Friday, November 04, 2011

Why I Feel Old, reason #271,658.

One of the little things I've taken on to bring in a little loot -- and to keep myself in at least a small corner of a world I enjoy -- is service work on a small pipe organ in a local church.

I've worked on a number of pipe organs over the last 45 or so years, some large, some small, in churches, homes and auditoriums. Most were built between roughly 1920 and 1930. Like any aging machinery, they can be touchy beasts, but are usually repairable with applications of leather, felt and glue. Plus, at times, short lengths of wire and/or pieces of wood. Simple skills are required, really, not much beyond trained-monkey status, even when you get to tuning and fine adjustments to the way the pipes sound.

This one seems likely to be more cantankerous than most.

This is what it looked like in mid-1920, when first installed.
To tell the truth, it looks about the same today. In fact, if all the parts behind the pipe facade (more pipes, plus the various mechanical devices that operate them) were as-installed, I'd find coping with its foibles rather pleasant.

Unfortunately, someone decided to "improve" it about 20 years ago, and added some medium-tech solid-state hardware to operate some of its controls. Therein lies my frustration.

PARENTHETICAL NOT-AS-MUCH-OF-A-GEEZER-AS-YOU-THINK THOUGHT: I really do appreciate a lot of modern stuff. I can use a computer (I guess that's obvious) and enjoy switching on a TV and not having to wait for the vacuum tubes to warm up. Listening to CDs without winding a record player seems kinda cool, too. And I'm very aware of -- and comfortable with -- the fact that movies talk now....

But said solid-state hardware wasn't working. The organist doesn't even remember when it did work, but wants it to. So I went in* and looked at the maze of circuit boards and tangles of added wire. Since no smoke came out when the power was turned on, I assumed that the wiring really was as poorly done as it appears to be.

Even with this dim spark of knowledge, it too me several hours of tracing and tightening connections and touching-up solder joints before it actually worked. I'm not celebrating yet; a few weeks ago (without any connection-tightening), the system came to life on its own...for about five minutes. Then it went dead again. But it has now worked for roughly an hour.

Most of it has, anyway. I'll go back tomorrow to chase down a related problem. I am, however, feeling more confident after having gotten the major part of the system going.

I mention this not to display my ignorance of transistorized things, but to draw a contrast between original and improved. When I started working on these things, all the 1920s (and older) technology was maintained, not thrown away in favor of new stuff. When a system failed, it was a matter mostly of looking at it to make a diagnosis (leather wore out, wire contacts sometimes bent or broke, felt-covered valves would wear to the point where they wouldn't work and gaskets would eventually leak air), then making the necessary repairs. No circuit-testing devices or user's manuals were required. In contrast, most of the people who work on these things today will automatically throw out old controls and replace them with solid-state electronics because that makes things better (in their view).

All well and good, but when the new systems fail, they fail completely.  The old stuff? Failures tended to be isolated, and the organist could play around them.

Had this particular organ (a moderately priced instrument built in Boston by a relatively unknown builder**) retained all its original parts, the repairs would not have taken many hours spread over several days. They would have been completed in a day. And the repairs would likely last 50 years or more. As it is, I'm reluctant to even call the organist and advise her of the current repairs, as I'm not 100% certain they'll be working on Sunday.

I love doing most of this stuff, and have done a lot of free work over the years. I'm charging for this, but not as much as a professional pipe-organ tech would. Figured on a per-hour rate, I'd make just as much lying on the couch at home reading, I think.

At least I'm nearing the end of the solid-state mess. If repairs are completed tomorrow, I can go on to address some of the other problems behind that facade. That's the fun part, if you ask me, the wood-and-leather-and-felt stuff. I know how to do that.

This work will go on for some time. The list of things needing attention is long. Once I get through the really annoying problems and get the organ in fine playing shape, I'm seriously tempted to go into D.'s workshop and craft replicas of the original parts the "improver" threw away. They'll be made of wood, leather and felt. And they will likely outlast me.

I'm not going into a Good Old Days Were Better rap here, but I do wish a few more products of the past were being preserved. They had character missing from our injection-molded, computer-controlled age and could be repaired by normal humans using basic tools. For what it's worth, in the case of pipe organs, they tended to sound better, too.

End of story. I can hear the sound of readers' eyes glazing over....

Getting "in" means removing a couple of wooden panels on the case (to the left of the keyboards) and crawling into a cramped space, taking along a work light and whatever tools might be needed. It's neither clean nor comfortable -- a lot of old-time organ mechanics I knew were built more like Billy Barty than Kobe Bryant -- but over the years I've gotten used to tight quarters when doing organ work. Good thing I'm not claustrophobic!

** If anyone cares (and I don't know why they should), this instrument was built by the Kimball & Frazee company. People who know about organs will perk up their ears when one says "Boston organ builder," since they will assume that the organ came from the E.M. Skinner company, which built some of the world's most magnificent organs. Say "Kimball & Frazee," and the response is sure to be "who?"

6 comments:

Dorrie said...

have you checked in any attics or cellar rooms that may be a hiding place for removed parts? That does happen, you know... parts kept "just in case".

MrScribbler said...

Dorrie -- Sadly, the parts were thrown away, and the panels they were attached to were butchered to hold the new stuff.

Fortunately, as I implied in the post, making "new-old" parts is relatively simple....

Class factotum said...

My dad's father started a garage/auto dealership. My dad grew up repairing cars. He then was a mechanic in the air force, repairing airplanes.

But he could not work on my '85 Subaru. "It's all computers," he said. "It's completely different." He did not appreciate the changes.

Sunny said...

Hi Mr Scribbler :) Well, that's mighty brave of you, looks like a tough job. Hope it brings joy and some money for you !

Ptolemy said...

I'm going to be listening with an entirely new appreciation!

John0 Juanderlust said...

There are times when a thing is not improved by fitting new technology to it. An example would be something like a pepper grinder or salt shaker; just because its process can be computerized does not mean that is the best approach to fixing it if the handle gets loose or the holes plugged up.
Getting the solid state part to work is a major victory. I hope it holds up for awhile.