Former architect Will Matthysen is now selling his unique handcrafted wooden clocks to the world

Matthysen not only gave architecture, but began a year-long, full-time clock and horology apprenticeship at RMIT, starting with the basics of the pocket watch.

“The first two weeks were all about how to sharpen your screwdriver, how to make sure it doesn’t slip and scratch the plates,” he says. “Then basic things like taking the watch apart, taking it apart, putting it in the cleaning machine, putting it back together, putting it on the timing machine and setting it.”

Detail of grasshopper escapement in Acacia rhodoxylon, lignum vitae.

A fussy job for some, but not for a man who likes to handcraft nearly every time-telling part of his creations, even the tools that shape the mechanisms. “I make jigs or jigs or little tool holders to do the movement. I developed a methodology to make it effective.

To make sure he has parts on hand, he batch-produces pre-machined components. It operates the cog in tandem with a pendulum that keeps the beat – something that not only requires skill, but also careful calculation.

“I designed a flexible wheel set. I have worked out a set of ratios for a large wheel, center wheel, intermediate wheel and escape wheel so that I can have a range of pendulums from a half second pendulum to a d ‘a second. All wheels have a standard tooth count, so the only thing I need to change is the sprocket leaf count.

A wall clock in all American woods.

If that sounds complicated, it surely is. Matthysen carves two or three sets of gears out of the brass before fine-tuning the machine settings and locking it all together. Then he cuts silver steel sprockets with coolant or cutting oil.

While a deft touch with gears, CNC machining and metalworking is an essential part of the process, it was the fine woodworking of his bespoke creations and their unapologetic kinetic appeal that brought Matthysen a international clientele.

His first customers came through exhibitions with woodworking enthusiasts and the Victorian Woodworkers Association; then a buyer from David Jones spotted a clock and installed it as visual merchandising in the men’s department; a gallery in Leura, NSW came calling, as did one in Sydney, and international commissions started pouring in – from the US, Canada, Britain, Japan and China.

“Once I got the exposure, everything took off,” says Matthysen. “People don’t buy clocks to tell the time, they become emotionally attached to them and become part of people’s lives – you just have to tell the time in a minute or two a week.”

Even so, the precision of such a timepiece requires a thorough understanding of the materials you are working with, especially the varying qualities of different woods – a science with which Matthysen seems more than up to date.

“A few of the guys in the carpentry group had worked for CSIRO in the wood products department and they knew all about the organic nature of the material, the cellular structure, how it interacts with moisture. By talking to them and reading a lot, I gained a bit of knowledge on how to deal with this.

A table clock made from Tasmanian myrtle, Western Australian beech and jarrah.

The finished product can incorporate redgum, sycamore, huon pine, and fiddleback blackwood, and range in size from long case — think floor — to something smaller. Each clock takes two to three months and prices range from $12,000 to $30,000.

“The mechanical components are largely the same, so there is a degree of standardization, but I modify some elements to fit different case designs, so the woodworking is always different.”

That could mean an escape wheel or gears in a dense wood like Gidgee – and a trip to Matthysen’s kitchen stove to deal with stabilizing humidity; he has developed his own way of dealing with such problems.

Given such unorthodox but down-to-earth methods, it’s no surprise that Matthysen hesitates when asked about his place in the local watchmaking fraternity. “There are very good watchmakers in Australia”, he says lookmentioning NSW makers Buchanan Clocks and Deryck Noakes – “an absolute genius” – and Trevor Herbstreit in Bairnsdale, Victoria.

As for his verdict on himself: “It took me a long time to figure out what I was doing and how I ended up where I am now. You know Venn diagrams? One of the circles would be the fine cabinetmaking, another horology or watchmaking and the other architectural design.

“I sort of overlapped those three. This is where I get the feel of contemporary composition in what I do.

AFR Magazine’s August issue – plus the 36-page Watch special – was released Friday, July 29 inside The Australian Financial Review. Follow AFR Mag on Twitter and Instagram.