Twenty-six-year-old Rick Hale collects antique horology books, not as art, not as a hobby, but because his future may depend on them.
The books are about the science of measuring time, and Hale is a self-taught clockmaker who designs and builds handcrafted analogue clocks for his Kalamazoo-based business, Clockwright.
Hale also studies 17th-century timepieces, loves Windsor chairs and waxes rhapsodic about a pneumatic sander from the 1970s that he has in his wood shop, a space just north of downtown Kalamazoo that he shares with fellow woodworkers Gerren Young, of Young’s Generation Custom Drums, and Ben Aldrich.
Hale can get really nerdy about woodworking and clockmaking, but one look at his products — such as a 6-foot-tall wooden wall clock that ticks every two seconds instead of one — and you understand that he’s sort of a mad scientist, a young dreamer dedicated to old-fashioned things but with more than a little Doc from Back to the Future rattling around in his soul.
In his shop he displays his design for a 10-foot-tall clock that is part of this year’s ArtPrize, Grand Rapids’ annual international art competition. “The math tells me that this should require 70 pounds for the drive weight,” he says, referring to a mechanism that keeps a clock’s pendulum swinging.
“Seventy pounds for a drive weight is intense,” Hale explains. “Most of my clocks use 10- to 12-pound drive weights, so you can just lift them up, no problem.” For this clock, he may design a pulley or crank system “to make it easier on whoever’s winding it,” he says, laughing.
If Hale himself is somewhat of a mad scientist, a clock made by him is anything but freakish. It looks instead like the love child of an exquisite artist and an accomplished mathematician.
Smooth hardwoods like cherry and walnut arc and turn in circles or shoot out in sculpted, arrow-like shapes from his clocks. Anything metal is covered with wood. At the same time, what looks totally natural has been engineered down to single degrees inside a circle. If any calculation is off, the magic stops.
Such calculations are where all those old horology books come into play. Hale has learned everything about clockmaking on his own. Antique books on clockmaking lend themselves well to the way Hale makes clocks now. “I’m basically trying to make 17th-century and 18th-century clocks,” he says.
In addition to making one-of-a-kind timepieces, Hale is also the drummer for Joe Hertler & The Rainbow Seekers, a nationally touring band with three full-length albums (Encore, February 2015). Hale has nearly 6,000 followers on Instagram. A Kickstarter campaign he started in December raised $27,588, most of it in one week, and got boosted to the front page of Kickstarter’s website.
In other words, the guy’s no slouch. His Instagram feed includes videos of a mechanical contraption he built to cut multiple sets of wooden gear teeth at one time. It took six months to complete, but Hale estimates it will save him hours of work per clock. He shows off the apparatus and his designs for clocks and describes each matter-of-factly, as if everyone in the world draws clocks in Moleskine notebooks and then stays up for days at a time making them a reality.
“I’m excited because it will give me more time for actual designing,” he says of the teeth-cutting device. “If I can free up time in repetitive tasks like this, I can spend more time conceptualizing bigger designs and just coming up with more interesting ideas.”
Hale, who grew up in Wayne, attended Michigan State for jazz studies but says he “got bored” and switched to English. He graduated in 2011 with a degree in English and creative writing and started driving a forklift. “Classic English major job, right?” he jokes.
He also learned how to make drums in Young’s workshop, taught drum lessons and worked for the Kalamazoo Public Library. But in 2012, after his father died suddenly, Hale stumbled upon a clock design online when he was looking for a way to process his grief.
Inspired, he headed into Young’s workshop and built his first clock. He loved the process so much he went back to school to study mechanical engineering at Western Michigan University and balanced playing in a band, attending school and working as an intern at FEMA Corp., a hydraulic engineering company in Portage.
Hale says he loved studying engineering and would have continued if Joe Hertler & The Rainbow Seekers hadn’t started doing so well. Last year the band embarked on a national tour that had Hale on the road for weeks at a time, so he put school on the back burner.
“Professors of engineering don’t really appreciate people in bands that travel,” Hale says, smiling. Then he adds that his instructors were generally forgiving, but he personally felt it was too much to tour and stay in school.
For now, Hale plans to continue making clocks and playing in the band. If neither of those gigs take off, he says, he’ll go back to school for engineering, something he wishes he had discovered long ago.
Hale attributes his perserverence and work ethic to his father. He says his dad, who was a mechanic at Ford Motor Co. for 34 years, would often show him how to fix a truck or car in the family garage. Sometimes something would break, leading to a whole new problem.
“In my mind, I would think, ‘This is horrible,’” Hale says. “‘How are we going to spend another six hours doing this?’ My dad would just laugh.”
That kind of level-headedness infuriated Hale then, but now he understands it. “At a certain point, you can choose to either be happy about the way things are or beat yourself up and have a horrible time,” he says.
“He taught me the persistence of going at something and going at it until you can’t go at it anymore. And then to keep going at it, you know? That’s not something you can teach yourself.”
Hale credits his mom, a school secretary, for the risks he takes now. “My mom is the most encouraging, do-what-you-love person of all time. She has always said, ‘You don’t have to be a doctor. You don’t have to fulfill some expectation. You just have to do what you love.’
“It’s easy to let your creative stuff fall away when you have so much other stuff to worry about, but it’s the worst to do that. If that’s the one thing that gives you fuel, you have to keep that at all costs.”