A friend has asked me to restore a piano-style, mahogany music box that was made by his late father-in-law some 40 years ago. It had been kept by the family as an heirloom. My friend’s wife was given the box by a relative last year but it was in a sorry state; legs broken off, a piece broken off the lid, musical movement not working, inner lining dirty and the whole thing generally very tired. The restoration project is meant to be a surprise for my friend’s wife (so mums the word!).
The project essentially broke down into 5 phases:
1. Structural repairs to lid and fashioning new legs. 2. Replacing the lining.
3. Replacing all brass ware; hinges, clasp etc. 4. Replacing the musical movement.
5. Finishing & polishing.
As this was a family heirloom, I was aware that the restoration had to be treated with some sensitivity and with authenticity. In this regard, there was an immediate problem with respect to the musical movement. This was not working and at first nobody knew the name of the tune that it was supposed to play. When I removed it from the box, I oiled it and wound it up. I was able to turn the wheels manually sufficiently well to recognize an old Irish air “A Mother’s Love’s a Blessing”, so the hunt was on to find a new movement that played that tune. The old movement was never going to be viable again. Not only was it largely jammed but some of the tines were missing off the musical comb.
I was also aware that, while a good job was required on the box, this was someone else’s work; I couldn’t just do what I wanted with it or what I felt was right. Enough had to be done to achieve the restoration but not so much as to compromise the work of another. Decisions, decisions! I consulted my friend on many points as the work proceeded.
The first success was in locating a suitable musical movement. The website of NJ Dean & Co. of England, turned out to a treasure trove of goodies. Among them was a movement playing a tune called “An Irish Lullaby”. This tune turns out to be virtually identical to “A Mother’s Love’s a Blessing”, especially the passage that’s played on both the old and new mechanisms. They were identical to each other, note for note. Perhaps, in days gone by, the latter was written to the tune of the former; who knows!
Anyway, this was a significant achievement and with that hurdle overcome, work could begin. First came the structural work. I milled out the broken section from the lid and glued in a fresh piece of mahogany:
This was then planed down (using the mitre plane I made recently; see River Inney Mitre Plane) as close as possible to the finished shape. Then I set to with rasp and sandpaper until I got the shape just right.
Next came the legs. One leg was still intact so I was able to use this as a template to make the other two. I wrapped an appropriately sized piece of mahogany in painter’s masking tape and traced an outline of the shape of the leg on two adjacent sides of the mahogany block. Then I went to the band saw and followed the pencil lines on both sides. Finally, I unwrapped the little block of wood and, as if by magic, the cut pieces fell away and I was left with a finished leg in my hand. I repeated the process and after only a little while I had two legs almost identical to the original. These were sanded and glued into place.
I did consider mortising the legs into the bottom as they had obviously proved to be vulnerable first time around but I finally decided, No!, The original maker glued them on so that’s what I would do.
Next I stripped the original varnish off the box and sanded it back to the bare wood. A coat of mahogany stain was used to blend the old wood with the new patch on the lid and the new legs. Then I began working up coats of Shellac rubbing it well in. This was one area where my friend and I felt an improvement could be allowed; Shellac instead of varnish. Hmm! A deeper, richer finish.
As I was still waiting for the brass ware and musical movement to come I decided to go ahead at the lining. My friend and I agreed that the original lining was a bit hairy & fluffy looking. So we went for something just a little different:
All the while I was doing this work in the quietude of my workshop the old, jammed up musical movement was lying on the bench. Every so often it would suddenly let a ding or two; as if the original maker of the box was peering down from above and letting me know….. . In the solitary workshop this felt a bit creepy and haunting. Well, was he giving his approval or disapproval? I truly hope he approves.
I am still waiting for the brass and music to arrive so tune in again shortly to see the finished restoration.
17.8.2015 The musical movement and brass hardware finally arrived for the music box. This is the finished project:
The photo on the right shows a small brass sleeve I turned for the wire break of the musical movement. The sleeve had to be drilled with a micro-drill on the lathe. All-in-all the project has worked out well and this family heirloom has been brought back to life.