Southeast Chapter

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(Frequently Asked Questions)

Answers by: G. W. Finger, Past Chairman MBSI Southeast Chapter


What is my Music Box worth? Many factors affect the value of an antique music box. Generally the larger the cylinder or disc, the greater the value. Interchangeable cylinder music boxes have greater value than ones that play a single cylinder. A good case and the original tune card add value. Special features, such as segmental combs and bells appeal to many collectors. Since the value is determined by somebody who enjoys listening to its music, the songs and quality of the music are big factors. Things that really cut the value of a music box to a fraction of its former value are many broken teeth or tooth tips. These indicate that the box has experienced a run. (This happens when the cylinder has run at high speed and broken some of the instrument, usually because the governor was disabled by an inexperienced tinkerer.) If you are trying to sell it, the value of your music box is determined by the buyer - someone who enjoys listening to it and watching it play. You can get a feel for prices on eBay. Members of the MBSI Southeast Chapter frequently bring their working and nonworking music boxes to one of our three yearly meetings. At the meetings several experienced collectors can offer their advice on its value and may even suggest a collector who might be interested. Members frequently bring working and nonworking music boxes to the meetings for the “mart” – the swap meet where we share and sell instruments, parts, discs, piano rolls, etc.


How can I get my player piano fixed? Antique Player Pianos operate on a vacuum system which sucks little bellows closed in order to strike the keys. With age, the bellows fabric wears holes, the hoses start to leak and the valves get sluggish. Eventually it becomes impossible to pump enough with your feet (or with a vacuum pump) to enjoy the music. It might only need someone to replace a broken hose. But it also might need a complete rebuild. The MBSI Southeast Chapter library has several books which describe in detail with step by step photos how to repair and rebuild a player piano, including the complicated “reproducing” style player pianos. These books are available for loan to members. Further, the chapter is fortunate to have as members some of the finest pneumatic rebuilders in the country. These specialists regularly come to the meetings and can offer advice, estimates and assistance.


When was my music box made? The heyday of music boxes occurred in the 1800s and early 1900s. A few were made before then. The earliest generally had brass bedplates and segmental combs. The songs on the cylinder can help date the music box because the date the composer wrote the song is usually known. The music box had to be made after the last song on it was written. Many music boxes have lost their tune card and the songs are lesser known today. It is common at MBSI meetings to play a music box for others and see who can “name that tune”. Once you have determined all the tunes, you can date the box.


How can I convert my player piano to MIDI? Many members of MBSI enjoy computer controlled instruments. Applying the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) is a way several of them, have done it. Our members have converted upright pianos and grand pianos to play songs without using paper rolls by having the signal come from their computer via MIDI to electronic valves or solenoids. One member has converted an instrument which plays a violin and piano together (Mills Violano) to a MIDI system, while leaving the punched paper roll capability intact. He has also added computer controlled drums, xylophone, tambourine, etc. to make a large orchestrion which plays all kinds of music. Some members have bought and installed prepackaged systems on their instruments. Others have made their own systems (and circuit boards) from scratch. Whichever your approach, the ability to talk with others who have successfully done this is of great value in order to avoid wasted effort, unnecessary expense and the risk of underpowered solenoids. As an MBSI member, you would be able to meet with and discuss with others who know what works and what doesn’t.


Where did my music box come from? Germany? France? Switzerland? Japan? Many music boxes in the US were imported here by agents in New York, Chicago, etc. Some were brought here as family heirlooms. Clues to the manufacturer reside on the stamping on the comb, stamping of the bedplate, the style of the governor, the materials used and other obscure factors. There are several books in print by Arthur W. J. G. Ord-Hume and H. A. V. Bulleid that give help in identifying makers and dates from tune cards and maker's marks stamped onto bed plates, etc. Some are available new or used from Amazon.com. There are also several out of print reference books that help you figure out if your music box came from Geneva, Saint Croix or elsewhere. The library of the MBSI Southeast chapter(and the national MBSI library) has many of these books on hand and makes them available to members because they are hard to find and sometimes pricey.


How do I reassemble my Nickelodeon? Many Nickelodeons started out as coin operated player pianos with a xylophone and some drums. Along the way parts have been discarded and now it is unclear what was originally there. It may also be unclear how the remaining parts should be rebuilt and reassembled. The MBSI has a directory which lists the members and their instruments. If you need to know what the inside of your particular instrument should look like, it is common to find someone else with a similar instrument and ask them to send photos, take measurements, etc. The bottom line is that if you need help restoring an instrument, usually someone in the MBSI has a similar instrument and will share the data needed with you so you can get yours back together and making music again.


How much will it cost to repair my music box? If your music box plays well and makes beautiful music – congratulations. If not, fixing it can be time consuming or expensive. Music box repair is precision work which combines machinist skills with musical instrument builder skills. When I replaced broken teeth on a Regina comb, it took me about one day per tooth to form the tooth in tool steel, harden the tooth, temper it, solder the weight to the tooth, prepare the comb, solder the tooth to the comb and then to finally finish tune it. This becomes very expensive if you are paying someone. Unfortunately, some music boxes would cost more to repair than they are worth. The MBSI library has several books which explain in detail how to do this. Several members of the Southeast chapter repair their own music boxes and can offer advice. The chapter also is fortunate to have some of the world’s premier music box restoration experts as members. They can restore teeth so you cannot tell they were ever broken. They can re-pin entire cylinders. They come to nearly every meeting and can offer advice and repair suggestions and estimates.


What about modern music boxes? Many members collect small modern music boxes which play a single tune and are part of a decorative statuette, snow globe, etc. After the introduction of the phonograph and radio, the demand for large self playing musical instruments dropped. What remained by the 1950s was for the small musical movements still seen today. Many of these have beautiful sounds and play modern tunes. The wonderful things about these music boxes are that they are affordable for all budgets and generally there is room around the house for lots of them. MBSI welcomes all of mechanical music enthusiasts, whether they collect new or old music boxes, whether they collect mechanical pianos, mechanical organs, MIDI instruments or miniature bird boxes.