The man who repaired Town Hall's clocks

Graf works on the Plexiglas door where a clock used to be.Graf works on the Plexiglas door to the
cupola where a clock used to be.

Walk past Swanson Jewelers, across from Town Hall. Look up at pineapple-topped cupola that crowns the 100-year-old hall. What else do you see up there that may stand out?

It's the clock, whose hands now shimmer with gold. Watch for a while, and the hands move. After 20-some years, the old clock is working again.

The repaired timepiece, dating from 1956, was to have been unveiled June 7, a surprise on the evening of the celebration of Town Hall's birthday, but torrents of rain scotched that.

Instead, Richard A. Duffy, as he discussed the ups and downs of Town Hall highest perch, slid in the announcement that the clock had been fixed with "not a penny of taxpayer money."

Referring to the clock's freshly gilded hands, he said, "Now you will be able to see it." And, if you look, you can.

The two-month repair was substantially completed in the nick of time -- the day before the celebration -- by David W. Graf, who is known locally for his work at the Schwamb Mill, and his assistant, Judy Andrews.

"The day [in May] that a lot of the installation was done," he said, "it was 96 degrees."

David W. Graf with his handiwork atop Town Hall.David W. Graf with his handiwork atop Town Hall.

Graf, who has been restoring antique clocks for 23 years, met for an hour. Before climbing on the roof, we took a side trip to the balcony in Town Hall Auditorium.

Above the hall, empty of Town Meeting members -- or anyone -- he pointed to the pendulum clock at the top rear of back wall. Its electrical mechanism, built by the Standard Electric Time Co., after the firm moved to Springfield in 1911, originally sent signals every 60 seconds to the cupola, which once had clocks on each of its four faces.

As Moderator John Leone called Town Meeting members back after a 9:30 p.m. 10-minute break, few knew what power that clock used to have.

Now, the round face at the rear of the cupola is covered by a Plexiglas door, allowing workers a way to get inside the clock. New electrical equipment now keeps the outside clocks running.

Up on the roof

Graf and a reporter climbed to the baked roof of Town Hall. The interview took place in cool. Inside the cupola, Town Hall's high point, which had been rebuilt in the 1930s after a lightning strike.

No lightning threat that hot, dry early afternoon (that would come later, after a storm moved through) -- only the ongoing threat that water brings to tower clocks, the years of storms that damaged the original timepieces.

"Hmmmm," Graf puzzled June 17, noting condensation on the glass of a newly installed unit and running a finger over one of the numerous cracks inside the cupola.

He is a tall, careful man. Asked about his attraction to clocks, he took awhile to answer.

"You can see the craft," he said, pointing to one of the original circular clock frames. It appeared to be one piece, but it was really four. The care involved hid that.

"I like the materials [in clock] -- brass and bronze." For him, the words sounded personal.

Key suggestion for repair

In May 2012, Graf made a key suggestion for his Town Hall work:

"I recently re-examined the tower clock room/dials/mechanisms/conditions .... Essentially, the basic scope of work has not changed, although my understanding of the requirements and difficulties of the project has been refreshed and slightly clarified.

"Please note that the contrast of the colors of the dials/hands/numerals at this time is very low and thus reading the time indicated by the clocks is difficult."

He outlined options "to improve this situation (beyond the replacement of the glass with milky white cast acrylic as included in this proposal)."

The option the town chose added gold to the clock hands.

Repair In his New Hampshire machine shop, not far from his home in Kittery Point, Maine, involved: soldering brass on the back of the damaged hands to stiffen them against the elements.

All dials were removed, stripped, lightly sanded, primed and painted with two coats of exterior industrial-gloss, black, oil-based enamel.

The four-pointed cast-bronze decoration on each set of hands in the very center and is attached to the minute hand. It is decorative only, and one was missing. Graf had a duplicate cast at Mystic Valley Foundry in Cambridge.

On the hands, to make them stand out, he put 23-karat XX patent gold leaf. It involves a process of preparing the surface and transferring the leaf.

As he explained, we peered down into a dark, six-foot-deep well, accessible via ladder, where town electricians installed the master box, which made it all work.

$13,500 cost to be split

Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine said June 21 that the Centennial Committee decided to contribute event proceeds toward the clock repair, so the $13,500 cost will be shared equally between the Town Hall Rental fund and the proceeds from the event.
A member of the National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors, he has not always been steeped in time and the pieces that track it.

Before clockwork, he was a professional musician, playing electric guitar in a rock-'n'-roll band and had been working on a master's degree in biology.

All in the family?

Perhaps detailed craftsmanship was in his blood. His father grew up on a farm in Wisconsin and was "always fixing things .... He knew how things worked. He knew the fundamental reasons."

His father became a chemist, working for the government in Frederick, Md., where Dave grew up.

Asked how he found his calling, he said, "By accident."

About 1990, at Boott Mills in Lowell, he was initially turning decorative finials as well as constructing and repairing curved-staircase handrails, when he saw that the tower clock needed fixing. He turned in a bid and got the job.

The work involved restoring the 1870s E. Howard Tower Clock mechanism at the mills to running condition.

Like his dad, he "figured out" how the Boott Mills clock worked by watching carefully and what needed to be done to repair it.

"Early, after first getting the clock running, I used to arrive at the Boott Mills and begin climbing the tower staircase and listen for the sound of the clock running -- ticking -- above.

"That was pretty nice," he said.

After that, he said, he "fell in love" with the crafts -- a love that led to work at the Rollins School in Lawrence, Somerville Town Hall, the Cambridge City Hall tower clock, and beyond New England, to clocks in New York City. See a list at his website >>

Motivated by music

Leaving Town Hall's roof, Graf was asked about his music. He responded immediately, with no pause to parse that.

He is in a band called Seasmoke, a guitar/bass/drums trio that performs in the Portsmouth, N.H., area, though it has played at the Old Schwamb Mill.

"Our music is wide-ranging," he said. It includes jazz, swing, blues, country, Chet Atkins, finger-picking, vintage rock, Ray Charles, Louis Jordan, Jimi Hendrix, Mose Allison, Chuck Berry, Doc Watson and many originals.

How different from tasks that keep clocks running.

This story was published Friday, June 28, 2013.