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If you've ever seen those little music boxes you wind up, or crank, and they play a little tune over and over from a little metal drum of notes, but wish they did more than play the same 10-second tune over and over for eternity? If only you could change the song and write your own music for it... Now there's an idea.

After a year of design and work, I completed my Re-Programmable Music Box / Mechanical Synthesizer / Organ Grinder Thingy. It has many names, and is 100% non-electric. Just wood, metal, and good ol' people power.

I began this project as a sort of proof-of-concept, designing something from scratch without a lot to base it off of, and a whole lot of engineering problems to solve. Also, I didn't really know what I was doing. It was intended to be a learning and problem-solving experience. And it was a lot of fun.

If you like my work, please vote for it in the Woodworking Competition beginning October 3rd.

Demonstration Video

Step 1: Design and Planning

Picture of Design and Planning
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Since this project was starting entirely from scratch, I needed to make a flawless design that could be easily worked with, and a good design always reduces waste.  I decided to use oak, and at $60 per 10ft plank I didn't want to waste any.  Also, its pretty complex and precision is extremely important for everything to work correctly.

I started with the idea: a large wood cylinder will hold metal pegs.  It will rotate and force the pegs to pluck metal tines, which are tuned to specific notes.

I selected 12 notes across, since it seemed like a very flexible number of notes and allowed me to fill it with a simple 8-note scale in the middle, with a few extra high and low notes.  I could also tune in flats or sharps if I wanted some specifically, or get almost all of a chromatic scale in.  I selected 32 notes "around" the cylinder, because that's what you need to play Pop Goes The Weasel, or any 8-bar song using quarter notes.

The cylinder is made of softwood, 8" in diameter, that I picked up from a nearby carpenter for free.  I found a belt that fit snugly around it to use along with a few gears and a belt for the cranking mechanism.

The tine material was cut from the prongs of a garden rake.  This works great because it is flexible but snaps right back into place.  The tine holder design was sort of up in the air until the rest of the machine was done, so that I could do testing.  Initial designs were too complex and tiny, but the final design (image 3 below) is about as simple as possible, I believe.

Originally I wanted to use almost all wood for this project, but it turned out wood wasn't going to offer the precision that I needed for the tines.  I ended up doing it with a CNC at my college.  In Step 7 I hypothesize how it could be accomplished without such expensive tools.

When designing the wooden frame, try to place the pieces to get as few exposed edges as possible.  The edges you do have, try to align them so that they create borders and still look appealing to the eye.
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allanis.mcgee8 months ago

do you have a video of it playing something? i want to hear the sound quality of it before i make it for a project

mattthegamer463 (author)  allanis.mcgee8 months ago
I can't make a video because this was done over 4 years ago and the machine has since developed some problems (the drive belt snapped, for one) and so it is unplayable now. I understand that you are concerned about the results before making one and I'm going to be honest with you that it doesn't sound the way I had imagined it would, and that in my eyes this project was a failure. I revisited it a couple years later and marginally improved the performance but the major problem is that big cylinder isn't round, and so it doesn't evenly strike the tynes as it revolves. The whole thing was fun to make and I learned a bunch, but it failed to achieve its goals. If you decide to build it I want you to be aware that problem solving is going to play a key role in your project otherwise its going to sound bad just like mine.
mattthegamer463 (author)  allanis.mcgee8 months ago

Not the best video but frankly, it doesn't sound the best. If you make one I hope you manage to improve on it.

I was trying a small music box design I made... not so good but when I saw this I threw it away and decided o try to attempt this at school instead-thanks

hi2002hi1 year ago
amazing! english is not my mother tongue. plz understand that if there are some error on my text. i'm student in seoul national university of science and technology - in Korea. and i'm senior, my university request that graduate term project for Scholarship. my team chose that something about the musical box drum molding press machine. we'd like to make that if some music put in computer, then our machine will be make the drum. and, it can be used in existing movement. but now, we are just in start level. anyway, i found this project in googleing, and your project is helpful to make some process idea in our project, and want to say thanks! you are awesome! how did you do that hole of things alone...
mattthegamer463 (author)  hi2002hi1 year ago
Thank you for your comment. Good luck with your molding press machine.
XICO2KX2 years ago
Well, you seem to have made a pretty good job with this project!
Thanks for the link, but unfortunately with that model we cannot change the music as we want...
And it would probably sound much better if the long static "teeth" were made of metal.
Anyway, the closest thing I've seen to your project is the Gloggomobil.
But that's incredibly expensive!
mattthegamer463 (author)  XICO2KX2 years ago
Yes, the Gloggomobil was part of my inspiration for this project.

Take a look at this, its not quite the same but certainly a well priced compromise.

XICO2KX2 years ago
Really nice project!
It would make a wonderful gift to offer someone!
Unfortunately I don't think I can build this by myself...
Do you know of any place that sells a music gadget similar to yours?
And have you ever thought about selling this on Shapeways, for example?
I'm sure it would be a huge success!
mattthegamer463 (author)  XICO2KX2 years ago
I'm glad you liked the project, however it has some practical issues and due to a lack of precision mine has proven to be very difficult to get working well. I've always seen it as a half-failure of a project.

There are similar things on Thingiverse which let you put a song on the drum and print it out but it is not changeable once printed, you have to make a new drum each time. Perhaps that would be something you would be interested in.

See this one: http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:53235
pbaker102 years ago
Just wanted you to know that a person on listia is selling your work, word for word, and claiming it is their own work. I tried to get a refund but they said that you would need to contact them to claim it as your work. I dont care about a refund but this guy should be stopped. My email is miserysaints75@gmail if you would like to know more.
techno guy2 years ago
this is cool, i once saw another kind of programmable music box that worked with a punch card
mattthegamer463 (author)  techno guy2 years ago
Thanks, yes punch cards or perforated paper rolls are more common than this kind of pin-based thing. Player pianos use sheets of perforated paper and shoot air through the holes.
elixdlol2 years ago
Great job!
I liked your project a lot!
It has inspired me to build my own music box, which was made in home conditions without expensive equipment.
I would like you to watch the video of the music box, which you inspired me to build.


Thanks again for the awesome tutorial!
mattthegamer463 (author)  elixdlol2 years ago

Very nice work! I like yours a lot, it looks great and works well too. Glad to hear you were inspired by my work.
Dr.Bill4 years ago
If you turn the cylinder on a lathe you will have exact centers so the cyl will be tracking perfect.
mattthegamer463 (author)  Dr.Bill4 years ago
Yes I tried that a long time ago, the 3-sided chuck was making the wood split before it was holding it securely enough to be turned.
sydkin20004 years ago
Whoa.............................................OMG i could not do somthing like that if i had my whole life to work on it........*Bows down to you*
I love mechanical devices so this one was way cool for me to read. Thanks for sharing.
mattthegamer463 (author)  NaturalCrafter4 years ago
Thanks very much.
Harata4 years ago
Do you have a video of it working? It would help convincing us to do it!
Anyway, it's a great work and I'm thinking about doing one myself! Thank you, it gave me a lot of ideas!
mattthegamer463 (author)  Harata4 years ago
It was on the first step, for some reason Youtube refuses to embed it properly.

crash_gnome4 years ago
Can we see a video of it playing something please I think its really cool and would like to build one alike but would like to know how it sounds first. Thanks and keep up the good work
mattthegamer463 (author)  crash_gnome4 years ago
Video posted. The microphone is incredibly bad, and my tripod was giving me a hard time (its been modified specifically for my DSLR, so normal cameras don't fit right) so the camera angle was severely limited. The problem with some of the notes being too soft and some too hard is that the cylinder of wood was never perfectly round, its off by a few millimeters, and so that messes things up. If I don't hit some notes hard, it won't hit others at all. Crazy.
This is, to date, my favorite instructable! I'm planning to modify your design to make a musical jewelry box for my fiancee.

I understand your frustration in getting the cylinder precisely shaped.  I'm considering constructing mine out of more staves (maybe 24 instead of the 8) and possibly just forgetting about rounding it.  At those shallow angles, the pegs should have no difficulty plucking the tines.

Since you're having difficulty getting your cylinder to shape, perhaps you could mount it on a mandrel and use an electric drill as a makeshift lathe.  You could cap each end of the cylinder with a large metal disc with a hole in the center (basically a very large fender washer) so the pressure would be exerted evenly, and then run a length of threaded rod through the center and clamp the piece in place with a couple of nuts.  I use a similar method when building handles for my fishing rods, and the cylinder is big enough in diameter that I think you would get an acceptable speed of rotation on the outside face to effectively shape it.

Regardless, it's a really great project, and I'd be thrilled if mine turned out as well as yours did as-is.  I'd like to find a wind-up mechanism similar to what you see in commercially available music boxes, so that the cylinder doesn't need to be manually cranked, and the music would start and stop when the box was opened.  I'd just hack an old music box, but I doubt the mechanism would be strong enough for a cylinder this size.  Any ideas?
mattthegamer463 (author)  eranox4 years ago
Thanks, yes it is quite difficult to get the precision required. I have an idea I will try, eventually, to plug the bottom of some of the holes with some sort of non-magnetic substance that will elevate the shorter pins to the height of the longer pins, that way they will all be the same height and will strike properly, and the fix won't depend on different size pins.

The mechanisms inside a music box are incredibly weak. They are a coiled piece of metal which when cranked, is tightened up, and when let go, it expands back to its original size, rotating a center shaft. The scale you would need to go with for that kind of mechanism, for this size of application, would need to be huge.

I would recommend electric drive, its the only way to get the torque required. Using a drill motor, a worm gear, and a large gear on the cylinder would give you slow speeds and no slippage (worms can't slip backwards.) I would say this is the only practical way to do it. You're saying you want this for a music box, but unfortunately its hard to miniaturize this design any further. I would recommend you take a old music box and maybe try to make a new drum cylinder to play a different tune, a favourite song or something, using the existing notes. I don't know how you would machine something that small and precise, though.

Its a major challenge. There are a lot of difficult mechanical and practicality issues here.
My plan is to use a modification of your design in roughly the same dimensions as you built it, with a large box below to store the jewelry. I looked at some of the windup mechnanisms after I posted, and it's clear that you're right. No practical way to do it for something of this size.

The electric motor solution would work, but I feel that it would detract from the handiwork appearance of the music box, and I don't want her to have to hassle with batteries or an adapter. She won't mind the hand-crank mechanism, I think, so I'll probably just save myself the extra frustration and leave that as-is.

I tried my hand at a simpler project (basically a mitered box) to give myself a refresher before I ruin anything of this scale. I'm having a difficult time getting my cheap Skil table saw to cut miters accurately enough to make a box, let alone a cylinder. I think my best bet will be to only use 8 staves in my cylinder, as you have. Any advice on getting the cutting angle just right?
mattthegamer463 (author)  eranox4 years ago
I didn't make the cylinder myself, it was an end piece from a non-load-bearing architectural column. I got it from a local carpenter. I imagine that the staves could be done without too much concern, and that the last one could be hand-shaped to complete the fit. You'll still have to turn it smooth though.

I haven't got much for suggestions for that, I'm afraid.
if your drum is off by milimeters, why dont you use a lathe to round it off? as for the project it is very well made, ease on the eye and with a professional apearence.
mattthegamer463 (author)  jjgodinho4 years ago
I tried that, but the lathe that it was made on must have been massive. The chuck on the one I have couldn't open wide enough to grab it from the outside, and grabbing it from the inside made a cracking sound. I couldn't grab it tight enough without splitting the wood, and it would never turn true. Nothing I could do.

Thanks very much for the kind words. Its the community here that helps keep me going.
hello matthegamer
out of respect for the be nice policy i will be nice
i worked for over 5 years to come up with the idea of the mechanical kalimba
look at my blog timmymontanaautomata
its is an original idea of mine
it is wrong to enter a contest with a strict alchemist idea
mattthegamer463 (author)  realalchemy4 years ago

Thanks for posting. I have never seen your work, and I do see how it is very similar in concept to what I built. However, I'm sure you're aware that organ grinders have been using "barrel organs" for well over 100 years; now we can agree neither of us invented those.

This is merely my take on what I did, building a unit that can be re-programmed at will. This is something that the original organ grinders did not allow.

Also, Instructables isn't about original ideas, its about writing guides to build things so that other people can do so, too. I could write "How to take apart a car" and nobody can say "you didn't invent cars" or "you didn't invent taking things apart" because I didn't claim to. This doesn't need further discussion.

If you would like to comment more send me a private message. Thanks.

PS. What is a "strict alchemist idea"?
You could try getting a very large hose clamp to hold the outer diameter steady while clamping to the inside.
paleotool4 years ago
Wow! This is great. I want to build one very soon.
mattthegamer463 (author)  paleotool4 years ago
Thanks very much. Hope you vote for me!
paqrat4 years ago
Very very good instructable. It reminds me of an antique one we had at the store where I work. The major difference was size, it was a bit larger, mounted on its own wheels and that it had no tines but used piano (or guitar?) strings. As I recall the pegs on the wheel, which in the antique's case were nails positioned to play just one song, pushed spring loaded hammers like the ones in a piano. After the peg pushed the hammer forward enough to slip past the end of the hammer the springs would then cause the hammers to strike the strings. It had a pretty good sound. I think combining your idea of the cylinder with adjustable pegs with the hammers and strings would eliminate the need for the magnets and the resulting work in setting them. It seems to me that once working with the hammers was worked out it would be possible (using different sort of head on the hammers) to use something like a zylophone or marimba (sp?) or, on a smaller scale, bells.

The antique one had a cylinder that appeared to be a section of limb or tree trunk. It didn't appear to be that rounded but I imagine that, if only one song is to be played, the position could be tweaked as needed. One tweaking of each peg would be enough.
mattthegamer463 (author)  paqrat4 years ago
You're right, antique organ grinders used a similar method to activate valves attached to different pitch whistles.
Cool project! But why did you opt for the massive oak drum? If you use a cnc mill anyway, an easier solution would be to cut some endcaps from ply that accept strips of wood that form the surface of the drum. If you make each strip per count of your melody, all the holes would be oriented the same way, and still be easily cuttable with a 2.5d cnc router.
If you put a strip of iron at the back of your holes, you could glue the magnets to your pegs, and need much less magnets.
Another idea that springs to mind is to put a tuned resonating chamber under each tine (or per two, to halve the number of chambers needed). That might give it some more volume.
And a last thing: did you choose your gearing such that each forth (or second or third)count coincides with a downstroke of the crank?
The CNC was used as a last resort, because I couldn't get the precision I wanted any other way, or do the design easily any other way. Easier solutions are always more visible after-the-fact.

The gearing is not tuned to anything specific. I couldn't tell you the gear ratio, but its probably something like 20:1
Madrigorne4 years ago
for the parts of the cylinder that are not close enough to your comb - make the peg a bit longer - yes I know uniformity is awesome, but for the sake of mechanical usability - sometimes ya just gotta do it the way it works. I love this - will make one as soon as I finish my kabillion other projects...
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