knows his hands were made for this lifetime occupation.

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Easy clock care

Following a few easy steps can keep clocks of all shapes and sizes in good working order for several years.

* Keep shelf clocks on an even surface. Leveling helps keep the beat of the clock, which will help it run smoother and longer. Thirty-hour, 8-day, 30-day and 400-day, or anniversary clocks, require precise leveling for proper operation.

* Set the correct time. Do not push the minute hand counter-clockwise, or force either hand. If a clock is ahead of time, stop it until it can be adjusted by moving the hands forward.

* Handle clocks and cases carefully. Movements can be jarred easily and will then require repairs.

* Never spray WD-40 or any other oil or lubricant into your clock. Specialized oils are required in all timepieces.

* Never attempt to clean the clock’s inside. During the Depression, it was common for housewives to remove the movement and clean it with kerosene or gas as part of their regular chores, according to watchmaker Mark Baker. Only a professional removal and cleaning assures proper operation afterward.

If a clock stops or acts up, get professional attention.

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For more information, contact Baker at 330-537-3939.

(You can contact Andrea Myers at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

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