Wild Air


What’s so special about a pipe organ?


Music from the Earth. A fresh, new sheet of pipe metal at the moment of casting.

The new organ at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Shelbyville, IN, will include pipes made by the skilled hands of master craftsmen over a century ago, and undergoing restoration by skilled hands in our shop, and in the shop of our master reed maker, Fred Oyster, in Ohio.

It will also include new pipes, made by men and women practicing this time-honored craft today. The new pipes for the Shelbyville organ are already on hand in our shop. But to acquaint you with the almost magical process of pipemaking, I asked our pipe supplier in the Czech Republic to snap some pictures of an order they are making up for us now, for our next project at First United Methodist Church in Connersville, IN. 

We create the specifications for each set of new pipes when we are designing the organ. We consider the style of the organ we are creating, the room in which it will sound, the kind of music it will play, and the already-existing pipes that will be part of the new organ. This process can take weeks or months before the order finally goes to the pipe shop, and includes conversation and consultation with the pipe shop and its representatives.  These knowledgeable experts are the “associates” in Reynolds Associates, and they help us create instruments that sound exactly as we want them to sound.  In addition to the specifics that change from order to order, these craftsmen know our general preferences – such details as toe bevel, foot length, and metal thickness – and take these preferences into consideration as well.

Why don’t we make the pipes ourselves? Pipe-making is a specialty. It requires specialized equipment and very specialized skill. Our pipe makers serve many companies, and understand the differing needs and requirements of each.  By enlisting their skills and knowledge, our organs are better than they would be if we tried to do everything ourselves.

A pipe order usually takes several months to produce. So, the pipe shop is often working one or two jobs ahead of our shop.  As I write, they are making the pipes for Connersville, and probably casting metal for the new organ we will build next year in Plainfield, IN.

Once the pipe shop has the order in hand, they start from the very beginning. They actually make the metal for the pipes, in a process that hasn’t changed in many centuries.

Most of the new pipes in the Shelbyville organ are made of “spotted metal,” so-called because of the lattice that forms as the newly-cast metal cools. In our case, we like the sound of spotted metal pipes that are about 52% tin and 48% lead and trace metals. In the shop, the components of the metal are combined in the melting pot. The lead is melted first, and the dross skimmed from the liquid metal. Then the tin is added, and, again, the pipemaker skims the surface until it is perfectly clean.

The casting table is a long, narrow hardwood structure. To keep the top perfectly true, it is often made of slate or soapstone, over which is stretched a piece of heavy cotton or linen cloth. The table, which must be perfectly level, has sides upon which is mounted a screed. Working quickly and very carefully, the pipemaker pours the molten metal into a trough on the table, and quickly moves the screed down the length of the table, creating a thin, level, and perfect sheet of metal.

Once the metal has cooled sufficiently, it is removed from the casting table, and rolled into a sheet. Then the process begins again until a sufficient quantity of metal has been made to fill the orders.

Now the next critical step.


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