Reviewing a Cuckoo Clock (Because It’s Watchmaking After All…)
The Rombach & Haas Black Forest Bird House Cuckoo Clock… Simple design, old-school looks and loads of German character.
Monochrome is all about watches, of course. The vast majority of what we cover are mechanical wristwatches, although every now and then we’ll highlight something intriguing like the quartz Citizen Calibre 0100 with an accuracy of +/- 1 second per year. In the same vein, we also dip our toes into the world of mechanical clocks, covering haute horology pieces like the creature-inspired MB&F TriPod Table Clock and futuristic De Bethune x @byJorgHysek Dream Watch 6. So, let’s take a look at one of the most famous clock styles from the Black Forest region of Germany – the mechanical cuckoo clock. Specifically, a walnut bird house model from clockmaker Rombach & Haas, established in 1894.
A mountainous region in southwest Germany (bordering France) is known as the Black Forest, densely populated with a variety of tree species and open pastures offering panoramic views. The origins of clockmaking in the Black Forest are a bit murky but go back to the mid-17th century. In 1629, a description of a “coo coo clock” was attributed to Prince Elector August von Sachsen by a German nobleman. A handful of other descriptions appeared in handbooks and illustrations, but it was German clockmaker Franz Anton Ketterer who made the first official German cuckoo clock in the village of Schonwald. Although intricate clocks existed prior to this, with animated dancers and such, Ketterer’s was the first with twin bellows to create the familiar cuckoo call coupled with a carved wooden bird.
Original clocks had wooden gears, but modern movements are brass and relatively unchanged for over a century. There are four types of movements/clocks, broken up into two main categories: one-day and eight-day, with or without music (and twirling figures like dancers, bell ringers, etc.). Unlike a watch with a mainspring and balance wheel, hanging weights and a pendulum power most cuckoo clocks (there are exceptions for tabletop clocks). One-day clocks have two weights and chains long enough for a 24-hour descent before hitting the floor. Eight-day clocks are the same but can endure for eight days, while music/animated clocks have three weights. Winding is achieved by pulling the adjacent chains to return the weights to the bottom of the clock. The pendulum has a counterweight near the bottom that can be moved up or down to adjust the timekeeping – up makes it faster, down makes it slower. Many clocks have a night-time shutoff, which silences the bird either by a switch on the side or a push/pull mechanism at the bottom (some even have light-sensing switches).
Clocks themselves vary quite a bit in style with five general types: carved, chalet, shield, antique and modern. The latter is where our clock falls, and Rombach & Haas was the first to introduce this category in 2005. It’s relatively broad and covers all sorts of simple and avant-garde pieces for a younger demographic. Whatever the style, however, the fundamentals are the same. Rombach & Haas remains an independent, family-owned company, currently run by the fourth generation.
As mentioned earlier, this is a bird house clock, literally meaning it is shaped like a typical wooden bird house in your yard. Dimensions are 17.78cm high x 17.78cm wide x 12.7cm deep. A walnut finish is void of carvings and extra animations. It has a two-tone finish with a medium brown roof and walls, and natural wood dial, cuckoo door, pendulum and night shut-off knob. The pendulum’s adjustable counterweight is in the contrasting darker colour.
Underneath, in front of the pendulum, are four holes where the stainless steel chains descend from the movement. The first and third chain have hooks for the metal weights, which look like black fir tree cones, and the second and fourth are pulled to wind them back up. It’s a one-day movement, so the clock needs to be hung about 1.8 metres off the floor to get the full 24 hours. Behind the chains is the pendulum, which hooks onto a bottom loop from the movement, and the night shut-off knob is to the left of the chains. On the left and right walls, about a third from the roof and near the back, are two sizeable holes for the bellows to release their sound. While the cuckoo is calling, you’ll notice that the right weight descends fairly quickly to power the animation.
Dial and bird
With watch reviews, this is usually the “Dial and Hands” section, but I’m going with “Dial and Bird.” It’s the little things in life. The multi-level dial has large, dark Roman numerals taking up the majority of space within the lower level, much in the tradition of yesteryear clock towers. The numerals are applied stained wood (a nice touch), while the outermost area and two internal rings are raised. The hands are dark and openworked wood, matching the numerals, and are held in place by brass and steel hardware. To set the time, you simply move the minute hand in either direction.
The cuckoo lives behind a castle-style wooden door over a nicely cut dark frame. There are generally two types of cuckoo birds, either plastic with a moveable beak (and sometimes wings) or the more traditional hand-carved wooden variety. This clock has the latter with hand-painted features. Although a plastic bird provides a bit more animation, it would certainly look out of place on such a simple, traditional clock. The bird nods in sync with the bellows and indicates the time at the top of the hour and calls once at the half-hour.
There are a wide variety of cuckoo clock movements, including one or eight-day, with or without music and animations, and either mechanical or quartz – similar in many ways to watch movements. The back of the clock has a removable wooden panel held on by a simple lever that reveals the one-day brass movement and twin bellows. It is relatively simple, reliable and surprisingly accurate for clockwork with no jewels or specific adjustments. After tweaking the pendulum weight a bit, it’s within a minute per day, which is perfectly acceptable for such a clock. All Black Forest cuckoo clock movements are made in Germany, but a few clockmakers build them in-house (Hubert Herr is one of the only vertically integrated manufactures). An engineering company in the town of Schonach, SBS-Feintechnik, supplies most cuckoo clock movements.
Upon opening the back, you see the main plate and gears front and centre, although the bellows catch your attention. Supported by two relatively crude wooden blocks, the twin bellows sit on either side at the top, pushing sound through hollow pipes that escape from the holes on both sides of the clock. A series of seemingly random wires and loops are strewn throughout, pushing levers and other functions, and it all reinforces the old-school nature of the movement. Some may see a lack of refinement, but I see a time capsule and historic work of art. When active, the ticking sound is moderately loud, but not obnoxiously so.
We’re clearly not looking at Haute Horology here, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting. The final product is greater than the sum of its parts. It has such a handmade nature, and you can envision an individual building one in a small workshop. Most cuckoo clocks have elaborate carvings and details, but Rombach & Haas has created something really special – a simple, no-nonsense bird house model. This clock happens to be my personal one, and I’m looking at it as I write. It’s fun, a bit whimsical and I’ll often stop what I’m doing to watch the cuckoo at the top of the hour. It’s also loud and definitely not for everyone, but represents a very cool piece of clockmaking history. If you hang one on your wall, it’s a guaranteed attention-getter.
Mechanical German cuckoo clocks start at around US 160 and climb to thousands of dollars for elaborately carved, eight-day models with multiple animated figures and music. This bird house model from Rombach & Haas sells for USD 219 from Bavarian Clockworks and comes with free shipping and a 2-year warranty. Not bad at all for such a well-built, entertaining piece.