Wild Air

A Thought for Today…

July 17th, 2014




“The only escapes


 from the misery of life


are music



and cats…”


      -Albert Schwetizer (physician, humanitarian, organist)







 As I write this on July 14, work is progressing in the shop on the pipes we removed from the organ in early June. Just getting them cleaned up is a long process that will take a few more weeks.  As well, like a small business must do, we are also progressing on other projects.

So, I want to go back to the evolution of this project – the work that went on before a contract was signed. In terms of the church year, I think of it as the “Advent” season for the new organ at St. Joseph’s.

This kind of project is, in many ways, more difficult than building an entirely new pipe organ from scratch. In that situation, the builder does not have to deal with the personality of an existing instrument. Our goal in a project like the one in Shelbyville is to create a new organ that retains what was beautiful (and financially valuable) in the old organ.  Over a century, this organ has made an imprint on the St. Joseph parish, and, at least in my mind, they have left their imprint on it.  I don’t want that to be lost.

So, why do I call the organ that will result from our efforts, “new?”

Of course, the organ will be mechanically new, with new windchests, reservoirs, and console fitments. There will also be many completely new organ pipes. In this case, about 30% of the pipes are being created specifically for this organ. Meanwhile, the pipes we are reusing are going through a rigorous process to put them into new condition.

More than that, however, this organ will be a new ensemble. A bit later on in this blog, I will share a posting with you that I will call “singing lessons.” But for now, think of the voices in the 1912 Moller organ as voices in a choir. The new Reynolds pipe organ will be a new, completely reorganized (pun intended) choir. The new choir will have many of the same wonderful voices as the old, but many of them will be heard in a new context, with other new singers and a new conductor.

When we design a new organ from an old organ, the first thing I want to know is what the old organ’s strengths and shortcomings were. When it was all working, how well did it lead congregational singing? Did it have the proper voices to accompany a choir or soloist? Could it be soft and meditative when needed, or bold and thrilling. Did it have the proper voices in the proper places to be a flexible music-maker. Finally, was it a presence in the room that helped to bring about a worshipful atmosphere?

At the same time we are answering these questions, we are also looking at the space available for pipes and the condition of the existing pipes. We also consider what has changed since the original organ was built in, in this case, 1912. New technologies, new musical forms, changes in the liturgy, and popular taste must all be taken into consideration.

Finally, with all this in mind, it is time to plan the new organ’s stoplist (or specification). And that needs a posting all its own…



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.

A Hymn for the Fourth

July 4th, 2014


Here is a great hymn for the Fourth of July. 

I offer it as a meditation on the meaning of being an American.  It doesn’t appear in most hymnals today, probably because it is politically incorrect, especially in the last stanza.  God bless our EXCEPTIONAL country! 

Not alone for mighty empire, stretching far over land and sea,
Not alone for bounteous harvests, lift we up our hearts to Thee.
Standing in the living present, memory and hope between,
Lord, we would with deep thanksgiving, praise Thee more for things unseen.

Not for battleship and fortress, not for conquests of the sword,
But for conquests of the spirit give we thanks to Thee, O Lord;
For the priceless gift of freedom, for the home, the church, the school,
For the open door to manhood, in a land the people rule.

For the armies of the faithful, souls that passed and left no name;
For the glory that illumines patriot lives of deathless fame.
For our prophets and apostles, loyal to the living Word,
For all heroes of the spirit, give we thanks to Thee, O Lord.

God of justice, save the people from the clash of race and creed,
From the strife of class and faction, make our nation free indeed;
Keep her faith in simple manhood strong as when her life began,
Till she find her full fruition in the brotherhood of man!

       -William P. Merrill (1911),  Sung to the tune, “Hyfrydol.”

A Craft, Not an Industry

July 3rd, 2014


As craftsmen, organ builders are better able to concentrate on the really important things.

We organ builders sometimes suffer from an identity crisis.

In my current issue of American Organbuilding, a knowledgeable writer asserts that the Organ industry has contracted over time. He makes this statement in reference to the valid point that, as an industry, it is difficult for organ builders to make an impact on those much larger industries that supply our raw materials. Likewise, it is difficult for us to bring much political pressure to bear on such issues as the new regulations covering the use of ivory, which is now, for all practical purposes, banned.

I will pontificate later on my view of the relative importance of ivory to the creation of pipe organs. At this point, though, I would like to give some historical perspective to the use of the term “industry.”

Pipe organs have been built for hundreds of years. For most of that time, these great instruments were built in relatively small workshops, one or two at a time. Most builders were regional. Most of their work was done within a relatively small geographical area, and in relatively small numbers. In those days of challenging transportation, they were able to care for their work and to respond to the needs of their customers.

The great seventeenth-century German organ builder, Arp Schnitger, is a good example. Although he built one organ in Portugal and one in Brazil, the vast bulk of his work is in northern Germany and the Netherlands. Still, Schnitger’s work, some of which survives to the present day, was and is very influential, even though geographically limited.

"An organ a day." The M.P. Moller Organ Company during its salad days.

The Industrial Revolution in the late nineteenth-century also revolutionized organ building. Particularly in America, organ shops did, indeed, become industrial entities. Consoles, pipes, windchests, reservoirs, blowers, keyboards, and all the other components of pipe organs were produced in such quantities that the largest of these concerns, M.P. Moller, could at two points in its history, boast of building “an organ a day.” As the country and its churches expanded, and as our forebears reaped the bounty of this expansion, there was adequate demand to support this output. Arp Schnitger built about 150 organs. Moller built over 11,000. The victim of the industrialization process was the unique regional character of our organs. A 1910 Moller organ of a particular size was pretty much the same organ wherever it was located.

During its years as an “industry,” the pipe organ business was able to do many things very well. This period in our history brought revolutionary improvements to the organ, as instruments were better and better engineered, and new technologies were applied. Standardization and specialization brought a high level of quality to most of the functional components that make up an organ. Competition and cost concerns increased dependability.

Estey's "luminous" console was innovative, but ultimately a commercial failure. So, Estey abandoned the idea.

A good example of this dynamic progress is the innovative and novel “luminous console,” built by the Estey Organ Company in the mid-1920s. For its era, it boasted a high-tech-looking design that used lighted touches for the stop controls. It was a keen idea, and, take it from me, these consoles could be great fun to play. But they were not commercially successful. The technology of the time simply was not adequate to the requirements of the design. Estey got complaints about such problems as light bulbs burning out and tiny electrical shocks from the pushbuttons. Ultimately, Estey abandoned the luminous console in favor of a more traditional and dependable form. Industrial competition had fostered innovation, but had also killed that innovation when it failed to work out commercially.

The aspect of our craft that did not fare especially well in the industrial context was careful attention and artistry applied to the sound of each individual organ. Many had “cookie-cutter” tonal designs that owed much more to salemanship than to musicians or craftsmen. Beautiful pipework was voiced in the shop by master voicers. However, particularly in smaller churches, the pipes were often not “finished” on-site. So, if the shop guessed right, the organ was successful. If not, well…

In fact, most of the larger companies used regional installers to “set up” new organs. These installers were paid on a per diem basis, and considerable pressure was applied to get each organ completed so the installation team could move on the the next.

“Important” organs in notable churches were, by contrast, often beautifully appointed and finished, since they served as showpieces to sell additional work. Letters between the major builders and their agents are full of references to “taking the donor, Mrs. so-and-so, to hear our job at First Presbyterian.”

There was actually one well-known organ company that as late as the 1960s offered an upsell on their instruments. For a fee, this company would actually send a voicer to the installation to regulate the organ on-site. Most reputable builders today wouldn’t dream of such a thing.

The fact that these manufactured organs were beautifully constructed makes many of them rebuild-able. The innovations of the past, coupled with new technologies and a certain historical perspective, can make a sad, wheezing, dying pipe organ into a superstar. In fact, most of these organs can be renovated to sound much better than they ever did, especially when the quality of the fine old pipes is married to competent tonal finishing – the “fine-tuning” of the voicing process.

By the way, some of these old organs are practically perfect as they stand, and want only a bit of tender loving care to restore them, without changing anything. These organs are treasures, and should be respected and treated as such.

But I digress… Back to the subject.

We are craftsmen. It's what we do.

Today, the pipe organ “industry” has reverted to its true state. We are not an industry; we are a CRAFT. As is true with many builders today, each organ Reynolds Associates builds is the product of careful thought, planning, and finishing. Today, our craft supports a number of industrial firms that serve us as suppliers, providing many of the quality, standardized components that benefit from industrial production. Often, the availability of these components allows us to spend more of our time tailoring our instruments to our customers’ specific needs. To us, at least, each instrument we build or renovate becomes part of our “family.”

Being a craftsman in the 21st century is a challenge. It is sad whenever someone comments that they “can’t tell the difference,” especially since now, more than ever before, there really is a difference.

I, for one, am happier as a craftsman than I would be as an industrialist. (Although, I admit, it would be fun to be Andrew Carnegie, just for a day!)


            -Johann Sebastian Bach

Andrew Carnegie


He was born in 1835. Nine years later, his parents moved their family from their native Scotland to America, in seach of a better life with more opportunity. By the time he retired from business life, he had become one of the two richest men in history, with an inflation-adjusted fortune of over $300 billion, dwarfing those of Bill Gates or Warren Buffet.

By the time he died in 1919, he had given almost all of it away. Because he loved books and music, we today continue to benefit from his generosity, especially in these two important areas.

This giant of a man stood a mere five feet tall. He was known to be friendly and unassuming. By dint of hard work, uncanny business sense, and ambition, he rose from his first job as a $1.20 per week bobbin boy to become the driving personality behind the emerging steel industry, at a time when the United States was engaged in feverish railroad-building.

Although his formal education was limited, Carnegie was a committed scholar. He read avidly, and also wrote several books, mostly expressing his belief in the American democracy and the American form of capitalism.

In 1901, he sold his business interests, and began an eighteen year period of unprecedented philanthropy. His largess included 2,800 libraries in large cities and small towns, the Carnegie Endowment for the Advancement of Teaching, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and grants for over 7,800 pipe organs in both the United States and the United Kingdom. In today’s dollars, Mr. Carnegie’s donations for church organs alone approached $150 million.

One of these organs was the 1912 M.P. Moller organ at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Shelbyville.

Typically, to receive a Carnegie grant, a local parish or congregation would go through a process showing that it had worked to raise money for an organ, but could not achieve the amount necessary. Once approved, the grant would usually match the amount the church had raised.  Raised in the Presbyterian Church in his native Scotland, Carnegie did not discriminate, but gave money for pipe organs based on a church’s need, rather than on its theology.

When asked why he had given all this money for church organs, Carnegie would usually say, “To lessen the pain of the sermon.” Other times, he would say,  You can’t always trust what the pulpit says, but you can always depend upon what the organ says.”  And finally, “I give money for church organs in the hope the organ music will distract the congregation’s attention from the rest of the service.”   

You can read more about Andrew Carnegie and the pipe organ at this informative website, maintained by the Estey Organ Museum in Vermont. The link is:


Patrons of the Organ

June 28th, 2014

Liverpool Cathedral Organ

Speaking of England, here’s an idea that was recently shared on Twitter.  I think it’s a great idea, and one I would like to see implemented in many of our churches.

At the Liverpool Cathedral, they have a core group of people called the “Patrons of the Organ.”  Such a group would be committed to helping raise money for the building, maintenance, and promotion of the organ, including special events such as organ concerts, hymn-sings, and so forth.  These folks could also help plan and implement these events, possibly helping as ushers, or preparing receptions after programs.  Also, if an artist comes in from out of town, a Patron of the Organ might meet him or her at the airport, and help with transportation.

We have spoken with many churches that want either a new pipe organ, or a serious renovation project on their old instrument.  Having a group of patrons is a perfect place to start!  If you have any ideas, or if your church has such a program, please share your experiences or ideas with us by replying to this post.

Shana Norton, from Austin, TX recently made a comment on Twitter that deserves repeating. She and my wife were having a Twitter conversation about the organ in England. Ms. Norton writes, “We visit England often. I find the sacred art, architecture & music to be a compelling invitation to spirituality.”


According to Mark Twain, “a man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.” Back in 2006, host Mike Rowe included pipe organ builder in his popular tv program, “Dirty Jobs.”

Standing tall for over a century in the gallery of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Shelbyville, the old Moller pipe organ had gathered its share of dust and dirt. For the first half of its life, all the big buildings were heated with coal, which produced a uniquely dusty and greasy soot. Steam trains traveling through town belched steam, smoke, and cinders into the air, and summer cooling was achieved by opening the windows. Later, these pollutants were replaced by the dust of passing cars and trucks on the street outside. Inside the building, burning candles, foot traffic, and dust from occasional building repairs all gathered inside the great organ. Occasionally, a hapless bird or bat found its way into the building, and found a final resting place in among the organ pipes.

The first major step in any project to build or renovate an old pipe organ is usually to carefully remove the pipes and any components that will be part of the new organ, and to dismantle the remaining old mechanisms. It’s just about the dirtiest part of any pipe organ project.

Because of the sheer amount of work required, we have often hired extra help to do the dismantling and cleanup, and to pack and transport to parts. In recent projects, however, we have sometimes offered the church the opportunity to participate in this part of the job. It is the classic “win-win.” The church saves the money we would otherwise have paid to a contractor, and we find that the folks who have the greatest interest and investment in the instrument are more careful.

Removing the console. The old console cabinet will have all new state-of-the-art innards.

On June 2nd and 3rd, an ambitious group of about three dozen volunteers gathered at St. Joseph’s to dismantle the old Moller organ. They toiled for two days – more if you count the days cleaning and preparing the unused tower rooms we would use to store the facade pipes, and an extra day dusting off the pews and furnishings after the old organ was out.

The removal process was overseen by David Reynolds. A spirit of cooperation and can-do good cheer was evident as parishioners – men and women, young and old – carefully removed and packed the wonderful old pipes, and then dismantled the heavy and dirty mechanisms, filling a big dumpster out on the street.

I had planned a week for amateurs to remove a pipe organ high in the rear gallery of an old church. We started on Monday afternoon, and were finished by Tuesday evening.

Which brings me back to Mark Twain and his politically incorrect comment about the cat. The volunteers from St. Joseph have learned much about their pipe organ. They got dirty, and probably used some muscles they had forgotten, but they also touched and handled the very soul of this century-old treasure. When the new organ is finished, and sounds for the first time, they will remember and respect this great gift from the past that they will pass to the future.

The hands-on involvement of this remarkable parish isn’t over yet. But for now, at least one organ builder has a lot of respect for them.


(Oh, one other thing… The lunches the ladies in the kitchen prepared for us were SUPER!)

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