Robert Coffin 90 Year Old Craftsmen who Repairs Antique Wooden Clocks

For nearly all of Robert Coffin’s life, the passing of time has been marked by the ticking of many, many clocks.Mr. Coffin, now 90, first repaired a clock while a pupil at the grammar school in this seaside village of 900 people. He has collected, sold, made and fixed clocks — only those that run on cogs and springs, “nothing electric” — ever since, and is now known as the man to call in eastern Maine if a clock needs fixing.

“Clocks are second to my wife, and I mean that,” Mr. Coffin said before settling into his workshop, which is filled with clocks, miniature figurines and hundreds of tools and parts. “It’s almost my life, if you will.”

Mr. Coffin is among a dwindling number of craftsmen who repair antique wooden clocks. The work requires patience and painstaking skill, including an ability to replicate wooden pieces that have not been manufactured for centuries.

“The business is rare,” said Alexander H. Phillips, a clockmaker in Bar Harbor, Me., who is a friend of Mr. Coffin. “You just don’t have that element of craftsmanship anymore.”

Mr. Coffin has always “loved to make stuff,” starting with a birdhouse when he was 5. His passion for all things mechanical led him to the University of Maine, then to the Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, which he got to, he said, by hitching a ride on the back of a turnip truck. He earned a degree in engineering, then served in the Army during World War II.

After the war he started working in Torrington, Conn., at the Torrington Company, a leading maker of antifriction bearings, where a co-worker who repaired clocks further stoked a desire to work with them.

“I said, ‘I’m going in the clock business one way or another,’ ” Mr. Coffin said.

For years, however, clocks remained just a hobby, though a compelling one. At one point, he estimates, he owned at least 2,000 clocks. Many were accumulated on trips and during the seven years he spent in Portugal, where he oversaw the opening of a factory for Ingersoll-Rand, which bought the Torrington Company in 1968.

Mr. Coffin went to a flea market twice a week in the Portuguese village where he lived with his second wife, Eleanor, and three children. There he would buy clocks, often in various states of disrepair and almost always American-made because those were cheaper and Mr. Coffin knew how to fix them.

He borrowed about $3,000 from the company credit union while in Portugal to buy 300 clocks all at once at the flea market. He repaired them, then immediately sold them to a collector in Philadelphia.

Despite the sale, he accumulated so many clocks and other antiques in Portugal that it cost $10,000 to ship the family’s belongings back home, though the rate was only 17 cents a pound.

“I bought clocks wherever I saw them,” he said.

Mr. Coffin retired in 1974 and moved with Eleanor back here to his hometown. He bought an old shipyard and opened an antiques store there, all the while repairing clocks and making furniture and his other love, miniature figurines, which line the shelves of his home.

He closed the antiques shop about 10 years ago and started fixing clocks exclusively. He now spends each day in his workshop, a small space off his garage that his wife says is far too cluttered. While dozens of clocks tick, he tells time on an electric one in his shop.

“I don’t have to wind it,” he said.

Age has slowed him — he has two artificial knees that themselves must be replaced, and his hands are not as steady as they once were — but he knows where every tool, die and tiny wooden wheel is.

“He’s very good,” said George Bruno, 86, a fellow clock repairer from Torrington. “He has the tenacity of a pit bull dog. When he starts something, he finishes it. I refer to him as the second-best clock repairer in New England.”

Mr. Phillips, the clockmaker in Bar Harbor, called Mr. Coffin a few years ago when a rare clock made in 1790 arrived at the Phillips store. The clock was in dozens of pieces, and Mr. Phillips, who had seen one like it only in a museum, was not sure how to proceed. Mr. Coffin not only did the job but also made a replica for himself, which hangs in his living room.

Mr. Coffin has done an especially thriving business in the last week, ever since an article about him was published in The Bangor Daily News. He will still drive to a job — he charges $45 an hour, door to door — though he prefers that a customer bring the clock to his home.

Either way, he does not plan to stop making or fixing clocks any time soon.

“I love to make them, I love to own them, and they’ve been my livelihood,” he said. “After I stopped working for the company, that’s what I’ve done. I’ve done clocks.”

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