Meet the folks whose specialties and expertise will give nearly anything you own a second or third life. In a world of easy disposability, they aim to help people hold on to the past and restore it.
THE TIME KEEPER
Ray Bates Newfane, Vermont
Ray Bates’ workshop offers the kind of peaceful setting you’d expect from a clockmaker. Classical music drifts through his two main workrooms, a homey area just off his 200-year-old house in downtown Newfane, Vermont. Tools and papers pervade–some of the materials organized, some of them much less so. Then there are the stars of the space: big clocks, small clocks, clocks that chime, clocks that simply go tick-tock. Some stand floor to ceiling; many others cover the walls; a few more take over a mantle. You could imagine taking a good nap here, at least for 15 minutes.
Bates has a long history with clocks and watches. Born and raised in Scotland, he first began repair work at the age of 16. Better job prospects brought him to the United States in 1957, and an American bride convinced him to stay. In 1964, after a stint teaching high-school English, Ray and his wife, Beverly, moved to Newfane, where he opened his shop two years later.
As he always has, Bates, who now works with son Richard, takes on only pre-Industrial Revolution timepieces. “They’re the best quality, and I never liked working on trash,” he says matter-of-factly. Nothing that enters their shop, in other words, is mass-produced. Much of what they repair dates back 200 years, though it’s not unusual for them to get their hands on something from the 17th century.
Bates’ restoration pays careful attention to the original craftsmanship. New parts are made in house, a time-consuming task to blend the new with the old. “You’re preserving history,” Bates says. “You’re preserving a way of life. Clocks are the only machines that are still running after 400 years.”
The Learning Curve
Always mechanically inclined, Bates was steeped in antique watch and clock repair work as a teenager, when he embarked on an intensive five-year apprenticeship in Edinburgh. “Growing up, I was intrigued by mechanisms and just had a natural aptitude for it,” he says. When his son Richard wanted to join the business 16 years ago, Ray put him through the same rigorous training. “It’s an ongoing program,” Richard quips.
The Pressure Cooker
Attention to detail, patience, and exceptional hand/eye coordination are a few of the big prerequisites for this kind of work. So is the confidence to repair what are in some cases valuable antiques. After Richard had fully restored his first clock, a rare Massachusetts shelf clock from the mid-19th century, he proudly showed Ray his work. “He looked at it and then said, ‘Make sure you don’t knock it over,’” Richard remembers. “‘It’s worth $125,000.’ I had to collect my jaw off the floor.”
A Word of Advice
Too many times, Ray and Richard get clocks that are the victims of ambitious tinkerers. “I’ve seen abominations you wouldn’t believe,” Bates says. “Shoddy repairs, makeshift repairs–they get in over their heads and then try to fake it.” Put another way: “It’s always better to come to us first. It costs less money.” That includes a thorough cleaning, which Bates recommends every five years. He also advises clients to avoid keeping a clock in the same room as a woodstove. “The smoke particulates get into the mechanism,” he explains, “and it gets into the oil so that it oxidizes much faster.”
Who Comes to You?
A good portion of Bates’ customers hail from New England, but he does occasionally take on projects from California and other parts of the country. Just be prepared to wait. The uncertain economy has meant that fewer people are buying clocks and instead are opting to restore what they have. “We’ve got about a six-month backlog of work,” Bates says.