On the clock

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
Martin Rhodes rarely has extra time on his hands.

As the building inspector for the City of Hillsboro, Rhodes goes about his daily work with one eye on the clock and both hands immersed in his routine.

But when he clocks out for the day and returns home, often he has both eyes-as well as both hands-on the clock.

That’s because Rhodes has become a proficient clock maker.

“I’ve built 27 clocks over the years, 24 of those were grandmother clocks,” Rhodes said.

A grandmother clock, he said, is less than 6 feet tall and a grandfather clock is taller than 6 feet.

Rhodes’s interest in woodworking began during his youth.

“In high school I took a shop class, and that’s what really got me interested-although I didn’t do much else for years,” he said.

He said his interest in clocks began when a friend brought by a set of plans for one but lacked the tools to build it.

“I was working for a school system in Texas and had all the shop equipment available to me, so we built his clock and I built myself one off his plans,” Rhodes said.

“And that’s the only clock I’ve ever built off plans.”

Since that modest beginning, Rhodes, who recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of his marriage to Fran, has perfected his woodworking skills in a variety of venues, including home construction, kitchen and bathroom remodeling and projects for the City of Hillsboro.

For the past 46 years, Rhodes has used his talents to make clocks as beautiful as you’ll find anywhere.

“I’ve made a clock for all my kids, but the rest of them I’ve made for individuals and sold,” he said. “One time in Amarillo, they did a story about my clocks and that brought me over 10 jobs.”

Over the years, Rhodes has gone through three different companies from which to buy the clockworks for his creations. His favorite is Emperor Clocks of North Carolina.

“They have the best selection I’ve ever found,” he said.

The price for the clockworks ranges from $400 to as much as $1,600.

“The very first thing I do is select the clockworks because the clock itself has to be built around the pendulum swing and the length,” he said. “I have to know how wide and how long it has to be to accommodate the works I’ll be using.”

Rhodes said each customer is allowed to incorporate his or her individual style into each clock, including the wood to be used. He has used walnut, pine, maple and cherry woods in the past.

“Five years ago, the cherry lumber I used cost about $8.50 per board foot,” he said. “But 40 years ago, that same lumber would run about 40 to 50 cents per foot.”

Inflation, Rhodes said, has had a major impact on his clock-making work.

“The very first clock I ever built, the material and the works I used cost less than $100-and I used walnut wood,” he said, shaking his head. “I’d have to venture walnut would cost about $15 per board foot now.”

Those costs have a tendency to escalate. Each grandfather clock Rhodes crafts uses about 100 board feet of raw lumber.

“There’s a lot of waste,” he said. “For the bells and things like that, I start with a square piece of board, cut it out with a handsaw and the rest is a tremendous amount of handwork to make it look like I want.

“I just use a measuring tape and eye it, so there might be some slight differences-but not enough that you can notice it.”

Rhodes begins building the base of the cabinet and works his way up. His workshop is equipped with tools and accessories accumulated over the years.

“I have just about any tool you need to work with wood,” he said proudly. “Some of my equipment, like my radial arm saw, is 40 years old. I’m still using it on every single job.”

He also has three tablesaws, drum sanders, edge sanders, band saws and “just a multitude of hand tools like routers and things like that.”

“After I find out what kind of clock people want, I’ll make a sketch. But people usually just let me do whatever I think looks good,” he said. “I never know until I’m finished exactly what the clock is going to look like.

“But I have an idea in my head when I start.”

Rhodes starts with a pile of lumber waiting to be shaped into into a one-of-a-kind product. Each board is then sent through a thickness planer to achieve the desired thickness. Rhodes then glues the lumber together to the desired width.

“I never use any boards wider than 5 inches,” he said. “If I need a board 12 inches wide, I’ll biscuit-joint it together so it will not warp or crack.”

After the glue dries, Rhodes uses a drum sander and 100, 150 and finally 220 grit sandpaper to get the desired texture.

Rhodes also makes nearly all of the molding used on his clocks.

“Once in a while there’s some trim I have to buy, but that happens very seldom,” he said. “Most of it I make with my shaper.”

Rhodes estimates he invests between 100 and 150 hours in each clock.

“More than half of that time is in the finishing-like sanding, staining and varnishing,” he said. “The clock we have in our house-that I made for Fran for her 65th birthday-has about 20 coats of finish.

“That way I get the buildup that protects it, makes it shiny and makes the clock durable and a little more scratch resistant,” he added. “It’s sort of like an automobile-the more coats you get on the finish, the better it’s going to look.”

Rhodes said his clocks aren’t affordable for everyone.

“All told, if I was to get my cost of materials out of a clock, along with my time, the grandfather clocks would cost about $3,500,” he said. “But the fact that my clocks are hand built and custom made are what sets them apart from others.

“You could actually go into a store and buy a grandfather clock for less money, but mine are all originals,” he said. “If I make one I really like, I still won’t copy it because then two people will have the same clock and I don’t want that.”

Rhodes said his wife has been an integral part of his clock production over the years.

“Sometimes she can see things I don’t see,” he said. “Fran is a big part of my clock-making.”

Over the years, Rhodes said his techniques and knowledge have improved.

“I’ve learned a lot of shortcuts and how to make clocks better and tweak their styles,” he said. “There’s not a project that goes by that I don’t learn at least one thing that will make it either better or quicker.

“I just love to do woodwork and read a lot of magazines that give hints about what others have done.”

Just how many more clocks are in Rhodes’s future is still uncertain, but none will be made in haste.

“I could probably make a clock in two weeks if that’s all I worked on, but I’d never do that,” Rhodes said. “I need time to think about what I want it to look like and how I’ll get to that point.”

An early riser, Rhodes said his days normally begin at 4 a.m.

“I do my best thinking before the sun comes up,” he said.

Rhodes relishes the feeling of delivering a clock to another satisfied customer.

“I get great satisfaction knowing I’ve gotten another clock done,” he said. “When I put that last finishing touch on a clock, I just step back and look at it-and I’m pleased with the finished product.”

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