Meet Clock Conductor Phil D’Avanza

Clocks. They signal the beginning and inform us of an end. They meter all things in-between and bid us a fair warning that time never loiters. Meet Phil D’Avanza, the man who repairs and regulates those extraordinary time machines that sit atop town halls, steeples and mill towers. Antique weights, gears and springs, aging cables, weary bells and slowing pendulums; all inevitably and ironically succumbing to time itself. D’Avanza is the conductor who must bring cadence to all these sections and coax them back into a polished, well-oiled orchestra. It gets complex. D’Avanza is the man of the hour.

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Photo by David Mendelsohn

  • I have no formal clock-making training except for the two years I spent working as an apprentice. My tool-and-die background and training have provided the skills I require.
  • My occupation is unique because it requires the skills of many different trades. I believe there are about a dozen or so individuals in the country that do tower clock restoration as a full-time job.
  • This work also includes clock faces and hands. One needs to be able to work on staging or from a large man-lift.
  • The typical repair is for worn bronze bushings and the pivots of the gear shafts that turn in the bushings and get scored. The clock needs to be disassembled, cleaned, and the shafts trued up in the lathe, and the bushings repaired or replaced.
  • Replacement parts need to be fabricated. Some parts are castings, and I have raw castings made of bronze or cast iron at a foundry and machine the casting in my shop.
  • Used old parts can sometimes be reworked to fit another same model of clock. Parts from two clocks of the same model are not usually interchangeable.
  • Parts were not manufactured then with the concept of interchangeability like today. Screw-thread standardization did not take place until about 1915.
  • A tower clock is a clock in a steeple or tower with one or more faces that are detached from the actual mechanism. The hands are turned by driveshafts and can be several levels above the mechanism.
  • Tower clocks are similar to grandfather clocks. Clocks with three weights chime every 15 minutes, strike the hours and tell time. Clocks with two weights tell time and strike the hours. Clocks with one weight only tell time.
  • During Colonial times, many towns had a clock donated by a significant benefactor. Only rich folks could afford a watch or even a clock in their home.
  • The townspeople installed the clock in the tallest existing structure — usually a church with an existing bell.
  • Back then, there was no separation of church and state.
  • Check out clock towers where the cemetery is behind the steeple and you find that almost all have no clock face — because dead people do not need to know the time!

Time After Time

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The first “clock-tower” was the Tower of the Winds built in 50 B.C. It elevated four sundials and a vane to provide time and wind direction to the citizens of Athens. More “modern” clocks in unheated New England steeples experience temperatures of -20 degrees in winter to 100 degrees in summer. This causes the clock to slow down a bit as the oil thickens in winter, and speed up in summer as the oil thins. The clock winder generally makes a slight adjustment to the length of the pendulum as part of his weekly winding. Most tower clocks are wound weekly with both hands using a large crank. There is a weight for each train or function that includes the timekeeping, the hour striking and quarter-hour chime (not many clocks have this function). The average weight for timekeeping is 250 pounds, and hourly bell striking is 750 pounds.

Contact D’Avanza at or Credits: Thanks to Chris Way for his knowledge and guidance in the ways of the clock, and Doug Cummings for invaluable photo assistance in a very cramped tower.

Categories: People