TRAVERSE CITY — Dean Bull's wife is used to other women giving him hugs in the grocery store. Some of them get emotional.
"I have had customers cry when they hear that chime for the first time in 30 years," Bull said.
Bull set up shop as a clock repairman in the Traverse City area in 1975. He has devoted his life to bringing life and accuracy back to clocks ranging in age up to 200 years. The effects of his efforts go well beyond the mechanical. Grandfather clocks, wall clocks and mantle clocks become heirlooms in some families. People get attached to their clocks.
Grandmothers and grandfathers remember when a family clock was a thing of both beauty and utility. Its hourly chimes kept the household running efficiently. Its ticking was a constant reassurance that all was well. Those memories bring tears to Bull's clients when they first hear the musical chime of a long-dormant clock brought back to life.
Bull regularly works on clocks that were made in 1972, 1930, 1899, 1865, 1850, 1820. His workshop is a museum of clock history. Visitors first notice the shelves and walls filled with antique clocks. Then their ears pick up overlapping layers of ticking. Then they notice the faint scent of machine oil.
The basic mechanical clock mechanism involves a power source (spring or gravity-driven weight), gears, an escapement (to create accuracy), a pendulum and a display. During the last two centuries, clockmakers added complications that could track and display days of the week and days of the month. Additional complications can trigger chimes on the hour, half hour or quarter hour. A few mechanical clocks included perpetual calendars — kept properly wound, they could automatically account for the variances in lengths of each month and even keep track of leap years.
"There are just a huge number of variations on the theme," said Bull. "They're endlessly fascinating."
Every gear, every bearing in Bull's shop is unique. Parts are not interchangeable. Most of the clocks Bull deals with were made before mass production became the norm.
"The only way you can get your education on them is blood, sweat and tears," Bull said.
Bull, 65, is thinking about devoting more time to fishing. He wonders if anyone is interested in working with him to learn the clock repair trade. Requirements include curiosity, a willingness to learn by trial and error — and patience.
"It's the fast turnover that makes the clock business so lucrative," Bull said. "You see repeat customers every 15 or 20 years."