Q&A with Robert Thren

February 20, 2013 

City of Residence: Warner Robins

Occupation: Owner-operator, B&B Clock Shop

QUESTION: What got you interested in clocks?

ANSWER: The truth is, back in the days when Jimmy Carter was president I retired from the Army where I’d been an instrument repairman. I was looking for a job and a place called Village Clocks in Louisville, Ky., wanted a clock repairman. Being an instrument repairman, I figured I could do it. The owner wanted to see my ID card then showed me his Navy ID and said if I put in 20 years with the Army he guessed I had enough patience to fix clocks.

QUESTION: Is that the number one requirement for fixing clocks?

ANSWER: It is. Patience. I got hired, and they showed me the basics, and I went from there. In 1980 I opened my own place called Bob’s Clock Shop.

QUESTION: When did you come to Warner Robins?

ANSWER: In 2005. We had moved to Florida where I had a shop but left Florida due to the hurricanes. I don’t mind them so much, but my wife is sick and has to be on oxygen 24 hours a day and always needs electricity.

QUESTION: In a nutshell, how do clocks work?

ANSWER: Power goes in once place then goes out through the escapement by means of the gear train, a complex system of gears. Everything has to be exactly right, or it just ain’t going to work. You can’t swap just any old part or gear in or out and expect it to work.

QUESTION: What’s the number one thing that goes wrong with clocks?

ANSWER: They get dirty because people never have them serviced. They get gummed up and dirty, which causes excessive wear. People don’t read the instructions when they buy their clock or do what it tells them about getting it serviced.

QUESTION: Are traditional clocks passé? Manual, windup, pendulum clocks and even electric clocks?

ANSWER: A lot of young people today can’t even look at a face clock and tell what time it is. They look at their iPad or whatever to tell the time. A lot of younger people aren’t even buying clocks for their new homes, but when they get to be in their 40s and 50s they discover clocks and then they want them.

QUESTION: There are probably a lot of inherited clocks out there.

ANSWER: In Florida, people would sell me their grandma’s old clock or a grandfather clock for enough to go out and buy a meal. I’d fix it up and resell it.

QUESTION: How many clocks do you think you’ve repaired?

ANSWER: That’s tough. I went to work every day and worked on clocks. I’m sure I’ve done 10,000 or more. When I repair a clock, I take it apart and clean it and make sure every piece is right. If I need a part, I pick up the phone or go to the catalog and get the right part instead of trying to make something work that shouldn’t be in there. That’s what a lot of so-called repairmen do.

QUESTION: What’s your business like now in Warner Robins?

ANSWER: Strictly repairs and I’m not really soliciting business these days. It’s more of a paid hobby now. I get work by word of mouth and from friends of people who I’ve fixed clocks for. I work out of a shop at my house and don’t accept business from anyone who comes to my door. I’m 72 and not in as good a health as I once was, so I’m cutting down the hours.

QUESTION: What’s your proudest repair?

ANSWER: I’ve done so many that’s hard to say. Meeting people is a big part of what I like about it, and I’ve been able to meet a lot of great people. I’ve repaired clocks in the old governor’s mansion in Milledgeville and for the owners of McCullough Chainsaws -- they had an ancient one.

QUESTION: I guess you have quite a specialty tool collection.

ANSWER: Yeah, I’ve got quite a few. I’ve pretty much got the right tool for anything I need to do. I also have ultrasonic cleaning equipment. A lot of people who repair clocks won’t go to the expense of getting that or the expense of buying a good cleaning solution for it.

QUESTION: What keeps you repairing the clocks you do take in?

ANSWER: A clock is a big puzzle; that’s what it is. I enjoy working with my hands, and I enjoy figuring out the problem, fixing it and getting it back together working right. I’ve got one on the bench right now that’s being difficult. The difficulty has a lot to do with the size gears a clock has. Most grandfather clocks are pretty large and fairly easy to deal with. The smaller it is usually means the harder it is.

Compiled by Michael W. Pannell. Contact him at mwpannell@gmail.com.

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