The restoration continues

In the December issue of Here is the News I shared the good news that restoration work is underway on our church pipe organ.

Nigel Laflin and Paul Waton, both of whom are members of Trinity Church, Sutton, are continuing their excellent work. Their main focus initially has been the pedal division, where a lot of notes had stopped working.

The Pedals are of course notes played with the feet. The most important pedal stops are those known as 16 foot (written 16'). A 16' stop sounds an octave lower than the note you play. Its normal function is to reinforce the bass line by giving it depth and substance, as for example the double bass and tuba often do in a symphony orchestra. We have five 16' pedal stops altogether, including the Contra Fagotto (which is effectively a trombone). If you are interested in the complete specification of the organ, you can download it here.

Since I wrote in December, Paul and Nigel have refurbished another 16' pedal stop, which means that four out of the five are now in full working order. So it's 'welcome back' to the Open Diapason: this stop has wooden pipes but is one of the beefier pedal stops. There is another 16' Open Diapason, this one having metal pipes, and restoring this is the next stage of the project.

So, the pedals are receiving most of the TLC at the moment. What about the manuals? (the keyboards played with the hands):

  • The Swell is fully working at present: this division needs complete refurbishment, but individual notes that had failed have been repaired, and further piecemeal repairs could be done if necessary.
  • The Great is also fully working (to all intents and purposes) now that a few isolated problems have been rectified. This division is least in need of a complete overhaul.
  • The third manual, the Choir, is in a very sorry state and needs complete refurbishment. Hopefully this will become the number one project once work on the pedals is complete.

But why had things stopped working? and what exactly is being mended? For a pipe organ to make a sound you need three things: a pipe (obviously), pressurised air to blow it, and a way of letting the air into the pipe when you press a key. The mechanism that lets the air in is called the 'action'.

The detailed design of the action is complex and ingenious, but fundamental to it is quite a lot of leather. Leather, in the form of sheepskin, is used in pipe organs where components need to move, but also need to remain airtight. Sheepskin is used because it is flexible without being 'springy', and remarkably durable. Even these days no artificial material outperforms it.

However, after 50 or 60 years (or longer), the leather starts to deteriorate and may split. If it ceases to be airtight then the note won't work. (Can you think of any other piece of machinery with moving parts that requires zero maintenance – no oil! – and has an expected lifespan of at least 50 years?)

So, refurbishment of the action primarily consists of replacing the leather pouches and the mini-bellows that – quickly and silently – open and shut the valves that let air into the pipes.

This isn't the whole story: old cotton-covered wiring is being replaced, and some of the lead tubes that feed air to individual pipes are being replaced with a plastic substitute.

Michael Boxall

A version of this article appeared in the March 2019 issue of 'Here is the News'.

Page last updated: 21st August 2020 6:16 PM