A house of musical treasures

Visitor response? ‘Wow’

Created date

April 27th, 2010

In an age of mass-produced digital gadgets, it seems as though the old-world crafts created at the hands of skilled artisans have been lost and forgotten. But those who enter the Musical Wonder House in Wiscasset, Maine, go back to a time long before the microchip, when the family parlor was the seat of entertainment, and something as simple as a music box, a source of amusement and conversation. [caption id="attachment_11566" align="alignright" width="280" caption="The Musical Wonder House in Wiscasset, Maine, is housed in a 32-room sea captain s mansion built in 1852. (Photos courtesy of Joseph Villani The Musical Wonder House)"]The art of music box repair It may seem fairly simple, but all of these moving parts and the passage of time can bring with them a host of problems. In addition to its role as a museum, the Musical Wonder House also repairs and restores mechanical musical instruments, working on roughly 500 music boxes every year. Some of the problems we see are the result of people taking their music boxes apart themselves, which can cause the spring to unwind and break teeth and gears, Villani says. Also, some of the old music boxes used oils that, over time, thicken and stick together to the point where you can t move any of the gears or the spring. We have to take them apart, ultrasonically clean them piece by piece, and then check and reassemble them. [caption id="attachment_11567" align="alignright" width="280" caption="This music box vending machine with bells, drums, and dancing dolls is a good example of how complex mechanical musical instruments can be."][/caption] In other cases, the problem is one of tuning, usually due to the use of low-quality steel or the lack of a mechanical tuner at the time of the music box s manufacture. Typically, repair technicians can correct this simply by filing the comb s strips until they produce the proper pitch. In some cases, though, where parts of the comb are broken or missing, technicians must machine a brand-new one, and that can be a long and involved process. When making a new steel comb, you first have to cut it into teeth, explains Villani. Then you heat-treat them so that they ll vibrate, and from there, you file each one by hand until it s at the length that gives it the proper pitch. As Villani describes each step, the blend of instinct and attention to detail required to create these seemingly simple devices is, to say the least, eye-opening. This reaction, he confesses, is a common one. Usually people are rather surprised with the intricacy of mechanical musical instruments, he says. Most who come through, either for a tour or to have something repaired, don t have any idea just how complex they can be. This surprise strikes a welcomed note for those tired of the fast pace of a high-tech world. The Musical Wonder House, with its diverse holdings, is an oasis that gives its visitors a taste of simpler amusements.