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A Laguna Beach craftsman has a passion for clocks

Dean Armentrout repairs clocks. To him, they are puzzles to be solved, heartbeats to be revived.

March 07, 2012|By Thomas Curwen, Los Angeles Times

The grandfather clock that belonged to Armentrout's grandparents stands to the right of the front door, a daily reminder of the memories these timepieces evoke. As a child spending the night in their Maryland home, he would listen to its chimes on the quarter hour coming up from the bottom of the stairs.

Sentiment is good for business. A clock's steady cadence anchors the memories of customers who don't seem to mind spending $600 on a timepiece that would sell on eBay for $200.

Once when he struck a bell inside a clock that he was about to fix, its owner started to cry. She hadn't heard that sound since her mother's death.

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Armentrout was 22 when he first opened a clock. Even though he was daunted by its complexity, he was thrilled by the possibility of having found a career.

His parents had just divorced. He had moved from the East Coast to Laguna to be with his brother. He didn't have a job, and his prospects looked dim. He'd received a tip from the youth employment office at a Catholic church about a job at Antique Clockworks on Coast Highway.

He never thought he would find work that combined his love of antiques with the pleasure of using his hands. He had enjoyed scouting second-hand stores for furniture and knickknacks with his mother back home in Maryland, where he had spent hours watching his father, a professional calligrapher, draw letters on paper.

He was soon making $2 an hour and moonlighting for an antiques dealer in Dana Point. Six years later, he and his wife sold everything — car, motorcycle, houseplants and bedding — and moved to England, where he enrolled in a trade college renowned for its yearlong program in antique clock restoration.

Since he returned, his work and life have taken a few detours. He sold antiques when the repair business slowed in the 1980s. He divorced, remarried and slowly built up his business. He estimates his annual income at almost $100,000.

His customers are used to pushing buttons, he says, and wonder what to do with the crank or the key that he hands them. They don't know that these machines need periodic cleaning and oiling, and their children can't always read an analog dial.

The age of the mechanical clock — considered by historians one of the greatest inventions in the history of mankind — is coming to an end, and Armentrout understands.

"There is no good reason to buy a mechanical clock," he says, guessing that he has bought nearly 500. In his home, he keeps 35 clocks, 17 in his living room alone.

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After 25 tries, Armentrout finds the correct angle for the V-shaped arm of the Schags' clock. Its ticking joins the chorus in his shop. For the next two weeks, he will keep an eye on it, checking its time against his Swiss wristwatch and iPhone, and if it stays accurate, he'll call the Schags to come get it.

His next project is an English table clock. Its case is black, most likely made of pear wood treated with pitch or ash. The steel hands have been pierced and blued, and surrounding the dial are gilt spandrels. But the mechanism needs cleaning and new bushings.

Its maker's name, Thomas Hally, is engraved in script above the numeral 6 on the dial. Armentrout reflects upon Hally's world — London in the 18th century — and turns over the back plate where, scratched into the brass, are the names of clockmakers who came before him.

F. Clark Leper, Sept. 1847.

"Lost to history," he says, not knowing who Leper was.

Parkes, 8241.

"That would be Daniel Parkes," he says, a famous clockmaker from London who worked on this clock on either Feb. 8 or Aug. 2, 1941, during or just after the Blitz.

C.R. Crookshank, 4-22-1977.

"A well-known repairman in Los Angeles whose shop was on Melrose Avenue."

Some of the names are indecipherable, but it doesn't matter to Armentrout. Who they are is less important than what they did; they kept the clock running for the next generation.

He has been thinking lately about his own legacy. He and his wife don't have children, and he wonders how he will be remembered. He looks to his clocks.

In the corner of his shop hangs his first attempt to build one from raw stock, milled bars of brass and drill-rod steel. It doesn't have a case, and he hasn't finished the dial. It's only a mechanism, the brass wheels, arms and pendulum moving in unison.

The oldest of five, he has decided to make each of his siblings a table clock, something that will continue to beat well after he's gone.

thomas.curwen@latimes.com

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