Wild Air



Imagine. Over 100 years. Standing in the same place.

You have been standing in the same spot for over 100 years.

Your spot is high in one end of a great building. When you took up your position, the building was still fairly fresh and new. A century older now, nearly every corner of that building has been repeatedly cleaned, painted, and freshened. All, that is, except for the place where you stand, along with the other pipes of the great organ.

Finally, the day comes for you and those around you to be renewed, and to be part of something dramatically new. You carry with you all the joys and sorrows, and all the history of the generations of souls whose worship you have enriched.

What’s the first thing you would want? Probably a bath.

One of the first things people notice about an old organ as it is being removed is how incredibly dirty it is. Old organ pipes, unless they have been abused or otherwise damaged, are very little changed from when they were made. But they are very, very dirty. Some of this dirt is simply light dust that has filter out of the air. Layered with it is the oily black dust

Yuck! It's hard to believe these pipes were ever new!

produced by coal smoke, from the days when almost everything was heated by coal, and steam trains , the old “puffer-bellies,” rolled through Shelbyville several times each day. More soot was added from the constantly burning candles – a problem that frequently confronts restorers of very old paintings.

The process of restoring the organ pipes from the pipe organ at St. Joseph’s in Shelbyville is a long one that will ultimately take several months to complete. As we go through these steps, I will try to share them with you. But the first step is a big one, and started on June 4, the day after the trailers loaded with these pipes arrived at our shop. And that is a bath.


Cleaning up metal organ pipes starts with chelation. (kee-LAY-shun). We use a mild chemical agent, which is mixed with the right proportion of water in large tanks. When the pipes are submerged in this solution, dust, dirt, and oxidation are floated away from the surface of the pipes. Often the process looks magical – like those old commercials in which the blackened spoon turns instantly silver as it is dipped in the Tarnex.

Rub-a-Dub-Dub! Cory and Robert washing some of the Shelbyville pipes.

Chelation not only removes the surface filth from the pipes, it also cleans them inside, in places that could not be reached without damaging the pipe itself. Inside the foot, underneath the languid, and most importantly, in the flue – the critical windway where the speech of the pipe is formed – ages of dirt is floated away, leaving the metal surface clean.

We lightly bathe the pipes with a washcloth, much as you would a baby in the bath, not scrubbing, but just gently washing to help dissolve the grime.

The process takes a few minutes for each pipe. Then, the pipes are removed from the chelating bath and transferred to a soap-and-water tub (I like Dawn dishsoap). There, they are agitated, and again lightly washed to remove all the chemical from the insides and outsides of the pipes.

After Bathtime: Clean and fresh!

Finally, they get a very thorough running-water rinse. The cleaned pipes are then drained and allowed to dry thoroughly before we move to the next step. They are not nearly ready for the new organ.

But think how it must feel, after all those dark, dirty years, to be clean again! I think there’s probably a sermon topic in that, somewhere.

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