On a recent afternoon, Steve Kowalski unlocked the oversized wooden doors to his Point Richmond shop and maneuvered through a room littered with what appeared to be junk. Stretching over gadgets to flip on the light, he illuminated his treasures.
There was a violin, a pistol, a cask, motors, lamps, a rotisserie part and a ration tin from World War II – all made into clocks.
Kowalski, a 54-year-old clockmaker from Point Richmond who designed the Giants clock that rests in San Francisco’s ballpark, creates timepieces out of found objects. He began his hobby with a trip to a flea market in the spring of 1992, where he bought a box of clock parts.
“I came home and I put them together and made a clock, and it was beautiful,” Kowalski said. “And this friend of mine bought it for 500 bucks. So I built a lot of those. Called it Kowalski Clockworks: Clocks Like You’ve Never Seen Before.”
That name didn’t stick for long. But building one-of-a-kind clocks became Kowalski’s career and lifelong craft.
A walk around his shop revealed some clocks that fit in the palm of Kowalski’s hand. Others were taller than the man who crafted them.
“This is my private, scientist-sort of workshop,” he said. “It’s kind of a cool sanctuary.”
Scientific devices, military parts and European antiques lay on the ground and on shelves alongside objects that Kowalski couldn’t even identify.
“This is an old autoclave,” he said, pointing to an outdated medical machine for sterilizing equipment. “Someday I’ll make a clock out of it for some crazy person.”
Kowalski said he wishes he had more time to assemble strange clocks. But for years, he has spent most of his time in the shop developing products for his business, Timeworks Inc.
Timeworks was born in 1995 when Kowalski’s brother suggested selling cheaper clocks to average buyers. Before that, most of Kowalski’s creative clocks were ticking away for about $1,000 apiece. His most expensive time-telling invention sold for $9,000.
Now, Timeworks’ cheapest clocks sit on store shelves for $8.95. A few dozen employees assemble the clocks in a warehouse in Berkeley.
Kowalski estimates that Timeworks has produced more than a million clocks. The founder has built about 400 himself, including some out of wooden salad bowls, latex glove molds and steam gauges.
Geonni Banner, a photographer in Point Richmond, manages the building that houses a gallery where she, Kowalski and a handful of other artists display their work. She photographed Kowalski’s clocks for some of her own art.
“I saw the clocks, and I was just so taken by them,” she said.
Banner said she has three of Kowalski’s clocks in her home.
Actor Timothy Hutton and late TV personality Ed McMahon are among those who own Kowalski clocks.
Kowalski’s shop and house are filled with collected clutter, not all of it for clock making. He has miniature French houses from an old movie set, baseball memorabilia, the cradle he slept in as an infant and multiple model airplanes and boats that he bought or built.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I have just loved machines of any kind,” he said. “When I got Christmas presents, I would take them apart to see how they worked.”
These days, as a husband and father, he has less time to construct clocks. But he didn’t complain and said he prefers spending free time with family.
Thanks to Kowalski’s wife, Patti, the couple’s waterfront home lacks the disorder of the shop. However, their house has no shortage of clocks, and many don’t show the correct time.
“It kills people when they come in,” Patti Kowalski said. “Which clock is the right clock?”
Kowalski cited two reasons for all the nonworking clocks.
“First of all, they don’t all work right,” he said. “And second of all, if they chime, that drives Patti nuts.”
Despite the hundreds of working clocks constantly surrounding Kowalski, he admitted he’s not particularly punctual.
“If I say, ‘just a minute,’ it’s usually more than a minute,” he said. “I’ll call my wife and I’ll say, ‘I’ll be home in about six and a half or seven minutes.’ I do say those things. But I‘m rarely on time.”