NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — When time stands still in a very old ticker, Richard Fyans uses the skill of a heart surgeon to start the rhythmic beat again.
The Narragansett resident repairs the insides of very old clocks, many of them nearly 200 years old — some even older — to make them tell time once again in a world very different from the era in which they were made.
“I like to think about what was going on in the world, not just the U.S., but internationally as well, when that clock was made,” he said during a recent interview at his small shop in the Shady Lea Mill in North Kingstown.
Fyans, 77, said he enjoys this precision work of restoring time and sometimes even rekindling memories of a different time for people who own antique clocks passed down through a family. The old clocks he fixes are heirlooms and those he buys at auctions to sell after fixing them.
His Shady Lea Mill workshop, called Narragansett Clock Shop, consists of two small rooms. Walls are lined with old wooden mahogany, cherry and maple clocks. Steeple, beehive, gingerbread, miniature steeple, French mantle and column and splat are among those lining the shelves.
A large grandfather clock stands upright waiting for Fyans’ intricate repair so it can chime again. On another shelf is a brass ship’s bell clock that rings with bells coordinated with a sailor’s four-hour watch.
“It’s interesting how they’re all a little different, how all the manufacturers tried to get around Eli Terry’s patent,” he said, referring to the Connecticut native who received a United States patent for a shelf clock mechanism.
Terry started mass production of clocks that were made inexpensively enough so that an average citizen with a modest income in the early 1800s could afford them.
Not only an antique clock repair professional, Fyans in his 63 years of fixing old clocks has also become an historian of his craft, too.
“Silas Hoadly, who worked with Terry, created an upside-down movement, putting the winding arbors at the top of the clock - rather than the bottom - rearranging the mechanisms so he also could start making them, too,” said Fyans.
He reflected on history and once fixing a 1796 eight-day grandfather clock. More than the challenge of the repair captivated him, said Fyans.
“It was made in New York City and George Washington was nearing the end of his term as U.S. President. To me, it’s just incredible that these things are still around and you can acquire them,” he said, adding, “That’s just mind boggling.”
He said he has laid his hands on the wood and used his many precision-designed tools to fix clocks someone made during the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War in 1847 and the Civil War in 1863.
No matter the history of the clock, though, the challenge of the fix is the attraction to this craft, said Fyans.
It all began when he was 14, he said, and his grandfather’s grandfather clock had stopped working. He said he thought it might make a good gun case if he took out all the working mechanisms in it, “but my uncle said, let’s see if we can get this working again.”
The two put some elbow-grease into taking the antique clock apart, repaired a broken suspension spring and soon after it was telling time again, he said, adding that the nearly 130-year-old clock is still in his home and chimes loudly on the hour and half-hour every day.
“That got me hooked and I’ve been fixing clocks ever since,” said Fyans, who kept his repair work as a hobby while perusing a scientific engineering career for 32 years. He retired in 1999 and relocated two years later from Connecticut to his summer home in Narragansett.
As he talked about the move to Rhode Island and then opening a clock repair shop, he looked at the bins of specially made small parts for these old clocks. Given scarcity, he said, many of the small wooden bushings, wooden teeth on gears and other parts he needs to make by hand.
In his workshop nearby the pictures of all the smiling photos of the grandchildren he shares with his wife, Carole, are tubs of these critical components needing to jump-start these timepieces from another time period.
“First,” he said pointing to the pictures of his family, “I love them all, they are the most important people to me. Second, I’m a conservative guy. I don’t like to see things thrown away” and then pointed to his reusable spare parts ready for the next mystery surrounding a clock that stopped working.
“What I like every day is the challenge of figuring it out, drilling out a pivot hole, repairing teeth,” he explained.
In one internal wooden mechanism for a clock, he showed where dirt could get into the tiniest of holes. The dirt over time could reshape the hole. By the minute-by-minute turning of gears, a circular hole becomes an oblong hole and the clock stops keeping time correctly.
Then there’s also the problem when the gears don’t mesh, the inner mechanism malfunctions and time slows or even comes to a halt. He said he then needs to re-drill the hole and hand-make unique parts if he has none available that fit.
In addition to his own interest in figuring out solutions that work, he also took courses through the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors. He has written for the association about the history of clocks and some unique repairs, he said.
“I like to keep things going for the next generation,” he said, pointing to a 100-year-old-plus wooden clock with a mirror on it.
“How many smiling faces have looked into that mirror?” Fyans asked, once more hinting at history that is so much a part of him, his work and the sound in his workshop.
He mused, “Just the tick and tock of the clocks here. I don’t think I could live without it.”
A Providence Public display of affection
In the summer of 2014 Fyans put his hands — and mind — to work repairing the oldest clock he ever touched. It was made in 1765 and pre-dated even U.S. Revolutionary War, George Washington’s presidency and even some of the pre-colonial trappings around his North Kingstown workship.
With a delicacy that comes with awe and protection, he said his approach to fixing this clock is how he still handles all the antique timepieces that come to him for repair.
This old grandfather clock belonged to the Providence Public Library and was donated in the early 1900s from the Estate of Charles C. Hoskins. Library officials said this week they could not estimate how long it had not worked, but it occupied then — and today — a centerpiece in the library’s history.
“They found me on Google,” said Fyans with a laugh, “when another person had it for two years, could not fix it and they (library officials) wanted it repaired.”
“There was a lot of work to be done,” he recalled. This English clock, known as a “Williams,” has a veneered mahogany case and stands nearly 100 inches high on bracket feet. The bonnet has a swan necked pediment with carved rosettes and a flame center finial. Turned wooden pillars with wooden capitals flank the arched door.
He said that he transported it in truck and took out beforehand the movement - the internal gears that make the clock measure time - weights, and pendulum. He brought it to his two-room work area at Shady Lea Mill in North Kingstown.
“It took 80 to 100 hours to fix, which is about average for a routine repair on this kind of clock,” he said. The needed work required him to fix the pivots, re-align the pendulum, change some components, repair the cabinet, shine all the brass gears and wood, and “give it a good cleaning.”
Restoring the clock was important, said Tonia Mason, spokeswoman for the Providence Public Library. “It is probably the oldest clock (among those in the library) and has the most history.”
It is part of the library’s trustee room, she said, which has gold-leaf paint, a mahogany conference table, original wooden floor and a Westerly marble fireplace. It is an ornate and finely decorated room used for organization meetings and even weddings, she added.
Fyans said he knew the importance of the clock to the library and promised the work would be done in two months since there had been the earlier delay in the repairs. He said he delivered the clock back to the library in six weeks.
“I was pretty proud, pretty happy, I could get it done, get it running, get it installed and give instructions on how to maintain it, “ he said.