Ultimate Cars, Watches & Hi Fi S03 ep18 : Robert Bray, Sinclair Harding Clocks, [England]
Interview with Robert Bray
Established in 1967, Sinclair Harding honours the historical tradition of fine English clockmaking. The exquisite detail of each clock is testament to this skill and dedication, with every delicate stage of production carried out in the Yorkshire based workshop. Every clock Sinclair Harding makes is lovingly crafted to suit your individual requirements and your involvement is encouraged at all stages during production of what will become a treasured heirloom. Clients are welcome to visit the workshop to appreciate first hand the trademark skill and dedication of Robert Bray and his fellow craftsmen.
SinclairHarding: Sinclair Harding were founded in 1966, Mike Harding and Bill Sinclair, started
off making long case clocks in Cheltenham in England, developed a range of skeleton clocks
through the 70’s and 80’s, but in 1995 Mike Harding decided to retire. I got to know about it about
two weeks before he was closing the company down, after a very short negotiation period I agreed
to buy the company and start the company back up again. November 1995.
SinclairHarding: I’m an engineer. I was in aerospace in defence, precision gears and gearboxes for
23 years, I just happened to be approaching 40 at the time when Mike Harding was deciding to
retire. My ambition was to have my own business by the time I was 40.
SinclairHarding: My uncle actually had one of his clocks, he was also an engineer, in his spare
time he used to dabble a little bit, repair one or two clocks and I got involved with him on a project
probably a couple of years before I took over, he asked me to design a gear train for a clock, which
I did, I made the parts for him, but when I saw the clocks at Sinclair Harding I thought well, I think
I could make these.
SinclairHarding: I really thought if I don’t do this, this opportunity will never ever come again. I
will probably regret it for the rest of my life. So the biggest problem was going home because how
to tell the wife that I’d made my mind up, I was going to pack my job in, while work at a company
150 miles away, making a product that I’d no idea about so that was the most difficult bit.
SinclairHarding: She’s always been supportive. She knew I was unhappy where I was so she says if
that’s what you want to do, do it.
SinclairHarding: And I went down on a Monday morning, set off about 5 o’clock in the morning
and I came home on a Friday evening and sometimes I was sleeping in the workshop if I couldn’t
afford the bed and breakfast so it was a difficult time the first half year yeah.
SinclairHarding: Coming from an aerospace background, the way that the clocks were specified
and the quality control was poor, it was very much an old school way of putting a clock together,
Mike Harding explained to me there is an old saying he said, if the clock won’t rattle it won’t
work, which later on I found out was well they can’t really make them to the tolerance that are
needed so they have to make them rattle or else they won’t work. I’m a great believer in making
clocks precisely to the right tolerances and they work first time.
SinclairHarding: I started really the first week in January and he was finishing off a three train
skeleton clock which was the complicated one I have on the stand there and I asked him for, I said
where’s all your drawings and where’s all your assembly you know information and he went under
his bench and pulled out wads of, bits of scraps of paper and he said oh it’s here somewhere you
know. And I was like oh …
SinclairHarding: The day we shook hands Mike Harding got a phone call through from the Oval
Cricket Ground and he came off the phone overjoyed saying you’ve got your first order Bob. And
it was a, the problem was it was an architectural clock, that was for the Oval Cricket Ground so I
said that’s great, it was what I thought was a good amount of money about 35,000, 36,000 pounds
so I went back to the workshop and said let me have a look at how you’ve quoted this job, so this is
a two metre square clock with auto meter and he showed me a watercolour sketch of a cricket
scene from the Oval because it was their 150th year or something and he said there it is. What
moves? And he said well anything you want and how big is it? Well as big as you want. And he
was like, so I had that to make for August and I’d never done anything on that scale before.
SinclairHarding: I did some preliminary work before I got to Basal but really started it after Basal
which was about April but we had to have it on the wall for the end of July and I literally finished
the clock on a Friday night and I was unable to test it, the wagon came on the Saturday morning,
we took it, we put it over at the Oval Cricket Ground over the weekend, we then covered it up,
they wouldn’t let me touch it for two weeks and it had to start at 12 o’clock, it was the NatWest
semi final which was at the Oval. It was opened by Paul Ghetty and Sir Michael Sanberg and it
was on Sky TV but it had to work two weeks later, it was absolutely terrifying. I didn’t see the
opening because I just go so terrified I just went and sat in the toilets it was like, it was the worst, it
was the worst time of my life and after that I said never, ever again am I making an architectural
SinclairHarding: On the weekend that we put the Oval clock on the wall I had the same wagon
come back on the Monday, we loaded all the machines up and I moved it all back to Huddersfield
into a new modern unit, we’ve been there for, since 1996.
SinclairHarding: Mike Harding gave me some very good advice, he said if you don’t go to Basal
don’t buy the company. So I came to Basal the first year, I managed to get a spot on the British
stand, they had international stands then, this is 1996 in the catalogue I was, it was Robert Bray
next to Breguet, I thought I’ve made it straight away, so the first problem was getting to Basal
because I had no stock, and I had to cobble together some clocks, borrow clocks but we got here,
we made, we took one order, it was for something like 25,000 pounds for a collection of clocks
that I had, and I was away.
SinclairHarding: Over the years we’ve experimented with different materials, different finishes,
we’ve developed our own processes, we like relearning the old skills. We developed our own
tolerencing system so that when we make the clocks we know they’re going to work and we know
when we ship a clock around the other side of the world, we’re not going to have any problems
with it. And if we have any problems with it, we’ve got complete interchangability with parts, the
way that the previous clocks all work, they were very much individual clocks.
SinclairHarding: My background’s as I say production engineering, I used to hate design, one of
my jobs was to do a review of the design from a production point of view and so now I find myself,
I do the design and then I move my chair and then I look at the design and I start to develop the
method for producing it and the programs and I go who’s designed this you know, so I sit back on
the other chair, I change the design, I go back again and then we feed the programs through to the
machine and I have all my family working for me, my two sons are working on the machines
making the parts, and I go down and help them and so when we get on the machine I go who’s
programmed these, well me, so I go back and change the program and then we make a feedback
for design so at the prototype stage it’s great you know we can, you never really get it right the
SinclairHarding: And when I first started I thought if I’m going to call myself a clock maker, I
really want to make everything and we make with the exception of the chains that we use the …
chains, and the springs, we make everything even the bases, the wooden basis we make ourselves,
the glass frames, everything.
SinclairHarding: I still talk to Mr Harding, Mike Harding, I think he’s very pleased that we’re
keeping his company going, this last year we’ve added Bray to the name so on the dials we put
Bray on the name, mainly because most of the people that work there are called Bray so we
thought we better add Bray to the dial.
SinclairHarding: This last year we’ve been making prototypes for other brands. I like to try
wherever I can to sort out a problem myself but I realise that I’m really an apprentice at this game,
I’ve only been in this game 15 years so when I get stuck I will maybe do a little bit of research and
see how other clock makers have maybe tackled the same problem in years gone by.
SinclairHarding: All the people I’ve got working for me I’ve taken on and trained myself. They’re
now better at the specific job than I am but it’s great that they’ve now got a skill. I took them on
you know without a skill in clock making and they’ve all now got a skill so if the worst came to
the worst, they at least have got a skill out of the last 15 years.
SinclairHarding: One of the strangest things was the first year. I was on the stand, I knew nothing, I
didn’t know how to sell, nothing. Stood there for five days, not a bean. And I just thought this is it
and guy came, an American, big guy and he had an entourage and he looked at the clocks and went
away, and then a day later a chap came round, one of his entourage, came round and he said okay
we want this, this, this. And I know how to sell this so I worked a price out, gave him a price, he
says no, I’ll give you this, which was considerably less than what I was wanting. So I said okay I
know a bit about negotiating so I’ll go halfway. So he said, no, he says you’re not listening, this is
the price or I walk away. So I said deal, so I shook hands and he was just about to walk away and I
said just a minute I haven’t got your name and first of all I wanted 20% deposit. He opened his
wallet and he threw down the money in cash. Which was a considerable amount of money, I hadn’t
eaten for three days okay, and I said I haven’t got your address. He said I’ll be in touch and walked
away, and my wife was coming out the same day and I was able to buy a meal, that guy, I’ll be
forever grateful for him because he got me going, without him I wouldn’t be here today.
OFFICIAL WEBSITE: Robert Bray, Sinclair Harding Clocks, England