"Reed Organ Repair: A generic Approach"

This treatise is intended for those who are tempted to fix up "Aunt Maude's old pump organ"  that has languished in the attic since Maude went to her reward. You know it's up there, and "one of these days" ...

This treatise is NOT intended for those who seek to rescue Maude's organ if it's been stored in a leaky barn on the back forty for thirty years! Such a project has many pitfalls I won't address here, although the basics still apply. But an organ stored thus is likely to have MANY more problems than one that's been at least kept dry and free of rats, mice, moths, and wasps.

So, drag the poor thing into the garage, assemble some tools, and fix up a workbench A dis-assembled reed organ takes up a good deal of space: have an area set aside where the components can be stored without being bothered by pets or children. Decent lighting is essential. Later, you may have to order up some material.

Ah, yes! "Material": where to get that, and what will I need?

Possibly, you'll need nothing! Gotta get the thing apart first, and see what's wrong. The organ may just need a good cleaning and a few adjustments. Then again... You WILL need hot glue, by which I do NOT mean the gunk emitted from an electric glue-stick gun! Reed organs were universally assembled using hot glue, and it is the ONLY glue to use in repair work: no white glue, no yellow glue...

Hot glue requires a glue pot: a fully automatic one is expensive. A decent alternative is a small electric hotplate with a thermostat, a pan of water, a jar immersed in the water for the glue, and a simple meat thermometer. Dried (flake) glue can be obtained from Organ Supply Industries, or other sources. It is mixed like rice: two volumes COLD water, one volume flake glue: mix well, leave overnight (it swells up) then melt at 140 degrees F. If melted every day, hot glue will not spoil, but if left more than a few days, it grows "things". Prevent this by putting the jar in the fridge until needed.

You'll need a collection of brushes. Throw-aways are fine, and some artist's brushes in several small configurations will get you started. Once you have the knack of hot glue, you will wonder how you ever got along without it. Besides ease of use, it is fully water soluble, so the next person to work on the organ can have an easy time of it, just as you will, assuming no clod got into your instrument before you and used the wrong stuff. While many claim that "size isn't important", size IS important when using hot glue. Any *new* surface (not previously glued) to be joined using hot glue must be sized, which simply means painting the area with a dilute hot glue (make up a trifling amount by diluting your regular mix 1 to1 with hot water: when you are through with it put it back into your glue pot). This surface should dry completely before making up a new joint. Surfaces that have previously had hot glue on them usually don't need sizing, as the old glue serves this purpose. But when in doubt, size the joint: it cannot hurt at all, and may save a lot of grief.

Depending on the complexity of the organ, the first step is to get as much casework as necessary out of the way. Remove the back first and set it aside. The high-back (if present) usually has only a few screws holding it on: these may be driven from inside; remove these, and LABEL them! Envelopes, dishes, ice-cube trays, cat-food cans, baby-food bottles -- all are just fine for collecting the myriad screws you will be removing. LABEL all screws, with details about where the long and short ones go. It may be a while before you re-assemble the organ, and it's easy to forget. Get used to using B (= bass) and T (= treble) to indicate which end of the organ things go to. (R=right and L=left gets confusing, as it varies depending on your position with respect to the organ itself).

Remove the key-slip (in front, below the keys), any lid, music-rack or other items that might restrict access.

Most RO actions are built up from the bottom, so one works from the top down. As you disassemble the thing, you will likely ask yourself (as I do, often!) "Why on earth did they build it this way?" After all, a reed organ action is only a pneumatic cross-bar switch: the keys (on or off) are the switches, the mutes are the cross-bars. The almost endless variations on the theme seem to be related to the propensity for builders to patent *everything*; hence, when yet another company wished to capitalize on the popularity of the reed organ, they had to devise an action that would not infringe anyone else's patents. In so doing, they often created "monsters" that defy easy maintenance and repair. Nevertheless, we are now stuck with the design, so we have to live with it, and make it work again.

With the casework out of the way, you'll find some sort of linkages (wooden sticks, wires, or straps) that ultimately connect the stop-knobs to the mutes: these parts are usually at the extreme end of the action, (they may, however be arranged along the back of the stop action) and are made to be disconnected fairly easily. Label each one as you take it out, with clear indication of where it goes. Set them aside.

The stop-action, with knobs, action rods, and whatever, usually comes out as a sub-assembly, often with only a couple of screws at each end to hold it in place. Set this aside, taking care not to bend any items that may protrude underneath.

Note: Some actions can be removed from the case with the stop rail attached; others require the stop rail to be removed first (usually so you can reach some of the screws holding the action in place). In most cases, it is best to remove the stop rail before taking the action out of the case.

You want next to take out the "upper action" in its entirety. This is the shallow box on which everything you have exposed sits. There are usually long screws along the back and sides; the ones in front may be driven from the top, or up from below, and the ones along the sides are often difficult to find and reach. Once all the screws are found, removed and labeled, lift the upper action up (there are usually small locating pins somewhere) until it's completely free, and carefully extract it from the case (some actions must go out the back of the case, some only out the front, and only you can determine which yours requires!) Once the action is free and out of the case, set it aside, once again being careful not to damage the parts underneath. (Prop it up on chunks of wood if there are too many things protruding below).

Assuming you removed the stop rail earlier, you will now see the keys. And a lot of dirt, probably. Vacuum this dirt off, and look for pencil notations by others who've been ahead of you. Try not to remove any marks you find, as they are part of the instrument's history - even though you no longer have any clue as to who "Herman Ledbetter" is (or was).

The keys are another sub-assembly: the key-cheeks may be attached to the key bed (or may have been screwed to the case). Under the key-cheeks you'll find a couple of screws, and there's often one buried under the center key (or nearby). If this is the case, you must remove the strip along the back of the keyboard which retains the keys, and lift out one or two to access that pesky middle screw. There may be a couple of metal straps in front or back that have to be taken off as well. When it's loose, lift off the keyboard entire, and set it aside, again being careful of "thingies" that may protrude from beneath.

Below the keyboard you will find - more dirt! Vacuum this out: a dry paint-brush may help dislodge the stubborn stuff. At this level you will usually find the coupler action (if there is one) attached to whatever covers the goodies below. The coupler (there may be two halves) is removed, along with any actuating devices. Remember to LABEL *everything*! Next, remove the stickers, a neat row of which you see protruding up through the swell action. KEEP THESE IN THEIR ORIGINAL ORDER! You can drill a row of holes in a scrap of wood, or you can lay these out on sticky tape. DON'T just put them in a tray and hope for the best: if that tray gets tipped, you have a major problem!

Note: Earlier actions (usually) often have the stickers coming up through a transverse guide that is part of the keybed itself. In this situation, the keys must be removed from the frame before the stickers are lifted out. If this is necessary, number the keys (if they aren't already) neatly so they will go back in the correct order. It is *very* difficult to re-assemble a jumble of keys that have been dumped in a box.

Remove the swell action next: usually just a few screws. Also remove the tremolo fan or beater-box sub-assembly, and the bass reeds sub-assembly (if there is one) as well. Keep track of those screws, and LABEL everything!

Now you're down to the "nitty-gritty": at this juncture, DON'T attempt anything more with the cavity-box or mutes, other than gentle vacuuming away of the dirt that's likely to be everywhere.

With the action out of the case, you are presented with the foundation, a wide board with a slit or some holes along the back, and perhaps a divider in the middle. You will see how it attaches to the lower action and the case: this whole contraption is usually another sub-assembly that can be removed entire. It consists of the foundation, the reservoir, and the exhausters. Details of how it's held in vary, but by now you should be adept at finding screws in odd places! It is important to remove the treadle springs, and disconnect the straps (if they aren't rotted off!) before taking out this "lower action". It may be necessary to lay the organ case on its back to access the treadle straps; the springs are usually reached through a removable knee-panel. When everything is disconnected, remove this action as a whole, and set it aside.

Anything you plan to do to the organ's case should be undertaken next. Usually, cleaning is all that's necessary. Various formulations of beeswax were popular polishes when the organ was in regular use, and this has accumulated a lot of dirt. Murphy's oil soap on a damp rag is the best first-step, and is often all that's necessary to get this goop off. Liberal use of cotton swabs and/or toothbrushes may be required on ornate parts.

If the casework is really beat-up, you might have to re-finish it, (a long and messy process). But cleaning, touch-up with a dark stain on severe scratches, and re-waxing (paste wax) is usually all that's required. A few "dings" here and there attest to the instrument's age. SAVE the original finish if at all possible! If you have watched "Antiques Roadshow", you know how important original finishes can be to professional dealers.

It's time, too, to replace the silks behind any fretwork on the case or key-slip. Find something at the fabric store that comes as close to the original as possible. (It was most often a red cotton poplin, and has often been replaced with material much too thick. In removing whatever you find, look for shards of the original still glued underneath - this will tell you what color the original material was). Remove the old material, which invariably was glued on with hot glue. Warm water softens this easily, so the old material comes right off. A damp rag takes off excess glue, dirt and so forth. Get right down to the wood! You may find some *tiny* tacks here and there: try to extract and save them, as they're difficult to find, and you only need a few.

Cut pieces of the new material, observing the "grain" of it, and iron it on an ironing-board so it is dead flat and without creases. It's best to start with a piece that's over-size. Stretch the piece over the fretwork: it can be held in place temporarily with masking tape, or with those tiny tacks.

What glue to use? You *should* use hot glue, but liquid hide glue also works here. Hide glue can be warmed, too, which quickens its action. Fish glue also works. DON'T USE WHITE GLUE! Whatever your choice, you will apply the glue first to the fretwork, (usually just around the edges) then (after it dries at least to "tacky" and you have stretched the new material in place) to the back side of the work so that it soaks through the fabric and joins the glue on the wood below. You want the glue *only* where it was originally, and NOT over any area that shows through the fret-work. Just pressing the fabric down lightly into the pattern shows where it should (and should not) go. (Alternatively, you can work over a light-table, or just hold the work up against a bright window). Use plenty of glue, and maybe work it through the cloth with a smooth wooden spatula. Then set this assembly aside to dry. When it *is* thoroughly dry, trim off any excess fabric with a razor blade and straightedge.

With all this completed and the parts set aside, you want to tackle the lower action. This *can* get tricky, and there's a lot to explain. But first, just clean it up with a damp rag, getting all accumulated dirt out of the way. If you're lucky, the rubber cloth on the exhausters and reservoir are in good, tight shape, and the valves on the exhausters are soft and pliable... Yeah, right! It does happen, but not often. More likely, the reservoir has major holes, especially at the folds, and the exhausters likewise. If so, the fabric has to be replaced. There just isn't any practical way to "patch" this stuff; it *has* to hold wind; and you aren't going to want to take this contraption apart again any time soon!

But there are pitfalls here, too, and materials to be obtained.

Begin by taking out the screws, removing the straps, and parting the lower action from the foundation. If you are lucky, the foundation is NOT glued to the lower action: if you are UNlucky, it is, and you need to seek advice on how to get it apart. There is no practical way to recover exhausters if the foundation remains attached! (Mason & Hamlin was the worst offender in this regard, tending to use glue and *nails* to attach the foundation - permanently. They evidently had a lot of faith in rubber-cloth!)

In the USA, rubber-cloth is available from Organ Supply Industries, POBox 1165, Erie PA 16512. There are several grades (weights): the direct replacement in nearly all cases is OSI's #6340-00, 0.02" thick, single coated black rubber on 20 oz. heavy cloth back. Avoid the fleece-back, heavier stuff, and the drill-cloth stuff as well. To do it right, you need several yards, so that the reservoir can be wrapped with a single piece, as it was originally.

The hinges in the reservoir and exhausters you may find to be leather, or heavy canvas. The latter, in convenient woven strips 2" wide, can be had at any place that makes awnings and such.

Leather can be had from many sources. For the hinges, you need a heavy cow-hide of nominal 1/16" thickness. For the exhauster valves, a heavy cabretta is best, but may be hard to find. On occasion I have used chamois *backed* by a thin cow-hide. The chamois makes a good seal, but is too flimsy by itself. The heavier leather holds it in place. These are not glued together, just tacked over one another. Columbia Organ Leathers has good supplies, but you have to buy whole skins.

Next, take some *important* measurements! You need to WRITE DOWN the maximum opening of the reservoir, and of the exhausters. Don't rely on memory here: the numbers are often close, but rarely the same, and it's easy to mix them up!

Next, you need to observe carefully exactly how the material is applied, especially how it is "closed" at the hinge end. Make some sketches! These details, too, are easy to forget. Another way is to take electronic pictures, if you have a digital camera; these can be printed out and used later as guidance.

Some reservoirs have external springs: remove these, taking care to mark them so you can get them back exactly as they were.

If the reservoir has internal springs, some care is needed. Cut holes in the old reservoir covering and reach inside. Collapse a spring firmly in your hand and withdraw it. Then put one point against a firm surface and carefully allow the spring to open up. It will open into a very wide "Y", and if it gets away from you it can do major damage. Use eye protection at a minimum for this operation. Mark these so that you get them back in (later) in exactly the same position as they were originally.

Copyright 2001 James B. Tyler

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