Eternal Tools interview with clockmaker and conservationist Jordan Renaud

It's been 25 years since I first started working with clocks as a profession. Prior to that it was a hobby and a passion. A few cuckoos and Korean junk in the early days rather quickly made me realise I had better look into going with my interest in old English work sooner than later. The first few years I still took in some of that type of thing... but increasingly began to refuse it for the clocks that were natural for my way of understanding and what I respected.

I remember as a boy I would ask my father to tell me how long a minute was. He would oblige by looking at his watch and giving me a thumbs up when a minute had elapsed. Not long after, he got me a Timex Dax dollar watch in hopes I would be able to satisfy my own questions about time. He recalled that his own father had a pocket watch that he would hang on a nail at night by his bed, and that it had a "tiny chain that ran all the way around inside the watch" which I take was a fusee chain. However it was not actually covering THAT much acreage in the watch! A small child would likely imagine more, as my father must have. When I was a teenager, I saw an old English oak longcase clock somewhere in the city. The very sound of the tick resonating in it's case had me fascinated.

Next time I saw a similar clock, the owner allowed me to take off the hood to see the "works" as he called them. I knew there and then that I was going to be involved with antique clocks. At the time, I was working with my father at repairing 50's and 60's English and Mercedes Benz cars with a focus on engine re-building, so the transition to horological 'engines' was not a great leap. Especially since my father used only hand tools, and his touch with them was exceptionally skilled and gentle...and I was very early taught that this approach to virtually anything was the ONLY acceptable method.

So many English cars and English ways here was because Deep River was a small mostly British settlement after WWII for everything from metal working machinists to scientists involved with the AECL plant. The machine shop men were simply the best available, because of the apprenticeship programs they went through. Truly crackshot individuals. These men formed friendships and traded work with my father.

My father was also an industrial process operating engineer, and I ended up employed in the same field; which gave me the opportunity to afford to build my own clock workshop on my quiet sylvan property in Laurentian Hills in which I repaired and restored mostly British 18th and 19th Cent. clocks. Many of the tools I depend on are antique like the clocks.

Travel in New England yeilded many of these. As well, some original clockmakers turns, etc., purchased from antique dealers in the UK. A great help to my work is a depth tool I ordered from J.Malcolm Wild years ago. This has saved me quite a few times and is worth the $1000 CDN I had to pay to purchase it and have it shipped from the UK.

The butchery I find in good clocks is enough to make me cry, and the poor depthing resulting at times from such botching had me reaching for that tool. Another valuable tool is a good quality heavy-service springwinder for the large fusee mainsprings and an excellent stereo microcope used in cornea surgery kindly given me by a friend in USA. He's an expert on restoration of the hand built Vienna clocks before production methods, and the tiny pivots on those extremely fine mechanisms MUST be perfect in order for the clocks to run for up to a year on the ridiculously tiny weights they are fitted with.

I can actually SEE the surface of the pivots in a way that no other visual aid ever made possible. In fact, things look terrible under such magnification at first- however one must strive for the very best in surface finish and burnishing especially in chime trains. Some of the articles of late in the NAWCC publications feature pivots under the uber-critical eye of the electron scanning microscope. You have seen nothing until you get a look with this kind of powerful scrutiny. Overkill? Maybe not... At least for getting the point across about the need for excellence in pivot surface finish.

I would like to try some of the carbide spade drills from Eternal Tools. I am certain that these would be so much more reliable than the tiny carbide twist drills often used now for pivotting work.

All along during the earlier years I read myriad books on clock repair and took instruction from some of the most skilled clockmakers I could locate in the cities... from an exceptionally talented instrument maker/clock restorer, to British master clockmakers including Yorkshireman John Plewes who was intensely interested in imparting his knowledge to the individual so chosen. (And intensely interested in tossing out by the ear the man that thought he knew more than he did.)

Correspondence with ol'Huckabee with the AWCI also kept me going in the tough times. He was a brilliant engineer with one of the large companies in the US and was keen on all mechanisms including clocks. Sure, he worked with early American clocks more than other types, but had an excellent attitude and made a great teacher of sound horological principals applicable to all clocks. A true design genius.

A good course of study based on the books of Donald DeCarle as course text material from a private college with one on one tutor, along with distance learning from the BHI in regards clockmaking/watchmaking began to round out my studies.

The watchmaking sections of the BHI lessons soon began to fall aside as I wanted to continue to focus on antique clocks. I still follow the BHI code of practice as closely as I can. Time at the bench with noted clockmakers only added to the practice I was able to attain within my own shop and environment.

To this day I am sometimes baffled by these German contrivances out there from the early 20th century. Presently there is a Lenzkirch bracket clock from around 1900 with 'surprise' quarter rack chime let-off (no warning work) in the shop.

A massive copy of a London spring clock with superb high - count pinions and thick plates of best brass whose trains roll over with the silky smoothness one would expect of such a fine mechanism. This clock has had me ready to pack it in and go begging.

The tension on the damned blade springs is impossible to get right. With no warning capability and nothing but a mess of blade springs throwing things around, getting the quarters to remain in synch is hell itself. If this clock were not the property of a long time client and friend....well you may guess what I would do.

My health failed after a dozen years in industry to the point that I could no longer withstand the conditions on continuous shift work in the noise and vibration , so I satisfied myself to continue on with only the clocks as therapy and my sole employment. My doctor approved!

In the year 2000 a museum devoted to clocks was built here in the area and the proprietor invited me to operate a small workshop there. Along with my own shop and customers my time is fully spent indeed. I am able to keep certain key clocks in the collection going for visitors to enjoy, along with many restorations in the beginning.

Probably the most interesting clock in the collection is a longcase clock from around 1820 old Quebec with three trains and 'petite sonnerie' striking. This clock has a wood movement; unique in it's kind. Written up in books on wood works clocks as one of the most interesting clocks extant for it's complication. I was fortunate to disassemble the clock and clean it in preparation for exhibition.

My favourite clocks are those of Joseph Knibb, and I hold out hope that one of his clocks will come my way before my candle is burned out. There are actually a few of them extant in Canada in private hands and I believe one in the ROM in Toronto. Another dear to my heart is George Graham. Of course who could mention British Horology without naming John Harrison, genius of backwater Barrow.

Back to DeCarle's writings, I am impressed by his methods which I feel are the proper way to proceed in general. There are going to be some who will refute this to some extent, but in the main, I think that his writings are of great value.

No benzine/benzene today or cyanide or the ubiquitous carbon tetrachloride. However I have had good result over all these years following his advice. Washing out by hand and using no ammonia on anything before 1750, etc., has and will always be the way I go about it.

The museum has an ultrasonic cleaning machine, but it's a rare occasion when I'll resort to it's use. It's said that old and fine London wheels may see no ammonia, and this is the real deal. Wheels of early clocks from other places should never see ammonia either. If you wish to read the findings of James Moss, you will be convinced that ammonia can and does indeed cause SCC (stress corrosion cracking) in old cast brass. Big trouble for valuable clocks needing a conservation approch.

Must mention also the clock repair books by Laurie Penman. These are very good indeed from an engineering/clockmaking point of view and can hardly do the clockmaker an injustice. I have his books in my shop, along with DeCarles, and the writings by Otto Benesh on making and repairing components in English work.

Another interesting volume is Hobson's Choice when solving particular problems with certain examples he had handled at his bench. Thankfully, the Reference Library of the Canadian Clock Museum here contains several hundred books on horology... including Daniels(watchmaking) and Symonds(Tompion) and many others of value and interest.

How I would have loved to be in the presence of Daniel Parkes and other men of his restoration skill in old Clerkenwell during the days between the wars. And of course during the Great Age of English clockmaking in London with the Greats of Clockmaking.

I am never at a loss for work, even though I specialise. Good clockmakers are scarce on the ground in Canada, which has had me travelling far and wide to pick up and deliver 18th and 19th century clocks for restoration. There is no end of old English longcase clocks in this part of Canada, and besides these I handle a few spring clocks every year including one or two verge types.

At my age, I am less interested in the 2-3 hour drives to my customers for collection and set up, but if I wish to remain in this quiet rural area then things are not likely to change. Only recently has it been necessary to juggle my work with that of caring for my wife who suffers from Alzheimers.

I intend to begin making copies of early clocks... both movements and cases. Over the last few years have purchased some wheel cutting rigs and some Thornton wheel and pinion cutters. Possibly during the coming brutal Canadian winter, it will be a good pastime besides the rest of my responsibilities around here.

Have been practicing with the vintage woodworking hand tools that I had found and bought in New England USA back before our present difficulties.

For some years was an Assoc. BHI, and member of AWCI (American Watchmakers / Clockmakers Institute) but dues charges got to be excessive for the average bench-bound clockmaker.. so I have chosen simply to remain with the BWCMG (which is more to the aid of the man at the bench anyway. And dues are affordable to the craftsman.)

I miss the Journals of the BHI and the AWI but we have these in the Library at the Museum. Also the journals of the AHS.

Additionally, I am a member of the IHCF (Irish Horological Craft Federation) and look forward to the future of that organisation.I have in my possession an 1820 Dublin loncase clock.

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My thanks to Jordan for his insight into his life and studies as a Clockmaker and restorer.