Reed Organ Repair: A generic approach (1)


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.

What to do next is in Part 2.

Revised 01/2001; Copyright 2001 James B. Tyler