Reed Organ Restoration and Repair - Introduction
By James B. Tyler ©2001

Can I do it myself?

Are you considering to do the reed organ restoration yourself? It can be done, but be sure to know the "do's and don'ts" of restoring. Jim Tyler wrote the following article that will help you through your restoration - be sure to read it first and then reference back to it throughout your first restoration. WARNING - once you complete your first restoration it will probably not be your last...

Should restoring be a daunting task or you just don't have the time, follow the links page for ROS members who may be in your area that are qualified restoration experts.



There follows a treatise, often referred to as the "Aunt Maude" series, revised in December, 2000. The original text, as far as it went, was on the ROS website for some years, and this revised text replaces it.  The Aunt Maude Series updated and illustrated is available on CD.  Send email to for details.

There are some museum curators who take the position that all reed organs, being more-or-less "old", should molder away in musty museums somewhere, to be played rarely (and only with permission!), and to be examined by scholars only if such are found worthy. 

I do not subscribe to this view.

Reed organs are musical instruments. They should be preserved, they should be played, and they should be enjoyed. If you found a Stradivarius violin in your attic, no way would you put it into a museum to be drooled over by every violinist who passed by: it would be repaired, rebuilt, and used! In my book, the same goes for reed organs. Hence this treatise.

The person or persons contemplating repairing or rebuilding their reed organ should have the following attributes:

Working on a reed organ need not be a lonely job: a few compatible souls can get the job done faster, at least, and the companionship and pride in a job well done can then be shared. After all, the reed organ you have was built in a factory by dozens or hundreds of workers, probably no one of which ever paid any real attention to the completed instrument. Bear in mind also that in the factory, there were folks specializing in various parts of the instrument, but you have to know about all of it.

I recommend reading this treatise through before you start, and of course you can refer to it at any time. If you get in a jam, there are lots of aficiandos "out there" who will be happy to assist: don't hesitate to track them down and pick their brains!
One last remark: this discussion treats of the typical reed organ, "parlor organ", or "pump organ". Much of what is described here also applies to melodeons and cabinet organs. However, if what you have is a true harmonium, very little of this is applicable. Harmoniums are pressure instruments, and altogether a "different breed of cat". Similarly, while my descriptions will try to present some of the variations likely to be found, I can't cover the dozens of possibilities "out there". The instrument you have is likely to vary in some ways from what I describe here, but if you have the smarts, you can see that the basic operation of yours is the same as all of them. 

Sidebar: How *does* it work?

Consider first the pressure harmonium, and use the following analogy: a typical "american" suction organ essentially reverses only the flow of air:

Your lungs provide the pressure (the lower action)
Your glottal stop is the valve operated by each key
Your vocal cords create the vibrations (as do the reeds)
Your mouth is the chamber into which the reed speaks ("formative", in acoustic-talk)
Your lips are the mute that shuts the sound on and off.

That formative is important. Just as you change the timbre of your voice by constantly re-shaping your mouth, the cavity into which a reed speaks can have a marked effect on the final sound (along with matters having to do with the scale and shape of the reed itself, of course). Some reed organs are fitted with "qualifying tubes" - chambers of various sorts into which one or more reeds are allowed to speak. The ultimate in this design is the Vocalion, which can have a bewildering variety of chambers to modify the sound.

Copyright 2001 James B. Tyler

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