Madison clocksmith keeps clocks ticking in ‘free museum’
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Clocksmith Scott Steel works to a soundtrack of irregular chimes, gong strikes and snippets of recognizable melodies at Kappel’s Clock Shop on Madison’s East Side.
Most of the clocks on the storeroom floor aren’t set to the right time, or even wound up. If they were, the shop would get overwhelmingly loud at the top of the hour.
The sounds, however haphazard, have a special way of signaling the passage of time to Steel.
“Time lets you know that it doesn’t last forever, and it’s precious,” he told the Wisconsin State Journal. “Don’t waste it. I’ve seen customers come and go, people I respected for years, and then all of a sudden . what happened? Time is important, and it is relative in terms of how you live your life.”
Time — or at least daytime — became even shorter starting at 2 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 3, when Daylight Saving Time ended and clocks rolled back an hour. Count Steel among the seven in 10 Americans who would prefer not to switch back and forth every year.
“I don’t know how important it is anymore,” he said. “It used to be for farming, to get the most out of daylight hours, but our lifestyles have changed quite a bit.”
Not always for the better, in Steel’s opinion. In his regular interactions with the public, he’s observed a widespread erosion of manners, conversational skills and practical knowledge, all of which he associates with smartphones and “our throwaway society.”
“It’s sad,” he said. “I don’t have anything positive to say. People are relying on that stuff too much, and common sense is going down the tubes.”
Steel, 55, is the shop’s only employee, other than owner Karl Kappel. A lifelong car and motorcycle mechanic, he found working on clocks appealing because he “wanted to get away from the chemicals and the garages and beating up your body with that heavy stuff.” He was introduced to Kappel while working on Kappel’s brother’s ATV, then began an apprenticeship at Kappel’s Clock Shop 21 year ago.
As the years have ticked away, Steel has spent countless hours in the presence of antique time machines, tinkering with fine gears and peering into centuries-old wooden cases with a flashlight.
To this day, he delights in showing people the inner workings of the clocks — the mercury-filled weights, springs and swinging pendulums. He’s particularly fascinated with the physics involved and “which way the gears turn, how much tension and pressure you can have on them,” he said. “How does it work? Why does it work?”
Kappel’s Clock Shop opened in an old pharmacy in 1971. The musty-smelling space is cluttered with clocks and parts because running such a shop means being “kind of a hoarder,” Steel said. The business is driven mostly by word-of-mouth and is always busy with repair work. Customers from all over the country send their clocks to be fixed.
Kappel buys most of the old clocks at auctions, and occasionally from individuals. Some of the big pieces are listed for more than $10,000 due to high-level craftsmanship and historic value.
The store itself could be considered a “free museum,” Steel said. Inside the door of some clock cases is a history of which families owned the clock and where they lived, either written on paper or carved into the wood. The dates are startling: To realize that a piece of furniture, however stately, predates the Revolutionary War is to feel the weight of all that came before — and what’s yet to come.
“The clock survives you,” Steel said. “It was precious to somebody 100 years ago, it’s precious to you today, and it will be precious to somebody else when you’re gone.”
Steel is in line to take over the shop once Kappel retires, but it’s uncertain who will keep the tradition alive when Steel decides that he’s tinkered with his last timepiece. Whether another apprentice will come along and find the old clocks as mechanically wondrous as he does, only time will tell.
Information from: Wisconsin State Journal, http://www.madison.com/wsj