John Carmichael, Sundial Artist

by Vera Marie Badertscher,

Arizona Highways, February 2000.

(Originally published as Timepiece for the Centuries)

When the electricity went out and all the clocks in the house were wrong, John Carmichael had a ready solution.

“I went around and set the clocks using the sundial. It was the only thing that was working.”

Standing in his sunny studio in the foothills of Tucson’s Catalina Mountains, where he crafts works of art that tell time, Carmichael enthusiastically counts the reasons that sundials are perfect for Arizona.

“One, we’re the astronomy capitol of the world. Two, we don’t have daylight savings time, so the sundial is always right. Three, we have more hours of sunshine than any other state.”

The ticking of unwinding springs lured people away from light and shadow time in the nineteenth century. Machine age clocks and standardized time demoted sundials from essential timepiece to mere ornament—and ornaments do not have to keep accurate time.

The most accurate sundials earn the confidence-inspiring name, heliochronometer. True, shadows on stone cannot compete with sophisticated atomic clocks for second-splitting accuracy, but a sundial properly manufactured and installed will get you to the church on time. And it never needs winding.

“How many times do you have to reset your clock or watch?” Carmichael asks.

John Carmichael spends as much energy elucidating sundials as he does creating them. Scowling, he considers the villains in the story, foundries that mass-produce brass sundials.

“They get a hold of a nice antique sundial from London, and then they make a mold and start stamping them out and sell them all over the United States.”

Carmichael, who designs his hand-carved sundials for the specific latitude where they stand, says, “A sundial will work within roughly a fifty mile radius. One made for Tucson will be eight minutes off if moved to Phoenix.”

According to the President of the North American Sundial Association, fewer than a dozen people in the United States currently make accurate timekeepers like Carmichael’s.

John Carmichael grew up in a family of artists, and always loved the outdoors and creating things with his hands. After he received a degree in horticulture from the University of Arizona, Carmichael moved to Mexico where he owned a plant nursery. When he sold the nursery and returned to Tucson, time weighed heavy, until he read a book that changed his life.

An artist friend gave CarmichaelSundials: Their Construction and Use, which compiles fifteenth and sixteenth century information in easy-to-understand language.

“My friend knew that I love nature, astronomy and working with my hands. When I got to the very end of the book they have tangents and cotangents and cosigns and all that stuff, and I thought, wow if I can learn to work these formulas, I can make all these wonderful sundials they talk about in here.”

He taught himself trigonometry and started working in wood, but soon switched to more durable stone. He learned which stone would polish well and resist cracking, how to carve with an electric bur, how to cut and inlay brass.

Wheels of Coconino flagstone, three inches thick and two to three feet in diameter sit on tables in his studio. Some of the pink and beige rocks have preliminary fine lines carved; some have brass inlays. A finished dial, polished to a marble-like sheen, tells time with a chain stretching diagonally from a center post, to a bracket on the edge of the sundial. A fudge-brown rock serves as a counterweight to hold the chain taut.

The chain sets these creations apart. Traditionally, a solid triangular shape called a gnomon casts a broad shadow. Carmichael’s patented chain gnomon, made of links manufactured for grandfather clocks, casts a thin, precise shadow on the stone.

Carmichael points to a reproduction of a Spanish pocket sundial sitting on a table. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson carried such pocket dials. He flips the small box open. It has a little compass to align it with north. A string extends from the open lid to the base, casting a shadow on hour markers. The structure resembles Carmichael’s chain gnomens.

People are delighted to discover that their sundial is also a moondial.

“There is a conversion chart with the sundial. If you know the phase of the moon, you add or subtract minutes. It moves (along the horizon) two minutes an hour,” Carmichael says.

Sundials can tell more than time. Renaissance dial faces were packed with information.

“ Once Keppler and Isaac Newton discovered how the planets moved in the sixteenth century, that was immediately incorporated into the designs,” Carmichael says. His pieces tell the dates of solstice, equinox and time of sunrise and sunset.

Carmichael builds about fifteen backyard sundials a year, but dreams of building something bigger than his biggest, a grand piano-sized slab. Some day he would like to build a monumental sundial in a public place, like the ten-story high sundial at an astronomical center in Jaiphur, India.

“The larger a sundial, the more accurate. The bigger it is, the more minutes you can engrave.” Carmichael uses the word “accurate” often. As if to emphasize his passion for precision, he points out that you can find his business, Sundial Sculptures, under ‘clocks’ in the yellow pages.

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