Added to museum: 7/7/08
“Working with love and precision, Ray Bates sets antique clocks ticking again--and breathes some life into an age-old craft: ‘I call myself a clockmaker, but in reality what I do is reanimate,’ says Bates matter-of-factly. ‘Clocks are close to living things. The way the original makers constructed them predetermines how they will act, so while they may not be a living entity, they represent the ongoing creation of their makers. It's my job to get inside the minds and hearts of the original makers, to be in communion with them, to make their works live again.’”
—Boston Sunday Globe Magazine, 1995
Ray examines a lovingly restored clock "wheel" or gear. (Click on photo to view larger image.)
Ray Bates is a traditionally trained clockmaker who brought that craft and its training from Great Britain to the United States. At age 16, a science teacher in his high school who collected watches dealt with a watch repair shop in Edinburgh. He learned they had an opening for an apprentice, so Ray went along for the interview and ended up serving a 5-year apprenticeship with the R.L. Christie clock making company. This training took place concurrently with studies in mechanical engineering at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. These pursuits culminated with a graduation as a Craft Member of the British Horological Institute (CMBHI, now usually shortened to MBYI) of London. In 1952, Ray achieved Master status upon building a clock of his own completely from scratch.
After two years in the RAF as an instrument specialist and photo analyst, Ray started his own business in London. In 1957 Ray immigrated to the United States and started a business near Boston in Waltham, MA repairing clocks. (Waltham is sometimes called “Watch City” because it has historically been a home for several well known manufacturers of timepieces in the USA.) Eventually tiring of city life, in 1964 he moved his family and business to a more rural setting in Newfane, Vermont and now works in what was once an old mill.
A peek through the window of "The British Clockmaker" shop in Newfane, VT shows many treasures. (Click on photo for larger image.)
As Ray notes, “You can’t buy spare parts for a 300 year old clock.” His job is to re-create worn or lost parts and to do so in a way that an observer could not tell that it was not made by the original maker. (Only a tiny mark seen under magnification identifies the restored parts along with the date of repair or remanufacture.) Since these clocks were not mass produced using interchangeable, factory made parts, each part of each clock is, in fact unique. He has a great respect for the original makers of these clocks and has learned each aspect of the craft so that he can duplicate their original methods and results, putting a clock back not only to its original function, but also to its original beauty—restoring not only its ability to keep time, but its value as a piece of history.
Rays skills also include those of a professional photographer, which he learned during his job in the RAF. Ray took all the photos shown on this page and ran a full time professional photography business for a time along with his clock business. He has had his photos published in National Geographic, Vermont Life, Yankee, etc. and some electronic and industrial in-house publications. He worked in large format (4 x 5), 35 mm and now uses a Nikon digital SLR. Ray is a member of the American Society of Media Photographers. (Click on photo for larger image.)
Ray and his son have separate shops (makes for good father/son relations!), both well equipped, and with an extensive library. They contain not only traditional small watch and clock maker’s lathes like the Boley and a Boley & Leinen as well as a Derbyshire Model “A” instrument lathe and a South Bend 10 inch "Heavy” lathe for larger parts. For intermediate work, there is a Sherline lathe. He has also modified a Hardinge horizontal milling machine and fitted it with the vertical head from a Bridgeport mill for making clock gears, or “wheels” as clock makers traditionally refer to them. He is aided in that respect with a piece of equipment that clock makers from the past would probably have given their eye teeth for—a CNC (computer numeric controlled) indexer. This simplifies the gear making process by eliminating the traditional indexing plate with all its holes and indexing finger and replacing it with a stepper motor driven rotary table. Ray enters the number of divisions (teeth) needed on the electronic keypad. Then, each time he hits the “Next” button, the table indexes the gear blank to the next position so the next tooth can be cut. This machine is the brainchild of the self-styled “crackpot inventor” Bryan Mumford and is manufactured by Sherline Products. While many processes are done using traditional tools and/or methods in order to achieve the right look, this is one area where modern equipment does the job more accurately with less chance of an error without compromising the integrity of the finished part. Ray is not hesitant to adapt modern methods where the results justify them. (See photos of his shop and selected operations in progress in the photo section below.)
Some processes, however, such as engraving and plating portions of a clock face to restore the numbers and markings or hand filing small parts to fit are still done almost exactly the same way as they were three to five hundred years ago when the clocks were new. Each unique part dictates its own method of repair or restoration.
Ray not only repairs or restores the timekeeping portions of clocks, but many clocks include complicated and ornate functions or “automata” that add an element of entertainment to the more mundane function of simply keeping track of time. Doors open, figures pop out or march by, birds sing, and so on. Expensive clocks of the past incorporated many such functions and were probably some of the most complicated and mechanically sophisticated devices that were manufactured in their time. Over time some of these functions may cease to work due to accidental damage, incompetent repair or lack of proper cleaning and maintenance. Being able to understand the function and replace parts that may have been removed and lost takes a true understanding of the tradition and an in-depth knowledge of gears and mechanical movements. There are no blueprints or owners' manuals that could be consulted for these old timepieces. Ray simply must study them until he can determine what the missing parts must have been and create a part that allows them to function as originally intended. His web site includes a number of photos and videos of some of these astounding movements in action.
In a field where the initial craftsmanship was done at such a high level, repair of these pieces requires at least equal skill in order to duplicate the work of the original master. Ray estimates that at least half of the work he does is to re-do previous attempts at repair by amateur tinkerers and hobbyists with little or no skill, training or experience. He also notes that his favorite projects are the most complicated, and each day brings a new challenge. This is the part of the trade of which he has never grown tired and is what brings pleasure to starting each new day in the shop.
(Click image for larger view)
In April, 2010 Ray will travel to London to be accepted as a Freeman into the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers. The Clockmakers Company was established in 1631 and retains very close links with its origins with clock and watch making now and in the past. It is the oldest surviving horological institution in the world. CLICK HERE to see photos of the event in The British Clockmaker Newsletter from June, 2010.
The designation recognizes Ray's status as an internationally recognized authority in the repair, restoration and conservation of antique clocks. Ray has more than 50 years experience as a professional clockmaker, both in the US and UK. Working with his apprenticeship-trained son, Richard, he restores antique clocks from all over New England and Eastern Canada, working with museums, conservators, private owners and collectors of these priceless artifacts.
In addition to his skills, Ray Bates also brought with him the traditional method of training in which his work is grounded. Working with the state of Vermont, he started an apprenticeship program in 1966 and has trained several apprentices, one of whom went on to achieve Master status. The latest apprentice is his youngest son Richard, who has been working with him for over a decade and is, in Ray’s words, “A natural.”
Richard Bates—Ray's son and one of only five apprentices in the past 40 years to successfully complete the program Ray developed. (Click photo to view larger image.)
The Clockmaker's Apprentice—An Update
For some time now Ray's son Richard has been making house calls to pick up and deliver clocks. This has freed Ray up to continue running the business and to devote more time to special projects and restoration work. Richard came to work for Ray fourteen years ago (as of 2010), beginning by serving a 4-year apprenticeship based on the British system under which Ray trained and which he developed here in the USA in conjunction with the State of Vermont Department of Labor and Industry. This is an intensive program of training and consists of hands-on experience in every aspect of clock making, plus research and theoretical studies. Only a handful of candidates have the aptitude to be accepted into this program, and in the 40-odd years since starting this apprenticeship training, only five, including Richard, have completed it successfully.
See Ray Bates’ own web site at www.thebritishclockmaker.com. An excellent biography by Archer Major goes into more detail about Mr. Bates and other areas of his interests and expertise, such as the Marine Chronometers and automata.
(Click any photo to view a larger image.)
|An original Congreve rolling ball clock, early 19th century|
|An English miniature "lantern" clock, 1690, maker James Crucifex (sic)|
|A special clock movement made in the style of
Dominy for a unique
|Shown at the left and below are four "Before and After" examples of antique clock dials restored in the traditional manner from their corroded state.|
|A new dial engraved, wax filled, and silvered for a new custom-made clock|
|A barometer scale restored and re-silvered|
|A very early 8 day English Marine Chronometer
showing the Detent Escapement
|A 19th century English Marine Chronometer by
|This group of four photos details a Swiss Singing Bird box. The gold case measures only 3" x 2" x 1", and the fully articulated bird, shown here without feathers, is only 1" from beak to tail.|
|A "jack" automaton from a Medieval church in England. About 4' tall, it strikes the bell to announce services. Ray has used this symbol as part of the trademark of his business, The British Clockmaker, Inc.|
|An engraved, silvered and gilded Dutch dial
with a musical multi-tune
movement. The movement shown is from another Dutch musical clock that plays several tunes on a nest of bells. Both are from the 18th century.
Photos below show Ray Bates' shop including close-ups of the gear cutting operation using the Mumford-Sherline CNC indexing unit mentioned in the text. (Click on any photo to enlarge.)
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