Part 4. Repairing an antique music box

There are rules so fundamental that we all abide by them. Honor thy father and mother. Throw out the garbage before it rots. Never trust a politician or a used car salesman.

I am about to enunciate another rule of this ilk. This rule is so elegantly simple that once you understand it you will know all you ever need to know about antique music box repair.

Here it is: Never pay anyone to repair your music box.

Reason is the soul of the law, as the legal profession says. And here is the reason for the rule. The cost of repairs will always exceed the value of your antique music box.

Maybe you find a box that seems to be a bargain. It just needs a little work. Most sellers in the universe I inhabit have heard that antique music boxes are worth a hideous amount of money and are incapable of assessing condition, but maybe your seller lives in a different neighborhood and is willing to rake a little off the price. Allow me to repeat, the cost of repairs will exceed the value of the box.

I'm going to give you some rough guides for estimating the cost of repairs in a minute. But first I need to say a word about the professional repairmen.

There are only a handful of people who do music box repair for a living. They are all very good at what they do, and after they are done with your box it will truly sing more beautifully than Caruso. If your box is of great sentimental value, or is of such inestimable value that it is worth restoring, then you should strongly consider their services.

But none of these people want to do piecework. Let's say all you want to do is replace two broken teeth. The professional antique music box repairman will tell you that his policy is Complete Restorations Only. This means he will not only repair the teeth, but he will polish and retune the comb, regulate the dampers, polish and lacquer the cylinder, and so on.

Once in a while someone comes along who will do only the teeth, typically a retired person who has repaired music boxes for a hobby. Word spreads and he is soon swamped with work. He then remembers that he retired because he didn't want to work so much, and returns all the combs to their owners.

You can drop a rebuilt engine into your '57 Chevy, so where can you get parts for your antique music box?

Let me disabuse you of such a notion. Almost every part for an antique music box must be hand made. Okay, a few people have reproduced stuff like dishing wheels and even Regina dampers. But most parts will require the collaboration of a skilled machinist. You might find someone to cut a gear or two for a couple of hundred dollars, but I can't imagine how much it would cost to say, remake the dies for stamping out the dampers on a New Century. The cost of repairs will almost always exceed the value of the box.

Having delivered my little caveat on the cost of repairs I am now going to look at specific repairs. When possible, I am going to give you a dollar estimate of the cost of each repair. In some instances, these estimates are just a guess on my part, because I haven't sent a box out for repairs in years. I try to buy a box in good condition, or live with it in the condition as found. Since you understand now that no one wants to do piecework, then you understand that these estimates represent part of the cost of a larger repair, or the equivalent value of your time spent in performing the repair. In a small number of instances you may discover that I lied to you, and that the cost of repair is far less than the value of the box.

1. Combwork

There's no such animal as a new comb. I've had sellers tell me they know where to get one, but I've never had one fess up and tell me the exact longitude and latitude of this magical Combland. Combs for disc machines haven't been made for a hundred years. Without getting into weird things such as gamme numbers (don't ask), it's fair to say that combs for cylinder boxes were cut individually for each machine. What it is possible to do is replace individual teeth.

Here's an overview of the process. A new tooth is cut out of tool steel. This can be quite complicated, for the tip must be shaped and possibly a platform for the leads or damper pins must be milled out. A 45 degree notch is cut in the heel of the tooth. The tooth is heated and tempered. A corresponding notch is cut in the comb, the tooth is press-fit and soldered as a precaution, and tuned. You can, and should, examine a box for any evidence of combwork. You can usually see the break between the new tooth and the base of the comb, but once in a while you run into a box where the old repairmen were so good stoning down the tooth that the repair is invisible.

It takes the professionals four to six hours to replace a tooth, and even then sometimes the new tooth just doesn't ring true and the repairman has to try again.

Estimates: Retune comb, $400. Replace tooth, $100 per tooth.

2. Cylinder repinning

It's possible to repin a cylinder that suffered a run although the job isn't for the squeamish; the cylinder is dipped in an acid bath until until the metal pins are eaten out of the brass. There are services I've seen in Europe that will do this. The problem is that the price quoted is for the raw repinning only; there are two final steps that I didn't tell you about earlier, called justification and terminage. Justification involves the final aligning of the pins and terminage involves the removal of extraneous notes.

Estimate: $75-$100 per inch for an average diameter cylinder.

3. Dampers

A miserable and tedious job, the dampers aren't always adjusted a hundred per cent factory perfect by even the best of repairmen. If you're repairing a run you can just about be guaranteed that the dampers have been totaled, and also that the tips of the teeth, if still intact, have been scored. If you're looking at a disc machine make sure that all damper rails are present; they were removed more often than you'd think by ignorant owners who pulled the comb and then couldn't brush it back into the damper assembly. If this is the case, simply add the cost of another box of this type in good condition to the repair estimate; that's the only way you'll get the rails.

Estimate: Regulate dampers in average condition on average size Swiss or disc box: $300.

4. Governor

Sometimes the motor won't take off because of problems in the governor assembly. Assuming the symptom isn't caused by wear on the ruby, the usual solution is to polish the lans of the worm, or the shaft of the worm where it bears upon the ruby. You can sometimes find someone who specializes in governors, so the Complete Restorations Only policy doesn't always apply here.

Estimates: Replace ruby, $10. Polish worm, $100. Rebuild whole governor assembly: $400.

5. Mainspring

The last time I replaced one I paid around $100 for the spring, but that was with me doing the messy grunt labor of extracting the old one and putting in the new one. If you're poking around this area of the motor, also check for cracks in the spring barrel.

Estimates: Fifteen inch Regina mainspring, $100. Spring barrel for same, $500.

6. Cases

It's always nice to have original finish on an antique, but antique music boxes aren't like mechanical banks or talking machines, in that collectors don't impose a large penalty for a well-refinished example. Cases can be repaired by any competent local woodworker. Because your music box is at heart a fine musical instrument, the integrity of the case is directly related to the volume. Sounding boards were typically made of Sitka spruce. Disc machines almost always had a bridge between the bedplate and the sounding board; if your bridge is loose a traditional ploy is to wedge a popsicle stick in there.

And now a summing up. When you bought you first house you learned that the three most important factors in real estate were location, location, and location. With an antique music box, it's condition, condition, and condition. Purchase your first box in good condition. You shall know it when you see it, and you shall know it when you hear it.


Copyright 2015 by Vicki Young

Vicki Young
Box 435
Randolph,OH 44265
330 325-7866


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