Larry LaRue: Time growing short for Tacoma clockmaker

Aging and injured craftsman can’t find apprentice in a field in which demand is drying up

Staff writerFebruary 14, 2014 


Shayne Buchanan sits in his Tacoma home, where he repairs clocks. His ability to work has slowed after tearing a tendon in his right hand, and his wife Cora has been battling pneumonia for months. Buchanan is seeking an apprentice, but none have responded to his ads.

LUI KIT WONG — Staff photographer Buy Photo

At a small kitchen table in a home filled with clocks, Shayne Buchanan has no problem sliding back in time.

A sip of coffee, a hit on his cigarette, and the 67-year-old is back in 1965.

“My father was a watchmaker for Antique Clocks in Steilacoom, and he’d gotten me work laying cement blocks when the business was expanding,” Buchanan said. “It started to rain one day, and you can’t lay brick and mortar in the rain, so I went inside.

“There was a cuckoo clock lying on the table, and the owner, Fred Cook, told me to look at it and see if I could figure out how it went together.”

Another hit from the cigarette, then a long stream of smoke.

“I fiddled with it and came up with two pages of questions, but Fred kept walking by and saying he was too busy right then. So I started taking it apart,” Buchanan said.

“In the end, he never did answer any questions, but I learned how to take that clock apart. I made a lot of mistakes, but after a month, I could put it back together. Then I could get it working.”

Just the hint of a smile.

“Fred hired me. I was 20 years old, and I was totally self-taught.”

It’s been 47 years since then, and Buchanan’s life has unfolded in a series of clock shops. He runs down the list.

“I worked for the Antique Clocks Company, Ray’s Clock Shop, The Clock Shop in Seattle, Meier’s Clock Shop, the Puyallup Clock Shop, I worked for a year and a half in California at a clock shop.”

In time, most of them closed. Clockmakers were less in demand as the market for large, old, expensive clocks shrank. People seemed more inclined to let their inoperative grandfather clock sit in the entryway than to have it repaired.

About six years ago, Buchanan and his wife, Cora, brought their business home to their Tacoma doublewide manufactured house and set up AAA Clocks.

Step through the door, and you’ll find a museum of time.

“I’ve probably got 200 working clocks and the parts to make another 100,” Buchanan said.

They line walls, sit on bookshelves and televisions, stand on the floor.

One back bedroom is Buchanan’s workshop. There, with a bright light above him and magnifying lenses in front of his eyes, he can work and time disappears.

Or it used to.

Cora has been fighting pneumonia and other infections the past three months, going in and out of hospitals six times. Buchanan cannot sleep when she’s gone.

“I usually sleep in a recliner beside her bed, listening to her breathe,” he said. “When she’s not here, I’ll drift off and think she’s not breathing and wake up.”

Buchanan has emphysema. He says it’s all that time spent bent over clocks without a particle mask, but admits his smoking doesn’t help. Then, last year, he awakened to a right hand swollen to the size of a boxing glove.

“It turned out I’d torn a tendon,” he said. “It’s cut down my ability to work by about 60 percent,” Buchanan said. “They want me to have surgery, but the rehab is three, four months. I can’t sit around that long.”

Cora has other ideas.

“He’s going to get this fixed,” she said firmly. “I can’t see Shayne ever stopping what he’s doing — he loves working with clocks. I’m going to make sure he gets healthy.”

Buchanan would love an apprentice, someone patient enough to spend years learning the craft he’s committed his life to. He has two adult sons, but they don’t live in the area and aren’t interested in the business.

It wouldn’t be an easy job to learn.

“The way most people get into the field, the first five years they’re gophers,” Buchanan said. “They carry clocks, learn the tools, get a feel for the work.

“A clockmaker needs to know how to make replacement parts. He has to know wood, how to sand, cut and finish it. He has to know how to cut glass and, for older clocks, how to glaze. He needs to know how to refinish metal.”

Buchanan glances at clocks around him.

“I can teach someone how to make any antique clock look like new,” he said. “I can teach the tricks of the business. In four, five years, someone would have a skill to use forever. There will always be antique clocks. We’re running out of people who can fix them.”

Buchanan says he spent more than $1,000 on advertising looking for a minimum-wage apprentice.

“I didn’t get one response,” he said. “If you wanted to learn how to do this in college, you’d have to pay for courses. Except there are no courses.”

Buchanan stubs out another cigarette, clearly frustrated. He would like to pass on what he’s learned, but hasn’t found anyone willing to listen. Time moves on, and it’s impossible not to feel it in the Buchanan home.

All those clocks are ticking.

Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638

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