Classic Clocks

Repairman races time in shop and on track.
Jump to second article below "Clockmaker's having a great time in Wayland")

Lee Smith
Clocks are both vocation and avocation for Lee Smith, who has been repairing them for 20 years. He demonstrates here his rare Dent skeleton clock.
By Linda Saulnier
News Correspondent, The Middlesex News
March 20, 1997

WAYLAND-What do race cars and clocks have in common? Timing would be the logical answer. But a more interesting link would be clock dealer Lee Smith.

A former race car driver, Smith veered off the speedway 20 years ago to apply his mechanical skills to fixing clocks, and he has never looked in the rearview mirror. He was just out of college at the time and racing open wheel sprints when Brookline clock dealer Richard Povall, recruited him.

"Povall came looking for me," says Smith. "He knew I was real good at repairing race cars and mechanical things tend to work the same way. I began repairing clocks as his apprentice."

Today, Smith owns Classic Clocks Etc. in Wayland, where he repairs, buys and sells new and antique clocks. He started his own company seven years ago opening his first shop in Wayland center. Five years later, he bought his present location at 135 Boston Post Road.

He repairs all kinds of clocks and never tires of their intricate beauty though cuckoo clocks quite frankly drive him cuckoo, he admits.

Smith spends his days watching the clock-or rather, 10,000 of them. That is how many clocks he estimates he sees each year at regional, state and national meets held by the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors. At his shop, he repairs about 600 clocks a year.

Most mornings he is on the job by 6 a.m., doing service work for several hours before his shop opens.

"It's very time consuming work," he says.

A French carriage clock, for example, has a built in alarm and a mechanism that repeats every 5 to 10 minutes. Austrian clocks, circa 1760, have a quarter hour repeat mechanism. Experience helps him determine a clock's age.

"I have seen so many clocks I can tell how many different steps were taken in the manufacturing process through the years," he says. "Some clocks are dated."

Victorian clocks are well made, according to Smith, who collects clocks as a hobby. Very early English clocks are among the most beautiful. French clocks are very popular with Bostonians.

"I think Boston was such a big port that a lot of French clocks ended up here," says Smith.

His wife, Eleanor, works with him.

Time and again Smith's workday ends many hours after his shop has closed and he has delivered the grandfather clocks he sells.

"When people spend that much money for a clock they should have it set up properly," says Smith.

Smith's life might be ruled by the clock, but whenever he can, he races against time on the speedways of New London and Waterbury, Conn. Asked if he beats the clock, he muses, "I've won enough."

Clockmaker's having a great time in Wayland
by Susan L. Sherwood
Community Newspapers

What makes Wayland businessman Lee Smith tick? Clocks, clocks and more clocks. Some 700 of which surround him at any given time in his shop, Classic Clocks Etc., next door to Luigi's Restaurant on Rte. 20.

Smith has been a professional clockmaker since 1972. Before that, he was a mechanic at an auto agency in Brookline where he worked on the finely tuned engines of race cars. One of his favorite customers was Richard Povall, who used to drop by from time to time just to shoot the breeze. When Povall inherited his parent's clock shop, he let Smith know that a job was his for the asking.

Shortly thereafter, as Smith tells it, he had a disagreement with the owner of the car dealership, quit, and went to work for Povall.

"At first, it was just a job," Smith said. "But then I started collecting."

When Povall went out of business in the early 1990s, Smith had enough clocks -- and repair experience -- to open his own store.

Tracing the history of clocks can be viewed as tracing the history of time. And of the times. The first clocks were sundials. These were followed by the Chinese water clocks of the 1200s, which used a drip to turn a wheel-like mechanism. The very earliest mechanical clocks date to 13th century Germany. Large timepieces made for churches, they had wrought iron gears and used rocks as weights.

During the Renaissance, Dutch and German clocks became increasingly sophisticated. The most popular were the lantern clocks, usually made out of brass, steel and wrought iron and with only an hour hand, which were hung on the wall.

By the early 1600s, this style had spread to England, where, by the end of the century, the grandfather clock (more correctly called the "case clock") had become the height of style and sophistication.

Throughout much of history, only the very wealthy could afford to own clocks. This was particularly true of the timepieces that were fashionable in 17th and 18th century France.

According to Smith, Louis XIV was "a real clock guy," and the ornate timepieces he inspired, featuring gilded brass and bronze, champleve inlay and rhinestone ornamentation, would have set back the average peasant two years' income. In the 19th century, a grandfather clock created by the famous Rhode Island clockmaker Walter Durfee could easily cost $1,000, the price of a cottage in those days. And, like stately homes, clocks often came to be known by the names of their owners.

With the introduction of mass production around 1830, the price of clocks began dropping, and by the early part of the 20th century, they were accessible to the average person, with art deco and art nouveau being the preferred styles. During the two world wars, however, anyone with a bent for precision mechanics was recruited by the munitions industry, while the need for functional timekeeping skyrocketed.

Coupled with the Depression, the art of fine clockmaking in the United States pretty much became history. Today, of course, most clocks are purely functional, some of them even throw-away items. Not at Smith's store, however. Classic Clocks specializes in antique and antique reproduction clocks -- ranging in price from $15.95 to $25,000 -- as well as in maintenance and repair.

Some of the more unusual items recently in stock include a 19th century English skeleton clock with a movement designed like the spires of a cathedral ($1,395); another 19th century French gilded and marble clock featuring a small angel who strikes an anvil when the clock chimes ($3,695); a very rare early 20th century Empire-style 24-hour clock with insets so that the numbers change at noon and midnight ($2,200); and an equally rare early French clock, circa 1830, in the shape of a lyre with a marquetry case, completely handmade with inlaid wood. ($3,995).

Another striking piece is the French "swinger" clock dating to about 1890, which features a partially draped, nearly life-sized female figure holding a globe shaped clock face and its swinging pendulum in her upraised hand ($8,500).

What draws people to clocks? "It's very personal," Smith said. "Some people couldn't be less interested. It's just like having a car. Some people drive the cheapest mode of transportation they can find. Others demand a really fine automobile. A good quality clock combines not only fine time-keeping, but reflects the art and style and even sometimes the sense of humor of its day. Nobody could look at them and say that they're just functional."

Classic Clocks is open Monday through Saturday, 10 am to 5:30 pm (and until 8:30 pm on Thursdays), and 1 to 5 pm on Sundays.

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