Martin Yancey handcrafts one-of-a-kind and reproduction grandfather clocks to precision
Eleven years ago, Martin Yancey of Murray was searching for a project his father, Harold, could enjoy while recuperating from quadruple bypass heart surgery. He thought of a number of possibilities, but nothing seemed like that special activity that would give his father something to look forward to and fill his long days. Then one day the answer came to him—clock making.
A skilled tradesman and hobbyist woodworker by trade, Yancey’s father had talked for years about how much he would like to build a clock, but with his work and family obligations, he had never begun work on one. Yancey, a tool and die maker, enjoyed woodworking as a hobby, and became excited about the idea of working with his father to create a clock that would be in his family for generations.
There’s a certain irony in building a clock to pass the time, but the project had the desired effect of giving Yancey’s father a reason to get out of bed in the morning, as well as an unexpected effect on Yancey.
“It got Dad going, but it also sparked a desire in me to build more clocks,” Yancey says. He discovered that his tool and die experience, which requires great precision and attention to detail, gave him an edge when it came to clock building.
“Carpenters work within 1/16th of an inch, whereas tool and die makers work within 1/1,000th of an inch,” he explains. So getting things exactly right down to the last detail came naturally to him.
He spent the next several years designing and building clocks for family and friends. Last year, his part-time hobby became a full-time business. He gave up his profession as an engineering manager, hired a couple of carpenters, and founded MasterWork Products.
Yancey’s shop is surprisingly neat and clean considering all the hours of chiseling, carving, and polishing that take place here. Today, Yancey is chiseling out dovetails, the wedge-shaped piece that forms the invisible interlocking joints in his clocks. As he methodically wields the chisel, it’s clear he is a man of imperturbable perseverance and knows that fine craftsmanship can’t be rushed. He says customers don’t always realize how much time is spent on just one clock, and that a single project can take anywhere from 300 to 1,000 hours depending on its complexity.
And while Yancey is not saying young people can’t be good carpenters, he has discovered that older, experienced craftsmen usually have a temperament better suited to turning out products of enduring quality.
“My goal is to have only grandfathers making grandfather clocks,” he says, only half joking. “They have the patience to do quality work. It requires someone who doesn’t get in a hurry, and it just doesn’t come naturally to a lot people.”
Yancey’s masterpiece is a 10-foot-tall Murray clock, a grandfather clock named after the quiet college town where Yancey has lived for the past two and a half years, and inspired by the architecture around Murray. Intricately carved Corinthian columns flank both sides of a beveled glass door, and the crown features a divided swan’s neck design with rosette medallions and dentil molding. Made of burled wood, the clock is a one-of-a-kind creation that Yancey hopes will ultimately find a home at Murray State University.
“I did it as a show-stopper kind of thing for trade shows,” Yancey says. And judging from the response he got when he displayed the clock at the Murray Home Show in February, he accomplished his goal.
“Everyone was impressed with the sheer size of it,” Yancey says. “People said it was phenomenal. It’s a good feeling when people appreciate your work.”
Home Show participants were equally impressed with his mahogany General Lee clock, which is just under eight feet tall and is an exact replica of the one the Civil War general had in his Arlington home before his belongings were seized by Union forces and sold. The clock was commissioned by Lee’s grandfather and had been in the family for generations. Today, the original clock can be found at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, where Lee served briefly as the university’s president.
“It is the most difficult clock I have made to date,” Yancey says. “It has just about every joint there is in woodworking.”
Another challenge in building the General Lee clock was that all the cutters, a metal tool used to carve the trim and molding, had to be made by hand.
Yancey is serious about the historical accuracy of his reproductions, so he has acquired an extensive collection of antique molding planes, a woodworking tool that produces the original design used in the carvings on antique clocks.
Yancey makes clocks in a variety of sizes and styles—everything from simple Shaker pieces to more elaborate Victorian styles. He takes pleasure in crafting clocks with classic designs that will be around for hundreds of years and passed down as heirlooms. You could say he considers his clocks to be timeless.
Yancey says what started as a satisfying hobby has evolved into a rewarding career.
“It gives me tremendous satisfaction to make something that’s going to last for generations,” he says. “I love working in the shop. Everything from selecting the wood to planing the wood and imagining what the finished product is going to look like is rewarding. Every phase of the process has a level of satisfaction that goes with it.”
Both Yancey and his father are still patiently working the wood and delighting in a finished product that will be passed on to the next person’s son or daughter to enjoy.
MasterWork Products has outgrown their space in Murray, so Yancey has recently moved back to Jefferson County near Louisville. The move gives him twice the workspace as his Murray shop, and will be closer to major markets like Louisville and Lexington.
Yancey’s clocks are sold through Hearth and Home in Paducah and at Artiques in Lexington. For custom orders, call (502) 762-6903. For more information, visit www.masterworkproducts.com.