Interview: Rick Hale – American Clockmaker

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Inside a woodworking studio in Michigan, 27-year-old Rick Hale is working on another handmade clock. He carefully shaves away layers of wood. He takes his time. One slip of the wrist or a dig too deep with a chisel can ruin a clock. He has to be completely focused. And he has to stay focused like this for up to 800 hours over several months in order to complete his latest work of horological art.

Hale said that while working long hours on a piece, he can get into a “flow state.” He’s neither happy nor sad. He’s not concentrating too hard, and he’s not completely relaxed.

“You’re not feeling any emotion, necessarily. You’re 100 percent in the moment,” Hale says. “Whether you know it cognitively or not, you’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing at that moment. That’s what I strive for.”

Rick Hale in his workshop (as Ron Swanson looks on).

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Hale is a self-taught clockmaker, learning the craft through old books and information he found on the Internet. He’s always been handy and interested in how things worked, a trait his father passed on to him.

Hale has been building clocks for six years. Two years ago he opened Clockwright, where he builds beautifully crafted clocks almost entirely out of wood. The once-abandoned machine shop is located north of Kalamazoo, Michigan. He shares the space with three other woodworkers.

“The simpler you keep the mechanism, the fewer parts there are and the fewer things that could go wrong over time.”

Hale said he strives for a balance between science (incorporating clock mechanisms), method (building the pieces) and aesthetic (creating a visually beautiful piece). The results are stunning. Whether they be large-scale wall clocks or small tabletop clocks, Hale’s creations are mechanically and visually remarkable. The exposed wooden gears, beautiful craftsmanship and flowing lines put Hale’s clocks more in the realm of art than timepieces.

Walnut and brass escapement detail.

“I put a lot of care into each component,” Hale says. “I don’t want the overall first impression of someone looking at my work to be overwhelmed. I want it to draw them in. I want it to cause them to look closer and get more interested in it.”

Hale describes his clocks as “minimal,” though they are far from simple. He spends 40 to 80 hours designing a clock. That time includes determining how it will look and how it will function.Hale said he uses a variant on a grasshopper escapement for nearly all of his clocks. The mechanisminvented by clockmaker John Harrison in the early-1700sgives the clock’s pendulum periodic pushes to keep it swinging. Each swing releases the clock’s gears to move forward, advancing the hands at a steady rate. Hale said his clocks have had very simple mechanismsno chiming, no complications, and very simple gearing. Time only. That said, complications aren’t too far behind.

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“I try to do everything as simply as I can. Even though they’re visually simple, they’re mechanically more sound pieces. The simpler you keep the mechanism, the fewer parts there are and the fewer things that could go wrong over time.”

Lignum vitae.

Once he’s figured out the engineering of a piece, Hale spends between 400 and 800 hours building each clock. He works with Michigan hardwoods such as walnut, cherry, maple, oak, and hickory. He also uses lignum vitae, the national tree of the Bahamas and a historically important material in clockmaking. Lignum vitae contains natural oils that make them perfect to be used as self-lubricating clock parts. Harrison, a favorite of Hale’s, used lignum vitae as wood bearings in his clocks.

“It’s a relief to see it start ticking when everything is put together.”

Walnut and distressed-hickory gear.

“It’s the simplest way to bush a clock. No oil. No maintenance. The clocks [Harrison] made in the early 1700s are still going today without ever having to be re-bushed or they have only been re-bushed once,” Hale says. “It’s amazing to me that the simplest method can yield results that last for centuries.”

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Hale said he uses power tools from the 1960s and 70s to make the initial cuts in wood. Then he hand-shapes the pieces over the course of months. It’s an extremely time-consuming process. But the end result is worth the time.“It’s a relief to see it start ticking when everything is put together,” Hale says and laughs. “It’s the best feeling. You can sit back, relax and watch it. It has a life of its own.”

Hale said up until recently, he’s only made one-off pieces for collectors. They cost about $18,000 each. But now, he’s developed some new designs that he will make multiple pieces of. His newest clocks are called the W1, L1, and B1.

W1

The W1 is a large-scale wall clock made from a choice of local hardwoods and several exotics. It ticks only once every two seconds. The L1 is a weight-driven mechanical table clock that features a lunar phase complication. The current phase of the moon is indicated using a rotating globe made from ebony and holly. A brass bell gently chimes the full moon each month. The B1 is an homage to the work of Martin Burgess, the primary motive force behind Clock B. The piece features a Harrison grasshopper escapement and several giant hardwood gears with lignum vitae teeth.

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A total of 10 will be built. They cost between $10,000 to $12,000 a piece, depending on the materials selected by the clients. Hale only has two available for purchaseone W1 and one B1. He’s gotten orders from throughout the United States as well as London.

Hale said he’s pleased with the direction he’s now taking by building multiple clocks in each configurationadding new and interesting complicationswhile also still building one-off custom clocks. He plans to release one or two new designs a year. If there is interest, he will build them. If there isn’t interest, Hale said he’ll focus on building one-off designs.

“I want each clock to have something identifiable about it. I want them to have something that doesn’t exist in the person’s collection.”

Photography provided by Rick Hale.

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Christian discovered his love for watches around the same time he discovered he could make a living as a writer. An award-winning journalist, Christian has covered everything from presidential campaigns to princess tea parties. Now, he's combining his passion for vintage watches with his passion for writing. Christian lives and works out of central Pennsylvania.
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