So you Want to be an Organ Builder?
Professional organ building in the twenty-first century embraces a wide range of skills and disciplines matched by few other crafts and career options.
A core requirement is for skilled woodworkers, capable of manufacturing many of the organ’s working parts (such as pipework, chests, keys and linking mechanisms), the framework on which they stand, and the decorative casework which usually surrounds them. Although most workshops are now equipped with a growing variety of machinery, they also regularly resound to the more traditional noises of expertly-wielded chisels, mallets, hand-saws and planes.
Metalworking is another key area of expertise. Metal pipes are made from varying combinations of lead, tin, copper and zinc. The metal is cast into sheets, cut to size, rolled up and soldered together to form pipes from half an inch in length up to thirty-two feet. A completed instrument may contain hundreds or even thousands of pipes, each of them individually hand-made.
To supply wind to the pipes an organ needs bellows, for which high-quality leather in various thicknesses is required. Leatherworking skills include the ability to select the right grade of material for a particular purpose, and the workmanship evident in neatly-leathered, airtight components.
Even when fully installed in its final location, an organ cannot be considered complete until all of its pipes have been adjusted to speak properly, balance with each other and sound in tune. Experienced voicers and tuners combine aural acuity with manual dexterity to transform a multiplicity of elements into a unified musical whole.
Conceiving and executing the design of a pipe organ, ensuring that it can fulfil its intended function over a lifetime measured in decades, is an undertaking that calls for aptitude in technical drawing and project management. Here, perhaps more than in any other sphere of the profession, modern technology (in the form of computer aided design) can be used to great effect. The files created by the latest generation of CAD programmes may be further exploited to generate instructions for woodworking machinery, or artistic impressions of a particular casework proposal.
Ability and potential in any of the disciplines listed above will be of interest to a recruiting organ builder. The extent to which an individual makes his or her career in that specific area, or across a wider range, will vary from person-to-person, and will also depend on the size and nature of the firm(s) employing them.
In conjunction with a number of other craft-based professions, the IBO is currently negotiating with the UK Government to establish a nationally-recognised apprenticeship scheme for the sector. If successful, the aim would be to provide a single comprehensive training course at a central location for future generations of aspiring organ builders. Until this has been achieved, would-be applicants are advised to enquire about trainee vacancies directly with companies in their area (as listed in the IBO Register of Accredited Business Members).
Geoff McMahon, Training Officer