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Clockmaking duo seeking another hand

When Steve Kelly was establishing himself in the antiques business in Fredericksburg, he visited shops in the famous Portabello Road district in his native London in search of unusual pieces.

One that came back with him from one of those trips was an old, elegant clock, which he tried his best to get running.

His efforts were in vain, though he quickly realized two things: how much he enjoyed tinkering with the clock’s mechanisms and how much he respected the craftsmanship of the clockmaker who’d made it.

The interest was enough to send him to a school of horology—“the art of making instruments for indicating time”—run by the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors in Columbia, Pa.

He followed that with an apprenticeship in Boston with a master clockmaker who could trace his line of apprenticeship back to one of the first Colonial craftsmen.

That training gave Kelly the grounding he needed to start a clock shop in the back of his Fredericksburg Antique Gallery on Caroline Street. But it came with a caveat.

“He charged me with passing on this knowledge to others, to help keep the art of clockmaking alive,” said Kelly. “I really want to do that.”

To that end, Kelly and his partner, Steve Rogers, will be holding a special instructional open house Saturday at the shop at 1023 Caroline St. From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., they will demonstrate the mechanisms that keep the beats of clocks from different centuries ticking.

They have an array of gears and other parts to give folks an idea of what’s behind a clock’s face.

The partners say they hope to do open houses like this once or twice a year. They would also love to find a young person who would like to learn some clock basics, so the pair can pass along their combined 50 years of experience.

“These days, so many young people want to spend their time with electronics and video games,” Kelly said. “But for the right person, there might be a unique appeal in all of this.”

Kelly was thrilled to have Rogers join him in the shop almost three years ago. The 50-year-old Kelly answers to “Tick;” the 56-year-old Rogers goes by “Tock.” A friend suggested the nicknames and they stuck.

Rogers, who did an apprenticeship in a clock shop in California after a 26-year career in the Coast Guard, typically works on clocks made closer to the end of the 20th century.

Kelly specializes in the older clocks, and especially enjoys working on ones that date back to the 18th and 19th centuries.

A banjo clock built in the 1830s hangs on the wall in the shop. The name comes from the shape of the clock.

Pull the cover off the base and you can see handwritten dates and names of the clockmakers who’ve worked on it through the years.

“Looking at the mechanisms, you can see clues as to how the clocks themselves were built, tracings where the maker scribed the spot for gears, pinions and more,” he said.

Tick and Tock have each built a clock of their own.

“When you repair the older clocks, there aren’t parts to order to repair them, as each part was handcrafted by the clockmaker who made them,” said Rogers. “So you have to know how to make each and every part.”

The twosome, who have an impressive array of lathes, presses and other tools, say it takes so long to make a new clock from stock that the cost is prohibitive.

“It’s why we’re in the clock repair business and not full-time clockmakers,” Kelly said with a smile, though he has had customers express interest in having clocks custom-made.

Repairs often involve grandfather clocks. The shop draws customers from Williamsburg to Richmond to Washington.

Kelly, who also operates Fredericksburg Antique Mall, said much of this work involves trying to undo repairs made by folks who didn’t know what they were doing.

The British-born craftsman, who built cabinets and houses in earlier careers, has been in Fredericksburg since the early 1980s.

“When we had the shop in the rear of the antique gallery, folks would stand and watch me work for long stretches,” he said.

He and Rogers hope that interest extends to the open house this Saturday.

Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415