"You feel like the void itself is breathing, and that you're a part of it."
31-year-old Rick Hale is comparing the sensation of wind in a forest to that of finishing one of his creations and sitting back to observe it in action.
Based in Kalamazoo, Michigan, he makes giant mechanical pendulum clocks out of wood under the name Clockwright, and his description of the contemplative serenity elicited isn't too hard to imagine: One look at his stunning kinetic sculptures, as his work might also be described, lets you know that they're something special.
Self-taught, Hale's work is a brilliant combination of challenging disciplines. He's a craftsman, designer, engineer and artist as much as he's a serious horologist (and his background is even more impressively varied). Mechanically, his work is heavily influenced by the 18th century British watchmaker John Harrison.
Harrison is most famous for the H4 Marine Chronometer which revolutionized navigation, but he also made clocks out of wood. If wood sounds like a less durable material than metal for clockmaking, consider a wooden Harrison clock kept by the National Trust in the UK which "has been ticking steadily for 300 years." (Though, "sometimes now it stops.") That's pretty good for a clock made of any material.
Hale incorporates Harrison and other watchmakers' ideas into his own — from the type of wood he uses to techniques and technical inventions — but with a strikingly original interpretation. He's exploring and building upon horological concepts and history otherwise largely forgotten.
Rick Hale's work is fascinating on multiple levels — but it's best explained in his own words.
Interview with Rick Hale
Q. How did you come to the idea of making wooden clocks? How did you acquire the skills?
Well, that story is a pretty strange one, but I attribute a lot of it to my parents. I was raised just outside of Detroit, Michigan. My mom raised me to believe I could do anything I set my mind to, and my dad was very skilled as a longtime Ford mechanic. I always had a bit of an obsessive, perfectionist streak when it came to reading, school and playing piano. So I think the right ingredients were there from the beginning.
My dad taught me a lot about cars when I was younger, though I can't say I enjoyed it much at the time. He showed me how to get covered in coolant while changing out a radiator, how to stay in a good mood when a 4-hour job turned into a 2-day ordeal, and made me an absolute expert in pointing a flashlight precisely where it needed to be pointed. One particularly vivid memory involved driving his little white Ranger down the street at the age of 13 while he lay in the bed of the truck with his head under the rear bumper, trying to isolate a rattling noise in the rear suspension. My mom didn't like that one very much.
I caught my first glimpses of the world of mechanics through my dad, but it was my mom who really helped develop my mind and my love of learning. She encouraged me to read as much as I wanted to as a kid, and brought me to the local library all the time. She always made me feel that although school was important, it was learning itself that was the most important, and that libraries held all the knowledge I could ever want to gain. I spent a ton of time on a beanbag in my room reading anything and everything that interested me.
I didn't have much of an interest in woodworking until my early 20s, when I came to it via an unlikely avenue — I developed an interest in making drums. I had been a drummer since high school, and would tour the country with my best friends throughout most of my 20s. But I got interested in making drums soon after college. I really enjoyed the idea of making musical instruments for my friends, and over the years I was glad to make several drum sets and snare drums.
A formative experience for me was a visit home when I was about 21. I had brought along a snare drum shell I was working on for a friend, and my dad must have seen me drilling the lug holes by hand, because he went to a local pawn shop and got me a cheap little drill press for $15. That was my first machine, and it amazed me how much it improved the results I was getting.
Soon after that, when I was 22, my dad died from an infection following a vascular bypass. He had had many, many procedures of this kind later in life. I thought I was okay, but looking back I can see that I was devastated. His sudden decline hit my family pretty hard. But I found an unlikely way to start to work through my grief in woodworking, which was then just a hobby. It was soon after that that I first started reading about clocks. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was sublimating my grief. In combining my love of reading with a desire to learn more about my dad's work, I think I was searching for a way forward.
Q. Tell me about the first thing you ever made from wood. What about the first clock you made?
The first thing I ever made from wood was a Pinewood Derby car. It was not pretty, and it did not win any prizes. But I remember being proud of it. I believe I made it in the shape of a convertible and painted "WWF" on the side of it. I made that first car completely on my own, but my dad helped me the next year and we made it to the state championships, which was pretty wild. I remember there were a lot of people there who cared about winning a lot more than we did.
Around 2012, I was working in Lansing as a forklift driver, trying to work through my grief and figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I moved to Kalamazoo that year, and that was when I connected with a great woodworker and friend named Gerren Young who made drums, furniture, and all manner of other things in a rented space on the north side of Kalamazoo. He was very patient and generous with his time, and taught me a lot about how to run the machines and be safe doing it. Not long after that, I started on my first clock. I can still remember the look on Gerren's face when he first saw me cutting out each gear tooth by hand on a scroll saw. Today I'm grateful he let me do it the hard way. Gerren and I have now shared a shop for about 6 years, and he does a lot of great work for me when it comes to wood sculpture and finishing.
That first clock was a design from Clayton Boyer, a clockmaker based in Hawaii. It taught me a lot about friction. The movement of that clock now hangs in the study of one of my best friends, another great woodworker named Aaron Stinson. Soon after I finished that first clock, I read a book about John Harrison called "Longitude," and that was what set me on fire. I started reading everything I could about horology, especially the work of John Harrison, Phillip Woodward, George Daniels and Martin Burgess, and felt a burning desire to forge a path of my own in the world of horology.
Q. Of all the brilliant watchmakers in history, why does John Harrison's work stand out to you in particular?
Harrison's work resonates with me for many reasons, but as with most people, the first thing that drew me toward him was the brilliant ingenuity of his grasshopper escapement. I first came upon it as a description and series of diagrams in Philip Woodward's book, "My Own Right Time." I still remember the feeling of "stretching" in my mind as I first understood the mechanics of what was happening there. After that, I read everything I could about Harrison and his work, from "Longitude" by Dava Sobel to a copy of a rare book by W.S. Laycock that a clockmaker in Australia was kind enough to mail to me. I still owe him a beer for that, actually.
In the years following my first introduction to Harrison, I'd find many reasons to love his approach to horology beyond the kinematics of his escapement. His ability to hone in and find novel solutions to mechanical problems over and over is absolutely astounding, and it wasn't until after I'd started working to replicate his unique approach to gearing (slender teeth meshing with oversized rollers made from a rare, self-lubricating exotic wood called Lignum Vitae) that I learned these elements all formed part of a hidden system.
As Martin Burgess wrote in his paper found in "The Quest for Longitude," Harrison moved toward solving the longitude problem not by suppressing error in his clock's timekeeping, but by using various kinds of error to counterbalance one another and cancel each other out. Rather than fight circular deviation of the pendulum by making the arc as small as possible, as many clockmakers did, Harrison used and controlled the amount of circular deviation to counter the effects of environmental influences like temperature and pressure changes.
Reading that was a revelation for me, and it drove me to find a way to pursue my work full- time. Although I have not yet done Harrison's system justice to date, I'm slowly working toward that in my sculptural timepieces. I hope one day to be able to create a piece that showcases the best aspects of Harrison's work, and I hope to do it predominantly in wood.
Q. Working with wood surely entails special considerations. What kinds of woods, treatments or techniques are involved? Does wood have particular benefits for clockmaking?
I use wood for much of my work for a few reasons, but as much as I'm enthralled by mechanical detail, my original reason for using wood still remains most important to me: Most of all, I just love the warmth and beauty that it brings to sculpture. Sitting in front of a large, gently ticking piece with exposed wooden mechanical elements and a slow pendulum is a very enjoyable, peaceful experience.
The first time I made a clock with a 4-second pendulum (inspired by modern clockmaker James Borden), I think I just sat in front of it for an hour, slowly sinking in deeper and absorbing its quiet energy. That sort of pulse can temporarily change the way you experience the passage of time. The nearest thing I can compare that feeling to is the one you get listening to the breeze pick up and die down over and over again in an oak forest, rustling millions of leaves. If you can slow down to that pace, you feel like the void itself is breathing, and that you're a part of it.
Aside from that effect, I enjoy using wood because of the challenges it presents. Wood itself "breathes" with changes in humidity, and that can cause big problems for mechanical work unless careful precautions are taken with the design and the material. At the design level, I lay out my gear spokes and felloes so that they are almost completely free to breathe across the grain, and so that changes in humidity and temperature cause the wheel to change in a radially symmetrical pattern.
At the material level, all my lumber is kiln-dried and often seasoned a second time in an oven to a specific moisture level. That ensures that the dimensional change is as small as possible in finished wheels, pulleys, and levers. In recent years, I've also moved toward inserting every tooth of my wheels individually for maximum strength and uniformity. This goes a long way toward reducing friction throughout the piece, because it allows for very slender teeth and very large pinion rollers.
Q. What are some woodworking tools you use that are specific to clockmaking?
I use a full, modern woodworking shop, and that means a variety of the usual machines and hand tools. The tools that are specific to clockmaking are more in the metalworking/machining realm, though I use them for woodworking quite often. (This necessitates a lot of dust collection and cleaning.)
In the past several years, I've taught myself a lot about machining, and that has improved the precision of my work by an order of magnitude. My current setup includes a very old Dalton Lathe made in New York in 1918, a Deckel KF2 pantograph milling machine and precision Rambold turret lathe both made in Germany in the 1960s, a Bridgeport milling machine, and a Hardinge HC lathe, which has recently proven a great help for shorter work. I think it's the synergy of that sort of tooling with the more traditional elements of woodworking that bring a balance of precision and warmth to my work.
Q. Your clocks typically don't feature dials. How important is it that they're accurate and can be used to read the time?
It's very important to me that they're accurate, but anyone who has read a horological periodical on pendulum science will understand that attempting perfection in that regard would completely change what I do. My smaller scale clocks are accurate to within a few seconds a day, thanks to the use of a remontoire mechanism. Working on my large scale, I am happy to get my pieces accurate to within 10 or so seconds a day. Much further than that, and I would need to start to sacrifice the artistic elements that make my work unique. As I mentioned before, I do hope to go further in that realm one day by exploring Harrison's system, but for the moment, I am a bit too busy with commissioned work for private collectors.
Q. How does the scale of your works and the space they will occupy affect the fabrication techniques, creative process and final product?
The scale actually does not change much about how my clocks are fabricated. The frames are all hand-shaped in the end, large or small, and all the precision work is done in much the same way on my old manual machines. The creative process remains more or less the same, but the choices made regarding mechanical design, aesthetic form, and materials are what make each one different.
Q. Besides John Harrison, what other clockmakers, artists or other figures inspire you?
There are many, and for many reasons. George Daniels is my other favorite horologist, though his work is obviously completely different from mine. There is a phrase he used sometimes in interviews — "tranquility of mind" — that first drew me toward him, and I've since read all his books and wished for more. Most recently I've been studying his calendar work for a current project of mine. Aside from clock and watchmakers, I really enjoy the sculptural work of Wendell Castle, first introduced to me by a client and friend of mine who lives in Rochester. His lamination work is incredible, and I hope to be able to adopt some of the methods that contributed to his prolific output.
Q. Do other interests (hobbies, products, etc.) influence your clockmaking?
Reading and researching mechanical design is probably the biggest influence on my actual clockmaking, but I also try to keep my eye open to inspiration while I'm out in nature. I love camping, hiking, kayaking, and pretty much anything that gets me away from the day-to-day and into my self. I find I'm most balanced as a human when I'm making time for things like that. I also enjoy shooting my longbow, fishing for trout on small creeks, and cooking.
Q. Is there an ambitious project or challenge you are working toward or dreaming of for the future?
Yes. I'm presently at work on a project called L1 that has been years in the making. It is a limited-run timepiece that will feature a remontoire, lunar phase complication, and the smallest "Harrisonian" gearing I've attempted yet. This has been a monumental effort so far, and I've felt very grateful that my clients have been as patient as they have. I'm also working on several extremely large pieces that are a different sort of challenge. The largest gears in those pieces are 34" in diameter and have 240 individually inserted teeth. Two of those pieces will feature calendar complications. I hope to release almost all of this commissioned work this year, and then make some time to decide which direction I'd like to go next.