Interview by free-lance writer Kathleen Furore in Chicago Tribune's First Person
Published: Sunday, June 5, 1994
Name: Jim Denno
Background: Denno, 42, was born in Chicago and raised in Cicero. He began apprenticing with two German clock masters in Oak Park at age 13 and worked with them until founding Tick Tock Clock Repair at age 25. Today, he and his wife, Vicky, operate the shop out of their home in Palatine, where they live with their two sons.
Years as a clock repairer: 29
For as long as I can remember, I´ve been interested in clocks. My sister's piano teacher was a collector, and I kept going to his house to look at the clocks he had. One day, my sister came home from a lesson and said, Here, he said to give this to you. It was a clock for me to tinker with. Of course, it wasn't an expensive one, but I thought, Wow! That's when I really got fascinated. I oiled it, and it ran, and I thought, Oh, I can fix it! But after about a week, it stopped. That's when I knew there was more to it.
I was in high school when I began apprenticing with Helmut Maier and Horst Heck from the Black Forest region of Germany who owned The Clock and Watch Shop in Oak Park. I worked a few hours during the week and all day on Saturdays and during the summers. They put me on the jeweler's lathe, and I polished pivots. A pivot is the part at the end of the shaft that turns in the hole of the brass plate. You polish a pivot so it turns very smoothly, without friction. It helps keep the mechanism in the clock from locking up. It was very tedious, and there were many times during my 12 years with those gentlemen that I was going to quit. But when I got bored and told them I wanted to work on the big clocks, they said, That's not the way it works here. If you don't like it, the door is over there.
In Germany, they started on cuckoo clocks, then worked up to mantle clocks and then into the more sophisticated grandfather clocks. That's how they had learned to be such artists, and they were strict in teaching me. Everything had to be done with such perfection, and that's one advantage I have today. I get a lot of cuckoo clocks to repair...and my customers comment on the concern and love I show for their clocks and my craft. People bring in clocks that are 200 years old, and they don't worry. The knowledge I got from the men I apprenticed with has really helped me.
One of the toughest jobs I ever had was to repair a little carriage clock with a broken balance staff. A balance staff is a microscopic piece, and ther used to be old-timers who would work just to rebalance staffs. But you can't find that anymore. I located a balance staff through one of my suppliers, and it was one that had come from the same model clock. My customer went crazy, because the clock was from the late 1800's, and it had been passed down through the family. That gives me more joy than anything-being able to tell people I've saved their clocks. They're really ecstatic. And I get a lot of satisfaction because it means people can enjoy something from their ancestors
I've had other exciting things happen. Once I picked up a clock on a trip and at first didn't realize what I had. It turned out to be 200 years old with the original, handpainted Masonic symbols. I had it authenticated by the British Museum in England and sold it to the family of one of the deceased members of the Scottish Rite Cathedral-that's where the Masons have their meetings. The family later donated the clock to the cathedral. I also restored the grandfather clock that's in the cathedral
Recently, I got a call from a guy who had inherited a grandfather clock. He had left it crated in his garage, and when I opened it, I said, Oh, my gosh-it's probably worth $20,000! I wish this thing could talk, because it's a true piece of Americana from at least 1850. I'm glad I had the opportunity to see it and work on it. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
I wish I had a picture of myself as a child looking up at grandfather clocks in awe. I admired them but never knew I'd be restoring them someday. Today that is my biggest thrill.
I've had some fluky things happen too. A guy from New York called and told me he'd read about me in a book in the library. I still don't know what book it is, but he shipped me a very ornate mantel clock, and I repaired it.
One of the most common reasons clocks need repair is that people forget to stop their grandfather clocks or cuckoo clocks before they leave for long periods of time. They let the weights go all the way to the bottom-that's no good. People should not let the weights run all the way down in any weight-driven clock. When they go to rewind the clock, it jams up.
One thing that happens every fall is that people turn the hands on their clocks backward. I get calls every morning after the time change from people who say their clocks don't chime. You should never wind the hands backward on a striking clock-it bends the striking levers so they don't go up high enough to strike.
Another problem is that people don't have their clocks maintained. They'll say, It ran fine, so I just let it go. Then when I show them what they've done, they say, What am I doing to my beautiful $3,000 grandfather clock? All clocks should be checked every three years because the oil dissipates and needs replenishing. If you never changed the oil on your car, the engine would eventually die and lock up. It's the same with clocks-they're mechanical items and have to be maintained.
The constant search for parts is a real challenge. Some very important parts I use come from Germany, and some parts are made here in the US. I have local suppliers, and we can even make parts if we have to. I also keep in touch with a man who ia a representative for many of the German clock manufacturers.
I work an average of 12 hours a day in my shop. My wife, Vicky, works here, too, and she does as much as I do. Even though she didn't have the kind of formal training I had, she's picked a lot up just from watching me. In fact, she's tackled some of the toughest repair jobs we've had.
I don't charge by the hour because repairing clocks is such a time-consuming job. No one would pay it if I charged $50 an hour! I charge between $35 and $40 for a service call, plus labor and parts. People come from all over to our shop, and Ixve had people show up with an entire grandfather clock in the car.
Usually not many parts need replacing in a home repair-most of the time, the clocks just need lubrication and adjustment. If we have to work on a clock in our shop, we take only the movements. Some people get frantic when they think we're going to take the whole thing.
I do love the challenge of repair, but someday I could go into another aspect of the business. I'd love to build a Glockenspiel clock like the one in Munich, Germany. One customer wanted me to build one for $100. I had to explain that I couldn't even buy the movements for $100. Maybe someday I really will build my own. I want to have something that is a contribution to our industry-something I designed that people would come from all over to see.