HE PUTS HOURS INTO HIS WORK Cabinetmaker creates cases for fine clocks, restores antique ones


Clocks make Thomas Blumenfeld tick.

But he doesn't make them tick.

When Mr. Blumenfeld, a Defense Department analyst by trade and woodworker by avocation, decided to turn his attention to clock-case building, he was choosing a craft that for all the skill it requires has earned little acclaim for even its most gifted practitioners.

Traditionally, when one identifies a clock as a "so-and-so," one is talking about the person who built the machine's internal workings. The artisan who carved the graceful turned spindles, rubbed the case to satin smoothness or inlaid it with an intricate scene made of rare woods often toiled in obscurity.

"Case-making was, in the early days of the time-keeping industry in this country, an attendant trade," Mr. Blumenfeld admits. "Lots of times it was done by moonlighting coffin-makers."

"Some of the most beautiful pieces we know of, we don't know who made the cases. They were hardly ever signed," he adds.

Perhaps he will change all this; perhaps in future centuries experts will examine a clock case and be able to assert authoritatively, "This is a Blumenfeld." But even if this doesn't happen, the young clock-builder is getting a lot of personal gratification from his hobby-turned-business: creating handcrafted clock cases using pre-Industrial Revolution methods, and restoring the beauty of damaged and timeworn antique cases.

The heirloom-quality clocks built by Mr. Blumenfeld and his father Hank, who started Thos. and H. W. Blumenfeld Fine Clockbuilders last summer, hark back to those "golden age" days of the 18th and early 19th centuries before standardization and mechanization took over the clock-building trade -- and long before clocks were shaped with computerized milling equipment and machine-finished to anonymous perfection.

The garage workshop in the younger Mr. Blumenfeld's Ellicott City house is well-stocked with tools, only some of which are power tools. While some of the work is roughed out with modern tools, he admits, it is all hand-finished. The clocks are then fitted with modern brass clock movements or with reproduction antique clockworks. Tom Blumenfeld also paints his own clock faces and glass panels; some are decorated with birds or flowers, and one bears a portrait of the State House in Annapolis.

After touring the home of Tom and Tracy Blumenfeld, checking out the variety of tall-case (grandfather), wall and shelf clocks Mr. Blumenfeld has built, and realizing the range of skills needed to complete a single piece, one might find it hard to believe that he has been involved in the craft for only a few years.

"My dad has always been an excellent cabinetmaker, not by trade, but by avocation," he says. "When he was building the club basement in the family home I would go down and get in his way, and try to create as many disturbances for him as possible. I guess when I was doing that I absorbed a lot of what he knows by osmosis."

Tom Blumenfeld became interested in learning woodworking techniques when he and his wife moved into their current home, in a suburban development of Colonial houses. The couple, who admire the Williamsburg look, decided that they would like 18th century-style wainscoting in the living room, and Mr. Blumenfeld chose to do the work himself with his father's help. He turned out to have a special facility for woodworking, and when the wainscoting (made of fir and pine, stained, shellacked and hand-rubbed) was finished he tried his hand at a craft he'd long taken an interest in -- clocks.

"I thought it might be interesting, if not lucrative, for me to get involved in case-making and case restoration and conservation," says. "I thought, 'Well, I can either think about it all my life, or I can actually go ahead and do it.' "

Woodworking was not the only skill the men had to master when they decided to go into business together. Research was necessary, too. Trips to the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors museum and library in Columbia, Pa., and discussions with the museum's curator John Metcalfe helped familiarize them with the original clocks and the techniques used in their manufacture. They absorbed so much knowledge that Mr. Metcalfe hired them for a project of his own: restoring a carriage clock from his personal collection.

The Blumenfelds will custom-make clocks to individual customers' specifications. (Within reason, of course -- they take authenticity seriously, so don't ask them to take egregious liberties with the design.) Other clocks are made "on spec," and several have been available at the Enchanted Cottage in Ellicott City, a shop specializing in reproduction antique furniture and accessories.

"We would be interested, ultimately, in attracting the attention of architects and interior designers who would like to furnish homes or businesses with pieces they may not otherwise be able to acquire," Tom Blumenfeld says.

Photographs are the inspiration for many of the Blumenfelds' designs. When the original clock is not on hand, Tracy Blumenfeld, a mathematician with the Defense Department, does the calculating involved to translate the photo into a blueprint for a full-sized clock. (It's truly a family business; Hank Blumenfeld's wife Olive handles the advertising.)

Tom Blumenfeld especially values the touches of individuality found in clocks of an earlier time; the craftsmen may not have left their names behind, but their work had a force of personality that has since been lost.

"Now if you see a tall-case or hall clock you like, you can get the model number and go down to Ethan Allen or whatever and purchase it. The machine-made clocks are very nice, but the problem with them is that they're all exactly alike. The mark of the hand is completely absent on the work you see today. I have an ogee clock upstairs that still has the fingerprints of the individual who pressed the hinges into the door mortises. That clock's about 145 years old. That individual lives on in a way, in the fact that his fingerprints are still on those brass hinges."

He continues this tradition by leaving in some tool marks or other small flaw "to give the owner something to remember me by."

Much of the Blumenfelds' business to date has been devoted to restoration, and national advertising has brought in clients from as far away as California. Occupying the workshop are several vintage timepieces in various states of repair, each awaiting its renaissance.

"We take pride in the fact that we take on the basket cases," Mr. Blumenfeld says. Among the clocks that seemed to be beyond repair was an Eli Terry shelf clock (circa 1820), extensively damaged in a Catonsville restaurant fire. He bought the clock, restored the case and turned the soot-blackened wooden movement over to his neighbors and colleagues Lee and Lynn Flemister of the Old Clockworks, who restore antique clock movements. Restored, Mr. Blumenfeld says, the clock should be worth about $900.

The financial rewards are still small, though, and Tom Blumenfeld is not yet ready to quit his day job for the demanding field of clock-building.

"Our credibility right now is more important than the monetary aspect of it. It's just the two of us executing all this work, and most of the work has to be done by hand. It's very time-consuming, and it's difficult to charge people what your efforts are worth."

But, he says, "I eventually would like to do this as a living. I'm going to see how the market responds to it, and what kind of opportunities are available."

"I like the smell of the wood when it's being cut, and I like the smell of walnut dust in my clothes. There's something about having a little wood dust in your beard that makes life seem so much more fulfilling than pushing a pencil."

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