Al Nihart took apart his first clock before the age of 10. Like his father, Nihart was a mechanic at heart.
But that’s where their similarities end.
“He was a watch repairman, and I hate watches,” Nihart said. “You don’t fix a watch. You open it up and take out a broken or rusty part and put in another one. I didn’t want to just swap parts. A clock repairman has to fix the parts. It’s much more challenging than a watch.”
And though Nihart, 71, wanted nothing to do with watch repair work, his dad —who owned Nihart Watch & Clock — preferred not to work on clocks.
“But people would call him out to oil up their clocks or do service calls. When I was about 12 or 13, I went with him. (Dad) said, ‘Go ahead and do this repair,’ and after a while, it got to be when someone called and wanted their clock serviced, my mom would drive me out to do it. I had a two-step stool and I’d climb up to see in the clock and I’d oil them up,” Nihart recalled.
When his dad died in the 1980s, Nihart took over the business but renamed it Nihart Clock Repair — eliminating the watch repair service. It’s been in business for about 65 years.
Despite changing the company’s work scope and seeing a rise in digital technology, Nihart said he’s busier than ever.
“My business has gotten bigger and bigger because all of my competition has died. I’m one of the last buffaloes in the herd. You can’t find a clock repairman anymore. I’m already backed up three or four months,” he said, adding that most of his business comes from people looking to restore or repair family heirlooms, such as an old grandfather clock that’s been in the family for generations. “Most everything is battery operated now. People today don’t understand (antique) clocks.”
Forty years ago, when he went to work full time at his dad’s shop around Christmas time, Nihart said they would line up clocks on the floor to be fixed and they would all be repaired by Christmas.
Nihart has a new shop at 1010 N. 59th Ave. in West Richland, but this past December he couldn’t line up the clocks on the floor because he ran out of room.
“I counted 60 clocks that needed to be serviced or worked on. If I take one more clock, I’ll be busy until this December,” he said with a laugh. “Today alone, three more came in.”
On average, Nihart repairs two clocks a week—and the work doesn’t just come from the Tri-Cities.
“I have a really good following in Bickleton, Goldendale and The Dalles. And I had a lady this morning in my shop from La Grande. Fortunately, I could fix it while she waited. And I just had two clocks that came in UPS, one from Tacoma and another from Bellevue,” he said, adding that he has traveled to work on clocks as well. “(A while back), I had a lady from Pendleton, she had a really big grandfather clock, and I stripped it and made it safe for her to move to California. When she got there, she called me up and sent me a plane ticket. I flew to California, put her clock back together and flew home.”
The price of repair or service work varies depending on the scope of the project and parts needed, but a basic service call to oil and adjust an antique clock is $175 within the Tri-Cities.
Mechanical clocks are supposed to be oiled every five years, said Nihart, who explained that the first thing a person will notice when their clock is in need of service is that the chimes get slower. But because the chimes slow down gradually over time, most people don’t notice, and that’s when major damage can occur, Nihart said.
“An overhaul is sometimes as cheap as $275 to $300. If you have to replace the springs in a spring-driven clock, they’re about $50 apiece. So I put springs in there and it adds $100 to a $250 overhaul. And again, I’m not fixing junk. They were expensive to start with, and people want them fixed,” he said, adding that while the work itself is not difficult, it’s not a job everyone can endure.
“When you work on a spring-driven clock and you pull that spring out of the barrel, I guarantee you Arnold Schwarzenegger would get cramps in his hand. Until that spring is three-quarters loaded, you can’t let go. You don’t have to be big and strong to do this, but you have to be able to sit at a bench and bend over and concentrate on a part without it hurting your back,” he said.
Nihart said there are so few people who do clock repair work anymore that he doesn’t expect his work to ever slow. He’s the official repairman for Howard Miller clocks in the area. As his territory has expanded, he’s occasionally sent to Spokane and Coeur d’Alene for repair jobs.
“People ask me if I’m going to retire, but no. I can never retire,” he said.
And while he’ll keep working on clocks as long as he can, he’ll never be caught with one in his home.
“I can’t stand to have a clock in the house. Most clocks tick, and I’m a clock repairman. And a clock is never quite perfect. If I lay in bed and hear a clock tick, I have to get up and fix it.”
Nihart Clock Repair: 509-539-2587.
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