The restoration process

Recovered pouch boards

A rank of pipes getting checked on the voicing machine

Refinished wood components ©2014 David Ottenstein

In recent years the concept of recycling has gained wide acceptance.  This is especially true of the pipe organ.  The instruments that have come down to us from the past usually were constructed of good materials worked with copious amounts of skilled labor.  The builders of these organs foresaw the day when the perishable materials within their instruments would need to be replaced, and they built them in such a way as to make this practical and sensible.

If the organ is a product of one of America’s leading builders, and if its musical qualities continue to satisfy the requirements of its owner, then restoration is indicated when the perishable materials begin to fail after decades of service.  Fortunately, those materials are usually still obtainable in our day.  Leather, felt and skilled labor continue to be available even in our high-tech age.  The careful choice of suitable and good materials, applied using the builder’s original techniques, coupled with the sensitive know-how of people who have been trained in the arcane methods of the great builders of the past, virtually can return a well-made instrument to its like-new condition.  

Whenever possible, we consult the original builder's records. Not only is this data useful for restoring damaged pipework, it has also allowed us to accurately reproduce entire ranks of missing pipework. Thanks to Allen Kinzey, many of these documents from the Skinner Organ Company have been preserved.

Whenever possible, we consult the original builder's records. Not only is this data useful for restoring damaged pipework, it has also allowed us to accurately reproduce entire ranks of missing pipework. Thanks to Allen Kinzey, many of these documents from the Skinner Organ Company have been preserved.

Instruments restored in this manner frequently are startlingly successful.  The removal of years of dust and dirt from the pipework and chassis often reveals a new freshness of tone that previously had been obscured by the gradual passage of time.  With the mechanism rebuilt as new, pipework washed clean, repaired and adjusted for its original tonal qualities, and the organ’s environment optimized, old instruments can benefit immensely from restorative techniques. 

However, when the needs of the owner have changed since the building of the instrument, or if there is a desire to upgrade in one way or another, rebuilding the organ can be an alternative to restoration.  Provided that the instrument can be augmented or altered in such a way as to improve its suitability for the owner’s present needs, rebuilding can be a less expensive option to obtaining a new organ.  It must be remembered, however, that the reuse of old material somewhat limits the options available, as opposed to beginning with a clean slate. 

Upgrading and alteration can include tonal as well as mechanical improvements, but these should not be contemplated until the basic fabric of the organ is determined to be in sound, reliable condition.  There is little point to spending money on various improvements if the instrument is likely to require basic repairs in the near future.  If the pneumatic leatherwork of an organ is nearing the end of its practical lifespan, it would be unwise to add more pipes or other mechanism only to face additional expense in a few years.  Our experience with pipe organs of all sizes and types gives us a perspective that may be very helpful before embarking upon a program to expand the resources of an existing instrument.