From the Studio: Andante Key Clock

With more and more customers asking for a clock, I knew it was time to build one. To be honest, I don’t remember where the idea for this design originated, or how I decided to incorporate plexiglass, but I will say that the end result has been worth the risks of stepping out of my comfort zone. And believe me, I stepped out with both feet on this one.

This first clock would be very large, and it would be for me, for two reasons. First of all, my kitchen needed a clock. We have a vaulted ceiling that extends high above the kitchen cabinets. When the house was staged for sale, there was a large clock in that space. I made up my mind that if the clock did not convey with the house, I wanted to replace it. Well, the clock did not convey, so I was going to replace it with a key clock.

This clock would have sentimental value, for I was building it with keys from a piano I used to play at my church. It had suffered smoke and water damage in a fire when our sanctuary burned down. In fact, when the piano first came to me, the sooty white keys were as black as the sharps, though with some TLC, I was able to get them white again. The piano from the sanctuary was reduced to charcoal, but this one was in a classroom. So while it was ruined as an instrument of music, I was overjoyed to discover that many of its pieces were redeemable for art.

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So I measured the space on the wall where the clock would go, cleaned up twelve of the keys, laid them out in a spiral on the kitchen floor to the dimensions of the space on the wall, and took a picture of the arrangement. I studied the keys to determine how and where to attach them to the plexiglass so I would know what size circle I needed to purchase. Then I shopped around both locally and online to find the best source for the plexiglass. I found it on eBay, already cut into circles. I also found clock mechanisms on eBay that could be attached to the front of the plexiglass so that I would not have to take the entire clock down off the wall to change the time or the batteries. That was my favorite feature of the clock.

Before beginning to build the first clock, I prayed and asked God for wisdom to know how to do it right. Yes, the Lord cares about everything in our lives, no matter how great or small those things may seem. Then I watched several YouTube videos regarding how to drill holes into plexiglass without cracking or scratching the surface. When I believed I was armed with enough knowledge, I set out to make key clock number one. As recommended in one of the videos, I bought a titanium step drill bit to use for the task and prepared my worktable by laying down two pieces of scrap 2x4s so my drill bit could extend beyond the plexiglass without hitting the table. Using a 24″ ruler and a compass, I marked lines on the protective cover on one side of the plexiglass, to indicate where the keys would be positioned around the face of the clock. Next, I measured and marked where I would place the screws in the keys, and finally, where the holes would go in the plexiglass.

Now came the crucial moment, the moment when it was time to drill the first hole in the plexiglass. The tutorial had warned that plexiglass heats up fairly quickly, and that you have to use your drill on high speed to prevent cracking. So no going slowly because you’re scared. It’s all or nothing. He also recommended leaving the protective covering on both sides of the plexiglass. If there is none, then cover the area to be drilled with masking tape before drilling. This also helps to prevent scratches and cracks. Apply firm pressure and feel the steps as your drill bit sinks into the material until you reach the desired depth. One… two… three… That’s it. My first hole is done! Only 23 more to go! I tested them with the screws (also taken from out of the piano). Some of them didn’t quite sit right, so I had to widen the holes a bit, but before long all the holes were drilled, and it was time to remove the protective covering. No cracks! Praise the Lord!

The next step was to drill pilot holes in the keys to prevent the wood from splitting when the screws were added. I could not use the step bit for that, so I used my regular drill bits and went up three sizes, effectively drilling 24 holes three times, for a total of 72 holes. Then came the task of attaching the keys to the plexiglass. I was using both “ivory” (not genuine in this case) and ebony keys in a chromatic arrangement, but since I was working from the back of the clock, I had to think backwards, not easy for this brain of mine. I messed up a couple times and had to remove some keys and start over, but eventually I got them on correctly. Another victory—all the keys were attached, and still no cracks in the plexiglass! Again, I praised and thanked the Lord.

The mounting hardware went on with one of the screws that holds the key at the twelve o’clock position. With that done, the only thing left was to put the clock mechanism on. I had not thought to mark the center (something I do nowadays), so I assembled the clockworks and laid it down in the center of the assembled face, then watched the second hand go around, making minor adjustments to its position as needed until it was centered. I marked the place with a Sharpie, then set it aside while I attached the mounting foam. This particular model came with a foam shell that attached with adhesive to the surface, and the clock slid into it. A 4″ round black face hid the foam pouch nicely, and it looked beautiful in the center of the keys.

Oh, yes. I learned the hard way to wear latex gloves throughout the process to keep fingerprints off the plexiglass. Dust is another matter. I did my best, but it is inevitable that some dust will get on the plastic. I wiped it carefully with a lint-free cloth, then hung the clock on the wall. This was no small task, especially since I had to use an 8′ ladder, and I’m afraid of heights. But it’s up there, and it’s going to stay up there indefinitely.

The key clocks I make for sale are not nearly so large, although they are not small by any means either. For my customers, I cut the extensions off the keys to produce a clock that is 21″ in diameter. The assembly process is the same, but I make the clocks in a variety of designs, both chromatic and symmetrical. Among the symmetrical patterns, sometimes I place the black keys (ebonies or sharps, whatever you want to call them) at 12, 3, 6, and 9, and sometimes I place the white keys (or ivories) in those positions. As with all of my creations, no two clocks look exactly alike. The keys will vary, depending on which piano they came from. The clock parts will vary, depending on my supplier. And the design will vary, depending on the whim of the day. I have also made some to order. In fact, one of my favorites was a clock made for a beach house. For this one I used distressed keys, old ivories that were still somewhat whitish but broken, and painted black keys that had turned gray after a good soaking in the sink. 

Most of my piano art creations have a name that has something to do with music. For a while, I simply called this one “Key Clock,” but it too begged for a musical name. So I stared at the movement as it went around the face of the clock one evening and thought for a while, waiting for a name to come to me—Andante, “moderately slow tempo.” If you look at the metronome, andante doesn’t appear to be all that slow. But then again, neither does time, especially when you’re having fun. And I have fun making art from old pianos. Even so, time is steady, andante, as it marches along, never going backward, always pressing forward.

To date I have made six Andante Key Clocks, with four more ready for assembly. And so far I have not cracked any plexiglass. I still thank the Lord for success every time I finish drilling 24 holes in a new sheet, and I’ll do it every time.

Thank you for joining me on this tour of the studio. I look forward to seeing you on the next one. Until then, I invite you to check out photos of my other work in the gallery. Enjoy the rest of your day!

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