A retired local clock repairman has melded the skills of woodworking, metallurgy and mathematics to produce a unique mantel clock.
Norman Hopkins said the initial idea for the timepiece started ten years ago. Finally, inspiration struck Hopkins and he sat down, like architects and sculptors of old, to see if he could work out the math to make it work. No less than four notebook sheets of calculations and numerous finely detailed schematic drawings later, he was ready to start. The project from this point took six months to complete.
“I’d estimated I have spent 250 hours on this,” said Hopkins from his Mount Airy workshop. The clock is made using seven different species of hardwoods with Bolivian Rosewood teeth in its gears that will burnish but show no wear. Hopkins adjusts and sets the clock by the international atomic clock so he can verify that it keeps perfect time, maintaining power and beating 44,150,400 beats per year.
Hopkins has an eye for wood because he also enjoys making laminate bows. He made the base the clock sits on from one piece of air-dried red oak he selected. He made the Queen Anne style legs for the base from other pieces of that same tree. His son, Steven, painted the designs on the front of the skeleton clock and on the knobs on the base’s false drawer.
He said he developed the skills used for the project in his 38 years as a tool maker. Ten of those years were spent with Cook Medical and 27 years for Westinghouse in that firm’s tool room. He also spent 20 years as a clock maker before the predominance of cheaper and inexpensive clock movements came to the market. Hopkins admits these days he is turning more wood on his workshop metal lathe but he enjoys working both.
Hopkins was able to draw on a vast array of materials he has collected in the workshop to make the clock. He said some of the spindles and gears in the clock were made from old pool sticks of Kookaburra wood. Other woods used in the clock include locust, hickory and ash.
“That is the most dense wood but it makes perfect gears,” said Hopkins. “About eight years ago I had saved some hickory wood that I used for the ratchet wheels.” He turned the solid brass weights that drive the clock himself. Every pin, gear, wheel, fitting and cog in the timepiece was made with painstaking care and deadly precision by Hopkins. The dark wood insets on the clock’s face are from walnut. He even ordered the braided masons twine specially to hang the weights because wrapped twine has too much give and would hurt the clock’s accuracy.
“There’s a lot of math to this,” said Hopkins. “It took me a month to do the math and technical drawings and another two days to do the scale drawings. If you’re not exactly right it simply doesn’t work.”
He is especially proud of the hands on the clock, which he fashioned from a thin, rusty piece of Cold Rolled Steel (CRS). He made all the templates and patterns for the gears and pieces of the wooden-geared clock as well. Hopkins milled the clock hands so there is absolutely no give in them on the stem they encircle. The clock is 16 inches tall, weighs 47 pounds and the base weighs 13 pounds.
Hopkins explained his process where he took leftover brass beads as a bed for the clock hands, heated them with a blow torch and cooled the metal in water when the desired color was reached. He said the process even makes the hands rust resistant. He drilled the holes that hold the hands to exactly match the tapered brass pins slid into them (He also made the pins). The leaf spring of the clock was made from an old mainspring left over from another clock. The pendulum shaft of the clock is made of a carbon fiber arrow shaft so it will not be affected by humidity.
Another thing about the timepiece is once it is assembled, the way the pieces fit together and work with each other holds it all together by just a few pins. It is an outward expression of an artisan who creates to make the world around him just a little bit better.
“I’ve got a lot of projects going,” said Hopkins. “My wife (Gladys) knows I have to always be doing something. I work out at Pro Health, play basketball, ride bikes and I’m active with Temple Baptist Church.”
Hopkins says he really enjoys working in children’s ministry at the church.
“I love working with kids. If you don’t want to know the truth do not work with children,” said Hopkins “I have an archery club at the church and we can have them over here at my home where I have a range set up. I even make bows for some of the children. It is wonderful to see them so excited to get a bow.”
The smile readily seen in the clock maker’s eyes as he talks about how his clocks work and children turns sad when he recalls how many children he has seen just need a hug and a little attention, like clocks when you’re getting them set up to run just right.
“I think a person ought to live so they make life around them better. Kids keep you thinking young. I try to enjoy life. If you can just help someone with all the present day stuff that’s going on. People need to reach out and make life better. The Lord’s blessed me with my wife and two good jobs. I promised the Lord if he let me retire I’d give back.”
In addition to teaching at the church, Hopkins has also given 90 pints of blood, over the years saying “donating makes you feel better and healthier.”
His reason for making the clocks, he said, is simple.
“I feel like I need to be creative. I dreamed this up and it all comes down to I’m not an artist but I feel I need to be creative,” said Hopkins. “When I die I can feel I’ve made the world better than when I found it. Life isn’t easy but I want to give back more. It balances life out. You can’t leave God out of everything.”
Hopkins stood in front of the clock, hooking it to an electronic timer so he could verify it was still flawlessly keeping the time, hour after hour and honestly couldn’t say exactly what it was about clocks that fascinates him.
“I really don’t know what got me interested in clocks. I just love them,” said Hopkins. “I love to hear this one tick. If I listened long enough It would put me to sleep.”
Reach David Broyles at email@example.com or 719-1952.