Maker of the Month: Clockmaker David West

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With so many precision-cut parts working together, clockmaking can be an exercise in patience. It's been less than a year since David West began spending his time keeping time, but he's already made some extraordinary pieces. Read on to see his work, and learn more about his process and background.

It takes time to make time. But in a relatively short amount of time, David West – a master electrician by trade – has built some impressive timepieces with the help of his Dremel tools. After seeing his exhibition at Maker Faire – Bay Area, we knew David's work would inspire our community of Makers.

We asked David about his work, his inspirations and how Dremel tools help him Make.

How long have you been clockmaking, and how long into your career did you start using a Dremel?

I haven't been making clocks for long – less than 8 months by the time Dremel heard about me at the Maker Faire earlier this year. I made my first clock from a plan I purchased back in October of 2014.

I've been using Dremel tools for dozens upon dozens of years. In every project that comes to mind, pretty much any roadblock can be solved with an attachment or tool tip and a Dremel tool.

What inspired you to start clockmaking?

I can't recall a specific event that inspired me, but as long as I can remember, I have been more interested in what's on the inside of things than the thing itself. I was notorious for taking things apart. Gifts for birthdays or whatever were usually always followed with, "You're only going to take it apart." My mother or grandmother usually standing there with their arms crossed or akimbo with a disgusted look on their face. Like, we gotta get him a birthday gift, but we hate it that he doesn't at least wait a week or so before tearing it open. Hide his tools! Hide his tools!


Is clockmaking a career for you, a hobby, or both?

Interesting question, as soon as I find out the answer, I'll let you know. Honestly, I have no idea, so if it makes money, then it'll become something to focus more energy on. If not, then it'll remain a fun hobby.

Making clocks isn't the only thing I make. I'm fond of LOTS of gadgets. One thing that was made clear to me during the Maker Faire: people are interested in kits and want to build things for themselves (as long as the "hard" parts are done for them, like figuring out clock- wheel ratios and the going train and all that clock stuff).

Is there a clock you've made that you're most proud of?

There is in fact a clock I'm in the process of making that I'm proud of. In Prague, there's an astronomical clock called the Orloj. I am currently designing a clock based on the astrolabe and the Orloj of Prague.

How much time do you typically spend on one of your pieces?

It's kind of embarrassing to admit, but longer than my level of patience can endure. So I require frequent breaks because my mind is very busy and it's difficult to sit still. My first clock took months to build. Then another month just to get it to tick. And even when it was ticking, it would do so in fits and starts. An excruciatingly lengthy source of frustration and insanity. But once I got over that hurdle, it has become much easier. The last clock I made took about two weeks from start to finish. And by "finish," I mean it's ticking and keeping relatively good time (it gains about a minute every 38 hours).


It seems like there is a lot of math that goes into properly aligning everything. Do you have a pretty extensive math background?

My math background goes up to high school calculus (that I never use). Here's a secret the clockmakers would kill me if I revealed it, but here goes: the only extensive math you need to know is how to multiply and divide. That's it! All the algorithms involved with clock-wheel ratios and pendulum lengths have been figured out centuries ago by way smarter geniuses than me. Every bit of this information is out there and available to anyone interested enough to dig for it. In my experience, alignment of practically everything is based more by eye than strict measurement.

Clocks are picky things, so precision is crucial, but I'm making them out of wood, so there are a few areas where some things are more forgiving than others. No two clocks are ever the same, even if you're using the same set of plans or cutting them out of the same stock you used to make a previous clock happily ticking on the wall. It's very weird. I do as many things by eye as I do with a ruler. Probably more, to be honest.

Trust me, anyone with even marginal woodworking skills and some good tools can build a clock. The hard part is scraping together the patience you're going to need to get it accomplished.

Are all the components of your pieces necessary and practical, or are some things done to be "intentionally complicated?"

Truthfully, every single part serves a purpose. Nothing is wasted, especially my time. I want to make a thing that does what it's supposed to do, and no more. Adding parts increases internal friction, which is something you don't want to do to a clock. So the term "less is more" definitely applies. But you can go wild when it comes to designing wheel cut-outs and frames and cabinets for the mechanisms.


About how many components typically go into one of your pieces, and about how many are created with the help of a Dremel tool?

For simple clocks, there are fewer and the more complex clocks have more, but there are between nine to seventeen gears (also called wheels and pinions), each of which are cut with the Dremel Moto-Saw. Frames and supporting structures may be cut by table saw or bandsaw, but even they find themselves under some rotating something attached to a Dremel, too. Any inside cuts are all performed on the Moto-Saw. Actually, it seems easier to list the things not touched by a Dremel tool than the other way around.


Do you work exclusively on clocks, or do you use your Dremel for working on other projects as well?

I use Dremel tools for everything. I own three Dremel tools, and I would have four except a friend in New Hampshire has "borrowed" that one for years. I use Dremel tools for so many things, it has long become a part of my DNA as a craftsman, tradesman, and maker. In fact, most of the other tradesmen I know also have a Dremel something in their toolboxes and/or at home.

Which Dremel tools do you use? Are there bits or accessories that get used most frequently?

I have the 400 Series XPR kit that came with a boatload of tool tips and attachments. I've had it for such a long time, the order in which all the tips came has been mish-mashed into a sort of organized chaos. The aforementioned Moto-Saw, which I love. And an ancient Dremel tool from the early 90's (I think?) that has been dedicated to the drill-press jig and bolted to my work table. The Dremel that's missing-in-action was a cordless 8000- something and a bunch of tips.


What kind of tasks does a Dremel tool help you accomplish? What are the advantages of using a Dremel over manual tools?

The kinds of tasks a Dremel tool helps me accomplish are too many to list. Most of which are a direct result of the size and shape of the Dremel tool. If what you're doing requires a longer time, you can hang the motorized part and attach a Dremel flex shaft attachment. The design is an extension of the fingertips, not just the hand. The formless thoughts and ideas lurking in the mind find shape at the tip of a rotating tool attached to a Dremel held in the hand. It's awesome.

I use mine to cut metal rods (for axles and arbors in clocks), to sand stuff, to carve stuff, to cut other stuff, to engrave, to drill tiny picky little holes into delicate stuff, to modify the shapes of things intended for one thing and repurpose them for something else. If I have to get brutal with something I can't get open but don't want to destroy what's inside, out comes the Dremel and a cutting wheel and I perform surgery without an anesthetic. I am unstoppable as long as I have my Dremel tools. And I'm always adding bits and attachments or anything I happen to see that's "cool." I may not need it at the moment of purchase, but eventually I find something to use it on.

What can I say? The only bad thing about a Dremel tool is being unfortunate enough to not have one.
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