I was visited last Friday by my friend the talented harmoniumist and musicologist Michael Hendron. He had not been over in quite some time, so nearly every instrument in the collection was new to him. He did several recordings, and there is always a joyousness in hearing your instruments played; playing them yourself is just not the same experience.
The style 902 Liszt organ suffered many indignities in the past, among them the knee swells were both broken. The R lever had a poor patchwork repair, and the Grand Jeu (full organ) L side lever was snapped off so just a sliver remained.
I found no walnut that I could use, nothing thick enough, so I grabbed the next best, a chunk of mahogany and started tracing out the pattern. I roughed them out with the bandsaw.
Then I used the router with a pattern-following bit to copy the exact shape of the surviving original knee swell to the copies. The next part took the longest; with file, cabinet scraper and sandpaper I cleaned up the cut edges.
This is the lid on my style 93BF the way it looked in 2012. I don't know with exactitude what happens to get to this point, but I strongly suspect that many years of wax, furniture polish, lemon oil, environment, etc, and perhaps even some shortcoming in the original finish. This was as bad as what my technique will tackle,
The first step is to wash away any wax, because that gets in the way of the sandpapering. You can remove wax with naphtha or mineral spirits. Allow to dry; it will then look even worse. I had a lot of big paint drips, which I chipped off with a dull edged tool (butter knife, dental scaler) . Then to the true grit! Use 320 sandpaper, like Klingspor gold, at least use a better grade than plain aluminum oxide on A paper. The more expensive paper stays sharp longer, does not clog as readily. The 320 is fast cutting, so be super-careful at edges, you will sand right through to the wood unless you use the utmost care. You can mask off to within 1/16" of edges with tape to be safe, sand one side at a time, shifting the tape in between. Wipe or vacuum the dust from the work when it begins to build up. (This is messy, you may want to work someplace besides your front room, and perhaps wear a light dust mask) Watch what you're doing, don't sand through, and get the alligatored surface down just to where it looks more like a tracery of spiderweb lines, but with no texture. Wet with mineral spirits to rinse off the embedded dust. If you stopped just then and applied a new top-coat of finish, that is what your article would look like, wet with solvent.
Next, switch to finer sandpaper. Use 800 or 1000-grit silicon carbide paper, usually found where they sell auto body supplies. Believe it or not, you wet-sand the surface for the next step. A small saucer of water with one drop of detergent is what you need, dip the paper to moisten it, and sand with the grain. I use a small wood or rubber sanding block to evenly distribute the pressure. Do a bit, wipe off the slurry; gradually the spiderweb lines get smaller and finer; Sand as far as you dare, because you are near the bottom!
The last step, seen in the second picture, is repolishing with shellac. If you noticed that the dust/slurry went from grey to tan, your organ was originally polished with an unbleached amber or garnet shellac. If the last of the slurry was white, then you had an organ polished with refined clear shellac. Different makers used different shellacs on different models. And the finished color depends on the type of wood and the color of the stain, but also the color of the finish. I generally use some garnet shellac on the first coats wherever walnut wood is used. I buy the shellac in dry flake form and dissolve it in alcohol. Fresh shellac is the best shellac!
I apply the shellac with a pad/rubber/"tampon"(french term!) made from very fine cotton cloth (lint free, nothing knit) with a core filler of cotton (all or part of a cotton sneaker-sock is great, knit material is acceptable, just as long as it's clean) Wet the filler with alcohol. Wrap it with the cotton outer cloth. Make a sort of square, flat ball. Pound it into your palm to set the shape; adjust the parts to remove creases and wrinkles, it must be smooth with no rills or ridges, or the finish will not go on smoothly!
I put the shellac (a thin cut, no heavier than 1 1/2lb) on the pad by dabbing with an almost-dry brush out of the jar of shellac. There's no way for me here to transmit to you my exact technique, but it involves wiping on layers of shellac that are instant-drying because they are microscopically thin. The trick is to not have lap marks. This is a function of how much shellac is on the pad (very little dab), where it is on the pad (center!) and how you set the pad down in motion, and how/when you lift it. The last bit is an acquired feel. I wipe and skip a row, then after every other row has had one pass, then fill in. For subsequent coats, always shift 1/2 row aside, so you are never wiping down the same exact path!
hey, I have made up a couple of Pinterest boards reed organ related, of course!
Reed Organ & Harmonium and Reed Organs with Two Manuals
Reed organs contain hundreds of screws. Many of these screws are removed and reinserted many, many times over the instrument's lifetime; what does one do when the screw hole becomes worn out and the screw can no longer be tightened? Most of us have instinctively reached for a matchstick, shoe-peg, or toothpick; but this is a very temporary fix. The permanent solution is to add new wood and drill a new pilot hole. I use a 5/8" plug-cutter in my drill press to make a face-grain plug of hard wood (curly/birdseye maple is great; it's very hard, and the interlocked grain makes it more split-resistant) and glue the plug into a hole bored with a 5/8" Forstner bit. If the component in question is cabinetwork, one must bore out material from the back or least-noticeable side. In this case, the plugs will be covered by the assembly that screws down into the holes, You must use face-grain plugs, not dowels, even if it seems easier, screwing into end grain is not a long-lived cure the screw threads c create short-grain wood threads, which shear off in a few cycles of taking apart.
Another situation is typical on the top of the windchest or soundboard, where on organs of extreme age, the area around the screw head locations is literally worn away so the screws have become countersunk when they had been flush when the instrument was new. The dry wood of the soundboard has become weak, split, and friable, making a mechanical and aesthetic defect. The same repair technique is applicable, but to better match the wood-tone of old wood, I generally use cherry for these plugs. Boring out the old material should be done with a steady hand to create a smooth-edged hole with the very minimum of tearout. A very sharp Forstner bit is called for. The plugs should be planed or chiseled to almost-flush, and then a cabinet scraper and sandpaper will finish the task. Re-drill the hole up from below with a hybrid brad-pint bit that resists tearout from either sides. The bits made by Festool I have found are very well-suited.
I did the second round of tuning on my Style 902 Mason & Hamlin; the sub bass reeds could no longer be ignored, but the reeds were too tight, so I had to spend the extra hour to remove the Sub Bass chest so the reeds could be safely pulled without damaging anything. I cleaned the reeds and steel-wooled the edges where they slide in to their cells, relieving the tightness. To tune them, I employed two techniques; where they were only a couple cents sharp, I did the usual scraping at the flexing-point, but beyond that threshold, (as many were 15 cents sharp) I decided to add weight at the free end to lower their frequency. I cut small rectangles of thick pasteboard-type card, and affixed the weight with superglue, the medium-viscosity just runnier than the "gel" kind. Adding a weight that in my experience would make it flatter than needed, the pitch was then checked and sufficient paper was removed to raise the pitch as required. This is the safest and best technique to use for low-pitched and rare reeds, because you are doing nothing that cannot be quickly un-done, and the reed can be returned to its original state with no harm. Tip: if the piece of card is not quite heavy enough, saturating it with the superglue will drop the pitch a few more cents!
Picture of the 16ft CC (lowest/largest) reed; notice that these reeds are originally of a laminated construction, which was done so the voicing curve could be carried through to the bottom notes!
A well-tuned sub bass truly adds a great deal of power and grandeur to the reed organ's sound.
Casey Pratt, restorer of neglected harmoniums!
I run a one-man reed organ restoration workshop; here are my ongoing restoration exploits, as they happen.