An Organ Apprentice’s Experience

As part of Saving Betty, the project has worked to help build up the skills necessary to maintain and build pipe organs for generations to come. Alistair Curtis was hired as an apprentice to work with Nicholson, the organ builder, on Betty’s Restoration. He has written the following report of his experience.


Alistair and the team from Nicholson’s Organ Builders

Living in the south east, there are not many sizeable organ building firms with which to train as an organ builder, so I was very pleased to be given the opportunity to work for Nicholson’s during the restoration of the organ at St John’s. For the first part of the project, based in the church, I was able to come up to London by train, keeping my tool box close at all times. I met the men from the factory when they arrived at the church, and we unloaded the van, including a very heavy electronic simulation organ to be used temporarily. We were very careful to cover the floor, and put blankets against the walls. Richard, the pipe maker and I set up the scaffold tower at the front of the organ to carefully remove the 1865 painted pipes which are of the Great Open Diapason and Double Diapason. Later in the week we took them outside one at a time, so that they could be cleaned and checked for broken tuning flanges, and bruising. One pipe had been badly damaged in the past, and the back had been cut and bent out, to push the dent out from behind. This had worked to an extent, but rather than re-soldering, tapes had been glued on the back. Richard set about cleaning the joints and soldering them up with his usual magic.

Great Open Diapason and Double Diapason being cleaned outside St John's

Great Open Diapason and Double Diapason being cleaned outside St John’s

The first manual pipework to be removed was that of the Great organ. There were many pipes planted on off note blocks, so careful mapping of these was essential. The other ranks being in usual order came out and into pipes trays which were quickly filled. The basses of the Posaune were a little awkward, since they went up through the Swell passage board.

The upperboards and slides had to be removed for safety, and we checked that the threads were secure in the tables before removing them.

The Swell box was made of a frame and panel construction, which enabled Rick to unscrew the top from a ladder set up inside the box. Each section came down covered in dust, which had given a colleague of ours occasion to write his name in 2008. Because the frame was not tied to the wall, and was of slim construction, the whole moved about like a boat on the sea.


Pneumatic pipes inside Betty

The pneumatics filled the lower part of the organ, with miles of lead tubing held in boxes for support, and each going to its specific destination. I removed that which was on the Open Wood, and witnessed how much work went into removing the coupler mechanism with tubes in and out seemingly on all sides. It was very heavy to lift, and beautifully made from mahogany. In a way it is sad to me to throw away such carefully executed work, but I can see how it is very outdated, and in an ironic twist is to be replaced by a new version of what it replaced- tracker action.

Scaffolders were required to erect a platform and rolling beam with an electric winch which facilitated the swift, safe, and strain-free removal of the soundboards to floor level.

Betty in bits

North Aisle Full of pipework

Space is always at a premium when an organ is dismantled, and soon the north aisle was full of pipework, (especially the Pedal Open Wood) swell box, pneumatic action, mechanical stop action and combinations, etc.

The Pedal chests protruded under the ends of the manual soundboards, having been reused from when the organ sat on a west gallery until the 1880’s.  One side of the chest was inaccessible, and it must have been very difficult to tune. The bellows were of quite some scale dating from a time before the electric blower, and therefore we found feeders on the bottom. One was always made larger than the other to help the blower man on the upstroke.

The last job of the week was to remove the old blower from the under croft (dungeon) beneath the church. It was interesting to explore these vaults which exhibited signs of use as air raid shelters during the war. From my experience with mechanical organs, and at an agricultural engineers, I was able to help Nick remove the taper-lock pulley which connected the motor to the fan shaft. We removed the frame bolts, and it all came apart quite easily, until we discovered that the intake manifold needed to be removed to get it through the door!

The third week consisted of sorting out the deconstructed organ ready for the Lambs lorry to come on Thursday. Since we had some free time on Wednesday afternoon we went for a walk in Hyde Park, along the serpentine, and had a look in the little gallery, before crossing the bridge. We took in the Albert Memorial and Hall, before padding our way around the Natural History Museum, and going in search of Dippi, the Diplodocus.

The Thursday morning was bright and sunny which is perfect weather for loading a lorry, however, rather than getting to us about 8:30, he arrived about 10:00 due to heavy traffic despite leaving Worcester at 5am. We loaded the Manual and Pedal soundboards, and bellows first, with pipework on top, and many layers for blankets to keep everything in place. By the afternoon most of the organ was loaded, but naturally, a few items would not fit, and had to be collected the following week.

With the disassembled organ back at the factory it was time to sort the material into what was expected to be reused, and that which was beyond repair, or would not fit into the new scheme to take the organ back to its 1865 specification. The building frame was erected, and made vertical against the walls of the assembly shop, and the unrestored soundboards tried in position to give the draughtsman Mike references for the new tracker action. The console and lower case were set up to enable Tim to start work on making it all square, and the doors to slide nicely on their new runners. The console of any organ always gets a lot of wear, and sometimes abuse, and since it is the organist’s contact with the instrument, it is important to make it dimensionally, and mechanically

Shooting the choir soundboard

Shooting the choir soundboard

comfortable. With the soundboards down, the old “tosh” coverings were removed by dissolving the old hot glue with a damp towel and domestic clothes iron; a very messy job. Once stripped down restoration work could start; the note channels were flooded with hot glue, and any nails in the table surface removed, or punched in to make them clear of the plane. I was most impressed to see the tremendous skill involved in “shooting” a soundboard demonstrated by Kevin, the Works’ Foreman. This involved hand planning the “table” in different directions to achieve a perfectly flat surface for the sliders, and is really working wood to engineering tolerances.

I worked with Nick on the Pedal Open Wood chest, which retains its pneumatic action at the pipes, with large leathered motors, and newly covered pallets. It was during this work that the consultant Dr. John Rowntree made a visit, and took great interest in every aspect of the work as it proceeded. He discussed the Swell string stop which was to be made new, but on inspection of the so called Choir Corno Flute, it was found that it had originally been a Swell Dulciana, so could be restored to its original place. To do this was not straightforward, since it had been re-voiced by Rushworth & Dreaper in the 1925 rebuild, with arched mouths. This is very important as it had become more of a flute sound, than string, the “cut-ups” would have to be lowered. I helped Richard in the metal shop with these, using a hand operated trimmer reminiscent of a bacon slicer to shorten the tube at the lower end after it had been sawn off the foot. I then prepared the feet by filing the languid for

Guy, the voicer explains voicing during St John's visit to Nicholson

Guy, the voicer explains voicing during St John’s visit to Nicholson

Richard to solder them back together. By re-using the ears on all pipes he had a very fiddly job with the small ones! After these were complete, Guy, the head voicer instructed me in some preliminary voicing, by cutting up the lowest 12 with a straight lip at 1/3 mouth width determined by pipe diameter. This is very exacting using dividers, and if one goes too far, the pipe has to taken apart again and the mouth reduced in height.  After this I continued with bevelling the lip to 45° to help the string tone, and setting the languid height so that the pipe played at the right speed. One pipe gave me trouble; it was either fast, or slow and so I had to leave it to Guy to finish.  It was interesting to learn that a Swell string stop of the 19th century was intended to be used only in combination with the Stopped Diapason, which is one reason why they start from tenor C, having no bottom octave. I also spent some time regulating the Stopped Diapason and Double Diapason wooden pipes of the Swell. Other time spent on pipework included cleaning basses from the Pedal Violone, Bourdon, Posaune, Great Double Diapason, Spitz Gamba, Choir Dulciana and Swell Open Diapason etc. With the smaller of these pipes I blasted out the dirt with the compressor, and then washed them in the metal shop, but the larger (16’) pipes had to be taken outside, and the zinc basses scrubbed to remove the London soot. The weather was kind over the several days it took to do these, so they dried quickly and it made a not so pleasant job a little better.

While I was doing these tasks, it was evident that progress was being made on the rest of the project. The new Swell box was being built and set up on the Mezzanine floor by Nick and Gavin, and the new/old Hill Vox Humana was racked up along with the other pipework. Then the soundboards received their new coverings and pallets etc., and the many elements of an organ start to come together once more.

A party from I think Exeter District organists’ Association made a visit one day, and were very impressed by Nicholson’s modern premises, the parts of St John’s organ being erected, and took many photographs of every aspect going on.


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