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Cuckoo About Cuckoos: A Closer Look at Germany’s Famous Clock

Once upon a time, deep in the heart of Germany’s Black Forest, there lived in a small village a master clockmaker. Contrary to what you might think, this is not an intro to one of Grimm’s fairy tales. Instead, it is a true account of how cuckoo clocks became one of Germany’s most popular and long-standing exports, along with the stories of the Brothers Grimm, of course. The history of the cuckoo is not entirely verified, but the earliest evidence suggests the historic clocks came on the scene in Germany sometime between the 1600s and 1700s. Anton Fritz Ketterer, a master clockmaker living in Schoenwald, Germany, is said to have invented the first Black Forest cuckoo clock in 1740. Using the pipe organ as a blueprint, he created a mechanical system with two small bellows and wooden whistles to make the now-famous two-note bird sound. By the mid-18th century, many German clockmakers in the Black Forest had followed suit and were making cuckoo clocks with wooden gears.
Black Forest cuckoo clock
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Although the materials used to make a cuckoo clock today are different, the craftsmanship that goes into each Black Forest piece remains the same. This is because of the Verein die Schwarzwalduhr, or in English, the Black Forest Clock Association. The VdS is a syndicate created in 1987 to protect the tradition of clockmaking in the Black Forest. Only six cuckoo clock manufacturers in the world currently make products that carry the official VdS designation. They are: Hubert Herr, Hӧnes GmbH, Rombach & Haas, Anton Schneider & Sӧhne, August Schwer, Helmut Kammerer GmbH & Co. KG, Robert Herr, Holzbildhauerei Kammerer, Engstler e.K. What is it that sets an authentic Black Forest cuckoo clock apart from any other? Here are a few essential things:

Materials & Assembly

All materials, including the wood, metals, and other decorative items, must come from the Black Forest region. Every cuckoo clock also must be manufactured from start to finish in the Black Forest. No cuckoo outsourcing allowed.

Fully Mechanical Movement

A certified Black Forest cuckoo clock will have a fully mechanical movement, according to VdS certification standards. Weights and chains control the hands on the watch dial, the bellows that produce the cuckoo sound, and the levers that activate the music box. No batteries required. The gravitational pull from weights, usually brass pinecones or wooden cylinders, drives the pendulum to swing back and forth at an even rate. The weights are connected to the clock’s internal gears by chains, and as the weights descend, the gears turn, powering the clock, cuckoo, and music box functions. Musical clocks have three weights, one for each function, and non-musical clocks have two. Cuckoos come in two cycles – an eight-day (which requires winding once a week) and one-day (which needs daily winding).

Type of Wood

Black Forest clockmakers generally use walnut or pine to create the base housing for the clock. For the carvings, however, they use specially-prepared Linden wood. The wood, which grows in the region’s dark, dense forests, is selected, cut, and dried for around two years before it is ready for carving.

Hand-Carved and Hand-Painted

The clockmaker starts with a stencil and paint to outline the clock’s general design on a woodblock. A jigsaw is used to cut out the design, and then the real work begins. Skilled carpenters carve intricate details into the wood, creating leaves, chalet fronts, animals, flowers, or hunting scenes, depending on the design’s complexity. Painters bring the elaborate carvings to life with color and precision. In some clocks, the carving is simple, and the painted scenes are more detailed. Either way, a true Black Forest cuckoo clock is a work of art as much as it is a functioning clock. Genuine Black Forest Cuckoo clocks come in all shapes and sizes today, from traditional forest or hunting scenes to modern sleek and minimalistic designs. Now that you know what to look for, you’ll easily be able to recognize a true Black Forest masterpiece when you see it. But even if the clock your grandmother left you doesn’t have the VdS designation, we recognize your cuckoo’s sentimental value likely outweighs its monetary value. Our trained clock repair technicians at Times Ticking can repair any variety of cuckoo clock you send in, and we promise to handle it with the high level of care and expertise it deserves.