Clock repairman one of a kind on North Fork

07/13/2011 8:30 AM |

BETH YOUNG PHOTO | Richard Reunis of Cutchogue is the North Fork's only clock repairman.

In the age of atomic timepieces, a clockmaker’s craft might not seem to be of much use.

But don’t say that to Richard Reunis, the North Fork’s only clock repairman, who pursues his trade in his Cutchogue home and has more clients than time to work on their clocks.

Mr. Reunis, 74, was trained in clockmaking during a three-year apprenticeship in his hometown of Antwerp, Belgium. After moving to the U.S. in 1959 with his wife, Jacqueline, he began working as a jeweler in New York City. He moved to Cutchogue in the 1960s to escape the rat race and seek a career that would feed his family better than that of a jeweler. Having been an auto mechanic in the Belgian Army, he found work as a Volkswagen repairman and, in 1969, became one of the founding owners of Riverhead Toyota.

He retired from the car business 20 years ago and was able to turn back to his first profession, which he describes as more of a calling than a vocation.

“We’re becoming very scarce,” he said of clockmakers. “But people like to give their clocks to their children. They pass that way, from parent to child.”

The oldest clock his hands have touched was built in 1670, and most of the timepieces he’s repaired are at least 100 years old.

Working on such antique machinery carries its own set of complications. Many parts no longer exist and when they fail, Mr. Reunis must craft new pieces by hand.

Like most craftsmen, he’s a perfectionist, insisting that clocks be repaired in his home so he can check if they’re working properly for a full 24 hours.

Most older clocks are driven by a spring or a weight, though clocks today are driven by electricity or batteries. Many modern electric clocks also receive a radio signal, known as Atomic Time, that keeps their time synced with Greenwich Mean Time.

That’s not the case with the clocks on Mr. Reunis’ workbench.

Keeping those springs and weights turning the gears at precisely the right speed is one of the key tasks a clockmaker must master. “There’s always a clock that gives me a hard time,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll wake up at two or three o’clock in the morning and realize exactly what is causing a clock to malfunction.”

Such was the case a week ago with a grandfather clock, owned by a plumber who decided to try to fix it himself. Instead, the man caused the gears to run irregularly. After a week of watching the gears move and attempting to figure out just what went wrong, Mr. Reunis awoke from a dream knowing just which piece of the intricate mechanism was out of sync. After several days of watching and waiting, he had the clock running almost up to his standards.

“A lot of people ask me if I tune pianos, too, because they’re both such perfectionist skills,” he said.

Mr. Reunis said there’s really no clock work any novice should take on at home. Instead, he said, take it to a professional every 10 years for a cleaning and oiling.

“Most often, they need cleaning and overhaul,” he said. “I put in new bushings and brass fittings. But a lot of the places that stock parts are out of business. It’s getting tougher and tougher to find parts.”

He cautioned that people should never touch a clock’s polished brass pieces with their bare hands. That causes the brass to turn black, he said, and a repair involves stripping the finish from the pieces and refinishing them. He often refuses to do such time-consuming work on a clock, in part because, in addition to and all of the word-of-mouth business his reputation as a clockmaker has generated, he’s kept busy with another retirement vocation, teaching tennis.

Mr. Reunis once worked on a clock that had a calendar page as the background behind its face. When he took the calendar out, he saw it was the page for April 1937, the month and year he was born. A closer look revealed that the clock’s bell was mounted on top of the day of his birth. He quickly called his mother to ask her if she recalled what day of the week he’d been born. She didn’t.

“It was a Saturday,” he told her, as the realization of the odds of finding such a thing in an old clock sent shivers down his spine.

The client who owned the clock allowed him to keep the calendar page.

As Mr. Reunis told that story, one of the clocks in his house struck its Westminster chimes for a quarter past three.

“That’s the same sound someone was listening to 200 years ago,” he said. “Clocks have a lot of mystery in a way.”

byoung@timesreview.com

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