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VOL. 38 | NO. 40 | Friday, October 3, 2014

Pendulum swings for Crieve Hall clocksmith

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Scott Zaft “jumped the wall” and made it out of corporate America to a life in which he’s his own boss and lives in tick-tock precision down a steep driveway and to the rear of a 1950s Crieve Hall rancher.

The 52-year-old now marches to the beat of a different drummer or, more accurately, the sound of seconds counting off in metronomic glory on the walls of his work refuge.

“I’m a lot tougher of a boss than anyone I’ve had,” Scott says as the chorus of ticks – or is it tocks? – and chimes fills the lower level of his fortress of individualism.

“I’ve always had good karma when it came to my work,” he says as he sits in the main room of his Clockwise Antique Clock Repair & Service world headquarters that’s on the downhill side of Hogan Road as it travels from Trousdale Drive to Franklin Road.

Scott’s not preaching hippie babble when he talks about his accomplishment. He just figured time was on his side in making the decision to do what he loved.

“A clocksmith is the name of the profession,” he says with a broad smile. “People don’t know what to call me. A clockmaker? A clockfixer? No. I’m a clocksmith.”

He can think of maybe a half-dozen of this breed in Middle Tennessee.

“You know, Crieve Hall is tailor-made for this business,” he says, noting the relative “busy-ness” of Hogan makes his shop accessible to people throughout the Nashville area. It’s also proved to be a great spot for his mostly word-of-mouth business to sprout.

“Every afternoon, the traffic lines up outside, as people are backed up from the (Crieve Hall Elementary) school zone,” he says.

Indeed many people, including this columnist, first notice his tiny sign hanging below his mailbox while lined up in that daily stop-and-go at the Trousdale-Hogan intersection.

The sign – the size of one of those proclaiming alarm service protection -- has been up since about 2003, after Scott apprenticed with a clocksmith and quietly opened his workshop to satiate a lifetime fascination with the workings and wonders of antique clocks.

It began as a part-time thing, although he did put in a good 20-25 hours weekly. That was on top of the 40-hour weeks he was putting in as a technician or trainer in the printing and copier businesses.

“Two years ago, I decided to go full time, but we (he and wife Karen) planned this well in advance. If the recession hadn’t hit, I probably would have done this in ’08 instead of 2012.”

He’s since figured out that being a clocksmith is almost recession proof.

“People still love their clocks and want to make sure they work,” he says, as pendulums of every size swing to the beat of the ticking and the tocking filling this room as well as the rest of the finished walkout basement.

Just beyond the awning-decorated backdoor entrance to his lair is parked his white Nissan Murano with the license plate reading, “CLOCKZ.”

“When I did this full-time, I was giving up a perfectly good full-time job,” he says, a bright smile showing no regret.

“I was just so exhausted from working all the hours I was working here and at my job. My wife never saw me.

“Could have done it sooner, since the business really started gaining speed in ’06 or ’07. I was getting busier and busier.”

If he wasn’t at his job, he either was out repairing someone’s heirloom grandfather clock (he makes house calls Tuesdays and Thursdays) or reconstructing other timepieces that have been dropped off.

He waves his hand at the surroundings, from sticky-note-tagged clocks awaiting repair to a wall full of various clock skeletons – the hands, pendulums and movements – that hang “naked” for weeks after they’ve been repaired.

He wants them to be perfect when he finally returns them to their generally antique wooden cases. The guts of a clock cover another surface.

“It’s continued to grow. It wasn’t a fluke,” he says, reaching into a file cabinet to retrieve a half-foot-thick sheaf of paper. “These are just the invoices from 2013. I guess I do 300 or 400 clocks in a year. Of course, it wasn’t always like that. It had to build up.

“The thing is there are so few of us that do this, and people find out about me.”

Clocksmith Scott Zaft works on a cuckoo clock inside the shop behind his Crieve Hall home. Zaft, who says he repairs 300 to 400 clocks a year, is one of the few remaining clocksmiths in the area.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

On any given day, 55-65 clocks line the shelves and walls, cover the file cabinet and sit on the workbench in his shop.

“I really want to take good care of them, and do right by my customers,” he says, noting that because of the waiting line, the average “full service” clock job generally is completed in 4 and a-half months.

The actual dollars and cents part of the business is overseen by Karen, a Vandy grant administrator.

“She’s my accountant. She’s my bookkeeper. It really helps to have someone who can take care of that living right here,” he says, ladling praise on his wife of 21 years.

He was inspired into this full-time profession at a seminar he and his wife attended in 2000. “It was called ‘Create the Life That You Love,’ and it asked ‘If you could do anything in the world what would you like to do?’”

“I chose clock repairman,” he says, as quarter-after chimes fill the workshop that overlooks a hill where chipmunks and sparrows titter and chirp on this bright autumn day.

His “if you open it, they will come” dream has paid off to the point where “I don’t want to grow anymore.”

“I don’t want to be in a storefront. I don’t want to hire any employees. I have grown it to the extent that I want to stay in this shop forever, in this house forever. I have reached my comfort level in my shop.”

His workday conversation is interrupted by a couple who knock on the door beneath the awning. They are here to buy a gift for a grown son, a mechanical enthusiast who lives in Knoxville.

“He loves clocks, so we were fiddling with buying him one,” says the mom, adding that their son always is working on either clocks or pinball machines.

They can’t understand his fascination with things that move and his zeal for putting things back together after taking them all the way apart. But they want to make him happy.

“It’s a sickness,” says Scott, as they talk about their son. Scott knows the disease. He’s been a carrier for life, always fascinated by clocks.

The couple shopping for clocks looks at some that Scott has already reclaimed.

“People who are tired of them and don’t want them fixed ask me if I’ll buy them,” he says of the few he has for sale.

“I bought this one from a lady in trade. This is about the oldest clock in here, goes back to the 1840s or 1850s …. This one here is a late 1800s porcelain clock that will be for sale when I finish it. It will be about $400 when I’m done.”

Other clocks run in the $700-$800 range, but it varies depending on the “quality and rarity” of the timepiece. He guarantees he will give his customers their money’s worth.

“I treat my customers fairly. It’s all in the knowing not to be greedy and not be gouging. Be a decent businessman..

“Half of it is the repurposing, the challenge of making something work again,” he adds.

“It’s almost a sacred trust to be on people’s list so they know they can call me to work on Uncle Fred’s grandfather clock they’ve inherited.

“There’s a lot of sentimental value involved.”

That sentiment and the multi-generational aspect of the clocks keep him ticking “I love the historical nature of clocks. I love the craftsmanship in a clock. And they are still loved today as much as they were 200 or 300 years ago.”

Not that everything in here is an antique. There is a digital clock on one wall and two old Zenith clock radios are stacked on a shelf.

About the only thing not time-related here is an “I love Pluto” button attached to the curtain near his metal lathe.

“I like astronomy to the point that I was in distress when they demoted Pluto from a planet,” he says. Dumping Pluto changed the order of things as he’d learned them. Clocksmiths are all about order and precision.

After all, he is not about change. He is about dealing in memories, in lives, in, for example, that great old windup clock that Grandpa Champ used to have on the buffet at his house in the woods at Walnut Lake.

“Sometimes I get to thinking how incredibly fortunate I am. I give thanks every day for what I’m doing,” he says. “I love the pure mechanics of clocks.

“If you love what you are doing, I don’t think you can hardly lose,” he says. “If you believe in reincarnation, I worked on clocks in some previous life.”

A half-dozen or so clocks chime or ring out, telling him another hour has gone and he has a lot to finish before closing up shop for the night.

He smiles as he stands, surrounded by time.

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