A Message from the President !

Pneumatic restorations are a topical subject with several important organs up for restoration, electrification or, in one case, even de-electrification and conversion back to pneumatic. The track record of recent pneumatic restorations is not exactly unblemished. For that reason, I was always cautious of the pneumatic restorations I would undertake.

Looking back, my experience at Nicholson has been that new organs were the easiest to build as we had a blank sheet and could use our own favoured and proven techniques. Next in order of difficulty were rebuilds where we were solving problems where others had failed and were forced to work with designs that would not be our choice. Most difficult, though, were the pneumatic restorations.

When faced with a pneumatic action that does not work, it is easy to believe that simply releathering the action will make it fast and reliable again. In reality, many pneumatic actions never did work well. The problem is knowing whether the failed leather is masking some more deep-seated design fault. Until the organ is releathered, you don’t know – and when it has been, it’s too late. If at least some notes work promptly then you could take a chance and assume that all could be made to work equally well.

I set myself several criteria before taking on such a restoration. I avoided organs where the action was overly complex, the workmanship not of the highest quality, those where I wasn’t reasonably convinced the design worked well when new, and actions which were completely inaccessible in the event of a fault.

My firm took on a number of pneumatic restorations that met the criteria and on the whole, they were sufficiently reliable to be regarded a success. Several were by Hunter and relatively simple. I did enjoy the Rothwell at Bethel Chapel, Aberystwyth. It was cleverly engineered and access at the back of the console was as good as that of an electric action organ. At the other end of the spectrum were the notorious Brindley & Foster organs with one action per pipe. The spaces under the soundboards were an impenetrable forest of tubes, and the pipes had to be removed to gain access to the power motors. These, in my view, were certain candidates for electrification.

We did several Barker lever restorations which turned out well – the Hill at St Mary’s Tottenham and the Conacher at Raunds is especially good. That is the only Barker-lever type action working on the exhaust principle that I have encountered in Britain and the superiority of exhaust over charge pneumatics was never more evident. One job did not turn out so well; the 1903 Hamilton in Dean Church, Edinburgh. The pedal couplers never pulled on properly even after the job was releathered, despite repeated visits under warranty. Eventually the cause was traced to the use of the same small-bore tubing for the console pedal action as the rest of the organ. When called upon to feed the Swell, Great and Pedal motors, the pressure drop in those tubes was too great. This was an original design fault and effectively unfixable. Fortunately, the client was understanding as he could see the efforts we had taken in an attempt to fix the fault.

I recall another where a two-manual organ with pneumatic action had the console detached by 60 feet. The repetition was atrocious, and it was patently obvious that it could never have worked well. In that case, we fitted contacts to the keys, lever arm magnets at the soundboards and by-passed the pneumatic action. The original action was left in situ for reasons of future reference.

Usually the responses of the major firms when asked to tender for work lead to a consensus on the best way forward. But in the case of pneumatic restorations they can vary from the wildly enthusiastic to the polite ‘not this time, thank you’. When an organ builder is concerned about the commercial consequences of honouring the warranty, clients should be especially wary as the problems will only get worse after the warranty has ended. No matter how well the work has been carried out, eventually the leatherwork will start to fail. When it does, if one fault puts a whole section out of use and involves a major strip down to fix, the wisdom of the choice is thrown into doubt. If the organ is a secular museum piece, then restoration might be an acceptable risk but it is a much more difficult decision when an organ must work reliably week in, week out in a liturgical context.

Great Malvern Priory was one example of a pneumatic action of superlative build quality but that was overly complex. At the time it was built, 1927, actions were becoming impossibly complex for pure pneumatics and it was only the advent of electric actions that came to the rescue. In this organ, Rushworth & Dreaper persevered with pneumatics when other builders would have used electro-pneumatics. It was a four-manual with a full complement of octave and suboctave couplers; 16 couplers in total. Such was R&D’s confidence in the quality of their work that they piled one coupler on top of another. A fault at the bottom of the stack would involve disconnection of all the tubes above for access. (Were clients more tolerant of faults in those days?) In the event, it did work well until the 1990s when it became a nightmare for those charged with keeping it working, as well as those who played it. If I recall correctly, there were no takers for a true restoration amongst the major builders. Climate change and efficient modern church heating systems are making matters worse for pneumatic actions.

Stable plywood and composite materials had not been adopted at the time they were built and the solid timbers react badly to low humidity. Pneumatic actions are not nearly as tolerant of wind leakage as electric or tracker actions. With so much to think about, great responsibility is placed on the consultant. Not all have the necessary specialist knowledge and clients should check their credentials. When things don’t turn out well, who should carry the blame? The original builder, from beyond the grave? The organ builder who took on the restoration despite the risks? Or the consultant whose advice it was to restore?


Andrew Moyes - President