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Home built pipe organs - books on "how-to"

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  • Home built pipe organs - books on "how-to"

    A Dutch member of the Gesellscharft der Orgelfreunde, John Boersma, has written a number of books for amateur organ builders. These are published by Boeijenga Music Publications, Veenhuizen, Netherlands, and can be viewed at www.boeijengamusic.com/en/books/john-boersma-organ-building.html. These books, with Dutch, German and English texts, contain detailed CAD drawings showing practically every step in the construction of an organ. The author has carefully devised a plan, after much experimentation and trial and error, that gets the builder to the end of the project with as few miss-steps and as little wasted time as possible. All instruments are single manual, mechanical action, with an independent optional pedal. They are strongly recommended. The one frustrating aspect is his insistence that the bottom C# is redundant: but how could you then practice Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor?
    Chamber Organ Building in Pictures (2008) was heavily revised from a publication originally sold by the GdO. This is a one-manual organ with an 8’ Holpijp (stopped flute), a 4’ Roerfluit and a 2’ Fluit which are divided between bass and treble, plus 3’ Quint. Backfall action. Compass, C to f3. A pedal department, C to d, with an independent 8’ rank can be added.
    Building Plan for a Chest Organ (2008) is also a revised work from a previous GdO publication. 8’ Holpijp, 4’ Roerquintadeen, C, D to f3. John Boersma considers that the expense, especially in space, is not warranted for the bottom C#.
    Building a Positive Organ shows a development from the first book allowing 5 versions: 3 or 4 bass stops and 4 or 5 treble stops. 15 stops are described in detail and the construction of wood and metal pipes is given in great detail.
    Building a Small Organ has divided 8’ and 4’ and a treble Nazard 3’. This uses a pull-down action with a simple, but effective, roller board.
    Building a Barrel organ. In fact, this uses a paper roll, rather like a pianola, and has an exhaust pneumatic action.

  • #2
    There is absolutely no reason whatsoever to construct a pipe organ in the 21st century without the bottom C#, not unless you are wanting to build a copy of an instrument from before the mid 18th century. If that is the case, then you would also need to employ a well-tempered tuning system which is all well and good, but that doesn't mean you need to severely restrict the organ's repertoire. Incidentally, the performance of Bach's Toccata in d-minor (BWV 565) doesn't require bottom C#. The build up of the diminished d-minor chord starts on tenor c# but it is grounded by the pedal playing bottom d-natural. In fact, the only music by Bach that requires that note are some of the Contrapuncti from The Art of Fugue (BWV 1080) which is not necessarily an organ work, although I think that it's the best instrument on which to perform it. The music score of this incomparable work utilises the complete chromatic range from C - d''' (51 notes). This means that careful consideration must be made when selecting a historic organ to play it on, since in Bach's time organs were hardly built that contained bottom C#. In fact, the only historic organ that I know that originally contained this note is the great organ in the Grote (St Laurens) Kerk in my home town of Alkmaar in the Netherlands, first completed between 1646-1653. This, however, is an exception, due to the fact that there was an extraordinary amount of funds available at the time to construct what was to be the most ambitious organ-building project of the 17th century. For this reason, the compass of the Hoofdwerk (Great) even extended seven chromatic notes further down to Contra F (24ft) in order for it to serve as a bass for the attached pedal, which originally contained either no separate stops or the usual three at 8ft (the original contract is unclear). Organs built in the 16th- mid 18th century often contained the "short great octave: C,D,E,F,G,A B-flat c then onwards chromatically, to either c''' or d'''. The Pedal also, usually to c' or d'. Other instruments just omit the C# and E-flat in the bottom octave, because organ music at that time didn't require it.

    These books on organ building for amateurs often make interesting reading. They give the reader an informative idea as to the principles and design of a pipe organ. However, their use as a guide to actually construct an instrument by an untrained professional must be badly misguided to say the least. Although the principal on which an organ is constructed is a simple one, to actually put this into practice requires a well-grounded knowledge in the historic construction principles of organ building which can only be gathered under the supervision of a master who has successfully undertaken the mandatory seven-year apprenticeship course in order to practice professionally.
    My advice to people interested in the subject is that the best way to learn how an organ works is to either buy a small secondhand one-manual instrument that you have the space for, take it apart slowly to see how its constructed, then restore and rebuild each part. That way you will gain a first-hand knowledge of organ construction without the need for any book. I myself have successfully helped amateurs who are keen to undertake such a project, but to have the help of a master builder to guide them in this task is invaluable, especially when or if they run into difficulties as is more than often the case.

    One aspect, however, that seems to be suggested in this book you have is completely daft; how to make metal organ pipes. Apart from being extremely difficult, and which also requires certain specialised equipment, it would be completely impossible to achieve. In fact it is a separate profession, not even covered by the seven-year apprenticeship in organ building. Organ pipe makers are not organ builders, their profession is entirely separate. Large organ building companies may employ a certain amount of pipe makers themselves which is practical only if there are enough new instruments being built that would warrant it. Otherwise they turn to separate pipe making companies who do nothing else but make pipes. In fact, most of the major organ builders in the world don't make all of their pipes themselves. One of the most famous organ builders in Germany where I trained myself had their own pipe makers but they only ever made the flue pipes. For the reed stops they engaged the services of a separate pipe making company and always have done. Other important questions for anyone who wants to be an amateur pipe maker; where on earth are you going to acquire the right raw material from?
    How are you going determine the right scaling, mouth cut-up and shape of languid, or the most difficult of all, how are you going to voice the pipes in a single rank, let alone an entire instrument without professional training that takes years? No, the only way to learn some of the aspects of organ building is to study an organ that's already built. One other thing I should mention is the construction of wooden organ pipes. In this case they are always made by the organ builders themselves because for one thing they don't need special soldering techniques. Stops like the almost mandatory Pedal Subbass 16' are made in house, as are all the wooden flue pipes. The construction of wooden reed pipes is an entirely different matter. These need to be made by professional pipe makers.

    Since this is most concerned with the construction of house organs, I will give the tonal specification of the pipe organ that I built for myself at home. This was completed In 1986 and contains 16 speaking registers and 840 pipes, yet the case only measures 220 cm high (7ft 2.1/2), 185 cm wide (6ft 1') ad 76 cm deep (2ft 6' - without pedalboard and bench).The case pipes are made of 90% tin, the inner pipes 70% tin. The wooden pies are of cedarwood. The bottom twelve notes of the Subbas 16 are on a separate windchest at the back of the organ.


    Gedekt 8
    Principal 4 (case)
    Nassat 2.2/3
    Woudfluit 2
    Scherp 3 ranks


    Quintaden 8
    Roerfluit 4
    Gemshoorn 2
    Tertia 1.3/5
    Spitsquint 1.1/3
    Sifflet 1
    Woudregaal 8


    Subbas 16 (trm. Hw)
    Gedekt 8 (trm.Hw)
    Nachthoorn 4
    Dulciaan 16

    Tremulant (whole organ)


    I/P II/P II/I


    C - f''' (54 notes - Manuals)
    C - d' (27 notes - Pedal)

    Wind pressure: 48mm w/s
    Equal temperament

    Mechanical playing and register action
    Hoofdwerk Scherp = 22, 26, 29

    16 register 840 pipes


    • #3
      That looks like a great home instrument. Could you please post a picture?


      • voet
        voet commented
        Editing a comment
        I second that request. What a great home instrument.

    • #4
      It’s probably a bit late to write a response to this thread but I find the design of house organs rather interesting as although I haven’t had the opportunity to play an actual house organ but I personally think that some of them have quite a good array of sound considering just how small the specification is on some of these instruments.

      The one thing that I confess I do have a problem with regarding house organs (which I think relates to the subject of this thread) is that they're not intended to handle more expressive music say from the 19th century onwards but instead are intended for more Baroque or Renaissance style of music.
      I guess the problem in designing a more Romantic style organ is that you would need to incorporate open pipes such as strings and principles rather than just have a single stopped flute on each keyboard.

      Below I have listed a few house organs that I know of that do have a more Romantic or Eclectic tonal design.

      2 manual 10 rank (plus a 16’ & 8’ harmonium pedal stops) French Romantic style organ based on an instrument built by Cavaillé-Coll.

      2 manual 8 rank house organ

      2 manual 11 rank French Romantic style organ.
      (Note to view this organ on the site listed below you need to scroll down or click on Referenzen and then click on CH – Aigle.)

      3 manual 13 rank house organ

      2 manual 17 rank house organ

      2 manual 12 rank house organ.
      Although the tonal design of this organ is not Romantic this instrument does incorporate a swell box as well as thumb pistons.


      • voet
        voet commented
        Editing a comment
        Thank you for all of these links. Clearly you did a great deal of legwork to find them.

      • F Kalbrenner
        F Kalbrenner commented
        Editing a comment
        It was nothing.

    • #5
      I was just think about another house organ I stumbled across that I didn't add to the list because I think was still meant to be a Baroque style instrument but the design is still rather unique as it kind of looks like two separate organs that mirror reflections of each other.



      • #6
        I don't know if anyone would be that interested but I was thinking about also mentioning several home organs from the 19th and early 20th century listed on the OHTA site.

        2 manuals 6 ranks built possibly in the late 19th century by an builder unknown

        2 manuals 5 ranks built in 1871 by Hill & Son

        2 manuals 15 ranks built in 1909 by George Fincham & Son