The Fixers | New England Antique Repair Experts

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Have a broken heirloom clock, book, or china teacup that needs repairing? How about an antique doorknob that needs refurbishing? Meet the New England antique repair experts (or “Fixers”) whose specialties and expertise will give nearly anything you own a second or third life.

In a world of easy disposability, these New England restoration artists aim to help people hold on to the past.

THE TIME KEEPER | NEW ENGLAND ANTIQUE CLOCK REPAIR EXPERT

Ray Bates – Newfane, Vermont

Ray Bates | Antique Clock Repair Expert

Ray Bates sports a loupe to better view the inner working of the pre-industrial clocks that he repairs.

McCabe, Jarrod

Ray Bates’ workshop offers the kind of peaceful setting you’d expect from a clockmaker. Classical music drifts through his two main workrooms, a homey area just off his 200-year-old house in downtown Newfane, Vermont. Tools and papers pervade–some of the materials organized, some of them much less so. Then there are the stars of the space: big clocks, small clocks, clocks that chime, clocks that simply go tick-tock. Some stand floor to ceiling; many others cover the walls; a few more take over a mantle. You could imagine taking a good nap here, at least for 15 minutes.

Bates has a long history with clocks and watches. Born and raised in Scotland, he first began repair work at the age of 16. Better job prospects brought him to the United States in 1957, and an American bride convinced him to stay. In 1964, after a stint teaching high-school English, Ray and his wife, Beverly, moved to Newfane, where he opened his shop two years later.

As he always has, Bates, who now works with son Richard, takes on only pre-Industrial Revolution timepieces. “They’re the best quality, and I never liked working on trash,” he says matter-of-factly. Nothing that enters their shop, in other words, is mass-produced. Much of what they repair dates back 200 years, though it’s not unusual for them to get their hands on something from the 17th century.

Bates’ restoration pays careful attention to the original craftsmanship. New parts are made in house, a time-consuming task to blend the new with the old. “You’re preserving history,” Bates says. “You’re preserving a way of life. Clocks are the only machines that are still running after 400 years.”

Bates' son Richard has now joined the family business in Newfane, Vermont.

Bates’ son Richard has now joined the family business in Newfane, Vermont.

McCabe, Jarrod

The Learning Curve
Always mechanically inclined, Bates was steeped in antique watch and clock repair work as a teenager, when he embarked on an intensive five-year apprenticeship in Edinburgh. “Growing up, I was intrigued by mechanisms and just had a natural aptitude for it,” he says. When his son Richard wanted to join the business 16 years ago, Ray put him through the same rigorous training. “It’s an ongoing program,” Richard quips.

The Pressure Cooker
Attention to detail, patience, and exceptional hand/eye coordination are a few of the big prerequisites for this kind of work. So is the confidence to repair what are in some cases valuable antiques. After Richard had fully restored his first clock, a rare Massachusetts shelf clock from the mid-19th century, he proudly showed Ray his work. “He looked at it and then said, ‘Make sure you don’t knock it over,'” Richard remembers. “‘It’s worth $125,000.’ I had to collect my jaw off the floor.”

A Word of Advice
Too many times, Ray and Richard get clocks that are the victims of ambitious tinkerers. “I’ve seen abominations you wouldn’t believe,” Bates says. “Shoddy repairs, makeshift repairs–they get in over their heads and then try to fake it.” Put another way: “It’s always better to come to us first. It costs less money.” That includes a thorough cleaning, which Bates recommends every five years. He also advises clients to avoid keeping a clock in the same room as a woodstove. “The smoke particulates get into the mechanism,” he explains, “and it gets into the oil so that it oxidizes much faster.”

Who Comes to You?
A good portion of Bates’ customers hail from New England, but he does occasionally take on projects from California and other parts of the country. Just be prepared to wait. The uncertain economy has meant that fewer people are buying clocks and instead are opting to restore what they have. “We’ve got about a six-month backlog of work,” Bates says.
–Ian Aldrich

Ray Bates, The British Clockmaker. 49 West Street, Newfane, VT. 802-365-7770; thebritishclockmaker.com.

A BOOK’S BEST FRIEND | NEW ENGLAND ANTIQUE BOOK REPAIR EXPERT

DEVON GRAY – Princeton, Massachusetts

Devon Gray | Antique Book Repair Expert

Devon Gray | Antique Book Repair Expert

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Devon Gray’s sunlit studio resides in the principal’s office of an old converted schoolhouse. Clamps and presses litter the room, holding antique books in varying stages of undress. A lone, neglected chair collects dust in the corner. “Bookbinders don’t sit down,” she says simply.

Gray fell in love with old books in college. At the age of 22, she began dealing them with her husband out of their home. They now have a store in Harvard Square–James and Devon Gray Booksellers–which specializes in works at least 300 years old. This country studio in Princeton is her retreat, however, where she breathes new life into ancient texts.

“My goal is to make it look as if the book just healed,” Gray explains. She has spent years studying old bookbinding techniques, and she can analyze an antique text with CSI-like skill–deducing its origin from the binding, its age from the endpapers, and the type of animal the leather came from based on its feel and its follicles.

Gray tailors her repairs to match the style of the original binder, blurring the line between preservation and illusion. She believes books are meant to be read and wants to see the pieces she repairs back on the shelves, not in a museum. “I don’t repair things [so that] you have to be careful with them,” she says. “When I’m done, they can do all the bookie things they’re supposed to do.”

The Learning Curve
“There isn’t a lot of literature or guidance for repairing books,” Gray explains, noting that much of what she knows was taught to her by a handful of older bookbinders and refined by years of practice.

The Pressure Cooker
“Anything involving Elmer’s glue is horrible,” Gray says with a note of exasperation. She hates seeing books that have been “messed with” by amateurs who have attempted home repairs. Using the wrong material can do more harm to a book than age; having to reverse the damage done by someone else’s intervention can make an otherwise routine repair a difficult and frustrating experience.

A Word of Advice
“Books are pretty easy [to care for],” Gray says. “They like what people like.” If you’re happy with the temperature and humidity of a room, odds are your books will be, too. Never store them in the attic (too hot) or the basement (too wet). “The best thing to do is to keep your books on the shelves in the rooms where you live at the temperatures you like and not in direct sunlight,” Gray advises. Anything else? “Maybe read them occasionally.”

Who Comes to You?
Gray restores books for everyone from professional collectors to “people in my yoga class.” She also makes custom books for Hollywood films, such as The Crucible and City of Angels. It’s not the mainstay of her business, but it adds flair to an otherwise-quiet discipline. “David Mamet still has the red book I made for The Spanish Prisoner,” she says with a smile, “which is very cool.”
–Justin Shatwell

Devon Gray, Larksfoot Bindery. Princeton, MA. 617-678-0129; devongray@me.com

JACK OF ALL TRADES | NEW ENGLAND ANTIQUE REPAIR EXPERT

Seth Barrett – Brookline, Massachusetts

Seth Barrett | General Repair Expert

Seth Barrett | General Repair Expert

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It’s not just the neat rows of Victorian doorknobs and Art Deco sconces in Seth Barrett’s shop that make it feel like a lovely anachronism–like a set from the back lot of a Frank Capra movie about a neighborhood handyman. It’s more than the worn windowfront workbench where Barrett is rewiring a 1920s lamp. It’s also Barrett’s deep sense of his hometown’s rhythms. He knows half the folks who walk by his store. He knows the inner workings of the dozens of Federal homes and turn-of-the-century townhouses he’s repaired. And when a woman comes in asking for a custom screen door, Barrett says that her outward-opening back door is against code. The woman is disappointed, but also happy. Here, finally–someone to trust. Spend time in his shop and you’ll find that you’re in the real heart of a town.

The nuts and bolts of Village Green Renewal lie in fixing and making just about anything that doesn’t require a license. Barrett and his team will rethread your window sashes, unjam your locks, fix a broken sculpture, service your bikes, restore an old tub, or turn a new banister rail. In a world of easy disposability, they aim to help people hold on to and restore the past.

Doorknobs and hinges await repair.

Doorknobs and hinges await repair in Brookline, MA.

McCabe, Jarrod

The Learning Curve
“My mother and father were mad-scientist types and didn’t have time for the mundane stuff of parenting,” Barrett says, “but they had a lot of tools and supplies, so I had free reign. They became my toys.” A former builder, his specialty was detail and finish work, but once he reached his 40s, “I really needed something that I could age into,” he says. “I can do this when I’m 90.” He continues to round out his education, taking classes in lost arts such as chair caning at The Eliot School of Fine & Applied Arts in Jamaica Plain.

The Pressure Cooker
“We recently repaired three Cromwellian chairs that were nearly 400 years old,” Barrett says. “They were held together by eight-sided tapered pegs that had to be carved by hand.” Knowing how to fix them required a crash course in Puritan-era furniture design. But his most difficult fix by far, he says, was “a rusty, bent, maladjusted kinetic sculpture” that needed nearly 40 hours to be put right again.

A Word of Advice
As much as Barrett wants the business, he also wants customers to learn simple repairs. “There’s no reason people shouldn’t have the ability to manipulate their environments,” he says. “Say, to fix the stove–it’s usually the breaker or a bad bulb.” He’s working to restore shop class and other hands-on skills training in local schools and at Brookline’s forthcoming teen center, now under construction. “I want to reinforce that it’s okay to be in the trades,” he says. “We’re training the manual fields out of our kids, and the ones with that propensity are getting the short end of the stick.”

Who Comes to You?
Anyone in metro Boston, mostly Brookline, with anything to fix is likely to walk through the door. And since the town is home to hundreds of old houses in various states of renovation and maintenance, Seth Barrett is a busy man.
–Amy Traverso

Seth Barrett, Village Green Renewal. 6 Davis Avenue, Brookline, MA. 617-464-7336; greenbrookline.com

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