Noted musician's other passion? Clocks

Suggested headline:  Noted musician’s other passion? Clocks

  When John Hansen was a young man trying to decide what to do with his life, he got a student loan and spent the money on a guitar.

  “I was living in Pocatello then. I registered and started school at Idaho State University and bought a new Martin guitar. I played rock and roll covers in a band and eventually started working for a couple who would go back east and buy antiques. She died, and he was half blind so I started going with him on his trips to buy antiques.”

  Things have a way of working out. Hansen never did finish college, but he  ended up with two livelihoods. Most people know him as John Hansen the musician. He’s been a fixture at local venues forever. He’s recorded half a dozen albums, will have a new one out in the spring and has shared stages with musicians from Belinda Bowler and Rosalie Sorrels to Ramblin’Jack Elliott and John Sebastian.

  The John Hansen most people don’t know about is as different from a performing musician as a race car driver is from a banker.

  He’s a clock repairman and collector.

  “I loved the antique furniture we saw on those buying trips, and clocks fit into that category – with the added bonus that they were mechanical. They kept time; they chimed. That fascinated me, and I started collecting them.”

  Fast forward 50 years. Now 70, Hansen is still collecting. He has wooden clocks, metal clocks, porcelain clocks. He has clocks that are relatively plain and clocks so ornately beautiful and intricate that they qualify as works of art. He has miniature alarm clocks and grandfather clocks eight feet tall. When they all chime together, it’s like being surrounded by cathedrals on a Sunday morning.

  A native of Shelley, in eastern Idaho, Hansen keeps the clocks he likes best and sells others to collectors who prefer different kinds of clocks.

  “There are lots of different types,” he said. “Some collectors only collect China clocks with porcelain cases. There’s a whole series of canine clocks, and collectors who just collect those. There are bracket clocks, crystal regulator clocks, art deco clocks, clocks with wooden movements, Black Forest clocks, French clocks, German clocks, eight-bell clocks … I like swinging-arm clocks.”

  A swinging-arm clock is one with a tall classical figure, often a bronze sculpture of a woman, holding a swinging pendulum with a clock face on its top.

  Beautiful as they are, the value of antique clocks has fallen.

  “The prices of clocks have come down tremendously in recent years,” Hansen said. “Clocks that were $500 or so a few years back would be worth a couple of hundred now. It’s a great time to become a collector if you like them because it’s a buyer’s market.”

  Old clocks, like old cars, need to be repaired now and then. That required skills he didn’t have without going back to school.

  “I’d learned a little bit over the years about how they operated, but not enough to fix them. After running out of people to work on them for me, I decided to take a class and learn how to fix them myself.”

  The class was at the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors’  School of Horology in Columbia, Pa. (Horology is defined as “the art or science of making timepieces or of measuring time.”) Hansen’s original intent was to take the school’s introductory hobby course, but he found the art and science of repairing clocks so interesting that he signed up for the full curriculum – 13 courses over a period of seven months.

  “… It wasn’t hard for me at all. It was fascinating. I had this empty vessel inside of me that needed this information to go into it. It fascinated me to be able to address problems that were always mysterious to me before.”

  That was in 2002. His phone has been ringing ever since.

  “As soon as I came back, I had people bringing me clocks. Guys in the NAWCC’s local chapter recommended me to people. Then jewelry stores found me, and I started getting referrals from people who fix watches but not clocks. Other repairmen sent clocks they didn’t want to work on, and several repairmen retired. I’ve been busy ever since I finished school. I haven’t caught up yet.”

  We were sitting in the front room of his Boise home, talking clocks, when a customer knocked on the door. His name was Pete Darr. Darr had come to pick up a 90-year old clock Hansen had repaired.

  “John’s the only one around who knows how to fix old clocks,” Darr said. “There are other people who say they do, but that’s B.S.”

  Repairs vary from cleanings to replacing parts to making alterations.

  “If the bushings are worn, you have to take the clock apart and drill out the hole that it was in because it’s become egg-shaped instead of round. But then the hole is too big so you have to use a little brass bushing and …”

  This seemed an opportune time to tell him that my Navy mechanical aptitude score was so low that the recruiter didn’t want me anywhere near a ship, and that I understood about ten percent of what Hansen was telling me. He laughed and agreeably changed the subject to mistakes people commonly make with clocks.

  “People clean them with WD-40 without knowing it’s the worst thing you can do to a clock. WD-40 isn’t a lubricant; it’s a water displacer. It dries out, collects dust and hardens. When it dries with the dust it’s collected, it’s like cement.”

  “… Another misconception is that you can overwind a clock. You can’t. There’s no such thing as overwinding a clock. They’re meant to be wound all the way. If it’s wound all the way and it’s not running, there’s something wrong with it.”

  How much winding depends on the type of clock. Some clocks are meant to be wound once a day, others once a week, once a month or even once a year.

  I asked the musician/clock repairman which he prefers, fixing clocks or playing music.

   “Playing music is more fun than fixing clocks. Repairing clocks can be frustrating and tedious. But it’s really rewarding when you get something to work that hasn’t. They both have their satisfactions.”

  That said, he adds that technology has changed both, not always for the better. Streaming has changed the music business, often to the detriment of those who make the music, and the digital revolution has lessened the need for traditional clocks.

  “Analog clocks have really become kind of unnecessary. You just look at your phone to know what time it is. And there’s no such thing as, say, quarter to four any more. It’s 3:45.”

  True. The correct time is ubiquitous in the digital world. It’s convenient, but does it also mean that something once treasured is being lost?

  “Yes,” the man enchanted by clocks replied. “The beautiful sounds, for one thing. In the digital age, what you get is an electronic alarm or a horrible-sounding, computer-generated chime. With clocks there’s a plethora of different chimes. We’re losing that, and we’re losing the beauty of the clocks themselves.” 

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on the following Mondays. Contact him at

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