North

Yukon clockmaker's rare skills in demand across continent

Stephen Carter started training as a clockmaker and goldsmith in Kemptville, Ont., when he was 16 years old. He's now the last person in the territory who can repair antique clocks and his rare skill set is in hot demand across the continent.

Stephen Carter specializes in cuckoo clocks but he can fix any clock, even the one in Ottawa's Peace Tower

Stephen Carter, 55, says he's Yukon's last clockmaker. He specializes in cuckoo clocks from the Black Forest region in Germany and has travelled across the continent repairing antique clocks. (Submitted by Stephen Carter)

Stephen Carter knows the importance of accuracy.

When he's repairing a clock, he always makes sure all its parts are oiled and every gear fits perfectly together.

"Clocks have to be perfect all the time — otherwise, there's no point for the clock," said Carter, 55.

Carter is a goldsmith and clockmaker by trade. He specializes in cuckoo clocks from the Black Forest region in Germany.

As far as he knows, he's the only clockmaker in the Yukon. But he's in hot demand across the continent.

He frequently travels across Alaska repairing antique clocks in museums and government buildings. He's moved to Vermont and St. John's, Nfdl., where they were lacking people with his skills set. He's even helped repair the Peace Tower clock on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

A man looks at cuckoo clocks in a shop in Titisee-Neustadt, Germany. Clockmaker Stephen Carter specializes in repairing these types of clocks. (Martin Bureau/AFP via Getty Images)

You have 'to have some chutzpah'

Carter started training as a goldsmith when he was 16 years old in Kemptville, Ont., a town of about 9,000 around 50 kilometers south of Ottawa. One day, while buying clock parts for a jewelry repair, he met a master clockmaker.

"He was a German guy right from the old country, from the Black Forest where most of the real cuckoo clocks come from," said Carter.

"Anyway, he had no children and he wanted to [pass on] the skill. So, I showed interest, and the rest was history."

Carter trained with him for four years before completing his clockmaking certification in Germany where he worked with local tradespeople. 

"I'm talking about the old guys, the ones that made their own tools," said Carter. "This was before power tools, and so they would chisel out the little gear wheels in the clock by hand and file them all by hand. These are very highly skilled tradesmen."

One of the cuckoo clocks Carter has repaired. (Submitted by Stephen Carter)

Technically anyone can call themself a clockmaker — there isn't an official clockmaker certification recognized by the Canadian government — but Carter says you have "to have some chutzpah in the industry" to be respected.

"It's a very closed industry," said Carter. "They don't let just anybody work on clocks."

When Carter is called in to repair a clock, he meticulously checks every part and, when needed, makes new parts by hand.

"You can't just order parts for these things because they weren't made with power tools," said Carter. "So if there's a wheel bent or a bearing missing or something like that, you have to make it by hand, and it has to be perfect."

He says he's built quite the reputation for himself in the clockmaking world.

That's how he got his gig maintaining and repairing clocks throughout Alaska for many years. 

"They were telling me how hard they were trying to find [a clockmaker] and the only one that they could find that had even remote certifications to myself was somewhere in California," said Carter.

Clock repairs in hot demand

Carter hasn't been repairing clocks as much in recent years because of his declining eyesight. He's been working for Canada Post and Selkirk Grocery in Pelly Crossing where he lives, and opened his own food stand called Hotdogginit, to make ends meet. But he recently underwent laser eye surgery, and is coming back to the trade.

Already, people are lining up for his services.

After posting about his clock repair services on Facebook, he says he received calls "all the way from Watson Lake, to Carcross, even up to Inuvik."

He says he has around 60 people on a waiting list in the Yukon, and around 80 clocks are waiting to be repaired in Alaska.

The Peace Tower is pictured on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, April 12, 2021. Carter says one of his proudest moments was helping repair the Peace Tower clock. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Repairing 'memories'

Carter notes that when you're working on clocks, you're really "working on memories." Cuckoo clocks are often passed down from generation to generation, and people tend to feel quite nostalgic about them.

"Every clock, every piece of jewelry has a story," said Carter. "It's very emotional."

Carter said one of his favourite moments was repairing an old mantel clock for an older couple living in Mayo.

"They had this clock that was brought over from England by their parents when they came over [to Canada] with virtually nothing except for this clock and a dream."

A friend of the couple had tried to fix the clock themself — "a clockmaker's worst nightmare" according to Carter — and its inner parts were in complete disarray.

After spending over a week putting all the parts together and making sure the gears' timing was accurate, Carter handed a perfectly refurbished clock back to the couple.

"To see the smile on their face was worth every ounce of work I put into it."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Maya is a reporter with CBC News. She previously worked for CBC Yukon and CBC Montreal. Connect with her on Twitter at @MayaAidelbaum. Story tips welcome: maya.lach.aidelbaum@cbc.ca

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