MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, September 5th. Thanks for listening today. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It, another in our ongoing series: What Do People Do All Day?
Paul Butler was recently in Northern Wisconsin and spent an afternoon with a horologist. What’s that, you ask? You’re about to find out.
AUDIO: [Arriving at Wenos house] Hey Rick! How’s it going…
PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: Rick Wenos runs a clock repair business from the basement of his home on a quiet dead-end street in Rhinelander, Wisconsin.
WENOS: Would you like a cup of coffee? Sure…
Every room either has clocks hanging on the walls, standing in corners, or resting on shelves. Today, two spill out over the kitchen table…
WENOS: This one is ready to go, the movement needs to be put back in. It’s a time and strike, but it also chimes…
Wenos is 63 years old. He’s been interested in anything mechanical for as long as he can remember. He tried fixing his first clock as a child, but it wasn’t until about 15 years ago that he thought of making it anything more than a hobby. Wenos completed his clock repair apprenticeship in 2005 and now works on clocks in the evenings and on weekends.
WENOS: I’m an insurance adjuster, that’s my real job. But I can’t climb roofs forever, you know, so this will be a good job for me to take me into retirement and beyond. I don’t have to climb a roof to fix a clock.
But it’s clearly about more than just staying off ladders. Rick Wenos loves clocks.
WENOS: There are mantle clocks, wall clocks, and grandfather clocks and then you have others like anniversary clocks…
And like most keepers of the dying trades, he’s a born teacher—ready to explain the complicated inner workings of a clock.
WENOS: [Sound of winding] This is like the motor. You are winding up the motor and these springs here, they drive the mechanism. They put pressure on the gears and make the gears go. And then the pendulum is more like the transmission. It regulates how fast the clock is going to go…
When fixing a clock, the first step is a good cleaning. For most jobs that means soaking the innards in ultrasonic treatment vats. The tabletop devices look something like fast food friers. The strong chemicals break down generations of gunk and grime.
SOUND: [Ultrasonic cleaner/hair-dryer]
Once the pieces are rinsed, he dries and oils them. Then he puts the clock back together. It’s like constructing a 3-D puzzle.
WENOS: When you take everything apart and put it back together, then everything has to be readjusted and set to where it’s supposed to be and right now it’s not…
He easily adjusts and repairs some clocks, but it may take him months to find original replacement parts for others. The most time consuming repairs tend to be Cuckoo clocks.
WENOS: Everything’s got to be where it’s supposed to be at a certain time in order for either the music box to turn on and off or the dancers to move around…
One of the two clocks on the kitchen table today is an antique Cuckoo.
WENOS: This one here, this particular one, has a boyfriend who climbs the ladder to talk to the girlfriend and then the dad over here who’s not happy has a pitchfork ready to skewer the future beau. And all that time the cuckoo comes out, and cuckoos, and tells you what time it is.
AUDIO: [Working and looking through toolbox]
Wenos moves slowly and methodically. Most of his tools are simple: long and short screwdrivers, bent needle-nose pliers, and a good light. A steady hand, an analytical mind, and lots of patience, seem the most important skills.
AUDIO: [Music box from clock]
Currently, Wenos has nearly 30 clocks in various stages of repair. The final step before returning a clock to its owner is a period of observation: making sure everything is working and keeping time.
WENOS: When I work on several clocks I will set them purposely a minute apart or 30 seconds apart. So they’re all chiming at different times—so I know which one it is. And at some points I can have, you know, five, six, seven clocks all chiming at once. So that would keep us awake.
BUTLER: And so how many other clock repair guys are there in town?
WENOS: In Rhinelander? Nobody. The guy that I did my apprenticeship with, he lives in the Minocqua area, but like I said, he’s 85. He’s not going to be doing it forever.
And it seems, that most other clock repair specialists aren’t much younger…
WENOS: I’m a member of a clock club and if I’m not the youngest, I’m close to be the youngest at 63. Everybody else is in their late 70s, 80s…
Wenos owns a few beautiful grandfather, or tall clocks, himself. The sound brings me back to my childhood, falling asleep in my grandparent’s guest room—or rather NOT falling asleep as the clock reminded the whole house of the time, every quarter hour.
AUDIO: [St. Michael’s tune]
WENOS: This one is playing the St. Michael’s tune. What most people are are used to is the Westminster. And we can go over to this one, and that’s what this one is.
AUDIO: [Westminster tune]
Wenos clearly enjoys what he does. He loves keeping family histories alive through his work.
WENOS: They don’t really care if it’s really fancy. But it was grandma’s, it was great grandma’s. And there is a special meaning behind that and so they want to keep the clock in the family and pass it on down.
Being surrounded by so many clocks makes Rick Wenos philosophical about the nature of time.
WENOS: We have a specific amount of time, we don’t know how much we have, but we should utilize it as efficiently as we can because eventually like the clocks, they stop and we stop. So don’t waste your time. [Laughs]
MUSIC: [Johnny Cash – Grandfather’s Clock]
For WORLD Radio, I’m Paul Butler reporting from Rhinelander, Wisconsin.