On the Clock: Local clocksmiths reflect on present, future of profession | Regional News

Chad Sopp, owner of Timesmith Antiques in Dryden, poses for a photo at the store on March 30.

For Chad Sopp, all it took for him to “catch the bug” was being given an old, beat-up Waltham pocket watch from his father as a kid.

“The fascination for me came from the fact that it required some outside intervention to provide the potential energy winding gravity,” Sopp said. “But after that it was just a self-contained tool that could also be decorative on the other side of being an instrument.”

In particular, he recalled feeling a great sense of intrigue towards “little things that go.”

“The diminutive scale of everything is fascinating,” he said. “That in the early days, like a cottage industry pocket watch, literally everything was cut by hand. So the other attraction for me is yes, there’s a lot of engineering involved as things evolved. But it all starts with geometry and bare hands and files in the very beginning. That was just, ‘Wow.’ That impressed me a lot. ”

The idea of ​​repairing and restoring time-keeping instruments as a full-time profession was not something he found serious until early adulthood. Sopp studied mechanical engineering in college and worked in that field for roughly a decade before deciding to venture out and start his own business, Timesmith Antiques located in Dryden.

“This all started with watches,” he said “Just fixing them up for friends and then flea markets and then, of course, it just grew into the brick and mortar. But when there were lulls in watch service, I started doing clocks. And then the clocks outpaced the watch work almost three to one, at least in this area. ”

Sopp tinkers with and mends antique clocks, pocket and wrist watches, and some automaton devices. He describes clocksmithing as an “immersive field” that requires a significant amount of “patience and research,” and he enjoys every second of it.

“This is the labor of love,” he said. “It never feels like work.”

Trumansburg resident Joel Warren also developed a keen interest in time-keeping machines, particularly calendar clocks, at a young age. His father introduced him to Harry Dean – a former employee of the Ithaca Calendar Clock Company, which was no longer in business at the time – when Warren was 11 years old. He explained to Warren that Dean helped build clocks such as the large calendar regulator his father owned, a clock that Warren was always captivated by.

“I just started asking him [Dean] a whole bunch of questions like rapid fire, ”Warren said. “You’re 11 years old, your brain’s going… and he just looked at me towards the end – and he was answering the questions, nice and patiently and so on – and towards the end of it he says, ‘You know, the kind of questions you’re asking, someday you could be a pretty good clock maker. I thought to myself, ‘Yep, I’m gonna be one of them one day.’ ”

A couple years later, Warren recalled finding a pre-owned clock in a rummage sale and bought it.

“Took it home, and I took it apart, only I had the presence of mind to take shoestrings and tie them around the springs, so when you took the plates apart it didn’t just fly all over the place,” he said. “So I had it all apart on the dining room table, and my dad comes home and he looks at it and he goes, ‘You damn well better be able to put that back together,’ and I did.”

Warren, along with Michael Porter, revitalized the Ithaca Calendar Clock Company in the early 1980s and reproduced several hundreds of the company’s original models through the early 1990s. (The company is currently owned by Porter and based out of Newfield. Warren repairs and crafts clocks out of a woodshop at his residency.) The two of them possess multiple decades of experience working with Ithaca Calendar Clocks.

“Mike and I are kind of like living museums, and everybody in the clock world knows who we are, because we’ve been at it for so long,” Warren said. “That’s kind of a nice feeling, but it would be nice to be able to pass this off to somebody. But logistically, monetarily, it’s just not going to happen. ”

Chad Sopp, owner of Timesmith Antiques in Dryden, repairs a watch at the store on March 30.

Chad Sopp, owner of Timesmith Antiques in Dryden, repairs a watch at the store on March 30.

It is a line of work that has seen its number of participants decrease over time. (Warren likes to say that he and Porter are “extinct,” but they “just don’t know it yet.”) The reason why that is so? Well, there are a litany of possible causes, but a lack of demand for the services is not one of them. Sopp’s backlog for repairs and restorations stretches into next year, and Porter said he receives dozens of requests to have work done on a clock per week.

“I get calls from 100 miles around every week, and people begged me to work on their clock,” Porter said.

The tediousness of the work could be one reason.

“I think the challenge is, it’s sometimes not for the faint of heart,” Sopp said. “In other ways, it really is involved for the payback. It can be very expensive, which can turn away clients. With a clock market, it’s generally low and has been on the decline for a few decades. … Then the market value of the piece – nine times out of ten the justification is sentiment when you’re having the work done, and I think that’s part of it. Generational lack of interest, or really even awareness that these things exist. ”

Porter is someone who is well aware of the dip in the market value of antique clocks. His shop in Newfield is decorated with various calendar clocks along the walls and on the floors. Many of those Porter clocks salvaged from yard sales or purchased online to restore and flip for a profit, but once the interest in antique clocks diminished so did the resale value.

“I paid going rates at the time, but now they’re all worth a third of what I paid for them,” he said. “So I’m just trying to fix them up and I can sell them and get probably three quarters of my money back by fixing them all as well.”

Maybe it is societal? Sopp said society does tend to steer individuals in the direction of obtaining a college degree rather than attending a trade school.

“Trades are on the down, and there’s a big need for that,” he said. “There’s not a lot of competition, so that hurts the price point as well. A lot of… tradespeople are extremely busy all the time because they’re at a shortage, too. ”

The invention of smartphone and watch technologies has contributed to the decrease in not only the interest in antique clocks, but also the overall necessity of them. As elegant as the designs may be for some of these clocks, the aesthetics may not be for everyone either.

“A lot of times an antique clock just doesn’t fit in your home,” Sopp said. “The styling, some of them are enormous and imposing. But sometimes it’s a good match. ”

As someone who works on wrist and pocket watches, Sopp said he has seen the trend of those two devices swing upwards, primarily due to their fashionable appeal.

“Throwaway culture” could be another culprit, as it can be more expensive to have an item repaired compared to having it replaced. However, the demand for high quality craftsmanship is still there, according to Sopp.

“People want things that are well made and serviceable, especially now we really would like to just buy things once, and honestly the stuff is just better made in some aspects,” he said. “I think we’ll see more on the watch end, and certainly I think there’s going to be a shift in more growth of small business, so hopefully some of the craft will find some renewed energy and interest.”

Instead of seeing more shops pop up down the road – which, along with purchasing of the necessary equipment and materials to do the repairs and restorations, can be very pricey – Sopp said he could envision the profession become more of a “side hustle,” especially for households with multiple sources of income.

“A lot of shops in this field, many of them are out of a home or done part time because they can stand to lower their cost without the overhead of maintaining a storefront,” he said.

In general, there is hope for a resurgence in the industry among those currently in it. Warren said the work itself will hopefully attract more people to the profession.

“It’ll come back around because it’s a challenge. It’s a mental and physical challenge ”he said. “It teaches you self-discipline. It teaches you to really pay attention, big time. And it’s the mastering of that that is really a satisfying thing, as well as being able to make stuff for people and have them really like it and enjoy it. ”

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