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A couple of years back, my wife reminisced about the childhood thrill of being the human pitch pipe for her grade-school class. The music teacher would ask her to pump the old reed organ in the corner and sound the proper note. The teacher would then dramatically conduct the young chorus. With notions of nostalgic delight, I searched Craigslist for an affordable reed organ.

So, $125 and a borrowed truck later, Alma — as I came to call my Farrand & Votey reed organ (ref 1, ref 2) — had a new home. I pumped on the treadles and she wheezed clouds of mold spores. Several keys were mute and half of the stops were inoperable. Alma would be a challenge — a rebuild. I removed the back, exposing a matrix of levers, bellows and springs, and realized that Alma’s restoration was beyond me. Back to the computer I went, and typed “reed organ” into Google.

Up popped Jim Tyler, “The Reed Organ Man,” who has a 2,500-square-foot workshop in Bayview and for 42 years has lived in a beautifully restored Mission District Victorian. Jim disassembled his first reed organ at the age of 14, and has been working on them ever since.

Jim sorting the reeds I had gotten out of order.

Alma was longing for such passion and attention to detail. Every part had been ravaged by time, and she was complicated — her initial design was fabulously intricate. A good example of ingenuity is the tremulant, with a pristine design that provides a tone resembling a human voice. (Jim explains the tremulant.)

It quickly became clear that Jim was perfect for Alma, an individual as unique as the instruments he brings back to life. Imagine the melding of a bench chemist’s discipline, an artist’s sensibility and a craftsman’s preoccupation with a turn-of-the-century American technology. He also has a restorer’s eye for discarded treasure. He restored the gas lamps in his home, and the crank phone, too. He still drives his dad’s 48-year-old Chrysler, and it looks almost new.

He once restored an American reed organ found on a San Francisco curb, and recently the San Francisco Symphony rented it for a performance.

The Work Begins 

At Jim’s shop there is only one way to do things: the right way, which is “the way they did it,” referring to the artisans of an earlier age.

On my first day, Jim gave me a work apron. I looked at my reflection in a mirror on one of 50 turn-of-the-last-century organs in his shop and thought, “Oh yeah, I’m da man.” As it warmed up one morning, I took off my sweater and returned to work, forgetting my apron. A few minutes later Jim appeared at my side.

“So we’ve decided to work without the apron today?”

The notion of doing things “the way they did it” carried through to much more than aprons — to using materials like hot hide glue and real felted wool, not its synthetic cousin.

The keyboard, looking like new, is ready to be mounted above the couplers.

“The original materials have the physical and chemical characteristics fundamental to the organ’s basic design,” Jim explained. This means they accommodate the expansion and contraction that results from climatic changes. 

Hide glue, felt, wood, shellac, paste wax and properly tanned leather share another critical characteristic: reversibility. “In a hundred years or so, when the next poor devil begins rejuvenation, you will have made it possible,” noted Jim.

The idea of maintenance and provision for restoration was integral to the original design, and it’s a discipline Jim keeps alive. I was sanding the filth off the foundation of the coupler action when Jim yelled, “For god’s sake leave something for the next guy.” There is only one way — the right way, and that is the way they did it.

When I assembled the swell shade hinges incorrectly, Jim said, “That’s OK, now take it all apart and do it right.” (Jim explains how swell shades work.)

Denim similar to that found in jeans was used to hinge the swell shades, because denim has the physical characteristics necessary to remain flexible and strong over the years. “Why not use synthetic materials?” I asked. Without looking up, Jim replied, “They used cotton and wool.”

“And why natural rubber in the bellows cloth?” I wondered. The answer — you guessed it — was, “They used rubber, and besides, all synthetic elastomers have plasticizers to provide flexibility. In about 20 years the plasticizers will have all flashed off and the bellows cloth will become rigid, crack and leak.”

The craftsmen of the turn of the last century knew all about sustainability well before the current rage.

Oh yes, then there was the tuning of each reed, which Jim does by ear. He turned on his tone generator, played a note and asked me if I could hear the harmonic nodes, or beating. It was easy for Jim to tune by ear; he has years of experience tuning reed and pipe organs. I couldn’t hear the pulsing, but fortunately, there is an app for that.

So I used my iPhone to tune the reeds to 440, or symphonic tuning. In time I was even able to tune the Voix celeste reeds, which require progressive detuning. I used the iPhone to get close and then my ear to fine-tune the beats. (Jim demonstrates Voix celeste.)

Jim was pleased that I was able to tune the organ with my iPhone, but continues to tune by ear because “it is easier.” However, he asked me to write a piece about iPhone tuning for the quarterly bulletin of the Reed Organ Society.

My workday began at 6:30 a.m. We worked to the tune of classical music from Jim’s XM radio until noon, a perfect workday for a project that requires, as Jim said, that “one keep their mind focused.”

Finally, after two “take it apart and do it again” events, Alma was rebuilt. Now she sits in a parlor that was built at about the same time she was first tuned.

As I look at her, she fulfills my every dream. Sure, there were some little problems — a sticking key here and a cipher there. So I called Jim and suggested that I might need him to drop by to get Alma up to speed. That notion was met with a pause that said, “You rebuilt it, you can fix it.” Once again Jim was right.

I was able to adjust all the squeaks and whistles out. I couldn’t wait to tell Jim how the organ sounded. He responded with, “That is great. I knew you could do it.”

It’s wonderful that these strictly American musical instruments are lucky enough to have found such an unpretentious shepherd.

Once Alma is restored, organist and designer Katherine Bernitt will take her for a spin.

Before hearing Alma sing, take your mind back to 1889, when she was built. Sitting at the dinner table, you once again hear old Aunt Gelgeis tell about when she was a little girl in Ireland and heard a pipe organ played.  Beyond the families’ poverty, those sounds gave a special richness of spirit. Then imagine gathering after dinner around the newly acquired Farrand & Votey and hearing the same Noël played in your own home. Here is how Alma sounded singing the French Noël X by Louis-Claude Daquin.  Oh, the pride that must have filled the room in that time before radio, phonograph or even an affordable piano. Even today that warmth is what Alma is all about.

Alma the reed organ will make her official debut on Friday, Feb. 24, 2012, at 7:30 pm PST. We would like to invite you to pour a glass of your favorite beverage, sit back and hear Jim and Alma streaming (ustream.tv) live on the Internet. At that time, just click on this link and let the party begin. Please, use the chat box to cheer on Alma and her new family.

Here are three 10-minute video clips that outline the process of restoration:  first clip,  second clip, third clip.