Talking to Dave Atkinson is a bit like an archeological dig where unexpected treasures emerge one after the other. “I built a hurdy gurdy,” he drops casually, as he’s describing the journey towards his present occupation. “Sure, I can play it. I play the harp I built too.”
I’m talking to the 6’ 3” Yorkshireman in his workshop in the little village of Armenhof, 60 miles north-east of Frankfurt where he’s lived for 27 years. In his cluttered self-built workshop, CNC routers, laser cutters and computers hum, swish and carve, as they prepare parts for Dave’s amazing creations.
Observing me hypnotised by a CNC machine, he nods towards it. “I built that too,” he says, as if anyone can throw together a computer-controlled cutter that whirls with millimetre precision in four dimensions.
I’d arrived at Dave’s workshop because of my own background as a tinkerer. I love the choreographed dance of carefully-designed mechanical pieces interconnecting with precision. In search of an outlet for my passion, years ago I built a model helicopter, complete with swash plate, rotor mast and the million other bits that keep it floating precariously on a cushion of air. It flew, but repeated catastrophic crashes soon deflated my enthusiasm. I needed something that moved at a slower pace.
My search took me back to one of the oldest mechanisms built by humanity.
Dave Atkinson builds clocks. Or rather, he makes the parts for clocks, and supplies them as wooden kits for self-assembly. And they’re not any old clocks. Dave’s clocks are extraordinarily beautiful, each model, a work of art in itself. So far he has 11 models, Primus, Secundus, Tertius… all the way to the masterful Undecimus – a working, ticking timepiece made from just cardboard and sticks.
Although he lives in Germany, Dave remains the quintessential Englishman. He’s an incredibly talented, self-taught craftsman, but modest and self-deprecating in the way only the English can be. In his site at woodentimes.com he describes himself as “a carpenter, self-taught clock maker… but unfortunately, definitely not a genius.”
“I left school in England at 17 with a few o-levels and did small jobs here and there. At 20, I decided to travel around the world. I started in Switzerland, and met a German girl. We got married, and that’s as far as I got!” With his pregnant wife, he moved to Germany and trained as a carpenter to support his new family.
“I worked in housing construction for 24 years,” he explains. “But my kind of carpentry isn’t good in winter. From about December to March I couldn’t work outside, so I had to find things to bring an income. That’s when I started building things.”
He picks up a sheet of laser-cut wood. “It took me a long time to reach this,” he says. “When I first set out to build a clock, I tried to carve a single cog by hand. I had no idea how a tooth was formed and it was a disaster. My first attempts didn’t work at all, but I persevered and eventually got a working clock – but it was very unreliable.”
In his easy way, Atkinson then tells me how a clock mechanism is basically very simple. “Once you understand it, it’s very easy to develop it further. The hardest part is the escapement.”
He points to the movement of his best-selling Sextus model. “As you can see, I use a simple weight mechanism in all my clocks. It’s much easier than a spring mechanism that would be very difficult for someone to build.”
When I ordered my cardboard Undecimus from his web site, I deliberately bought the cheapest kit he sells. “That’s typical,” he explains. “People don’t want to spend a lot of money on a kit they can’t put together. The cheaper Undecimus lets you try your hand before taking the plunge.”
Personally I loved the experience. His instructions are clear, precise and detailed and the level of the man’s ingenuity is evident from the moment the package arrives; it takes nothing short of genius to fit a 150 cm pendulum clock into a flat A4 envelope weighing just 300 grams. Construction isn’t simple, but anyone with an aptitude can do it in two or three evenings.
“It’s the transparency I like,” he explains. “I have a new VW car and when I lift the front, all I see is soulless plastic covers. There’s no engine for me to connect to. I’m trying to achieve the opposite with my clocks. I want people to see how they work.”
Again I’m surprised by the man. He’s so hands-on and practical, yet he’s talking about the soul of his designs. I think of Steve Jobs, but don’t want to overdo my comparisons.
With an amused glint in his eye, he tells me about his three “ticking time bombs.”
“At first, I sold working clocks,” he explains. “A month after I delivered the first, I got a call from my customer in Frankfurt complaining the clock had stopped. I had to make a 120-mile round trip to fix the problem – which took about 10 seconds. The same happened about a month later – by which time I’d already sold another two clocks. It didn’t take long to work out the mistake in by business model. I couldn’t afford to take entire days of travel to fix my clocks all over the country. I realised that if I sold them as kits, I’d solve the problem – but to his day, I still get calls from my first three customers.”
“The Decimus, my tenth clock, is a minimal design with very few parts,” says Atkinson. “But I’m working on a clock that will be reduced to just three cogs – with no hands. I want it as simple and transparent as possible.”
In addition to his full clock kits, Dave offers paper plans, or even computer dfx files to let the enthusiast make the parts themselves. “My clocks are for all levels,” he explains. “An advantage of using the plans is that you can make the clock from any materials you choose. Some of my customers have used perspex, others a variety of coloured woods that really enhance the clock’s appearance.
“About 20 of my customers have bought more than five models,” he says with pride. “One family in Romania has every model I offer. I love it when people send me photos of their finished clocks and I place many of them in the gallery of woodentimes.com.”
When I ask him about his website, I’m no longer surprised by his answer. “I built it myself,” he says. “I make the movies too.” I ask where he gets his computing skills from – after all, he programmed his home-made cnc machine as well as mastering his own web presence.
“I started with a Sinclair ZX 81,” he says. I smile broadly – I started with the same machine. We reminisce about it together, exchanging a bit of BASIC for a laugh.
He invites me to dinner at his house, leaving me with one further surprise. “I’m actually a better cook than I am a clock designer,” he says, as I wonder if there’s anything this quiet, unassuming guy can’t do.
There was one thing left in my bundle of parts when I’d finished making my clock. It was a little packet of gummy bears as a treat for completing the project. For me, that little treat sums up David Atkinson. He’s a skilled craftsman, master designer and limitless autodidact – but beneath it all, he’s a man with a soul that makes hypnotically beautiful timepieces.