Friday, January 11, 2019

Repairing a Reuge Dancing Clown Music Box



I had seen "Dancing Man" around my in-law's house since my wife and I started dating in the late 80's (Just to be clear, 1980s as opposed to 1880s.)

Dancing Man is actually a clown. He lives in a tent shaped wooden windup music box. The "Can-can" plays while he does a goofy unpredictable dance. (Actually, truth be told, the Can-can is the dance, the music is from Jacques Offenbach's Galop Infernal) It is a neat little action and he really seems to come alive with his body going one way and his legs every which way.

Over time though, his dances started to slow down and his musical accompaniment was missing a few notes. My in-laws asked if I would take a look and I jumped at the chance. I was really curious as to how he worked. I also knew how special he was to my wife and wanted some "Boy, I'm sure glad I married a  tinkerer man-child and not someone who was tidy and wealthy" attention.

When I got him home and on the workbench though, I got cold feet. There were three screws on the back and two underneath. There didn't seem to be an easy way to remove the Dancing Man from the box. I had visions of unscrewing something and hearing various snaps and "sproings" as springs went in every direction. I set him aside. After all, the first words of the Toymender's Oath are "First do no harm."

So this fall rolled around and I decided it was time to take a more serious look and hopefully get him up and dancing for Christmas. I did a little research and thanks to the old sticker on his base found out Dancing Man was actually a music box made in Switzerland by the famous Reuge company.



I sussed out that the three screws on the back were to hold the musical movement in place and that the two screws on the bottom held the box together. Once I took the bottom screws out, I could see that the box was assembled with routed dadoes and rabbets.
The boards holding Dancing Man and the movement are made of plywood and the rest of the box is solid wood. Everything is painted. The decorations are not decals.

The Dancing Man's dance motion comes from a bent wire that is held in place by a screw on the musical "comb" (more on that later.) The end of that wire is moved by a very small cam. That cam sets up the irregular motion of the the Dancing Man. I was able to get a screwdriver in sideways to gradually work the screw out that held the wire from Dancing Man. Just a 1/4 turn at a time being careful not to damage anything.


  1. The cam that sets off the irregular dance
  2. The drum spins and those pins are the pattern for the song. Notes play as those pins pass through the comb.
  3. The comb. Several teeth appear to be missing.
  4. The empty screw hole that holds the wire and clip that makes dancing man dance.
  5. On/Off pin. Pushing it in from the back of the toy pushes a wire that interrupts a small spinning fan causing the movement to stop.
  6. If the fan can spin, the music plays. When it stops, all music and motion stop.
  7. The spring. The winding key is is on the other side of the plywood.
In researching I found that the main reason for music box slowdowns is that the movement needs to be lubricated. It may be that old lubricant has solidified or gotten dirty. Several spray lubricants were mentioned, at least one of which had to ordered by the case! Ummm maybe if I was in the business of fixing every music box ever!  I eventually purchased a single can of spray lubricant intended for aluminum windows. Although the movement is clearly not aluminum this sort of lubricant was what was called for.

After using some rubbing alcohol soaked cotton swabs and compressed air to give it a general cleaning, I moved on to the spray lubricant. I sprayed some into a plastic cap and then used a small artists style paintbrush  to dab the lubricant on to the various gears.The difference in the speed of the movement was immediate.

Original on the right
Replacement on the left
The next issue was that he didn't sound right. He was playing too slowly and the lubricant had helped that but notes seemed, even to my tone deaf ears, to be missing. There were clear gaps on the comb.

While it is possible that the missing teeth are by design, it didn't make much sense. Why remove teeth? If you didn't want to play a particular note, the pin on the drum for that note could have been left off. This music box was sold with several other song possibilities and that would be handled by using a different drum. No need to customize the drum and comb for each combination. 

I purchased a set of Reuge replacement combs on a certain online "auction" site. The replacement comb was the same size and had the same number of teeth as the original but the screw holes did not match. Here is the old one on top of the new one. Grrrrrr.

Lucky for me a wise crustacean just happened to be at my place during his football team's bye week and he set about reshaping the hole with some very fine needle files. Both holes needed to be adjusted. I wanted to fire up the rotary tool but slow and steady wins the race and saves the day on this.

Next came dozens of attempts to adjust the comb just right. Most of which were wasted since I knew I'd have to take at least one screw off for final assembly. Eventually I had to just take the leap and hope for the best on final assembly.

Crawfish had suggested just a soft cloth and warm water to clean the 40+ year old box. I was pleasantly surprised to see how effective that was. It had really held up well under the day to day dirt. I didn't try to touch up any of the paint. He had be played with a lot of over the years so he had earned any scars.

After I reassembled him I needed to replace the little balls that marked the top and corners of the tent. Only two of the original five metal balls had survived the years. The ones that were left were 9mm brass balls with tiny rods that fit into holes on the tent.  I had to laugh that when I searched for "9mm brass" on the internet; I immediately got a lot of ammunition hits in my search results. Changing the search to "9mm ball" didn't help since that is an ammo term as well!

So a friend of  mine, who pretty much has the entire contents of a Hobby Lobby in her basement, hooked me up with some 3/8" wooden balls. Not exact but close enough. Since I wasn't using the originals, you won't know they are a little bigger. I used a drill press vise to hold them in place while I drilled a 1/16" in hole in them. I glued a small nail in place and then cut the heads off the nails. Instant rods.

I used metallic gold acrylic paint and then finished them off with  a top coat of high gloss spray acrylic. I then used tiny dabs of hot glue to hold them in place. I didn't want to epoxy them in case someone wants to do a true restoration. They look like they belong.



Here he is as he was initially playing along with a look at his music box and one of his post new comb tests.

And here he is all done.

On Christmas, my in-laws were pleasantly surprised and genuinely happy to see Dancing Man back in action. They have certainly been amazing to me and my family over the years so this was one of those times where there was certainly joy in the giving. It was fun to work on and very satisfying... and that fact that he sorta creeps my sister-in-law out was an added bonus!

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While we don’t necessarily need more objects, we just might benefit from more making.
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Regular guy who likes to make stuff who lives with a very patient wife, three daughters and three cats.