Wild Air

Blogger’s note: I hope you all had a joyous, merry, MUSICAL Christmas! It has been very hectic for us, tuning dozens of organs in a very short time, which is the reason I haven’t contributed any postings lately. During “tuning season,” we must focus all out attention on getting our customers ready for Christmas.


As I have said before, each pipe in a pipe organ is an individual instrument, requiring individual construction and individual attention to give it an individual voice. It is the combination of all these individual voices that make the pipe organ special, and that separate it from the instruments that seek to duplicate its sound.

We now have our new pipe metal, uniform, cured, at peace with itself. We have the raw materials for the pipes.

Using templates, the parts for the pipes are cut from the flat metal.

Working with the flat metal, the pipemaker uses sets of templates to carefully cut out the individual pieces of the pipes. These pieces include the long piece that will form the column of the pipe, the piece that will be rolled into the cone that forms the pipe foot, and, depeding on the pipe, the piece that will form the upper lip. Other pieces include the languid, which in larger pipes is cast from pipe metal, the “ears” of the pipes that shade the mouth in some cases to focus the wind, possibly a cast toe point for the bottom of the pipe, a tuning sleeve to adjust the pipe’s pitch, and in some cases a small wood or metal roller called a “harmonic bridge” or “beard,” that stabilizes the windsheet at the mouth to prevent the pipe from “overblowing.” (More about voicing later.)

After each of these pieces is cut out for each individual pipe, the craftsman’s magic really begins – tuning metal from the earth into an instrument for the angels. (Okay, maybe I’m laying it on a little thickly, but it’s really how I feel about it!) The work requires patience, a steady hand, and practiced skills.

Before the pieces are assembled, sizing is painted on in places where the pipemaker does not want solder to adhere. This sizing, which will later be washed off, is made in the shop from a recipe that is centuries-old.
In his shop, the pipemaker has sets of “mandrils,” simple wooden forms usually made out of rock maple. Placing the metal on the mandril, he rounds the pipe to the shape of the mandril, and smooths it using a specially-shaped paddle called a “beater.” The word is something of a misnomer, since beating the metal would deform it. The process is really more one of smoothing the metal.

The pipemaker forms the pipe column on a mandril. Once formed, the seams of the pipes are soldered (flawlessly).

Now the pipes are ready to solder. The edges that are to be joined are scraped down to fresh, clean metal, and rubbed with a candle made of stearine. The stearine will act as flux, to help the solder flow evenly and adhere to the metal.
The pipemaker makes provision for the upper and lower parts of the mouth in the column and foot pieces. This may involve cutting out a piece of metal to receive a separate flat piece for each lip, or scoring the underside of the metal to allow the lips to be pressed flat once the pipe is assembled.

Then, the languid, which transects the pipe, is assembled and soldered to the foot cone. The languid is perhaps the most critical component. An error of a few thousandths of an inch will ruin the pipe.

Finally, the assembled column is soldered to the foot. If there is to be a cast toe point, usually on larger pipes, it is soldered to the bottom of the foot. Likewise, ears are added to pipes that are to have them.

At this point, the pipe is too long, and it still can’t speak. We will do the final voicing in out shop (more about this later, too), but the pipes are prevoiced at the pipe shop. The upper lips of the new pipes are “cut up,” creating an upper lip at the correct height. This height is calculated from the width of the mouth. If the upper lip height is one-fourth the width of the mouth, the pipe is said to have a 1/4 cutup. In the pipeshop, these cuts are made conservatively, allow us to make the final adjustments.

New pipes – built to our specifications specifically for this organ, are inspected, packed, and crated.

Once the heights of the upper lips are established, the pipes are cut to length. Then they are adjusted and tested to be sure they speak properly. They are not yet voiced for the new organ, but when they leave the shop, the pipemakers know that each pipe is properly made and can be adjusted by the organbuilder to fit the needs of the instrument.

Finally, each pipe is carefully wrapped, packed, and crated for shipment.

These individuals – hundreds of them – are now ready for their long journey to our shop. There, they will meet pipes that were made a century ago, born of the same processes and the same techniques. Together, new pipes and old will form a new chorus of sounds for St. Joseph’s Church.

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