Spending Time with Peter Rioux

Peter Rioux at work on the UU Church tower clock. Photo Courtesy Peter Rioux Clock Services

Imagine going to work every day where you are lulled by clocks’ tick-tock beats and melodious chimes singing on cue. Welcome to Peter Rioux’s world. The rhythmic sounds are captivating. But it’s the intricate, delicate movements of his hands, with tiny tools, that keeps all the clocks’ hands in good working order and telling the right time.

“The pleasure you get from owning and using a mechanical clock and watch is abundant. The sound of it ticking and striking, as well as the timekeeping it offers creates a personal interaction each time you wind it and set it,” says Peter who is clearly passionate about his work.  

I witnessed this passion when I visited his Winterport shop, Peter Rioux Clock Service. I was bringing in a family heirloom that had recently come into my care. The harmonious atmosphere of the variety of clocks softly spoke to me. I knew I had brought my clock to the right person, for its long overdue maintenance.  Peter inspires confidence, as a self-made master in clock building and repair.

Peter in his Winterport shop, working on the tiny pieces of a clock. Photo by Anne Gabbianelli.

Born and raised on a potato farm in Fort Kent, Peter graduated from the University of Maine and gravitated to forestry and construction work because of his knowledge of heavy farm equipment. “During this time, I felt like I was missing out. Then antique clocks were introduced to me by my wife Susie, and of course the clocks weren’t working so I had to fix them!”

 “I started taking other people’s clocks for repair in 1994. Two years before that, I spent all my free time studying horology [the study and measurement of time] and developing my skills on my own clocks,” he says.  Susie adds, “I guess you can say I sparked this ‘clock mania.’ I love antique clocks and brought home a few, which ignited an interest in Peter. But it was Peter’s mechanical ability and determination that is really responsible for the success of this clock mania, not me.”

Admittedly, the couple let these mechanical wonders take up residency in their home. “I disassembled clocks on the kitchen table and cleaned movements in the kitchen sink and then dedicated an extra bedroom for my clock shop.” He goes on, “We built our antique shop ‘The Baldwin Sisters’ in 1993 and in 1995 added on the clock shop.” And then, times changed—literally, and the clock business outgrew the antique shop.

It’s an art that Peter acquired through curiosity.  “Most of my training and knowledge was attained through my extensive collection of horological books and the shared knowledge from a few generous professional watch and clockmakers. My understanding of the quality of real antiques and willingness to invest considerable time and money also helped drive my learning,” he says.

I asked Peter what it is about these varied mechanical, wind up, spring-driven chiming wonders that is so captivating. “What interested me the most about antique clocks was the history of the clockmaker, the style or period of the clock, and the condition of the dial and movement.” In addition, he reminds us of the obvious, “The beauty of an antique clock adds so much character to your home or office, and it doesn’t use any energy other than you winding it.”

Over the years, Peter has seen much come in that is routine, and every now and again, the exceptional. “Working on clocks and watches every day can sometimes seem tedious and ordinary, but then suddenly a clock or watch will come through the door that will knock your socks off. Some of these timepieces represent years of work and dedication to develop and build by early horologists.” 

Peter appreciates the history of time keeping and also its science and ongoing traditions of craftsmanship. “Another passion of mine is proving to myself that I am worthy of the term ‘clockmaker,’ which is someone who has actually built a clock movement from scratch. Ten years ago, I did just that. I built a weight-driven skeleton clock out of brass and steel. This project took me four winters of part-time work.” The clock is proudly displayed as a shop timepiece, and he hopes to make another creation in the future.

Peter’s patience is put to the test with the complexities of each task. “Working on an intricate balance platform escapement is very much like surgery,” he says. (Escapement releases the power at a measured rate.)  But unlike surgery, operating on clocks is a relatively forgiving practice.  As Peter says, “Luckily clocks and watches live another day, and you get to correct the mishap.”

Peter’s personal hand-crafted clock. Photo by Anne Gabbianelli.

 It’s quite often Peter’s work takes him and Susie on the road, climbing to new heights, literally. I joined them one day crawling through the rafters of Bangor’s Unitarian Universalist Church to the tower clock that was installed in 1920. In 1998, Peter was signed on to tend to the clock, which he overhauled, repositioned, and connected to the bells that lay dormant for decades in the adjacent tower. He also installed the hammers.

It was evident this work was not a one-person job, and I quickly learned Susie is Peter’s right-hand helper.  She pulls cable and crawls through insulation and tight quarters. They have traveled throughout Maine and New England together, refurbishing numerous tower clocks and maintaining them with annual service contracts. 

Peter has been intimate with a great deal of history over the years. “I’ve worked on numerous 18th- century Long Case English and Tall Case American clocks and European Bracket/mantel clocks over the years, but the earliest clocks I’ve worked on were a few mid-17th century Lantern clocks and table clocks.”

He shares, “Probably, the most expensive clock I have ever worked on was an E. Howard Astro Astronomical Regulator which is valued over $200,000. These clocks are the finest clocks of their time and are highly sought after by collectors.”

 An ‘ah-ha’ moment for him was when, “I had one customer/collector who had a warehouse full of unusual and rare clocks that had barely survived a flood in Louisiana. His clocks were severely rusted, damaged, and had missing parts. These projects were extremely challenging and very labor intensive. Although difficult, it was rewarding to work on such rare items and see them come back to their original glory.”

With all these fabulously timeless wonders, Peter says his favorite clocks and watches to work on are time only weight-driven regulators, banjo clocks, early grandfather clocks, Chelsea Ship clocks, and mechanical pocket and wrist watches. Susie has similar preferences in clocks. “We usually put our best clocks in the shop,” she says,” but I like having a time only weight-driven wall clock or a gallery clock in each room of the house, so I can conveniently see what time it is from every direction.”      

The day I left my mantle chime clock in Peter’s care, I was offered an education about my 1940s-era Black Forest clock that plays the traditional Westminster chime. But my clock also offers the St. Michael’s and the Whittington chime every quarter hour in addition to ringing out the hour.  I also learned these marvels are sometimes not perfect timekeepers, as they are spring-driven and do require preventive maintenance. I look forward to visiting Richard and Susie and their house of clocks in Winterport, all in good time.

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