Cuckoo Clocks


This Guide was written for your use, information, and enjoyment. It includes some background information on this type of clock, information on how to set and wind it, and some info on how to care for it. However, for legal reason, I must point out that you use this guide at your own risk.

This guide may not be reprinted in whole or in part without my consent. However, feel free to print out a copy for your own, personal use.




Cuckoo clocks have been around for many years, but really became popular in the 1950's and 60's - hence, most have been made since that time. Almost all of these clocks are made in West Germany. Cuckoo clocks are difficult to date because there have been so many different varieties built, however, the older clocks generally have wooden dial faces, wooden whistles, and leather bellows on the whistles.

Cuckoo clocks are normally wound either daily or weekly by pulling one or more chains to raise weights that run the clock. The cuckoo clock may have a music box or moving figures, but most have the characteristic cuckoo bird that appears from behind a door to announce the hour and the half hour. These clocks are generally appreciated for their novelty and wood carvings.

As opposed to most clocks where the movement is protected from dirt, dust and air currents by a clock case, the cuckoo clock mechanism is exposed to these elements both by the exposed pendulum and by holes in the case through which the chains pass and the bird or musical figures appear. Because of this, the movement must be able to withstand more dust and dirt, hence, it is built with greater "sloppiness" in the gears. As a result, the cuckoo clock is generally not the most accurate time piece (i.e., it is not uncommon for it to gain or loose a little time).

This guide was written to help you set your cuckoo clock and keep it running


What are the parts:

Rather than cover the whole clock, I'll just cover the parts you might normally deal with. To begin, there are the weights. These are usually cast iron, shaped like a pine cone, and range between 5/8 pound and 4 pounds each (depending on the size of the clock and the number of days the clock is designed to run). It is important to have the right weight for your clock. Too small a weight will not be able to run the clock, while too large a weight can damage the movement. Each weight is attached to a winding chain that passes over a ratchet wheel (a gear that turns in one direction but not the other).

The clock has a pendulum that consists of a rod, a bob, and an adjustment slide. The pendulum controls the speed at which the clock runs. Sliding the bob (often shaped like a leaf) down on the rod slows down the clock. Raising the bob speeds up the clock.

When the clock strikes, a mechanism rotates to hit a gong (located on the inside back panel of the clock) and lifts wires which, in turn, lift and release the cuckoo whistles. Each whistle normally has a small lead or steel weight that uses gravity to force air out of a bellows. The whistling sound is made by air rushing over a reed.

The cuckoo bird normally sits behind a door until it is time to announce the hour or half hour. There is usually a wire located above the door. You can twist this wire over the door to prevent it from opening. Use this to silence the clock if you want to run it without hearing the cuckoos.

The crown is the top of the clock, which is almost always separable from the clock body. When packing your clock for shipment you should remove the crown, as it is fragile and can easily be damaged.

The clock minute hand is used to set the time. Never turn the hour hand.

Where to place your clock:

There are two basic considerations when deciding where to place your clock: What is best for your decor, and what is best for the clock. As with most things in life, these two do not always go hand-in-hand. I can't help much with how it will fit into your decor, but I do know that it goes well in entry-ways or rooms with tall ceilings. To decide if the location is good for the clock, try this procedure: Ensure that the location is not subject to strong drafts which may blow the chains and pendulum around, or direct sunlight which may fade the clock case. With the weights removed (to make the clock easier to handle) and the weight chains pulled completely to the top, hold the clock against the wall so that the chains just touch the floor.* Now raise the clock at least nine inches. This is the lowest that you should mount your clock. If you have small hands or playful cats around the house you may need to raise the clock further yet. Make sure that you can still reach the bottom of the clock for winding, even if you have to keep a step-stool handy. As a rule, you should mount it as high as you can provided that it looks good.

I prefer to mount cuckoo clocks on a wall stud, especially the 8-day clocks, because they can weigh quite a bit. Using a stud sensor, find a stud nearest the location that you have chosen (studs are usually either 16 or 24 inches apart). Use at least a 4d box nail on 1-day clocks, and at least a 6d box nail on 8-day clocks. This may be overkill, but it is better than having your clock crash to the floor when the neighbor kid pulls on the chains or your coat catches a chain on the way by! The nail should be angled slightly upward so that the clock naturally slips down the nail and hugs the wall (see the following figures).

Nail angled slightly upward and anchored in stud

Clock should hang like this

Not like this


How to wind and start your clock:

To wind your clock, if possible, hold the clock steady by firmly pressing it in to the wall. This will prevent moving the clock during winding. Often the cuckoo clock is mounted too high to make holding the clock practical. If this is the case, try your best to not move the clock while winding. Grasp one chain at a time and gently pull it at a steady rate until the weight raises to near the bottom of the clock. GENTLY pull it until it is just touching or just below the clock. If you pull in jerking motions, or ram the weight into the bottom of the clock, you risk moving the clock (at best) or breaking the clock.

To start the clock, gently push and release the pendulum such that it swings in a sideways motion. Watch and listen to the clock. You should hear a "tick" sound in both directions of the pendulum swing. The "tick" should have a regular sound, equally spaced with the other "ticks". For example: "Tick........Tick........Tick........Tick". If the "tick" is irregular: "Tick..Tick..............Tick..Tick..............Tick" then there is a problem. This is usually because the clock is not hanging on the wall in the right position. Simply move the bottom of the clock one way or the other until you hear regularly spaced "ticks". Move the clock in very small adjustments, and let the clock run for several seconds (longer on larger clocks) before making the next adjustment. Note that the final location may not look level, and may in fact not be level, but it is the right placement for your clock movement, hence, using a level to set your clock is incorrect - what is important is equally spaced "ticks". If the clock not looking level concerns you, call your clock repairman who can make adjustments to match the movement level to the case level.

When you get the position just right, let the clock run for a week (for a day if you have a 1-day clock) to verify that you have the adjustment correct. Then, push the base of the clock into the wall. Many cuckoo clocks have small brads at the bottom of the clock which will push into the wall to help keep the clock from moving. It is also a good idea to make a small pencil mark on the wall that shows where the bottom right-hand corner of the case is. This will help in repositioning the clock if it gets bumped or if you have to move the clock.

To set the correct time, simply use your finger to turn the minute hand until the correct time is reached. The minute hand should be turned forward only to prevent damage to the clock. If you only need to set the minute hand back a few minutes, it is permissible to do so as long as you never pass backwards over the regions shown in black below. Never turn the hour hand, as this may damage the clock.

How to adjust and care for your clock:

To adjust the clock, stop the pendulum, lightly grasp it and slide the bob up to make the clock run faster, and down to make it run slower. It is best to make adjustments in very small increments until you have a feel for how much movement relates to how much speed change. It may take several days to adjust the clock, and several weeks to fine tune the adjustment so that it will run unadjusted for several weeks. Note that a gain or loss of 4 minutes per week is good for some cuckoo clocks. Accuracy beyond this may not be possible, because the speed is also affected by room temperature fluctuations, air currents, and wall vibrations.

Other than winding and an occasional adjustment, your clock should require little or no maintenance other than a routine dusting to keep it looking nice.

How to move your clock:

The first step to moving any weight driven clock is to remove the weights. You should also remove the pendulum at this point.

Never move, turn the clock upside down, or tilt it sideways without insuring that the chains are pulled tight. The chains can fall off the ratchet wheels, and if the weights are then put on, the chain can lodged between the ratchet wheel and other gears. To prevent this from happening, before moving the clock, run a twist-tie (like you might find in a grocery store) or a small wire through each chain (both where it enters and leaves the clock case), and twist it tight. This will pull the chain tight over the ratchet from both sides. I recommend that the twist ties stay in place until the clock is hanging on the wall and you are ready to hang the weights.

At this point you can take the clock off the wall. If possible, remove the crown. When you package the clock, I recommend keeping all of the parts together so that they don't get lost - however, the weights are heavy, and if not properly padded, could damage the clock.

After moving, replace the crown, place the clock in its intended permanent location, and release the chains. Hang the pendulum and the weights, and start the clock. If the clock has been sitting on its back for some time, the bellows may have taken a "set" in the fully expanded position. If this happens, you will not hear the "cuckoo" sound, or it may seem very faint. Unless the bellows are very old, they should return to normal in a few days.

What makes it tick (In case you wanted to know):

Most cuckoo clocks operate on the same principle: The clock is "weight driven", meaning that a lead or cast iron weight is used to run the clock (as opposed to winding a spring). The weight is attached to a chain which runs over the top of a ratchet wheel. The ratchet turns freely in one direction (when winding the clock), but is locked to a gear when turned in the opposite direction (the direction the weight pulls from). The gear is connected to a series of gears which try to rotate to let the weight fall. As the last gear in the series tries to turn, it hits a finger extending from a c-shaped arm called the "verge". As the gear tooth pushes the finger out of the way, a finger on the opposite side of the verge moves into the way of another tooth. The gear repeatedly pushes the two fingers out of the way, rocking the verge from side to side, which pushes an arm connected to the pendulum, which causes the pendulum to swing.

The length (not the weight) of the pendulum determines how fast the pendulum swings, and hence, how fast the clock runs (in clock language, the pendulum "regulates" the speed of the clock). The longer the pendulum, the slower the clock will run. The shorter the pendulum, the faster the clock will run. But rather than make the pendulum itself longer or shorter, we really move a weight called the pendulum "bob" (usually a carved wooden leaf on cuckoo clocks) up or down a shaft. Moving the bob down (farther from the clock) moves the pendulum center of mass farther away from where it is connected to the clock. This essentially lengthens the pendulum and causes the clock to run slower.

In a nutshell, that explains how the weight tries to turn a series of gears which we slow down such that one gear tooth at a time is allowed to pass at a rate we can control. Understanding the rest of the clock is simply a matter of choosing the gears that turn at the right speed to rotate once an hour and once in 12 hours.

When does your clock need service:

The most common reason the cuckoo clock stops is that it is not hanging on the wall correctly. It is very important that the "ticks" be equally spaced. If it is difficult for you to tell, try this: After the clock has stopped, carefully move the pendulum in one direction, and then the other. Note the side that ticks first. If every time it stops, the first tick is always on the same side, then the clock is not hanging properly. Move the bottom of the clock opposite the direction of the first tick. Make very small movements (it shouldn't take much).

The second most common reason a cuckoo clock stops is that it was bumped or a gust of air hit the pendulum. There is no "fix" for this other than to avoid these situations.

If the chain will not pull freely in either direction and the chain is not pulled to the fully wound position; or if the chain pulls freely in both directions, the chain may have come off the ratchet wheel. If this has happened, follow these instructions (no tools required):

1. Any chain that is still on its ratchet wheel should be secured using the twist tie or other method to prevent it from coming off while trying to fix the chains that have come off.

2. Remove the back of the clock by turning the back release sideways and lifting the back up and out.

3. Turn the clock upside down, the back facing you and the crown facing the floor.

4. Grasp both ends of the chain, form a loop hanging down inside the case, and raise the chain to the ratchet wheel. Hopefully, the chain will automatically position itself onto the sprocket. (If not, after several tries, you may need to call your clock repairman).

5. Once the chain is on the sprocket, keep both ends of the chain pulled tight and turn the clock over to the proper position.

6. Replace the back and rehang the clock on the wall.

If you cannot keep the clock going for the full time, and you feel that it has been properly positioned on the wall, it may need cleaning. This should be done by a qualified repairman unless you know what you are doing.

Final Note:

Despite all the instructions above, if the clock is kept in a safe, solid location and is not jarred, it will be a beautiful, virtually maintenance-free asset for you to treasure for years to come.

I hope this information is of value to you! Enjoy!



Page copyright © 1999 through present date by Steven R. Osburn. All rights reserved. Last modified on 2 January 2000.