How to Buy an Authentic German Cuckoo Clock

Wall display of cookoo clocks
••• Grant Faint/Getty Images

The charm of the cuckoo clock has made it one of the most sought-after gifts from Germany. Originating from the Schwarzwald (Black Forest), these clocks range in style and quality but usually feature intricate wood carving and the delightful call of the cuckoo at the top of the hour.

History of the German Cuckoo Clock 

While the origins of the clock are nebulous, the first true cuckoo clock probably came into being around 1730 with the clock maker Franz Anton Ketterer in the village of Schonwald, Germany.

This may have been the first clock to contain the cuckoo mechanism, but the singing cuckoo had been around since 1619 in the collection of Elector August of Sachsen. Some sources put the mechanism in play as early as 1669.

Whatever the case, the first cuckoo clock that resembles current clocks is the Bahnhäusle model from 1850. This design, which resembles a railway signalman's house, was the result of a design competition of the Baden School of Clock-making. By 1860, elaborate carvings were added as well as quaint pine cone weights.

Clocks have continued to transform and modern clocks experiment with bright colors, geometric design, and fun interpretations of the traditional clock. Since traditional clocks are quite expensive, a range of souvenir clocks have become available that are mass-produced and much less pricey... and not nearly as beautiful.

If you want to know even more about the fabulous world of German cuckoo clocks, visit the Deutsches Uhrenmuseum (German Clock Museum in Furtwangen) for rooms of singing cuckoo clocks and a historical journey through their development.

 

How a German Cuckoo Clock Works

A cuckoo clock uses pendulum movement to show the time, and a striking mechanism creates cuckoo's sound. These movements are moved by means of a chain hoist, moving the hands and filling the organ pipes. A high tone is followed by a low tone and indicates how many hours have been struck.

Typically, a cuckoo bird is also ejected in time with the calls. This mechanism is the same today as it was when the clock was first created.

Different clocks have different reserves, from 1-day to 8-day depending on the size of the clock. Larger, fancier clocks may contain mechanical musical drums which require a third chain hoist mechanism as well as a third weight. These help power dancers on a rotating disc underneath the cuckoo's door, sometimes joined by additional moving elements like sawmills or beer garden scenes.

While authentic clocks are from the Black Forest, the only part that is foreign is the Swiss-made music box. The Reuge Company is well respected and their music boxes are found in top-quality clocks. Musical notes range from 18 to 36 notes, often playing “The Happy Wanderer” and "Edelweiss”. Bavarian style chalet clocks may feature classic German beer drinking songs like "Ein Prosit".

Top Tips for Buying a Cuckoo Clock in Germany

Cuckoo clocks generally come in the traditional carved style of nature or hunter styles, or chalet style such as a house or a biergarten. There are also railroad house clocks (also known as Bahnhäusle Uhren), antique, shield, and modern.

Authentic clocks still are made in the Schwarzwald and must be certified by the Verein die Schwarzwalduhr (also known as VdS or "Black Forest Clock Association" in English).

They should be made completely of wood with no plastic parts and come with an official certificate. 

Quartz cuckoo clocks have risen in popularity, but as they have non-mechanical, battery-powered movements they do not qualify for official certification and purists say they are not "real" cuckoo clocks. However, you can also find certified mechanical cuckoo clocks with quality production.

Expect to pay at least 150 euros for a small clock, with prices raising to the thousands for especially large and fancy clocks. For a well-made, exceptional 1-day clock expect to pay around 3,000 euros.

Best Black Forest Cuckoo Clock Makers

How to Install a German Cuckoo Clock

Traditional cuckoo clocks can be delicate things and special care should be taken when unpacking, installing and setting the time.

  • First and foremost, always keep the clock in a vertical position.
  • Hang it on the wall, ideally around 6 feet (1.8 meter) above the floor, before attempting to set it. Make sure you use screws that are long enough to attach to a stud.
  • Carefully work on untangling the chains as they hang below the clock. Place a weight on each chain hook.
  • Check that the pendulum rests on the hanger at the back, near the bottom of the clock.
  • Unlatch the cuckoo door so your bird can fly free. Check for packaging put in place for shipping and remove all wires, styrofoam, etc.
  • Wind the clock by gently pulling the chain without the weight toward the floor. There must always be pressure on the weighted chain to keep it in place.
  • Now it is time to start the pendulum's motion by gently nudging it. It should continue to swing once you have put it in motion. Make sure that it is swinging freely and not rubbing the back. Readjust to perfectly vertical if there is any issue.
  • Now that the pendulum is swinging, you should hear the clock ticking. Success! Your cuckoo clock is ready to run.

How to Set a German Cuckoo Clock

Start by turning the minute hand (the long one) counterclockwise until you reach the correct time. As you do this, the cuckoo may play. Wait for the music to stop before proceeding. When you do this, the clock should automatically set itself. Take special care to never move the hour hand as that will damage the clock.

Once it has been started, 8-day clocks with large weights need to be wound once a week, while 1-day clocks with smaller weights should be wound once a day.

The charm of the cuckoo during the day, can be an extreme irritant at night. To thwart that issue, many clocks offer a shut-off option: manual or automatic.

Manual Shut-off: Requires you to switch the clock off and won't turn back on til you flip the switch. This is commonly found in a 1-day cuckoo clock.

Automatic Switch: This allows you to set the clock to on, off, or automatic. In automatic, the clock will automatically be silenced for 10 to 12 hours during the evening. Eight-day clocks come with a manual shut-off and sometimes an automatic shut-off option. High-end musical clocks usually feature an automatic shut-off.