Conservation of historic pipe organs by  Laurence Libin

Conservation of historic pipe organs by Laurence Libin


Reeds in the Lewis organ St Mary's Bourne Street London (Photo: M Jameson)

Reeds in the Lewis organ St Mary’s Bourne Street London (Photo: M Jameson)

Although much has been said and written about conservation of historical organs, fine old instruments, and even newer ones in good condition, continue to vanish at an alarming rate, taking with them a precious part of our musical heritage. Conservation work, no matter how thorough, cannot assure an organ’s survival. Unpredictable or seemingly unmanageable threats endanger organs especially in churches but also in schools, concert halls, museums and other institutions, in storage and in private possession—wherever they are located, no matter how “safe.” Among these threats are fires and floods, vandalism, abandonment of buildings, changing liturgical and musical fashions, venal or uninformed custodians and property developers, and misguided government interference (such as laws prohibiting sale of instruments with legally imported ivory keys and stop knobs). Such risks are largely beyond the control of organists, but this is no reason to overlook sensible precautions. Above all, be aware and proactive; your job may depend on it.

Most organists nowadays recognize that historical organs are a scare, irreplaceable resource for performers, music and cultural historians, students of design and engineering, and of course listeners. Obviously, we will never have more old organs (or pianos, or anything else) than exist right now; tomorrow we will inevitably have fewer. With this in mind, apart from conservation measures, what can we do to slow the pace of loss, both of instruments and of the unique information they embody? 

Two avenues are straightforward: Prepare for disaster, and carefully document important organs before disaster strikes, so vital data, at least, can survive. Both avenues are widely ignored, even though costly restoration and conservation work are pointless if an organ then remains unprotected. Rather than grieve and cast blame after a loss, take preventive measures. Here are some ways to minimize risk and preserve information:


 1. Keep the organ and the area around and over it clean and ventilated, free of flammable material and obstacles, vermin, dampness, children, and other hazards. Regularly inspect the organ’s interior and surroundings for signs of leaks, cracked or crumbling surfaces, settling, infestation, mold, etc., and report and keep a record of any findings. Keep emergency apparatus (e.g., tarpaulins, large flashlight, class ABC—preferably dry chemical—fire extinguisher, ladder) handy near the organ—it’s cheap insurance.

2. Keep the loft, chambers, and blower room locked when the area is unsupervised. Securing the organ’s perimeter to prevent unauthorized access, especially to pipes, is mandatory. Adequate lighting with motion-detector switches can prevent accidents and deter vandals.

3. Invite your local fire protection officer and building manager to visit the installation with you (and your organ technician if possible) and inspect together the chamber or case interior and blower room; explain the purpose and fragility of pipes, trackers, console, and other components; discuss how best to provide emergency access while avoiding water damage and crushing as much as possible; also inspect the space above the ceiling and in the blower room for fire hazards, bad wiring, and presence of working fire alarms and extinguishers. Bad wiring should be replaced; intact old wiring and circuitry in good condition need not be unless required by code and insurance terms.

4. Give your phone number to the fire protection officer and local fire station and post it near the organ so you (or the organ technician or other alternate) can be contacted quickly in an emergency if the building office is closed and staff are absent.

5. Do not allow contractors to work unsupervised around or over the organ. Consult the building manager or project supervisor to ensure compliance, and don’t trust verbal assurances. Roofing and any work involving a heat source are particularly dangerous, so make sure fire extinguishers are nearby and easily located. 

6. Discuss rerouting water pipes (including for fire suppression systems), roof drains, steam and condensate lines, so these do not pass above the organ; anything that could leak or drip eventually will.  

7. Install surge protection on electrical circuits to avoid frying if lightning strikes nearby.

8. Try to maintain reasonable climate control but know that HVAC (heating, ventilating, air conditioning) systems will break down, usually when most needed. Sudden drastic drops or peaks in humidity are more dangerous than gradual seasonal shifts. A sharp drop is likely to occur when an unheated building is quickly warmed in winter. Discuss this risk with the building manager and explain the cost and wear-and-tear of frequent retuning of reeds, etc. Monitor fluctuating temperature and humidity levels at different heights within the organ and take steps to mitigate excessive swings before they cause damage. 

9. If any part of the organ, including the blower, is located below or at ground level in a flood-prone area, see if it can be elevated. If not, be prepared to isolate it from encroaching water, including from backed-up drains. 

10. Communicate well and regularly with the organ technician especially about any problems you notice, and keep to a consistent inspection and maintenance schedule. Long-deferred maintenance busts budgets. A neglected organ that does not perform reliably is more likely to be scrapped. 


 1. A stop list isn’t enough. The more important the organ, the more thorough documentation it deserves. Photos and audio recordings should supplement written descriptions, measurements, and drawn plans. No amount of documentation will enable construction of an exact replica of a lost organ and its acoustical setting, but work toward that goal as if the organ’s virtual survival depended on it.

2. Organs under threat (potentially, all organs) need informed advocates. Enlist volunteers—students, choristers, members of a congregation—in the task of documentation so they become familiar with the instrument and have a stake in its preservation. Collaborators may have skills such as mechanical drawing, close-up photography, 3D imaging, audio recording, or spreadsheet preparation, that needn’t involve handling pipes or other delicate parts. 

3. Review available models for documentation at varying levels of specificity; pick a level that matches your capabilities and don’t exceed your level of competence. If you need expert advice, get it; talk to your organ technician (and the builder or restorer, if possible). Like practicing music, documentation is a never-ending process that can be systematically learned, extended, and improved.

4. Start with basics, adding details as resources allow. Don’t overlook oral accounts; interview persons knowledgeable about the organ’s history.    

5. Especially for pre-industrial organs, try to include measurement of pitch, temperament, and wind pressures; analysis of pipe metal composition and scales; identification of wood species; description of console and chest layouts, action type, and winding system; dimensions of keyboards (including size of keys and placement of accidentals, distance between manuals and between lowest manual and pedals, depth and weight of touch, and other quantifiable playing characteristics); details of tuning and voicing methods and of tool marks and construction guide lines; recording of makers’ and others’ inscriptions, plaques, markings on pipes, and graffiti; evidence of earlier states, e.g. prior location, façade decoration, previous voicing and tuning, stoplist and mixture composition, pipe racking, winding system, etc. Expert help is available; ask a museum conservator for advice and referrals. 

6. Don’t confuse precision with accuracy, but use common sense; measurements of a thousandth of an inch or fraction of a cent in pitch are practically meaningless. Clearly distinguish surmise and opinion from observed fact.   

7. Keep copies of the organ’s documentation, including original and revised design drawings, technical specifications, builder’s and rebuilders’ contracts, records of relocations, alterations, and major repairs, and everything else pertinent to its history, structure, and condition in a secure place apart from the building where the organ is located; if the building is destroyed, these vital records may be saved. Make sure several persons know where they are deposited, preferably in a well-managed archives, not in your closet.

8. Include among these papers a copy of the organ’s up-to-date insurance policy. If the organ isn’t separately insured, either as part of the building’s fabric or as a furnishing, make it so, because the policy can be useful objective evidence of the organ’s condition and replacement value. This valuation can help forestall efforts to discard the instrument.  

9. Don’t rely too heavily on computerized data storage systems (including audio and picture files) that depend on electronic devices prone to obsolescence and glitches; tangible records can be more durable and long-lasting.

10. Start documentation now; don’t wait for an instrument to become endangered but assume it already is. In addition to detailed conservation reports on specific organs, for example by the Göteborg Organ Art Center (GOArt), these books offer useful insights: Jim Berrow, ed.: Towards the Conservation and Restoration of Historic Organs: A Record of the Liverpool  Conference, 23-26 August 1999 (London: Church House Publishing, 2000); Robert Barclay: The Preservation and Use of Historic Musical Instruments: Display Case and Concert Hall (London and Sterling, Va.: Earthscan, 2005), with bibliography; John R. Watson, ed.: Organ Restoration Reconsidered: Proceedings of a Colloquium (Detroit Monographs in Musicology/Studies in Music, No. 44) (Warren, Mich.: Harmonie Park Press, 2005); John R. Watson: Artifacts in Use: The Paradox of Restoration and the Conservation of Organs (Richmond, Va.: OHS Press, 2010), with bibliography.

Article courtesy of the Organ Historical Society


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