Where do organs come from? (part 2)
As we leave the wood working shop, we walk into the pipe making shop, which is in its own room at the back of the building. But before we can enter, a pipe making apprentice gives us pairs of safety goggles and noise cancelling headphones to wear. As soon as we enter the pipe shop, we understand why: in one corner is the enormous table, the ‘bed’ where hot liquid metal is poured out flat to cool into a thin sheet. After it is cooled, it must be pounded for a long time by a large automatic hammer to make it uniformly thin; in other words, it must be the same thickness everywhere. Historically, workers had to hammer the metal by hand — what a job! This process of pounding is important for several reasons, but perhaps one of the most practical is a problem of gravity: if the metal is thicker on one side of a pipe, then gravity will begin to pull unevenly on it, causing the pipe to begin collapsing to one side. This is not only a problem of gravity, however. It is partly due to the type of metal used. ‘Common pipe metal’ is an alloy high in lead, which is itself a very soft metal. That same softness makes it easy for the pipe makers to bend and shape the metal, but it also means that the pipes can easily collapse later. Indeed, sometimes pipes are just so heavy all around that they begin to sink straight down. When this happens, the metal around the mouth begins to bulge, a little bit like chubby baby cheeks, and so builders say the pipe is ‘smiling’! After being hammered for a long time, the metal is cut to the correct size and shape for each pipe using metal sheers.
“Okay, but wait:” chimes in another student. “Why use lead if it’s so soft and heavy? Why not a lighter, stronger metal?”
Our apprentice guide responds, “That’s a very good question. In fact, other types of metals and alloys have been used throughout history, from tin pipes in France and England a few centuries ago, to zinc for large pipes in modern instruments. Actually, tin shines brightly when polished and looks striking. This is why, for example, French Classical organs had tin pipes for facades. The British may have used tin because England had large reserves of the metal, which made it cheaper for English builders to use than for their continental counterparts. Many other European builders relied on lead alloys, possibly because it was cheaper for them than buying tin from England. Later, more modern builders began using zing, or even other metals, for the largest pipes because they are both stronger and lighter than lead. But there’s a catch: since zinc is not as soft as lead, it can be harder to hammer and shape zinc, especially when trying to repair dents in pipes years after the organ is built.”
After we watch the fiery display of molten metal being poured onto the casting table, and then see apprentices pounding it into thin sheets and cutting it, we turn to observe the master pipe makers rolling the cooled sheets into round pipes. To do this, the metal is wrapped around another solid metal cylinder, called a mandrel, to create the proper shape. Then, the two edges of the sheet are soldered together where they meet. Soldering requires a special hand tool that can use a little hot liquid metal to seal together two pieces of metal. It’s a little like using glue to connect two pieces of paper, except strangely, it’s more delicate work. But it’s also not as simple as connecting two ends of a sheet of metal to make a round pipe. Remember, the bottom of the pipe is the shape of a cone, which requires its own soldered seams, and inside each pipe is a flat piece like a tongue, called the languid. All of those parts must be connected perfectly using the hot metal solder.
Even after completing all that, the pipe isn’t yet playable. The mouth still has to be cut out of the pipe body, and the pipe then voiced on a special machine. This voicing machine is a miniature windchest with a short keyboard. The pipe voicer places each pipe on the machine and plays it by pressing down a key, just like playing the organ. He can then make adjustments to the shape of the pipe to change its speech — louder or softer, faster or slower. All of this means that pipe making and voicing apprentices must work for years to learn the art of handling all these tools and materials just to produce a single, well-crafted pipe that plays beautiful sounds. Their work is as much about crafting beautiful objects as it is about listening for musical sounds.
And these are just the flue pipes. We will have to wait for another visit to the workshop to learn about making reed pipes. For now, we leave the pipe making and wood working rooms, passing through the door in the center wall leading to the other side of the building. Entering that side, we immediately feel the air grow a little cooler as our eyes are drawn upward toward the much higher ceiling in the back corner of the room. Now we finally understand the secret of the strange tower we saw from outside: this is the erecting room, where finished organs can be completely assembled, no matter how tall they are. What a surprise to learn that new organs are put together in the shop, then disassembled, and then reassembled in their final homes! All that work requires a lot of people and much heavy lifting.
“Why erect an organ twice? Why not just wait until it arrives in its new performance space?” asks a curious student.
“Another interesting and important question!” she answers. “First, it is important for the organ builders to check that every part works perfectly with all the other parts, and this requires making the organ completely playable before it leaves the workshop. Because the organ is so complicated, this is the final, all-important step that gives us the opportunity to check our work and identify any problems or mistakes we’ve made.”
Once the organ has been tested in the erecting room, it is finally ready to be moved to its new home. The workers take it apart, labelling and packing everything with extreme care — the pipes must travel in sturdy wooden crates with lots of soft packing material to prevent them from getting dented — and organize all the packed parts in the staging area next to a large door at the side of the workshop. Only after all this, a large container truck will pull up next to this door — or sometimes even a train! — so everything can be loaded directly into the truck. From there, the organ will either be driven to its new home or, in some extraordinary cases, it will be loaded onto a ship and sent overseas.