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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

The British Clockmaker Marks 50 Years In Vermont

For Ray Bates, family life and work as a Master Clockmaker take place under the same roof. For 50 years, Bates’ antique clock repair business has been located in his home in Newfane.  

To get from the workshop to a room where repaired clocks are tested requires walking  through the kitchen and turning right through the laundry room.  

In the testing room, clocks removed from their cases mark each hour with a chorus of bell ringing. Each has a different sound; from rich, resonant tones to high pitched, delicate sounds.

Each of the clocks Bates works on dates back to before the industrial revolution. Their value can exceed $500,000.

The original parts were all made by hand. Bates says the clocks contain the work of a variety of craftsmen who specialized in specific parts, but each clock reflects the sensibilities of the person who designed it. 

Credit Steve Zind / VPR
Ray and Richard Bates work side by side in the Newfane home the business has occupied for 50 years.

His work is a form of communion with that person.

“You have this relationship with the man who made the clock 300 years ago, because you’re touching the same metal that he worked on himself and the sense of preserving something from the past and knowing that it’s going to go on for many more generations,” Bates explains.

Bates first became interested in clock making as a high school student in his home town of Edinburgh, Scotland, where he apprenticed. 

"You have this relationship with the man who made the clock 300 years ago, because you're touching the same metal that he worked on himself." - Ray Bates

“I was so enthusiastic as a kid, as an apprentice,” he says. “I still get that sense when I get up in the morning because there’s always some new challenge. It’s just amazing.”

Bates says the challenge and the satisfaction of his work involves lie in understanding the intent of the person who designed the clock.

That often means undoing a thicket of bungled repair jobs done by hobbyists and well-intentioned owners.

Bates also works on antique music boxes and automatons, which are animated windup figures.

On a table in his office is a small ornately designed snuff box. A bird shaped key is used to wind the box, which pops open to reveal a tiny painted bird that trills brightly.

Bates doesn’t repair as much as recreate the work of the original makers. 

He has his own small machine shop where brass and wooden pieces are cut, turned and polished to look exactly like the original. The mainspring is the only interior part of the clock that is not made here.  Bates relies on a local cabinet maker’s skills for work needed on some clock exteriors.

Credit Steve Zind / VPR
Richard Bates' workbench sits covered with parts from a clock he's repairing.

Bates has been calling his business the British Clockmaker for a long time, but a pair of American born hands has been working alongside his.

Ray Bates’ son Richard began working with his father 18 years ago.

“I’d like to see myself doing this easily as long as Dad has,” he says.

When he started, Richard says his father gave him a clock and asked him to completely dismantle and then reassemble it. He tried making drawings to guide him, but only after he understood exactly how the clock worked was he successful.

"I'd like to see myself doing this easily as long as Dad has." - Richard Bates, Ray's son

He says the basic operating principles are the same from one clock to the next. But repairing them is far from routine.  

“There still are problems that can occur where you just seem to spend hours focusing on one area of the clock that isn’t working the way it needs to work and it can drive you nuts,” says Richard.

Patience is the word that comes to mind as Bates describes the painstaking, weeks-long process of returning a clock to working condition: the patience necessary to repeatedly disassemble and reassemble it; to peer at tiny fragile parts through magnifying lenses and carefully file a burr from a filigreed brass minute hand.

Richard and Ray Bates avoid the word "trade" when they talk about their occupation. 

They say bringing to life a long neglected clock, music box or automaton  - and doing it without  an operating manual or You Tube video - is a craft.

Ray Bates says it is a craft in decline.

He says apprenticeship programs are disappearing and fewer young people are drawn to the idea of giving life to a centuries old creation that requires no batteries or electricity – just a lot of time and patience. 

Ray Bates is also a photographer. His Facebook pagecontains many photos of the clocks and other mechanisms he and Richard have repaired.

Steve has been with VPR since 1994, first serving as host of VPR’s public affairs program and then as a reporter, based in Central Vermont. Many VPR listeners recognize Steve for his special reports from Iran, providing a glimpse of this country that is usually hidden from the rest of the world. Prior to working with VPR, Steve served as program director for WNCS for 17 years, and also worked as news director for WCVR in Randolph. A graduate of Northern Arizona University, Steve also worked for stations in Phoenix and Tucson before moving to Vermont in 1972. Steve has been honored multiple times with national and regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for his VPR reporting, including a 2011 win for best documentary for his report, Afghanistan's Other War.
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