Behind the TIMES

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), September 9, 2007 | Go to article overview

Behind the TIMES


Byline: Mark Baker The Register-Guard

Tick. Tock. Times 2,000.

That's the sound you hear upon entering The Clockmaker's Gallery - the sound of about 2,000 clocks ticking and tocking, binging and bonging.

It's enough to make you cuckoo.

Unless you're a "clockaholic," like the folks who work in the west Eugene shop, and the regulars who frequent it.

Busy as they are, the clockmakers there have nothing but time on - and in - their hands. It's all around them - these clocks and this rare art form surviving in a digital age.

"It's definitely an anachronism," says Chuck Christensen, owner of the business along with his wife, Barbara, that he began 31 years ago. "But it's also romantic. I would say 80 percent of the industry is based on sentimentality. That's rewarding."

While Christensen is a certified clockmaker, the young man he took on a dozen years ago, Wesley Niemczak, is a certified master clockmaker. According to the Ohio-based American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute, he passed his AWCI certification test in 2001. Christensen says Niemczak is the youngest ever certified as a master by the institute. The AWCI couldn't confirm that, but considering Niemczak was just 23 when he was certified, and that becoming a master requires five years of combined apprenticeship and working as a certified clockmaker before the master exam can be taken, that's probably a good bet.

Whatever the case, Barbara Christensen says her husband and Niemczak and other clockmakers "are keeping this dying art form alive."

It's an art that began probably eight centuries ago in Europe, when it's believed the first mechanical clocks were made. It was time to move on from sundials, hourglasses and water clocks.

Mechanical clocks, such as grandfather and cuckoo clocks, are weight-driven. They're powered by the gravitational pull of slowly falling weights that hang on cables or chains, and regulated by pendulums. They have components such as gears, levers, hammers, rods and springs.

Their intricate inner workings require attention to detail. That's where the clockmaker comes in. Most clockmakers today do not actually make clocks, although a master clockmaker must demonstrate that sort of knowledge and skill before becoming certified. Rather, they repair and rebuild the movements - the inner workings - of existing clocks.

'Something's ticking'

"From the age of 5, when I could read and write, I was sat down on the bench and started working on clocks," says the 30-year-old Niemczak, who grew up in Corvallis and began his apprenticeship with Christensen right out of of high school.

His father, Walter Niemczak, is a certified clockmaker and master watchmaker who is now retired but once owned his own shop in Corvallis, Time Specialities, Wesley Niemczak says. His father and Christensen have known each other for years.

"I remember going down the stairs of the Quackenbush Building when I was 2," says Wesley Niemczak, who lives in Corvallis and commutes to Eugene to practice his craft.

Christensen opened his business in 1976 in the basement of Quackenbush's, the longtime former Eugene hardware store. It was all of about 500 square feet then. He came to Eugene in 1970 from California to study at the University of Oregon. He was working on his doctorate in philosophy, with the goal of becoming a professor, when he wandered into a clock shop on River Road owned by Clinton Chezem. He bought an old clock, had a problem with it and took it back. He and Chezem began to tinker on it together.

"Hey, you're pretty good," Christensen remembers Chezem saying. He asked the Ph.D. student if he had time to help out in the shop. Christensen ended up working part time for Chezem. …

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