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The Old-World Art of Restoring Pipe Organs



Christopher Soer knows what it means to “pull out all the stops.” The 33-year-old builds and restores pipe organs for a living, which is where the expression comes from.

Organs have banks of knobs—called stops—that control air valves to different sets of pipes. When all stops are pulled out, that means all pipe valves are open, unleashing maximum volume.

“An organ is almost an orchestra with a whole harmonic development,” Mr. Soer says. “You have pipes that sound like trumpets, oboes, English horns, and pipes that sound like strings and flutes.”

Mr. Soer is based in Warrensburg, Mo., where he is general manager for Quimby Pipe Organs. But he has spent the past seven months in Chicago rebuilding the organ at the historic Fourth Presbyterian Church. When completed later in March, it will be the largest organ in the city, with five manual keyboards and more than 8,000 pipes, he says.

Organ pipes get their distinctive sound mainly through a combination of lead and tin, Mr. Soer explains.

“The more lead, the more a pipe will sound like a flute. The more tin, the more it sounds like a string. The organ master has to decide what he wants,” he says. Larger pipes are also made with zinc for added strength.

At Fourth Presbyterian, the instrument is three stories high; the deepest notes come from 32-foot-long pipes.

Most of Quimby’s customers are churches and cathedrals, but the company also serves synagogues, Masonic lodges and concert halls. The company restored the organ at New York City’s Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in 2008.

Mr. Soer typically travels six months of the year, building, restoring or tuning organs. The work combines the skills of a carpenter, engineer, plumber, smith, cobbler and musician, he says.

His tool kit is a mix of old world and new. He has a set of tuning knives, which are steel rods of varying lengths that are used like a mallet to tap down the tuning slide at the top of each pipe to adjust the length. He has to avoid touching the metal of the pipes with his bare hands.

“The knife is really an extension of my arm, because if I touch the pipes, the heat from my skin can put it out of tune,” he says.

Brass tuning cones are used to compress the end of a pipe to shorten it. A jeweler’s hammer and ring gauge come in handy when adjusting smaller pipes for high notes. He inherited many of his brass tools from mentors who have retired, an industry tradition.

Among his digital-age equipment are a Peterson strobe tuner, which generates perfect pitch, and a manometer to measure air pressure. He also carries a leather-repair kit and carpentry tools, to work on the many pedals, cranks and bellows involved in a pipe organ. “Basically it’s a big Rube Goldberg machine,” he says.

Mr. Soer carries most of his tools in a compact Husky tool bag, convenient for climbing along the catwalks and ladders inside the organs. At 5-foot-6, Mr. Soer says he is an ideal height in his business. “I need to do acrobatic maneuvers and carry small bags so I can get around inside without touching any of the pipes. It’s a real workout,” he says.

The company’s busiest times are around Christmas and Easter, when big temperature changes indoors cause pipes to go out of tune. “We have to tune right before Christmas when the heat kicks on, and right after Easter when the air conditioning kicks in,” Mr. Soer says.

He packs ear plugs, because working on an organ gets loud. It also involves much yelling between the technician at the keyboard and the one inside the chamber tuning the pipes, so he brings Halls lozenges for when his voice goes hoarse.

Mr. Soer grew up in suburban St. Louis, Mo., where his father is the local fire chief and he and his siblings went to Catholic school. He started playing the piano at age 10 and by 15, he had a job as a part-time organist at Sunday mass.

While studying computer science in college, he landed a job as an organist at a bigger church but he felt the organ wasn’t loud enough. When he asked about getting a bigger one, he recalls being told: “If you can build it, you can have the balcony space.”

Mr. Soer found an organ online at an estate sale, moved it piece by piece and reassembled it in the church. He contacted a pipe-organ company in Illinois, explained what he had done and asked if they offered lessons in tuning. “They invited me in for a tour and then offered me a job,” he says.

He has been building pipe organs for about a decade, joining Quimby three years ago. He estimates it will take him another decade to become a master organ builder.

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