Not Your Grandfather’s Grandfather Clock
Designed and built at the BARN (Bainbridge Artisan Resource Network) by Walt Sutton and Warren Pollock between October 2021 and September 2022.
Notes by Walt Sutton
I am fascinated by time and art, the intersection of these two forces. And yet, for sixty years or so, I could not find the time to feed or satisfy this fascination.
When I retired – the first time – in 1990, I bought a grandfather clockwork kit consisting of mechanical clockworks, chimes, a clock face, weights, and a pendulum. The idea at the time was, being retired, I would build a grandfather clock case and install the parts. Our new life, with almost unlimited “free” time, felt terrific and a little unsettling at the same time. Soon though, other passions prevailed, and eventually, a second career took shape, so the clockworks ended up as a donation to Good Will.
When I retired the second time three years ago, I felt the itch return, art and time. What could I do or make to explore both dimensions? After turning these thoughts over for months, I arrived right back where I had been thirty-three years before. Why not build a Grandfather Clock, an unusual Grandfather Clock. One that would definitely not be your ‘Grandfather’s Grandfather Clock.’
Two crucial enablers opened up a believable path toward building a kind of dream project. The first one was we moved to Bainbridge Island and joined the BARN, where all things creative and artistic are possible. Second, the move to Bainbridge brought us almost literally next door to forty-year friends Warren and Ginger Pollock.
I had started a conversation about my making a “time” related art project with Warren long before we moved, and he was always enthusiastic and supportive of the idea. So when we sold our home on Whidbey Island and settled into life on Bainbridge, I impulsively went online and ordered a mechanical German Grandfather Clock clockworks with chimes, pendulum weights, and clock face – for the second time.
During that first retirement in 1990, Warren, an architect, designed and managed the construction of a beautiful home we built in Sedona, Arizona. So he and I have had many positive experiences being friends and working together. Warren also had been an active Barn member for more than five years. I admired the furniture and lighting fixtures he’s built, so it only seemed natural that I ask if he would be my coach and guide for the clock project. Happily, and he agreed.
We set out intentionally to go on a journey to make art, to imagine this clock, and create something unique. Warren brings a lot to the table. He had a long and successful career as an architect and designer. And since retiring, he has become a working artist and an excellent craftsman. Me, not so much. Mostly, I brought to the table a general idea about what I wanted to do and a strong desire to make art with my head and hands. I am not a woodworker, not a glass worker; in short, an artist wannabe.
He and I talked, sketched, and exchanged ideas while waiting for the clockworks to arrive from Germany. He began the ideation process by researching grandfather clocks past and present. I started with the vaguest of notions about what I wanted. I wanted a clock: “modern, clean lines, interesting, color, light, playful, and unusual.” He and I went back and forth for three months discussing, sometimes debating, ideas. In time my thoughts and his merged to suggest a modern design, built of wood and colorful fused glass, with clean lines, lit from the inside, six and a half feet tall, built around a traditional mechanical mechanism, a design that was at the same time interesting and playful.
Round and round we went. The creative process was, at times, challenging for both of us. But we stayed with it. So when the clock movement was finally delivered by FedEx, we had just completed a sketch of the clock that we both liked and, more importantly, one that I was willing to try to build. I say try because although I wanted to believe we could do it; I didn’t have any experience in woodworking or glasswork to back it up. On the other hand, Warren, an experienced furniture designer, and woodworker convinced me that we would somehow figure it out and get it built.
Our design called for cabinet-making skills I didn’t have and fused glass inserts or windows I had no idea how to make. It was time for me to go to school and learn the basics. This meant taking all the introductory courses I’d need to be allowed to work in the woodworking shop and the glass studio. It took me a month to complete five woodworking classes. Next, it was off to the Glassworks shop to learn glass safety, cutting, fusing, firing, and cold-work. That took another three weeks.
So, seven weeks on, having earned my entry into both shops, Warren and I agreed it was time to cross the line between theory and practice, or more to the point, from dreaming to the real world. Having already ordered and received the German Clockworks, we made the second elemental decision about the clock. We would build the case out of clear vertical grain Douglas Fir, the wood of the Northwest.
We traveled north to Edensaw Lumber in Port Townsend. The credit card came out, and before you could snap your fingers, I was the proud but anxious owner of nine nine-foot-long Douglas Fir planks. Eight planks for the case and one extra for practice and testing because we knew we would be doing a lot of practicing and testing as we moved, step by step, into, hopefully through, the unknown.
We brought the boards to the BARN wood shop, shaped them, cut them, and joined them together to make the walls and a door of the cabinet – fingers crossed that our design would work. The trick was to build a rectangular column six and a half feet tall, fourteen inches on a side, encasing a delicate German mechanical clockwork with an array of fused glass inserts set in the wall of the case lit from within.
To start with, we needed to create the glass inserts. The glass fusing process produces irregular-sized objects, so I needed to complete this step before cutting and assembling the clock case walls and door. Designing, creating, and firing thirty-two inserts in the glass shop took me four weeks. Once done, we carefully measured each fused glass piece and recorded the dimensions.
With thirty-two glass pieces completed and measured, we laid our future clock’s unfinished wall and door panels side by side on a large worktable the in the wood shop. We then spent the better part of an afternoon placing and moving glass pieces to create the effect we were trying to achieve. These placements were marked and numbered on the wood panels, and for the next two weeks, I cut the apertures one by one and routed the inside of each opening to create a landing shelf to receive the glass.
Once all of the holes were cut for the glass and the clock face, we joined the sides of the case together with glue and clamps. The door with hinges was hung, then thirty-two glass windows were glued in place with silicone. Lastly, the German Grandfather Clock movement was installed, including the clock mechanism, the chimes, weights, and the pendulum. The brass clock face was attached, the clock hands screwed into place, and the LED lights installed to make the clock tower come alive.
Finally, almost a year after I ordered the mechanism, we carted the finished clock, now named “How Time Flies,” out of the woodworking shop and set it up in the Barn’s Great Room. We plugged in the lights, wound the weights up, and slid a non-reflective glass pane over the brass clock face. Then, almost as an afterthought, Warren gave the pendulum a push just to try it, thus starting the swinging motion back and forth for the first time. I closed the case door, and we retreated to one of the nearby tables to decompress.
This was a big moment. We did it. We made a clock that ‘wasn’t your grandfather’s Grandfather Clock ‘. It had started from a desire to make an art object about time that became a fuzzy dream that was churned and folded with ideation that inspired a plan that we used and modified to construct and assemble, piece by piece, this clock.
We chatted, reviewing the project, its highlights, and lowlights. It was a fun retrospective. We became deeply absorbed in the conversation, sharing the snippets and recollections that contributed to our story about making the clock. Then suddenly, the clock stopped us cold. We heard the clock strike from the other side of the hall, caroling like Big Ben and bonging the hour. We both stopped, laughed, and listened. This was really magic, music heralding a project well done.
As we talked and relived the experience, we agreed about why we felt the project was a success. Cooperation and friendship guided us through it, especially in the rough parts when things weren’t working as we thought they should. So teamwork (cliche alert) was the “how” of the project. But good collaboration and cooperation alone would not have produced this clock. Our clock, that clock, was a child of the Barn. Not just the Barn as a fabulous facility, which it is, but the Barn meaning its members, volunteers, and staff who make it what it is… a living, creating, empowering force for all of us who are lucky enough to participate.
“How Time Flies,” the clock, has now left the Barn for its permanent home in our living room. There it will stand, brightly lit, the pendulum swaying, chimes caroling the passage of time, colors flashing, day after day. Because it is mechanical, the clock will need my help once every eight days. This involves turning a crank to lift three heavy weights from the bottom of the case to just above eye level. This ritual reminds me of the mechanical nature of this clock, constructed with the materials and tools clockmakers have been using for hundreds of years. When the weights are raised, I’ll remove the crank and close the door with a satisfying click.
Pausing there for a moment, seeing my reflection in the polished brass face, I’ll remember this journey from Whidbey to Bainbridge, the Barn, the lumber yard, the German clockworks makers, the Woodworking Shop, the Glassworks Shop, and my friend Warren. Priceless! It is the only word I can think of to describe this experience. Priceless!
Warren and I want to thank everyone in or around the Barn who knowingly or unknowingly contributed to this journey. We also want to extend a special thanks to all of the members and monitors in the Woodworking Shop, the Glassworks Shop, and the Metal Fabrication Shop. You didn’t just help us along the way. You showed us the way. Without you, there would be no clock!