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Step back in time

* This article originally appeared in the Charlotte Observer.

Inside a shop where time has stopped, an old, black dentist’s cabinet with secret compartments holds intricate tools and tiny brass pieces. Tim Squiggins is the keeper of the timepieces.

“My specialty is pre-1930s, key-wind clocks,” said Squiggins, who works out of a small building behind his Clover home.

His shop is filled with customers’ antique shelf clocks (also known as kitchen clocks). The shelf clocks, which were popular in the late 1800s, run for either a week or a day when wound. Their cases, which appear elaborately carved, are actually wood that was soaked in water then stamped with steel to make the impressions. Two floor clocks and a couple of cuckoo clocks also are in the shop awaiting repairs.

“I've been doing this since I was 19 or 20,” he said. “My dad worked on clocks and I used to sit on the bench and watch him. When I was a teenager, my grandmother had a nice regulator-type clock she said I could try to fix. It took me more than a year, but I finally got it working.” By then, he was hooked.

Squiggins grew up in Maryland. He and his wife, Karen, moved south in 1989 after visiting her father in North Carolina and falling in love with the area. He built a shop when they bought a 100-year-old farmhouse, and "then I got really serious about fixing clocks."

After taking correspondence courses in clock repair, Squiggins joined the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors in 1980. A local chapter of the group, which is dedicated to preserving and restoring antique timepieces, meets every other month in Columbia.

When Squiggins repairs a clock, he first completely disassembles it. The wheels and wires are separated into time-side pieces (they make the “tick tock”) and strike-side pieces (which chime the hours). To a layman, the pile is daunting; how does he figure out what goes where?

“It looks intricate,” Squiggins said, “But it’s really just a lot of simple pieces made into one thing.”

Using an ultrasonic cleaner, steel wool and a polishing wheel, Squiggins removes the grime of ages. He makes many of his tools, including his polishing sticks, which use 600- to 2000-grit sandpaper. With his jeweler’s lathe, he can fix parts, replace pivots or make new ones.

“I find a lot of equipment, too, on eBay or at shows,” Squiggins said. “Sometimes older people retire and want to sell their tools.”

The oldest clock Squiggins owns is from 1820, a pillar and scroll timepiece with wooden works. He found the antique New Haven clock in a trash bin; now he and his daughter, Kayla, are working together to restore it.

“I’m always learning something new,” Squiggins said.

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