Hubbard, Joe

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                                  JOE HUBBARD
                             Only N.B. Clockmaker


In a shingled brown cottage in Nelson, Joe Hubbard works away at an old world craft. He’s a clockmaker.

His work is immediately visible when you enter the living room of the cottage these days. There are two grandmother clocks, one over six feet tall, standing on the floor. Next to them is a wall clock that he made for his daughter. He decorated it with a carving of a horse’s head and a shoe.

His clocks are quite varied. “Every person wants their own design,” says Mr. Hubbard and he usually manages to please whether a customer wants a clock mounted in a ship’s wheel or a large grandfather clock with full chimes.

                                 Wooden Clock

He speaks with most pride about an all wooden clock that he made for the late J. Leonard O’Brien. “Most so-called wooden clocks have some metal in them, steel pins, brass escape wheel, brass verge, but I wanted to make the all wood clock,” says Mr. Hubbard.

He displays some wooden gears that are left from the clock. “Once you make a wooden wheel, there’s no repairing it. If there’s anything wrong, you have to build a new one,” he says.

He used bamboo for a spring on a ratchet arrangement in the drive to totally avoid the use of metal. His masterpiece is now in a museum in Fredericton.

Joe Hubbard had been interested in clocks since he was a little boy, but the opportunity to follow up that interest didn’t come up until 1939 when he was in England with the Seventh Field Ambulance Corps.

                                   In England

Canadian troops in England were becoming restless with the lack of action, and were tending to be a little on the rowdy side. Col. Mel Watson who was in charge of Mr. Hubbard’s unit decided to give the men trades training to help keep them busy. A list of courses was prepared, but none of them interested Mr. Hubbard. He told the colonel he wanted to study clockmaking. The officer, native of British Columbia, growled, “It would take a herring choker to come up with something that wasn’t here.” Col. Watson found a clock shop near Victoria Station in London where Mr. Hubbard could study his chosen trade.

“I never thought I’d be studying under an Englishman,” recalls Mr. Hubbard. “There I was with pencil and book and the old guy at Clyde’s Horology.” His study in London was confined strictly to theory. He wasn’t too happy with it at the time, but “You were still in the army and you had to toe the mark.” The training was interrupted when Mr. Hubbard’s unit was sent into action in Italy. “I figured that was the end of it. I was relieved to get rid of the old guy. He’d say, ‘if you can’t spell it, you can’t order it,” says Mr. Hubbard.

                                 Strict Taskmaster

In the closing months of the war, Mr. Hubbard resumed his study with a Dutch clockmaker named D.S. Hausinghau. Herr Hausinghau also proved to be a strict taskmaster, but Mr. Hubbard began working on clocks. “I worked as much as 16 hours a day. He was trying to ram into me a three year course in six months. I took the building right from the mechanism to the full clocks,” says Hubbard.

After acquiring a proficiency at repair work, he was set to build his first full clock. It was a lengthy task because there was no electricity in Holland at the time. Planes and lathes and other equipment had to be operated by hand sometimes using bicycle driven machinery.

When he was finished, he thought he had done a good job.

His instructor had a different opinion. He took the clock and smashed it by throwing it across the shop. “If we want fish boxes or fruit boxes, there’s a plant down the road that makes them. We’re making clocks here,” said the Dutchman.

Mr. Hubbard describes Mr. Hausinghau’s attitude: “There was no such thing as a good job with him. It had to be excellent.” He remade the clock until it passed his master’s scrutiny.

He now appreciates the strictness of his instructor. Looking back he says he has no regrets over his training, “Even the theory the Englishman gave me. It’s the basis of sound craftsmanship.”

Unfortunately Mr. Hubbard’s unit was sent home before he was able to get a certificate for his trade. After the war, he tried to set up a business making and repairing clocks in Nelson, but met stiff opposition from the local establishment. He was told by the sheriff of the day to remove signs announcing his business and he was forced to close up shop.

He attempted to get further training to obtain a certificate. He was unable to get approval from the local veterans’ office for assistance and took a job in a local mill.

After a hunting incident in 1949, he began tying flies and guiding for a living. Not until the early 1970’s did he begin to put his knowledge of clockmaking to use.

                                   Small Shop

He has a small shop in his house where he repairs clocks and a basement workshop where he makes clocks. Though he has the ability to make the complete mechanism, he doesn’t have all the equipment to do the job. Imported mechanisms from Germany or Holland are used in most of his works. The basement workshop contains a variety of hand and power tools, wood lathe, sanders, jig saws, drills, carving knives, etc., but on the whole there is little difference between it and any other woodworking shop.

The partially completed body of a grandmother clock is the only indication of the nature of the shop. Mr. Hubbard points out numerous screws inside body. “A good clock shouldn’t show a screw or a brad when it is finished,” he says. When the mechanism is in place and the work is completed, the fasteners are all covered. He uses 182 screws to make a single grandmother clock.

A grandmother clock has a narrow waist or center section compared to a grandfather clock which is straight up and down. The grandfather also has a much more massive head than its feminine counterpart. The grandfather has a square door where the grandmother has a door that is rounded at the top. Grandfathers also frequently have a calendar dial and a moon dial which gives phases of the moon.

                                      Repair Jobs

Repairing clocks is also part of his business. Often a worn out clock will require that he turn new brass brushings on a lathe before it will keep time again.

The familiar cuckoo clocks are one of his worst headaches. The mechanisms are often very thin metal, so that it is impossible to replace a brushing. He has repaired a cuckoo clock only to have something else go wrong with it before the customer takes it home. “I do repair them, but I don’t like to,” says Mr. Hubbard.

“The oldest clock I ever repaired was 261 years old and belonged to John Forsythe. After I repair a clock, I always put the date of repair and sign my name to it,” he says.

As far as he knows, he is the only clockmaker in New Brunswick. Clockmaking is a different trade from watchmaking.

The hour is a musical event in the Hubbard household as the various clocks that he has repaired or buily for sale chime together. Depending on how the chimes are set, there is the familiar Westminster chime which resembles the bonging sound of London’s Big Ben, a joyous peal of bells which the St. Michael’s chime or the merry tune that is the Dick Whittington chime.

Mr. Hubbard has also followed the recent developments in his trade. Battery operated mechanisms provide the power for some of his pieces. The larger grandmother and grandfather clocks, often costing more than a thousand dollars, can be made to order.


Source: North Shore Leader – March 16, 1977

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