Friday 2 August 2019

Bringing a primary school pipe organ back to life. Chapter 1. 23-30 July 2019

There has been a pipe organ in the assembly hall of the junior part of Hazel Street Community Primary School since the 1920s. The organ is however much older than that and was built by G M Holdich probably in the 1840s.
 The organ was painted blue when I first saw it in 2009 but has since been repainted.
 The inside of the organ is very dusty and has not been used for many years. There is an ancient Taylor DC blower which gives off quite a few sparks when it is fired up. However despite providing a good flow of air the reservoir joints have completely come apart and only by holding the joints together can a feeble sound be produced. So the first thing to do is to remove the bellows assembly for repair. Because of the position of the organ up against a wall the only option was to remove the bellows through the side of the case work (completed 23 July).
 Bellows coming out on a shallow trolley.
 All out!
 Some of the rubbish inside the organ!
 Starting to reassemble the bellows. Starting with the ribs (24 July)
 Partly reassembled reservoir (25 July)
 Fully releathered reservoir (30 July, after a three day break - after one of the hottest weeks of the year!)
 Releathered reservoir all strapped up and protected with cardboard strips ready to go back into the organ.
Reinstalling the reservoir into the organ case (31 July)
 Collapsed principal pipes.
 Collapse principal pipes from above
The original diaocton mechanism and pipes is still present - a Holdich speciality.

With the releathered reservoir and a more modern blower the organ was finally capable of making a reasonable sound. However, the pipework and mechanism still needs quite a bit of attention before the organ can be restored to something like its original sound. Chapter 2 will follow when time and money are available..

Monday 22 April 2019

A 19C Debain harmonium - restoration of bellows

The past month or so has been devoted to restoring a Mason and Hamlin American reed organ for the Providence Chapel in Charlwood, Surrey and a Debain harmonium for a musician. This post will concentrate on the the Debain as I found it a particularly rewarding job.

The Debain harmonium is a small instrument of only one rank of reeds but it is well used. I did some basic restoration on it a few years ago but recently the bellows finally gave out and patches put on by the owner could no longer stop the leaks. The leather and paper were in all probability the original materials from the manufacture of the harmonium about 150 years ago, so they were well beyond their life expectancy. The leather was dry and perished and the paper was lifting in several places. Some of the leaks seemed to be coming from the windtrunks.

The harmonium is a very elegant and compact instrument ideal for transporting around for concerts.

The patching was fairly obvious

The bellows and reservoir assembly can be removed in one piece.The leather was so perished that the various parts could be easily separated.

At some point - probably decades ago - a mouse had the misfortune to run between the ribs of the reservoir as they folded, got trapped and was mummified.

The entire assembly was stripped down to bare wood as it was impossible to reuse any of the leather or paper.

The original blue paper had mostly faded but a few bits were sealed under leather retaining their original colour and it was possible to match some sheets of new paper. Some of the inner boards had been covered in either a beige sugar paper or a darker shade of blue paper so these were copied as well. This also shows the releathered safety valve inside the reservoir to prevent pressure build-up.

The wind trunks were leaking because of splits in the sides. They were so securely glued in that it was not possible to remove them without some damage. New windtrunks were therefore made using salvaged 19C timber.

The feeders and reservoir were completely releathered and covered in new paper following the original pattern

The feeders have springs inside them so that they refill quickly with air.

Once all the component parts are reassembled it is beginning to look like it might have done when the harmonium left the Debain manufactory in the 1870s 

Once the reed board and action parts are reassembled the reservoir can be filled. This photo shows the reservoir at almost maximum extension against the two springs that regulate the pressure.

The harmonium is currently tuned to A=438 so the next job is raise the pitch to A=440 but for the moment it is going back to owner for the next concert and the retuning will have to wait for another day.

Sunday 2 December 2018

Orgelkids UK - update

Construction of the small organ for schools is slowly progressing.

Firstly the frame was made:

and then the two rank 24-note windchest, followed by the keyboard:

All that remains to be done are the bellows and reservoir and the 48 wooden pipes.
Watch this space!

Tuesday 25 September 2018

An organ kit for schools

A couple of years ago I came across a Youtube clip of a very neat two-octave, two-stop, organ that comes as a kit to be taken into schools. The video is here - Dutch with English subtitles. It is very well made and suitable for a wide range of ages. Plans have been made available by a Dutch organ builder and I am now embarking upon the construction of this kit. It will have a slight British accent however in that I shall use wooden pipes of traditional English stopped diapason design rather than the suggested gedackt, as well as an open flute. I will post updates of progress from time to time (although I will be fitting it in around other work...)

A more stable England upper case

A new back for the upper part of the G P England organ case undergoing restoration in my workshop is now complete and the casework is now much more stable. The larger middle tower cap is now also in place. A few discrete plates and blocks also add significantly to the stability. The left hand tower has three gilded dummy pipes in place - not original at all (and from another organ) but just to give an idea of what it will look like when complete.
The next step is to tackle the lower part of the case - which unfortunately has been rather hacked about over the years and will therefore be a longer job.

Friday 14 September 2018


The Parish Church of St Peter in Chester installed a new Willis organ in 1856 to replace an organ that was deemed not loud enough. This 'inadequate' organ was probably installed in 1818. When the new organ arrived the old organ was advertised for sale in a Chester newspaper and appears to have been bought by Saltney Primitive Methodist Chapel who ceased to use it at some point and it was placed in storage.

The organ is by George Pike England (1767-1815) - one of the finest organ builders of the late-Georgian period. It is a one-manual organ of five ranks in an unusually large case for such a modest instrument. Martin Renshaw acquired it and is currently restoring the organ in his workshop in France. My task is to restore the case.

During its travels one of the tower cornices was lost and I made a copy last year (see my earlier post in November 2017).

The first step was to assemble the upper part of the case to see what was missing/to be restored.

The entire back of the upper case is missing - so the middle tower cornice cannot be put in place yet. The light coloured cornice on the right hand side is the copy. The interior of the solid mahogany side panels was covered with fibre board - hence the light inside of the far panel. This has now been removed.
 Here is a closer view of the new tower cornice.

The new frame for the back of the case is underway.

This project is of particular significance to me as the first organ that caught my attention was the G P England organ (c1811) in St Andrew's Shifnal Shropshire - my home town. When I first encountered the organ in the late 1960s and early 70s it was part of sprawling 3-manual instrument Abbott and Smith instrument buried in the south transept. Andrew Freeman photographed the organ in 1938 (see below, courtesy of the Cadbury Research Library, Univesity of Birmingham) - just around the time that my father - William Alfred Shuker (1915-1998) was a choir member, organ blower and bellringer in the church. I only played the organ once  - very tentatively -, but I do recall noting that a number of stopknobs had 'England' engraved on them.

In 1973 the organ was rebuilt as a two-manual instrument by Hawkins of Walsall and relocated under the arch of the south transept. I attended the opening recital given by William Smallwood although I can't recall the programme - hopefully some English eighteenth century repertoire was included. By the standards of the time it was a good attempt to return to something like the original England organ but the large pedal division and the proliferation of couplers made it a fairly unauthentic restoration. It is interesting to see that after 45 years some major work is planned and the photo below comes from the organ appeal website.

It is therefore with some considerable frisson that I find myself working on an organ case made by G P England. I have to say that my preference is for the classical case fronts rather than the Gothick varieties, as at Shifnal, with the rather fussy details surmounting flat towers. The fun of the eighteenth century classical organ case with sensuous curves on the pipe flats and clean, round towers was beginning to give way to an overwrought heaviness that. to my mind, is a feature of Victorian design.

Friday 31 August 2018

New book catalogue available

I have recently acquired several collections of books on pipe organs and their history. Most of the books are in excellent condition and quite a few are hard to find. The first catalogue out with some of this new stock is No VI (August 2018) which lists 77 separate titles. A PDF file of the catalogue is available here.

Further catalogues will come out shortly.

If there is any particular book, journal or brochure on pipe organs that you are looking for I may have a copy even if the item is not listed in this or previous catalogues. Contact details are on my website here