In these digital, hi-tech times you might be surprised to learn that Shaftesbury-made sundials are selling well all over the world.
Keith Bunting supplies customers with bespoke sundials that can be highly personalised as an extra-special gift. And the outdoor features bought from Keith’s Merlin Sundials actually tell the time, unlike ones bought from retail chains.
“Those actually don’t work at all. They’re probably made in bulk in India or China. A sundial has to be made for its specific location. Longitude and latitude are important. You can’t mass produce something with those parameters,” Keith said.
Of course it’s unlikely that people will have returned their chain store sundials as faulty and I doubt that Trading Standards have received many complaints. But you would still want a working one, wouldn’t you? “I don’t think people expect a sundial to work,” said Keith. “Some people are happy just to put it out in the garden. It has a shadow but it doesn’t tell the time.”
We walked into Keith’s office in his handsome Georgian home opposite Shaftesbury School. The screen of his large desktop Mac was filled with a line drawing of a sundial with many trigonometry markings radiating off the centre circle. Merlin Sundials uses some computer wizardry to create these ancient tools. Keith was using software to design a sundial for a customer in Holland.
“I’ve made them for the US, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, New Zealand, Australia, Spain, Portugal and lots for the Nordic countries,” Keith said. And you’ll see Keith’s sundials in gardens the length and breadth of Britain. “The furthest north would be Sutherland and the furthest south would be the Scilly Isles. And I’ve done them for the Channel Islands and Norfolk, so east and west as well,” he said.
Closer to home, Keith’s sundials are a design feature in many Shaftesbury gardens. “Funnily enough, ever since we moved to Shaftesbury, I have done more local work than I ever did in Bristol. I’ve had more knocks on the door, which catches me out. I’m not used to it!” he said.
Keith and his attentive Collie, Skye, led me to the front of his Old Blandford Road home. His own, personal sundial took pride of place in the garden. “This has what’s called a patinated finish on it,” Keith explained, “I chemically weathered the dial in the workshop.” The sundial face is inscribed with ‘Keith and Rose 2014’, the year the couple moved to the town from Bristol. “It’s a nice touch,” smiled Keith.
Keith can add a mark on the dial which creates a special shadow only at a precise time, such as the time and date of somebody’s birth – assuming that event wasn’t during the hours of darkness. “It’s called a line of declination,” said Keith, as she showed me how his Dutch client’s birthday would be included on the sundial. “On the 11th of October, the shadow will follow this line across. At 4 minutes past 4pm, the shadow will be pointing on that dot. It’s a unique shadow for their birthday. It’s a miniature Stonehenge,” he said.
And perhaps that’s why people love sundials. Although measuring the sun’s angle is pure science, there’s something magical about them. “Stonehenge is just a massive sundial. That’s what’s fascinating about it,” said Keith.
In case you’re wondering how you tell the time when the clocks change for British Summer Time, Keith says you just need to remember to add an hour. “You can put a separate scale on the inside of the dial but I think that’s a waste of time,” he added.
When most people think of sundials, they would probably visualise a circle with a raised piece of metal, the gnomon, which casts the shadow in the middle. Keith says that’s the standard design. “It’s the traditional horizontal sundial that people buy all over the world. There’s also a type that goes on a wall, a vertical sundial. I make both depending on what people want.”
Keith can create any design you would like but most customers suggest variations on his previous work. “I’ve got templates on my website that people can look at and they can take one element from one design and combine it with another. I can chop and change according to what they want.”
I’d seen where the detailed planning work happened in his office. So Keith took me downstairs to his double-roomed basement workshop, filled with tools and machinery. “I’ve got a milling machine. I have a lathe, pillar drill and a band saw for cutting thick brass. There’s a polishing wheel and all the hand tools and files,” he said, as I surveyed his spacious but windowless workspace below street level.
A formidable contraption, a black iron guillotine, took up much of the space next to the stairs. “It was made in Birmingham in the 1920s. I picked it up from a guy in the Midlands 20 years ago. It’s basically an illegal piece of kit. But because I work for myself, it’s allowable. You can cut your fingers off. As you can see, it cuts through sheets of brass.”
I stood back as Keith jumped on a long, bar-like foot pedal. In a flash, the guillotine dropped down and sliced through a 2mm thick sheet of brass. As we walked back upstairs, I would never have guessed that such a well-kitted-out engineer’s workshop lay beneath the grand townhouse rooms above.
Some of Keith’s creations are weighty. “The very heavy ones are set out by courier as a sort of flat-pack. The gnomon isn’t attached but I give instructions on how to set them up.”
Clockmakers are known as horologists but Keith says sundial makers don’t have a special title. “I’m not aware of a name. Perhaps we should have one. I just call myself a sundial maker.”
It’s not an everyday profession, so how did he become a sundial maker? Keith was etching brass for the giftware market and selling his work to shops, markets and trade shows when a customer offered him a special swap. “He lived in Cornwall and he made sundials in slate. He asked me to make a gnomon. In return, he said that he’d send me the hour lines for making a sundial where we lived in Bristol. I made the sundial and it told the time. Someone saw it and wanted one. So I made one. A friend saw theirs and wanted their own and it went on from there.”
That was twenty years ago and Keith doesn’t know the number of sundials he’s created since then. Every one is a separate, distinct and unique project. “I have no idea,” Keith laughed. “I am usually making twenty sundials at anyone time. They will be at various stages of production.”
But Keith is slowly reducing his output. “It was my income and I still take it very seriously but I don’t want to be working so hard, so I am taking fewer orders. It’s time to ease up a bit,” he said. So if you want your own bespoke, working sundial, there’s a bit of a wait.
“Because I am taking fewer orders, rather than saying yes, I say you’ll have to wait until I finish the ones I am working on, and I will come back to you. That’s to stop it building up so I have too many orders at any one time.”
And just make sure that, like Keith, you’re settled in Shaftesbury – or wherever you live – when you commission him. His careful calculation of the sun’s angle according to location coordinates means that the dials are fixed to the property, or at least a town or village. They’ll tell the wrong time if you move far away. “You’re stuck for life!” laughed Keith.
You can see Keith’s work at MerlinSundials.co.uk.