Parts is Parts: Some Minor Organ Repair

It is a paradox.

The basic technology of pipe organ construction has remained unchanged for 2,000 years, yet the design and construction of a pipe organ continues to be an act of supreme mechanical mastery and outstanding craftsmanship.

This is especially true of mechanical action instruments.  In organ parlance, “action” refers to the means by which the keys work to open the valves that admit air into the pipes.  In “electronic action” instruments, this is process is aided by a series of electric contacts, switches, and wires that do the work electronically.  In “mechanical action” instruments, the the key at the console is connected–mechanically–to the pipe, so that the pressure of the finger on the key actually does the work of letting air into the pipe.   Because the long rods that run from the console to the chest are called trackers, one often hears this referred to as “tracker” action.  The organ at Trinity is a tracker.

One of the many links in this “tracker” mechanism is a leather strap that connects a hook on a pull-down from the tracker (coming up from below) to another hook from the pallet inside the chest (coming down from above).  If the organ-lingo double-talk is confusing, here is a visual:

trackers and pull-downs (long vertical pieces) connect to pallets (small hooks at the very top) by small leather straps

a closer look

Leather is used, I think, because it is durable yet supple enough to give slightly when the action is operated so that the player does’t feel any “hitch.”  There are limits to leather’s durability, however, especially in a place like this with high humidity, constant air-conditioning, and salty ocean air.   This leather straps on this organ have begun to become brittle and break.  When this happens, the action is no longer connected to the pipes and there is a dead note.

broken strap

see the pull-down dangling, not connected to the pallet

Of course the straps only fail at the most inopportune times and places–middle C, for example, ten minutes before the service starts!

a last-minute fix on a Sunday morning to avoid a dead note in the middle of the range–that is a pipe cleaner holding the mechanism together where the leather strap has failed

So I decided that replacing these leather straps, once and for all, would be a relatively simple matter.  I sent away for a 12″ x 12″ piece of leather that was slightly thicker than the straps that were beginning to fail.  This, along with a leather hole punch, set the church music budget back a whopping $30.  It took two afternoons to cut the strips and punch the holes, and another afternoon to switch out the old straps and put in the new ones.

the tools

cutting the strips (part one)

cutting the strips (part two)

marking the holes

punching the holes

et voila

No more dead notes–at least not for a while!  

For more adventures in organ maintenance, see a previous blog post on organ tuning here.  

Hood Memorial Organ

I am pleased to announce that Trinity will soon be acquiring a new organ for its music ministry.  This instrument has been given in memory of Sebron Hood, our long-serving and well-beloved choirmaster and organist.  The organ will be completed sometime in the late fall or early winter of this year.

Sebron Hood, Jr, Trinity's Organist and Choirmaster from 1967 to 1991

The new organ will be small positiv (German spelling with no ‘e’) organ, also known as a ‘chest organ’ or a ‘continuo organ.’  While it is a true pipe organ, it is actually completely portable; it sound and its purpose will be quite different from present sanctuary organ.  It should be made clear that this new organ is in no way meant to be a replacement for the big organ in the choir loft–which is in fine condition, as anyone who attended our recent Hymn Festival can attest—but it will certainly make a fine companion to its larger brother.The choice of an organ seems a particularly appropriate way in which to memorialize Sebe’s ministry at Trinity.  Those who were here during those years will remember that Sebe never got to play a pipe organ, but held forth with an electronic instrument in the old church—the outline of where that instrument was can still be seen in the stonework in the floor of the present choir room.  When he died in December of 2010, friends and colleagues from around the country honored his memory with contributions to the church.  And just this year, Sebe’s wife Belle Miller and their children Harriette, Sebron III, and Spivey and their families have made a generous gift to make this project possible.  I join them in hoping that this organ will be a useful and lasting memorial to a beloved friend.


An extensive investigation took place during the summer and fall of 2011 in which a number or organ builders and professional colleagues from around the country were contacted for their experiences and opinions about various instruments.  In the end the builder that consistently received the highest recommendation (and provided the best value for money) was a Dutch firm called Henk Klop Clavecimbelbouw.

Continuo organ by Henk Klop, Garderen, The Netherlands

The Klop organ will have one keyboard (61 notes, no pedals) and 5 ranks of pipes.  The case will be carved from cherry wood, and the keys will be ebony and plum wood.  Its dimensions are 44 x 33 x 20 inches, and it will weigh 165 lbs.  The organ includes a wooden box for transport and storage box and is guaranteed by the builder for ten years.


While it will be possible it use this organ to lead worship (hymn singing) with a modest congregation in a small space like the chapel, its primary function would be as an accompanying instrument with choral and instrumental ensembles, with secondary utility as a solo instrument playing “hands only” repertoire.  Both of these functions apply equally to concert and worship settings.  Specific examples included but are not limited to:

  • Accompanying the children’s choir (lighter timbre with younger voices)
  • Continuo instrument with orchestral ensembles
  • Accompanying the adult choir or soloists on certain styles of repertoire
  • having an organ in the front of the Nave opens up the possibility of antiphonal ensembles from various places in the church
  • Playing a prelude or offertory either in the Nave or Chapel
  • Providing music for small weddings or funerals, especially in the chapel

For a better idea of what this organ looks and sounds like, I recommend the following YouTube video.

Keeping Things “In Tune”

The organ is a machine, and like most machines it runs well so long as it receives its routine maintenance.  The most important aspect of this maintenance takes the form of regular tunings.  The organ is tuned three or four times a year, and one of these tunings took place this past Monday.  I thought it would be interesting for you to know a little bit about what goes in to it.

First of all, it’s a big job.  Like the strings on a piano, every pipe must be tuned individually.  Each separate sound on the organ, called a stop, has its own set of pipes, called a rank, one pipe for every key or pedal.  Keyboard ranks on Trinity’s organ have 58 notes, and pedal ranks have 30 notes.  Some stops (called mixtures) have two, three, or even four pipes for each note that combine (or mix) make up that stop’s particular sound.  All told, Trinity’s organ has 26 stops with 30 ranks of pipes.  This works out to about 1572 pipes, each of which must be tuned individually.  As I say, it’s a big job. 

Second, tuning the organ is a two-man job.  One person (me) has to sit at the console and hold each individual note while another person (the tuner) goes up in the case—sometimes way up—and tunes each pipe.  The different sounds on the organ are produced by different types of pipes, which are tune by different methods.  Some pipes are wooden, and they are tuned by adjusting a rectangular stopper that rests in the top of the pipe.  Other pipes, made of metal, are tuned by moving a cylindrical “tuning collar” (think of a soup can with both ends cut off fitted on the top of the pipe) that changes the length, and thereby the pitch, of the pipe.   Other types of pipes are tuned by other methods; I will be happy to give the full lecture and demonstration to anyone who is interested.

Finally, it’s a tedious job.   Some of the pipes are pencil sized or even smaller, and the tolerances of correct tuning might be some fraction of a millimeter.  Also, it is extremely difficult to hear, really hear, the pitch when a shrill note–which is designed to soar over the sound of the full organ–is blaring right in your face.  The tuner must possess not only a good a good ear, but he needs to have good mechanical skills to understand and deal with the organ’s many components.  A measure of bodily courage is also helpful for climbing up, through, and around some pretty tight spaces in the case. 

The two main factors that affect the tuning are temperature and humidity; fluctuations in those are what necessitate the tuning.  Every so often, a pipe will slip out of tune to such a degree that an egregiously sour note results.  Most of the time, however, the “out of tune-ness” is more subtle but more widespread; this causes the organ to sound sluggish and rough.  The organ having been tuned this week, I think that the primary difference one will notice (barring any wrong notes perpetrated by its operator) will be a sleeker, cleaner sound.