The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, September 30, 2005


The clockmaker's art

Richard Ketchen (Photo by Ellen Huber)

People in Carlisle contribute to the town in a number of ways. Some civic-minded residents run for public office, and others serve on town boards. Then there's long-time Carlislean Richard Ketchen. He contributes his clockmaking skills to the Gleason Library. While professing to be unqualified for FinCom, he says, "I do know a lot about clocks," which is rather an understatement. "That's something I can contribute to the town, so I take care of the library's clocks. All of these clocks have been fully restored, and occasionally I oil them and treat any problems they might come up with."

The Gleason Public Library owns four antique clocks — on the first floor, next to the stairway, stands a majestic grandfather clock, and a schoolhouse clock, made by Seth M. Thomas, is mounted on the wall near the reference desk. Another grandfather clock commands the top of the stairway, and a wall clock, recently purchased with funds donated by a former library trustee, keeps time in the Hollis Room. For this layperson, Ketchen explains that "grandfather clock" is synonymous with "tall clock" or "long-case clock" in England. The term was first used in 1876, when Henry Clay Work wrote the popular song, "My Grandfather's Clock."

Ketchen is enthusiastic about the Gleason Library's timepieces."The two tall clocks are just superb. They're a wonderful example of New England clockmaking, and both were made by local clockmakers — from Acton and Lexington."

The first-floor clock is beautiful. Hand-painted exotic birds decorate the dial, and the clock's hands are exquisite. The clockmaker's name, Nathan Edwards, of Acton is inscribed on the dial, and Ketchen estimates the clock was made between 1800 and 1810. Its case is rather ornate, with brass detailing. A written history of the clock was found inside the door when it was presented to the library in 1925.

Gleason Library to hold "Clock Talk" October 6
Gleason Public Library will host a "Clock Talk" on October 6 at 7 p.m. in the Hollis Room. Richard Ketchum will speak about antique clocks and the library clocks specifically.
The clock on the second floor is the work of Nathaniel Mulliken of Lexington, and was made around 1765. Its case is plain, but the clock is elegant and delivers a richly toned "tick-tock."

On Thursday, October 6 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. in the Hollis Room at the library, Richard Ketchen will talk about these timepieces, their provenance, their history, the clockmakers, and technical details about their movements ("but not too technical!"). The illustrated lecture is co-sponsored by the Gleason Public Library and the Carlisle Historical Society. It's free, and all are welcome.

A passion for clocks

Ketchen describes his business as "the restoration of antique clocks." His passion for clocks began just after he got out of the army in 1968, when he "sort of fell into it. I have a mechanical background, and I found that these clocks are very interesting, very mechanical, of course, and there's a huge amount of material written about them." He owns 700 books on clockmaking, and gradually, he taught himself the art of making clocks. He points out that clockmaking is not taught these days; there are various horological courses, but they cater mostly to the hobbyist. Ketchen was once a hobbyist, but when his engineering job ended 15 years ago, he thought he would do this "until something better came along—but, fortunately, nothing did. It's a dream come true, to be able to do this," he says.

Ketchen makes his own parts. "With clocks, there are very few parts you can buy," he points out. "You have to make everything. If there's a wheel or a pinion that's broken or missing, I have to figure out what it was, and I have to make it from scratch. I can make almost any part for any clock. It's just a matter of economics." Ketchen's primary tools, the same tools that clockmakers used 200 years ago, are basically jewelers' saws and files. "If you know how to use these tools skillfully, and you read the books, you can do it right." It's clear from Ketchen's passion for his work that he does it right, which often takes a good deal of time.

Asked about his favorite clock to work on, Ketchen replies, "I like to work on early American and English tall clocks, and American banjo clocks, mostly things that are hand-made. I try to specialize in the better clocks." He has a particular fondness for clocks in desperate shape — basket cases, you might say. "Sometimes I've taken clocks that just come in a basket, they're black and are missing parts — I love that, I can work a miracle with a clock like that!" In contrast, if a clock is in reasonably good shape when it reaches Ketchen, his fine-tuned work is not so obvious, except to other clockmakers.

Ketchen acknowledges modestly that his skills extend to other areas. A display case near the library's reference desk affirms his creativity — a set of tiny doll silverware, exquisitely wrought clock hands, a precision clock movement, and wooden file handles made by Ketchen that are works of art in themselves. "I like to work with good, high-quality tools and sometimes the only way to get those is to make them myself."

2005 The Carlisle Mosquito