How German Cuckoo Clocks are Made
The original German cuckoo clock comes from the Black Forest region of southeastern Germany. Of all the decorative clocks that are made around the world, the German cuckoo clock is unique in its hand carved wooden designs and whimsical koo-koo sounds. The Black Forest region of Germany is considered one of the top clock and watch making areas of the world, so when you get a cuckoo clock that comes from the Black Forest you know you're getting a quality, handmade piece of art.
Clocks have been made in the Black Forest region since the mid-1600s. During the long, cold winter months, villagers of the region were mostly isolated due to deep snowfalls that made traveling outside the region nearly impossible. As a result, the people started a variety of winter businesses, such as glassblowing and clock making. They would make their handmade crafts during the winters and selling during the summers. This gradually developed into a profitable industry that took over the region. Combining the resources of all the local artisans, entire communities got into the clock making business. Some made wooden boxes, others made metal cogs, and yet others made the clock mechanisms themselves. These businesses worked together in creating some of the finest clocks and watches in the world and by the late 1700s the Black Forest established itself as one of the premier clock making regions of the world.
The German cuckoo clocks of today are all made pretty much in the same way as they were three hundred years ago. Of course, the manufacturing of parts is now done in large factories, but the basic construction of each clock is still done in the same way. All German cuckoo clocks are made from the natural woods that are indigenous to the region, particularly linden and walnut wood. These woods need to be aged for two years before they can be used to make a German cuckoo clock, so demand for these particular wood varieties are always high for the Black Forest clockmaker.
A cuckoo clock designer must first determine which style or scene he will be creating for each cuckoo clock he builds. Certain traditional designs have been used by the same clock making families or manufacturers in the area for centuries and are often identifiable as belonging to that particular clockmaker based on certain characteristics or styles. Since most people want to own a cuckoo clock that is rich in tradition, these styles have rarely changed over the years. Once a design is chosen, the clock designer will select the wood to be used for the clock and will piece together the box or cabinet shape that will hold the clock mechanisms inside. Power tools are used to create this portion of the cuckoo clock because the box does not require any decorative woodworking pieces. The box is then nailed and glued together and set aside.
The front of the clock, or the outer decorative frame, is where the traditional woodcarving skills that have been handed down over generations will be used. Stenciled cuckoo clock designs, many of which have been passed down for centuries, will then be traced onto the wood which will become the decorative front piece. Some designs are quite simple, incorporating just birds and leaves, while others are more intricate requiring multiple scenes and stencils to bring the whole story being told on the cuckoo clock together in a unified manner. The clock designer then begins the painstaking process of carving and shaping the wood into the various decorative pieces that will eventually become a beautiful, hand carved work of art. Once all the wood pieces have been carved, the frame and the box are then stained and allowed to dry.
Many cuckoo clocks are also decoratively painted with bright colors to bring the clocks to life. Simple designs usually remain unpainted, except for some occasional highlights around the leaves or animated figurines. More intricate designs, particularly those that represent life in one of the Black Forest villages, tend to have more color incorporated into their overall scenes. These artistic touches are usually done by the clockmaker himself or by an artist who specializes in cuckoo clock painting.
Once all the woodcarving and decorative paintings are completed, the clock mechanisms are then mounted inside the box. While the original clockmakers poured their own metal gears and made all their own moving clock parts, this process has become more industrialized and entire clock mechanisms come already assembled. Once the clock assembly is attached to the box, the drive chains, lead weights, and pendulum are then attached to the clock assembly. These parts are what cause the cuckoo clock to work without batteries or electricity. Most cuckoo clocks use lead weights that are shaped like two thin pine cones. These weights used to be hand poured by blacksmiths in the region, but today they are manufactured in metal factories.
The pipes and bellows that make the cuckoo bird chirp are then added to the box. There are two pipes and two bellows in each cuckoo clock which will create the two-toned sound of the cuckoo bird chirping each time the clock strikes the top of the hour. This is created as the bellows are squeezed and air passes through the pipes alternately, creating the distinctive koo-koo sound. Some cuckoo clocks also use a music box which plays a special tune as the cuckoo clock scenery comes to life each hour. Other moving parts, such as the cuckoo himself, the trap door that hides him, and other animated characters are all attached to the clock assembly using hooks, cams, pins, gears, cranks, and shafts which will all work together in an intricate dance that makes the cuckoo clock come to life at the top, the half, and sometimes the quarter hour. Finally, the clockmaker tests the clock for accuracy and the process of making a cuckoo clock is finished. The clock is then packaged and is ready to be sold to tourists and shops around the world.