Andy's Organ Project


Updated! It has been some time since I updated this website -- and many of you have written to me with your comments. I am writing this update New Year's day 2007: I will try to bring this website up to date.

Why build a pipe organ? -- Well that's a hard question to answer. I guess the story began many years ago in Salt Lake City, Utah. One of my less-successful (and short) former careers was that of organ tuner. When I was in school at the U of U, I worked for a sound-system contractor named Custom Sound by Poll. The Poll's and some of their staff had a passion for pipe organs, and it was under the tutelage of one of them that I studied tuning organs. I suppose I assisted tuning organs for the grand total of about 2 weeks, before moving on to another job -- but, too late! The damage had been done! I was hooked!

Leap ahead in time about 20 years. My enthusiasm for pipe organs had mostly lain dormant -- only occasionally sending me home from the record store with yet another E. Power Biggs record. Then, one day, I found about a dozen metal organ pipes for sale at the Foothill College electronics flea market. With no clear project in mind, I bought them. (more time passes)

About 3 years ago, I needed another project for the woodworking class I was taking at Palo Alto Adult Ed, and I thought I would build a little portative organ using those metal pipes.

Well, there was a problem: there were a few missing notes in the scale, and, besides, with only a dozen pipes, there wouldn't be very much that I could actually play on the organ. The engineer's mind saw the challenge: how hard can it be to build organ pipes? I bought a book and The Project was born! (isn't blind innocence wonderful?)

As I began planning, the project grew. Twelve notes became 20, then 37, and my portative organ became a little positive organ and the almost-one-octave grew to three. I bought another book called The Art of Organ Building, by a man named Audsley. It's a marvelous two-volume book; and Audsley writes with an enjoyable down-to-earth, slightly stuffy, very British style. It was a very enjoyable read, but I started to wonder about the author when he began making disparaging comments about "this newfangled electricity." Speaking about electric action, he wrote:

"... notwithstanding all that has been achieved by a host of accomplished electricians and skillful and ingenious organ builders, there remain the objectionable elements of uncertainty and unreliability -- evidenced in the most unexpected directions, and invariably at the most critical moments -- that dispose one to look with favor on other forms of action, especially in cases where those forms are clearly available and can be effectively employed."

I checked the copyright date and was amused at myself: I had been reading this book for 2 weeks before I realized it was written in 1905!

My organ project in its early stage ... with 1/3 the pipes in place

Fortunately, not a lot has changed in organ making since 1905 (or since 1705, come to that!), and the Audsley's book is still relevant to my project. Ever since, I have been loosely following his advice -- in some cases guided directly by his words; in others inspired by them to invent my own approaches.

Much later, during reassembly after painting, still lacking the 10 largest pipes

(click on image for larger version; use "BACK" to return here)

For about 2 years, I worked on the organ -- half at home and half at the Palo Alto Adult Ed woodworking class (held in the woodshop of "Paly" High) where, I fear, I was known as "that crazy guy who's building an organ." After completing the bulk of the woodwork, I began the final assembly and wiring at home.

(This is Roy Williams, the instructor at the Palo Alto Adult Woodshop program)

Summer 2006 - First complete assembly trial-fitting

(note: none of the pipes in this photo are cut to their final length)

To date, I have nearly completed the major construction. The organ (as pictured above) is complete, and a base for it has been built. The midi encoder / decoders have been installed and wired, and the blower and pressure-regulator built and installed. As of about November 2006, the organ is speaking! All tuning and voicing has yet to be done -- I am starting on that work now.

It has been pretty much a design-as-you-go project with only a vague idea of general layout and size to guide me. I initially thought I would operate the organ with bellows to provide the wind (located in the base) ... but mid-way along, I gave in to the modern convenience of an electric blower. (it also helped that I had the amazing good fortune to find a 600-dollar electronically controlled blower in a surplus store for $30)

I also gave up on the idea of making a tracker (i.e.: totally mechanical), opting for electrically-operated valves. (Sorry Mr. Audsley!) Beside avoiding a mechanical nightmare, with electromechanical action I can insert a MIDI encoder/decoder between keyboard and pipes. This way, I can record my friends who play better than I do -- and download MIDI files from the Internet.

On the following pages, you'll see a pictorial record of the journey so far, with a few notes written explaining what I'm doing in each step. The process has been very much a learning experience, each new step bringing another problem to be overcome. It has been (and continues to be) a lot of fun.

Click on any the 6 photos below for a larger view. Use your browser's "BACK" key to return here.

Overall view and side view of the organ in a 1/2 complete state. There are three wind chests: the two on the sides are for the longest pipes. I have set the long pipes on very short feet, to keep the overall height of the instrument down.

The facias for the "outrigger" windchests are attached with machine screws, running into brass inserts in the panel behind. The screws are covered with doweled false panels. These will not be glued, but will rely on friction to hold them in place, thereby allowing future disassembly for service.

A view of the keyboard with the music rack and main windchest removed. In the right-hand photo, you can clearly see the key-return springs and the switches (magnetic-reed computer keyboard switches)


Click on the links below for a tour of the construction process to-date. I will update these sections from time to time.


Use your browser's "BACK" key to return here.

The Newspaper Article

Thanks to the principal of the Palo Alto Adult School, the local weekly paper, the Palo Alto Weekly, found out about my project. A reporter named Rebecca Wallace wrote a lovely article about me. Here it is:

Click here for text-only version of article (dial up Internet)

Click here for whole newspaper issue with photos (high speed Interent)

Your comments are welcome. Let me be very plain: I am not representing myself as anything other than an enthusiastic amateur organ builder. I'm sure that any professional organ craftsmen out there will be amused by my endeavours. Nonetheless, I would welcome comments from any and all, especially from other organ enthusiasts.

My e-mail: anelsen @ earthlink. net (enter it without the spaces -- sorry: you'll have to hand-type the address; I don't want spam robots scanning my website and signing me up)

I can't promise to answer every e-mail (depends on the quantity of e-mails I get), but I'd be grateful for all responses.

A word about e-mails: I've been delighted to receive dozens of e-mails from organ enthusiasts, many building organs of their own. Some were asking me questions about my experience -- others offering suggestions from their own knowledge. Both are very much appreciated! Some people have even sent me photos and videos of their organ projects!

And a word about computer viruses: please don't send me ANY attachments in your first e-mail to me. An e-mail from an unknown person with an attachment will often be deleted without reading -- and sometimes attachments are stripped at the capricious whims of my ISP's virus protection process. It helps if you use a logical "Subject:" for your e-mail.

Thanks for reading this ...


October 2004, Updated January 2005,

February 2005, October 2005, December 2005 January 2007

Disclaimer: I am an amateur woodworker, and an amateur organ builder. This website is intended for my friends and acquaintances interested in my organ project, to show what I have done. It is specifically not (and should not be construed as) directions or instructions of any kind, neither for organ building nor for woodworking. All pertinent safety procedures should be followed by anyone using any power or hand tool, and no such tools should be used without proper instruction, from a qualified source.