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What is a cuckoo clock?

A cuckoo clock is a wall clock with the figure of a cuckoo inside. The cuckoo reveals itself every half hour when it lets out its typical call.
These unusual cuckoo clocks, traditionally made in the Schwarzwald (Black Forest) region of Germany, are popular all over the world and seem to be very simple at first glance.

An optical challenge

The housing, whose design has been in use since the the middle of the 19th century, is unmistakably a railway house with a sloped roof, and not, as one might suspect, a house typical of the Schwarzwald region. It is decorated with various wooden ornaments, which are generally very colourful. These wall clocks are equipped with a pendulum with a chain hoist and also feature a percussion mechanism which ensures that rather than normal music playing twice an hour, the cuckoo call is heard instead.
The movable carved wooden bird sits inside the housing on a rotating link behind a flap, which is designed like a small door. Of course, the cuckoo gets a colorful coat of paint and its beak, which also moves, gives the whole thing a lively expression. The entire design is attached above the clock face and the bird shows itself at the top of every hour, and sometimes even every half an hour.

How is the call produced?

Inside this special wall clock a pair of differently tuned bellows is attached. The movement is similar to a conventional clockwork mechanism. In addition, it has a so-called bird rod, a swivelling construction that moves the cuckoo towards the door when the bell is triggered.
The bellows, which are equipped with small weights, are lifted and then released again by means of a wire rod. The resulting draft is directed into a small pipe, producing first a higher pitched sound, then a lower one. If the tones sound at the proper intervals, they generate the typical cuckoo call.

How does the cuckoo know the time?

Inside the clock mechanism is a step wheel with 12 steps that is connected to the trigger for the cuckoo. The weight on the chain inside the mechanism pulls it steadily downwards, blocking the alarm. If the minute hand is on the number twelve, however, the block is briefly released shortly after every hour. The more time passes, the deeper the alarm trigger sinks.
The exterior of the Schwarzwald cuckoo clocks belie the complexity within. Depending on the design and model, it can take between 24 hours and up to 8 days to put one together.

The history

By around 1619 the first cuckoo calls were being produced by playing two different organ pipe tones. Cuckoos attached to organs could move even move their beaks, wings and tails when they called.
The invention of the Schwarzwald cuckoo clock is somewhat inconsistently stated to be between 1742 and 1753. The present aesthetic came about as a result of a competition in 1850, which resulted in the "railway house" version superseding all other cuckoo clock designs of the era.
Whether as a special gift, a souvenir for tourists from all over the world or a collector's’ item for enthusiasts here in Germany, the cuckoo clock is something very special.

Table of Contents

How do cuckoo clocks work?

The cuckoo clock is certainly one of the most popular souvenirs that visitors bring back from their holiday in Germany. Today the clocks are still traditionally produced in the Schwarzwälder region. Over the years the cuckoo clock has seen many different designs, but the traditional cuckoo clock is one with a carved housing, usually in the shape of a small cottage with a sloped roof.
Cuckoo clocks are pendulum clocks with weights. The oscillating pendulum loosens an anchor at its highest point, setting its gears into motion. The typical weights on the chains belonging to the pendulum clock are pulled down by gravity. As a result, gears rotate the minute wheel by 1/60 of a turn and the minute hand moves forward. After a full turn, the minute wheel also rotates the hour hand. Once the weights have arrived at the bottom - depending on the clock model, this could be after 24 hours or up to 8 days - the clock needs to be wound. To do this, the weights on the chains are simply pulled up again.

It’s the cuckoo itself that led to the worldwide popularity of the Schwarzwald cuckoo clocks, which alert one of the time every hour with its well known call. The mechanical bird sits behind a flap above the dial. Once an hour has passed, the door opens, the cuckoo appears and calls out "cuckoo" repeatedly in accordance with the hour. In traditional cuckoo clocks the call is produced by two differently pitched whistles.
To ensure that the cuckoo calls on time every hour - sometimes even every half hour - the cuckoo clocks are outfitted with a fine-tuned gear train. The mechanism is triggered by what’s called a step wheel, which is connected to the hour hand. As soon as the minute hand is on the twelve, a lock is released and a trigger lever falls on the step wheel, pushing it down by varying amounts, depending on the position of the hour hand.
In this way the cuckoo "knows" how many times it’s supposed to call. Two small bellows which supply the air for the pipes are then raised and released, producing a high, then a low tone - the typical "cuckoo" call, though it only sounds perfect when the two tones are played at the proper interval. There are cuckoo clocks that make do with just one whistle, however.

In addition to the whistle sounds, a coil chime can be used to mimic a gong and, if outfitted properly, other parts of the clock can move as well, such as birds or other figures.
One variation of the cuckoo clock can even provide musical entertainment. After the cuckoo call at the top of the hour, a mechanism is set in motion, which plays a piece of music. In other models, the bird is replaced by dancing figures which waltz to the sound of the music. More complex clocks can activate their mechanisms every half an hour, some even switching between two pieces of music.

The historical origin of the cuckoo clock

... aside from its origin in the Schwarzwald not much is fully known.

Franz Anton Kletterer was honoured as a great inventor for many years. The clock maker from the Schwarzwald village of Schönwald was looking for a way to build the sound of church bells, which regularly announced the time, into a clock. He is said to have made a prototype around 1730, which was inspired by the bellows of the church organ. He brought this idea for generating a tone over to his clock model and supplemented its aesthetic with a moving cuckoo whose repeated call marked the exact time.
Not long after cuckoo clocks were known throughout Germany. In the Schwarzwald region itself, a popular contest among neighbors during the winter months was to build ever more difficult motifs and carvings onto specially crafted cuckoo clocks.
This passion resulted in up to 80 per cent of the population of the Schwarzwald region being involved in the clock-making trade, especially in the manufacture of cuckoo clocks, by as early as the beginning of the nineteenth century. The winter was used for manufacture, and the rest of the year for commercial travel and sales.
Many of the so-called “Häusler”, as manufacturers of clocks in the Schwarzwald at that time called themselves, were excluded from inheritance due to birth order or had to make do with a small, economically unviable piece of land. The Häusler had to find a different way to earn a living and managed to turn their misfortune into luck. As a result, around the year 1690 an entire industrial branch dedicated to the production of cuckoo clocks had developed in the Schwarzwald.

Simpler models of the cuckoo clock have existed since the middle of the 17th century, however, even before the development of clocks in the Schwarzwald had reached such a peak. The cuckoo clock was first mentioned in writing in the 17th century in the notes by Philipp Hainofer, who was probably allowed to examine a model owned by August of Saxony.
It can be said with absolute certainty that the people of the Schwarzwald are not only excellent bakers, but also have a unique talent in the art of clockmaking. This is especially evident when looking at the inner workings of a cuckoo clock.
In it, a system of two wooden pipes, a bellows and a complicated weight mechanism imitates the unmistakable two notes of an ordinary cuckoo. To this day this principle has changed very little, a stark contrast to the manifold aesthetic and design possibilities, some of which can even go as far as to be called abstract art.
But why the cuckoo? The bird is native to Europe and, until it was replaced by more professional alarms, served for a long time as a natural method of knowing the time. As a messenger of spring, the cuckoo announced the changing of the seasons and brought with it the hope of good weather and a successful growing season. Its call was known to many people and were associated with good tidings and luck - not many other creatures can make such a claim.

In the centuries since its invention, the cuckoo clock has gone through several development phases, which finally led to the production of two prototype designs: the "railway house" model, decorated with ornaments, a reminiscence of the construction of the railway line through the Schwarzwald in 1860; and the traditional model "Jagdstück", a simple house refined with decorative, hand-carved natural motifs.
Cuckoo clocks have always been a popular souvenir and gift; it’s charms are recognized by locals and tourists alike.

Germany’s Uhrenstraße

In 1992 one more beautiful tourist route was added to the more than 150 already located in Germany, which include notable attractions such as the Franconian Beer Road, the Märchenstrasse or the Bayerische Eisenstraße. After years of preparation, the citizens of the Schwarzwald succeeded in creating a 320 km-long circuit in their home region, designed to attracts locals and visitors to the rich tradition of the Schwarzwald's clock-making culture, and its landscape and history. The signet of Germany’s Uhrenstraße (clock road) displays a typical railway house Schwarzwald cuckoo clock as part of its design.
Rottweil, Deißlingen, Trossingen, Villingen-Schwenningen, Titisee-Neustadt, St. Märgen, Furtwangen, Waldkirch, Triberg, St.Georgen, and Schramberg are among the many stops on the scenic and delightful Uhrenstraße.
The Schwarzwald cuckoo clock is located in the center of the Uhrenstraße; its history and presence can be felt on many stations along the road. For example, the 9,000-inhabitant town of Furtwangen, located at the Danube source, can pride itself on being the city with the highest percent of students in Germany. More than 6,000 students were enrolled at the Furtwangen University of Applied Sciences, which was founded in 1850 as a clockmaker school and was awarded the status of University of Applied Sciences in 1971.
The university also includes the German Clock Museum, a 1,400 square meter area that is Germany's most important institute in regards to the development of the art of clock-making and clock production. The Schwarzwald clock-making trade, with its famous cuckoo clock tradition, is given more space but other aspects related to the topic of clocks are also presented vividly and scientifically.

The honour of housing the world's largest Schwarzwald cuckoo clock goes to Furtwangen, thanks in no small part to the neighbouring town of Triberg, which is also known for its waterfalls (163 m high). In the district of Schonachbach, a house-sized, walk-in cuckoo clock with a 20-square-meter, six-ton clock mechanism can be admired at the Eble Clock Park. By the way, the world's smallest cuckoo clock was also made in Triberg.
Among the many museums worth visiting are the German Harmonica Museum in Trossingen, the Monastery Museum in St. Märgen and the City Museum in Rottweil. In Rottweil, the oldest city in Baden-Württemberg with its Holy Cross Cathedral and the Black Gate which dates back to the 13th century, clocks are well represented by the several eye-catching sundials in the Old Town as well as by the Salt Clock in the Salt Museum.
With a population of around 80,000, the town is the twin town of Villingen-Schwenningen. The town of Villingen is especially famous for its medieval fortifications, which include a dozen towers and gates. Schwenningen also boasts two watch museums, including one focussed on the industry of watchmaking
In Titisee-Neustadt, located on the impressive Titisee Lake near Feldberg, model railroad fans will no doubt be delighted by Märklin World Titisee, likewise by the railway museum in Schwarzwald von Schramberg. In Schramberg, travellers on the Uhrenstraße should also visit the Museum of the Era of Invention, which has a section dedicated to the 200-year history of clock manufacture in the Schwarzwald.
If you are looking for relaxation outdoors in the Schwarzwald, you can start with a hike on the 112 km long Kandelhöhen path going in the direction of Freiburg or Waldkirch.

Cuckoo clocks made in the Black Forest have a certificate of authenticity. Why is that?
Preservation of tradition - The original Schwarzwald cuckoo clock

The Schwarzwald cuckoo clocks have their origin in the 17th century. Initially made entirely of wood, in the 19th century brass gear wheels were increasingly used for the clockwork. In Furtwangen, the first watchmaker's school was founded, which, thanks to further developments in the clock’s fine mechanics and the help of the Schwarzwald companies that manufactured them, established the cuckoo clock as a world-wide success. An original Schwarzwald cuckoo clock is supposed to convey something of the cosiness of the Black Forest. That is why they still have a purely mechanical clockwork today, and neither quartz mechanics nor solar modules are used.

The VdS certificate of authenticity

The "Verein die Schwarzwalduhr" (VdS), or “Association of the Schwarzwald Clock”, has made it their task to continue the tradition and to guarantee lovers of the cuckoo clock that the Schwarzwald clock they purchased is an authentic one.
90% of Schwarzwald clock manufacturers have joined together with collectors, traders and suppliers in this association, which operates out of Schonach. Each year, more than 300,000 of these original clocks are made and sold all over the world. In order to improve the clock’s international standing, every year the association selects a cuckoo clock of the year and uses it to develop a new seal of quality.
The certified clocks must come from the Triberg region or from the region around Titisee-Neustadt. In addition to the proof of origin, only purely mechanical clocks are considered originals. Like the housing, numerals and hands are made of wood. The carvings must be deep and detailed. When the cuckoo calls, it must also moves its wings. If a clock features music, the melodies are not to be played digitally, but mechanically.
Each single piece must also have been manufactured in the Schwarzwald. Only the clockmakers in the Schwarzwald who meet these requirements can get the VdS certificate for their clocks. These regulations ensure that every clock is unique and 100% handmade. In addition, a world-wide service for repair and restoration is provided for each original clock. The name of the respective manufacturer is also engraved in the clockwork.

VdS - An international certificate

The design of the VdS certificate comes from the Schonacher artist Benno Gasche. It features both German and English. With this seal it is easy for buyers to distinguish between original cuckoo clocks and souvenir goods from Eastern Europe and Asia. The certificate guarantees that the piece is a traditional mechanical Schwarzwald clock, which combines originality and high-quality craftsmanship.

How do I build a cuckoo clock myself?

The Schwarzwald cuckoo clock has a long tradition and is experiencing a renaissance today. The classic Schwarzwald clock is usually a wall clock with shuttle train. Characteristic is the cuckoo, which usually appears from behind a door flap every hour and gives an acoustic signal. The traditional watch from the Schwarzwald is in the shape of a railway house with lush plant and animal decorations. If you want to create a cuckoo clock yourself, you can choose the classic design or combine traditional components to make a modern design. If you want a unique accessory for your home, then a self-made wooden Schwarzwald clock is ideal.
You don’t have to visit a clockmaker; it’s possible to purchase the clockwork in the accessories area of an electronic goods store. With the raw model, you can go back to a finished kit, follow a manual, or construct the body yourself.

Kit and instruction manual

There are ready-made wooden kits if you want to build a cuckoo clock. With these you only have to glue the parts and install the clockwork. If you like doing the dirty work yourself, you can also download a manual from the Internet. For wood types, you can use the traditional linden wood or another softwood like poplar or willow. The paper cutting can be fixed to the wood with paper or spray glue and then cut out with a fret saw.
In either case, you can decorate, add ornaments and varnish or stain the wood according to your own preferences.
Instead of using wood, you can also work with cardboard or corrugated board - materials that are quite popular today. If desired, you can decorate the cardboard with decorative paper later. Paper is particularly well-suited for children, who would be thrilled to be able to design their own clocks.

Remodel an old clock

An alternative to the kit is remodelling an old cuckoo clock. You may have inherited a clock that does not suit your decor, or you bought one at a flea market or on the Internet. Here you have the advantage that you do not have to buy and install a clockwork. You can carefully remove the ornaments and then replace them with your own designs and color them. When replacing the cuckoo, make sure that the size and weight match the original.

For individualists

You can also design and build a cuckoo clock according to your own ideas. You can deviate from the classic design and choose a different shape, such as rectangle or square, instead of a cottage with a canopy. Make sure, however, that the cuckoo and the dial have sufficient freedom of movement. There is no limit to your imagination, even when choosing materials. You can use plywood or cardboard; decorate the body with fabric, colorful paper or decorative cardboard; or even something fancy like rhinestones, pearls or figurines.


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All crossed out prices are the previous prices at Käthe Wohlfahrt