York Time Institute prepares to spring forward

Sean Philip Cotter

For retail stores, the busy time of the year's usually the holiday season. For florists, it's Valentines Day.

But for the York Time Institute, the year is just now approaching one of its busiest times: daylight savings.

Clocks around most of the country jump forward early Sunday morning, which isn't too hard to make happen for digital or modern analogue clocks, but can be tricky on, say, a grandfather clock from 1650, which is an item the institute actually has in its basement and is in the process of fixing.

So at this time of year, the institute at 312 W. Market St. in York City fields "dozens and dozens" of calls from people who can't quite figure out how to change the time on their antique timepieces, said director Dan Nied.

Neid said the York Time Institute is one of only a few clock-making schools out there, and he believes it's the only one in the country that still teaches its students how to make their own parts.

"If somebody pays you, you've got to be able to do it," he said.

Right now, the institute has four students, though it has room for seven. They've all signed on for the full 18- to 20-month program from the accredited trade school, from which they will graduate with a diploma.

The course costs about $24,000 in total, including the equipment the students have to buy. The institute has room for as many as seven students; the instructees are usually in there five days a week, learning the craft, as well as the business surrounding it, with Nied and Tom Vernachio, his apprentice, teaching them.

Nied said there's a continued demand for clock-makers, and he makes sure his students know how to work on more modern clocks, too.

"They have to learn that ignorance is not your friend," he said.

He said his students graduate as micromachinists, so they can be hired in service centers, toy-makers, jewelers and a range of places.

Clock work: The institute is mainly two decent-sized rooms, one on the street level and another right below it. The first room is where everyone was working Wednesday morning; it's where work on watches takes place, with bigger clocks dealt with in the basement.

After a while, the offset ticks and tocks fade to the back of your mind; you don't hear them unless you think about doing so. Occasionally, one of the timepieces makes itself known, tapping out the Westminster Quarters chime, or loudly striking an old, hand-cast bell.

The plan on Wednesday had been to deliver a clock made 200 years ago in York that had been repaired, but a "problem had developed," and it wasn't working quite right, Vernachio said. But Nied was unperturbed, answering with characteristic self-confidence.

"I think I know what's wrong with it," Nied said to Vernachio. They'd come back to it later that day, they decided.

Complex: Fixing clocks can involve a complex diagnostic process. There's so much that can go wrong, so clock-makers rely on their experiences and intuition to take an educated guess, test it, then move onto a different tack if they have to, Nied said.

So people often ask Nied if he likes puzzles. No, the clock-maker always says — they don't give him enough of a sense of accomplishment, the way making or fixing something does.

Back in the 1990s, when Nied was the National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors' School of Horology, he was brought down to Charleston, North Carolina, to rehab a watch that was found in the newly discovered H. L. Hunley, a submerged Confederate submarine.

Nied was consulted for that because no one else out there had is experience with such rusted mechanisms, he said.

"It wasn't mint," Nied said dryly.

Problems: Upstairs, Josh Romig worked on an old pocket watch that's from from no later than 1870, a loupe — a magnifying eyepiece watchmakers and jewelrymakers use, pronounced "loop" — affixed in one squinting eye. Maybe 45 minutes earlier, he'd said something wasn't quite right with it, that the winding mechanism kept slipping.

Now he's figured it out, he was pretty sure: A spacer someone had stuck into the apparatus during likely some previous maintenance attempt was a bit too big. He'd taken it out and was grinding away at it, trying to thin it out so it fit better.

That's a common problem those at the institute see with clocks — ill-informed previous attempts causing weird problems.

"If you don't know what you're doing, leave it to someone who does," Nied said.

The 33-year-old Romig is about a year and a half into his training. A native of Snyder County, he came to York after a "catastrophic injury," as he put it, left him wheelchair bound and in need of a trade that requires only his hands and mind.

None of the four students are from York County. Penina Urszui, who was sorting crystal Wednesday morning, is 20 and from Baltimore. Doug Skinner, who's retired , and Susan Gaughan, who's approaching retirement, also toiled away; Skinner, a West Virginian, was working with a watchmaker's lathe, used for making intricate parts, while Gaughan, a Virginian, sharpened tools for use with the lathe.

Gaughan, who'd visited the institute once with her family, decided more or less to "take a flier" and change careers. She temporarily has moved up to York to enroll in the institute, hoping to use this trade to keep working for as long as she wants. She said the work isn't technically hard — it's more difficult in terms of figuring out how to address a problem.

The York Time Institute, School of Horology is shown in York City on Thursday, March 3, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo
Former graduate, apprentice and teacher Tom Vernachio, of York Time Institute, demonstrates how the lathe is used at the school of horology in York City on Thursday, March 3, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo
Student Doug Skinner, of Berkley Springs, West Virginia, works to craft missing parts in his pivot gauge set at York Time Institute, School of Horology is shown in York City on Thursday, March 3, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo
Josh Romig, of Beaver Springs, examines the working mechanism of a mantle clock at York Time Institute School of Horology in York City on Thursday, March 3, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo
York Time Institute Director Dan Nied is shown with an optical comparetor at the school of horology in York City on Thursday, March 3, 2016. The machine is used to compare original parts to custom made parts made as replacements in watch repair. Dawn J. Sagert photo
The York Time Institute, School of Horology is shown in York City on Thursday, March 3, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo
Tools are shown at York Time Institute, School of Horology in York City on Thursday, March 3, 2016. Students are taught not only how to repair watches and clock mechanisms, but also how to craft and build new ones. Dawn J. Sagert photo

"I'm going to learn patience from this, I hope," she said.

— Reach Sean Cotter atscotter@yorkdispatch.com.