- Associated Press - Saturday, March 8, 2014

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) - Time may be an enemy to some, but it’s Duane Steiger’s longtime companion.

For more than 40 years, Steiger and antique clocks have been inseparable. They’ve shared a rustic workshop next to his Gregg Township childhood home at the base of Egg Hill.

Clocks serenade him as he works at his scarred bench, restoring and repairing wooden cases and intricate brass movements, at peace. Not everyone would hear the harmony of steady ticking punctuated by chimes and cuckoos, but the owner of Steiger Clock Shop does. It’s been the soundtrack to his life, as constant as the view of a distant mountain ridge from his shop window.

On a winter afternoon, the romance continues.

Steiger, 75, examines a clock’s shiny innards arrayed before him: gears, shafts, precision crafted by masters more than a century ago. He’s redrilling a hole in a plate for a tiny bushing. The old brass “cuts hard,” impressing him.

“Look at how hard those flakes are,” he says. “It’s not that soft (modern) stuff with a lot of lead in it.”

His hands move steadily, like those of his clocks, patience born out of necessity. Parts are miniscule; subtle adjustments leave little room for error. He carves an almost invisible bevel on one side of the bushing hole to create a countersink for lubricating oil.

Based on the plate’s thickness and the hole’s diameter, he selects the correct bushing from a bushing gauge with tweezers.

“One thing you don’t want to do is drop this one on the floor,” Steiger says. “I don’t think you’ll ever see it again.”

With a bushing stake and a small hammer, he taps the bushing into place. But he’s not finished. Because his pounding squashed the bushing’s aperture ever-so slightly, it’s now a fraction too tight.

Out comes a cutting broach first, to shave off a microscopic layer from within the bushing, then a smoothing broach to polish out imperceptible marks in order for the gear to spin freely.

“This is going to put the finishing touch to that bushing,” Steiger says. “It’s going to make it run smooth.”

All his care usually pays off in the end - and not just because he submits a bill.

One of a vanishing breed, he gains the satisfaction of seeing a family heirloom, a historical artifact, come alive after years of slumber, marking time’s passage as its maker intended, singing its song again.

To Steiger, a real-life Geppetto at home in his shop’s clutter like the “Pinocchio” clockmaker, there’s nothing better. He’ll do what it takes, for a beautiful grandfather or mantel clock, frozen and silent, deserves no less.

“You’re very careful with them,” he says. “Not that you aren’t with other (clocks), but when you see a piece like that, you respect how it was built. And you use the same respect when you’re working on it.”

‘Work with my hands’

Other than a small porch sign indicating his business, Steiger’s home off Upper Georges Valley Road could be the farmhouse of his youth.

He grew up here with three brothers and a sister, all still living. His grandparents had purchased the property in 1914, moving to 13 acres from a bigger farm about a mile away.

Steiger was a classic country boy: bib overalls, one-room schoolhouse, self-reliance, ingenuity.

“I always liked mechanics,” he says. “I liked to work with my hands.”

His talents came in handy when nails from his worn-down soles bloodied his feet on the way to school.

Back home, he solved the problem by grinding down the nails on his father’s lathe.

“You had to fix your own stuff,” Steiger says. “I couldn’t depend on my dad because, at that time, he worked seven days a week.”

Another success story introduced him to clock repair.

He was just 10. His parents had given him a pocket watch for Christmas, and he took it everywhere, tied to his overalls with a shoestring.

One day at school, he fell while playing. The blow bent the watch case and knocked off a hand.

“Well, what am I going to do?” Steiger recalls thinking. “I didn’t want to show it to my parents because it would prove to them that I wasn’t very careful with what they gave me.”

A bit of sleuthing turned up a solution.

“I found some old junk watches around here that my uncle had, just in an old box, so I took and pried the case off of mine, and I found a hand.

“It wasn’t the same color but it fit. And I snapped it on and it worked. I thought, ‘Hey, this is fun.’ “

‘Something going all the time’

He had a few detours before settling down with clocks.

In 1959, he and a younger brother went to live with an older brother in Birmingham, Ala., while attending a mechanical drafting school.

But upon returning, Steiger couldn’t find a local drafting job. For the next decade, he instead picked up woodworking, building cabinets and furniture in his detached shop.

A new world opened when a friend showed him a disassembled clock.

“He brought it to me in a cigar box and wondered if I could put it together,” Steiger says. “Never seen one like it before. It was something new. But I thought, ‘Here’s a good challenge.’ “

Once done, he began building wooden clock cabinets, installing new movements sent by mail.

“And every movement I got, I had to rework. From shipping, they were out of balance,” he says.

“I had to make a lot of adjustments on them. That’s what really got me interested, when I had to put them in good condition.”

Though he loved wood, and still does, his woodworking trailed off. Unable to compete with hobby craftsmen and cheaper department store furniture, he looked elsewhere for a livelihood.

“I thought I better get into the clock making,” he says. “And it was very interesting.”

He built his shop, with its rough-hewn sides and beams, out of a smaller, older structure. In 1973, he opened for business.

At first, he also dabbled in wristwatches - until battery-powered quartz models came along and killed demand for mechanical repairs.

Now and then, he has plunged back into woodworking, making the occasional clock. One standout was an ornate oak grandfather clock, made to celebrate the nation’s 1976 bicentennial celebration, that featured a brass plate inscribed with the Declaration of Independence and 13 carved columns in honor of the original colonies.

Mostly, though, he has revived antique clocks, his knowledge gleaned from membership in a couple of professional guilds, trial and error, and dogged research.

“I got all the books that I could,” he says. “I got them out, read them, sent them back. I had something going all the time. I read everything I could on them, and that’s how I learned.”

‘Quality craftsmanship’

Early on, he discovered one fact. He loved the history behind clocks as much as the complex machinery behind their faces.

“There’s a story to every old clock,” he says.

Among his best recollections was the time a Huntingdon County high school history teacher brought him a small clock housed in a unassuming-looking wooden casing.

But inside lay treasure: a pendulum movement built in 1658 by its inventor, the Dutch mathematician and scientist Christiaan Huygens, and produced for only a few years.

Steiger had been given a museum piece, the oldest ever in his care, painstakingly brought over by the teacher’s Swedish ancestors. He was up to the task. Building a couple of parts, he got the hands turning again - to the teacher’s joy.

“She said to her husband, ‘Do you mind if I give that gentleman a hug for that?’ ” Steiger says.

The pleasure was all his when a State College family told him the tale of their 1774 bell strike grandfather clock, passed down from one generation to another.

It came from Holland to the Hudson River Valley, and then to Pennsylvania by horse-drawn wagon, packed in straw.

“Everything was so well done,” Steiger says. “It was all mahogany. There was no veneer on it. It was built so good, the movement as well as the casing. There was just a quality craftsmanship to the whole thing.”

Just as enthusiastically, he’ll share trivia about historic American clock manufacturers, especially from the 19th century, his favorite era.

Eli Terry, for example, developed an assembly line process in the 1830s that produced 3,000 wooden works clocks a year - almost a century before Henry Ford cranked out Model T cars.

Steiger also likes the tale of clockmaker Elisha Niles Welch’s infatuation. Welch adored the Spanish opera singer Adelina Patti so much that he named a special edition rosewood clock after her when she toured the United States in the 1870s.

Regardless of a clock’s heritage, whether it’s fancy or plain, rare or common, Steiger says he feels a great responsibility to its owner.

“When they say there’s nobody else out there (to fix it), now I’m really put on the spot,” he says. ” ‘(Be)cause you’re the guy to do it. They’re saying, ‘I put this in your trust.’ “

Jack Snedden, a Potter Township antiques dealer, has trusted Steiger with many clocks.

Duane is always as good as his word,” Snedden says. “He doesn’t let you pick it up until it’s right.”

‘Continual learning process’

Steiger has lived alone with his terrier mutt since his wife of 14 years, Patricia, died in 1998.

But sometimes, company stops by.

Keith Doster, a Stone Valley resident and the pastor of the Boal Grace Fellowship Baptist Church in Boalsburg, repairs clocks on the side. About six years ago, he became Steiger’s apprentice, learning the ropes and now handling house calls for larger clocks.

“In the summertime, when it’s warmer, if I drive over to his house, I may bring him a clock that needs repairs. He will often say, ‘Do you have time for a root beer?’ ” Doster says.

“We’ll sit on the porch for hours and drink a couple of root beers and talk about the Lord, the church, talk about clocks, politics. It’s like we’re living in the 1930s or 1940s, and I love it.”

Doster first met Steiger when he brought a clock to repair. Doster remembers stepping into the workshop, back when it had a wood stove, and being instantly entranced.

“The only thing I could hear were the clocks ticking and the fire on the wood stove,” Doster says.

“Immediately, I can smell the smoke. I heard the sounds but didn’t hear a radio or anything else. It was just the clocks and the smoke, and him sitting at his bench at the big window looking out onto the field. I thought, ‘Man, I could do this. This looks like something that I could get into.’ “

Steiger impressed him again once the clock was finished. He promised it would run for 100 years.

“I was just astounded that he could do it, and that he had so much confidence, that what he had done would be sufficient to keep that clock going for another 100 years,” Doster said.

Years later, Doster asked Steiger if he could study with him. Doster’s timing was good. Steiger, whose son wasn’t interested in the business, was looking to lighten his load while passing along wisdom.

But he gave Doster a warning about what awaited.

“I told him, ‘Son, you’re a minister. You’re going to have to have the patience of Job and the perseverance of Peter,’ ” Steiger recalls.

Doster, who had experience repairing sewing machines and tools, plunged in anyway. His first assignment was to bring a grandfather clock mechanism home, take it apart and assemble it repeatedly and memorize the parts.

For him, Doster says, their partnership has amounted to a “continual learning process, not just about the mechanics, but about the history of clock making.”

“He’s probably forgotten more than I know,” Doster says. “He can talk about these clocks, where they came from, who made them, what they look like, the years they were made, off the top of his head.”

‘Always going to be there’

Steiger, a religious man, views pride dimly.

But he distinguishes the kind before a fall with the personal satisfaction derived from decades of restoring clocks.

“I knew that I could do only so much,” he says. “I couldn’t do everything. I wasn’t a brain surgeon. But I tried to be the best at what I was working at.”

He traces his work ethic to his father, a stickler for checking to see if farm chores were done right.

“After my dad was no longer around, I still tried to do my very best because somebody is going to try to find fault with it,” Steiger says.

“There’s always something that isn’t going to be right. But as much as I can do, I’m going to do, and I still do it that way. People do things faster than I do, but they don’t do it better.”

He may retire some day, wind down like grimy gears. But more likely, he’ll continue to make time for his favorite objects.

“Even though those cheaper Chinese clocks are coming along, they’re never going to take the place of good old American antique clocks,” he says. “Nothing’s ever going to wipe them out. They’re always going to be there for repairs.”


Online: https://bit.ly/1onoRqR


Information from: Centre Daily Times, https://www.centredaily.com

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