Marc DesRosiers of Conway is driven to keep clocks ticking
In this picture taken before he recently changed his workplace layout, Marc DesRosiers repairs a movement from the “grandfather” clock at left, which is from around 1775. Recorder/Paul Franz
Detail of a movement. Recorder/Paul Franz
of Connecticut, sometime between 1917-1919. The movement’s pendulum is decorated to mimic the look of higher-end mechanisms whose pendulums used to be filled with mercury, which helped the clock adjust to the changes in indoor temperatures. Recorder/Paul Franz
An assortment of clocks in DesRosiers’ shop.
DesRosiers says this wooden movement dates to about 1820 and was made by Silas Hoadley, a Connecticut clockmaker. In this picture, you can see repairs done to the teeth of the movement’s largest gear.
This photo captures a pendulum in motion.
The soporific metronome tick-tock of an old clock in a quiet room is multiplied 20 times over in Marc DesRosiers’ Conway workshop, filling the small space with a sound like rain on a wooden roof.
Every hour on the hour, and to lesser degrees at the quarter and half-hour points, the clocks — hung on walls, perched on shelves or standing against the wall — strike and chime in a confusion of bells and whistles. Gears trip tiny padded hammers against bells, little bellows puff through bird calls in the cuckoo clocks.
Not much of that registers with DesRosiers, who is instead listening for the tell-tale sounds of malfunction.
“If there’s a particular one I want to hear — let’s say it has a strike problem, it’s not striking right — I can usually tell. You know, I know all the different voices,” he said, as the latest round trailed off. Some of the clocks are his, some belong to customers and are in the mechanical equivalent of quarantine until they prove they’re cured or demonstrate a fault.
All mechanisms follow a sort of general scheme, he said, but there’s a lot to learn.
“It takes a long time; there are a lot of little subtleties involved. I remember when I first got interested. I was around 20 and I talked to some old-timer guy who said ‘oh it’ll take you about 20 years before you know what you’re doing,’ and I thought that can’t be right, but it kind of was.”
Pendulums, for instance, have to be exactly the right length. So much so that some high-end styles used to incorporate little vials of mercury to adjust for the slight expansion of the pendulum caused by indoor temperature changes.
From candles and incense sticks calibrated to tell time, to water clocks and hourglasses, to brass boxes dense with gears and springs and spindles, people have spent centuries devising and perfecting ways to measure time.
However your favorite theoretical physicist defines time, for the last few hundred years it has been measured in the steady tick of a hidden mechanism sending hour and minute (and sometimes second hands) around a dial. This paradigm is so ingrained that it has survived digital.
DesRosiers’ preoccupation is with setting the gears back in motion after time inevitably takes its toll.
Technically, the gears are wheels. The face is a dial and the clock is a time piece unless it has bells. Clock is a corruption of “cloche,” DesRosiers explains, French for bell.
Even grandfather clocks aren’t technically called that: it’s a tall clock, unless it’s really tall, in which case it’s a hall clock. The term “grandfather clock,” says DesRosiers, was popularized by a turn-of-the-century song, a sentimental tune about a clock that lives as long as its owner. The song is “My Grandfather’s Clock,” the signature lyric is, “It stopped short, never to go again, when the old man died.”
Old clocks do die, sometimes before their time, and resurrecting the long-dead ones is DesRosiers’ favorite part of his part-time job.
“Especially if you’ve got someone who’s in their 80s and the last time they heard the clock run was when they were a kid and you can bring it back to life, it’s kind of fun,” DesRosiers said.
DesRosiers isn’t given to superlatives, but he clearly loves what he does and he has a solid reputation for it.
The Gill and Montague town clerks highly recommend DesRosiers, who keeps the gears of small-town democracy in order. Both towns use antique hand-crank ballot boxes full of clockworks, bells and rubber stamps. Montague is the second-largest town in the county and hand-counting the ballots cranked into these boxes to the “ding” of an antique cash register isn’t the town clerk’s preference, but she is enthusiastic in her praise of DesRosiers’ ability to nurse the limping machines back to health.
DesRosiers picked up clock repair on his own, beginning with childhood tinkering, then on an antique clock his uncle gave him when he was in his early 20s.
“I was an auto mechanic by trade, but I always kind of dabbled in the clock stuff,” said DesRosiers, who retired from his Northampton auto repair shop in 2002.
His dabbling with clocks began at around age 10, with a successful dismantling and reassembly of his parents’ wind-up alarm clock.
“I have a kind of mechanical bent, and for the most part they might seem complicated, and they are complicated, but they’re a whole lot less complicated than cars, so for me it was kind of a relaxing thing. The car technology kept changing and these don’t change.”
It’s hard to imagine the repair technique has changed much, either. There’s one power tool visible in the shop, a small lathe for reshaping worn pivots. His small worktable holds a pair of even smaller anvils, one a little bigger than a fist the other a little smaller, a jeweler’s loupe, a pair of small bench vises and drawers filled with files, reamers, sharpening stones, wire, cords and cables. Also on the table are a dozen or so brass gears on steel axles and the two brass plates that will sandwich them together. It’s a weight-powered clock circa 1850 and DesRosiers insists it’s a simple one; he didn’t have to take any notes before popping it apart.
“The whole idea of any mechanical clock is you want to make the minute hand go around once in an hour,” DesRosiers said.
For that to happen reliably, everything has to turn smoothly and without wobbling. The holes in the soft brass have been worn wide by years holding the spinning pivots. The problem is corrected by further widening the hole with a reamer, essentially a pointy scraper or a double-edged version of the kind of auger you find on a Swiss army knife. He picks the reamer of the appropriate size, twists it in the hole until it looks to be the right size, then presses in a bushing. Bushings in this case are short, thick-walled brass tubes bought in an assortment of sizes and matched to the pivot.
In clock-talk, the gears are wheels, the gear shafts are arbors and the narrow ends of the arbors that will fit into the corresponding holes in the brass plates are pivots.
The pivots are steel, harder than brass, but, in this clock at least, one has also worn down. The electric lathe comes into play for that operation. The rods in another variety of gear, a pinion — a small barrel with two cap disks holding a fence of steel rods — are also almost imperceptibly worn and need replacement.
Most of the clocks and their parts are metal, but there was a brief window in time when wooden clocks were a cheaper alternative in America and DesRosiers has a number of these he is restoring, sawing out broken teeth and replacing them or making new gears in his wood shop.
Having the tools for the job is important. Try to take apart a clock with a wound mainspring and you’re liable to send wheels flying everywhere, or lose track of some blood and skin. Clock wheels are thin metal disks ringed with teeth. The difference between an out-of-control clock wheel and a table saw blade isn’t enough to keep the clock wheel from cutting into a finger.
Unwinding the flat coil springs, particularly the newer style permanently housed in small brass barrels, takes tools made for the task. One of DesRosiers’ is homemade and involves the chuck end of an electric drill.
Also in the drawers are an assortment of little clamps and pullers — in the simpler style, a pair of arms fits around the gear and a screw passing through the center pushes on the pivot, pressing the arbor through the wheel. Once removed, a worn gear can be replaced or simply flipped to present the fresh side of the edge.
DesRosiers doesn’t do watches, except the occasional pocket watch, and he limits his scope to Franklin County. “You’re not going to make a fortune doing this, but for me, I’m just nuts about clocks. So it’s kind of one of those labors of love sort of things,” he said. He can be reached at 413-369-4217 and he does make house calls.
Staff reporter Chris Curtis started at The Recorder in 2011. He covers Montague, Gill, Erving and Wendell. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 257.
Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for The Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at email@example.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 266. His website is www.franzphoto.com.