Pipe Organ Restoration

Made in America, Traditions
on September 9, 2007

Stephen Leslie, 55, drills a small hole in the end of a slender metal pipe at Schantz Organ Co. in Orrville, Ohio (pop. 8,485). After beveling the hole with a hand-held tool, he hits a note on the musical instrument’s keyboard, sending air through the 2-foot pipe.

Using his refined sense of hearing, Leslie, who has worked at Schantz for 30 years, listens carefully to the sound resonating through the pipe. “Now I have the pitch, but I want to get rid of the scratching sound,” he says, making a slight adjustment to the hole in the pipe.

Before his workday is done, Leslie will fine-tune the pitch and tone of more than 100 organ pipes, which when played together will bellow and ring in unison, filling a church with a cascade of beautiful music.

During the last 134 years, Schantz craftsmen have mastered the building and restoration of pipe organs. Today, Schantz organs grace some 3,000 churches and concert halls across the nation, including the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore and Severance Hall in Cleveland.

Schantz Organ Co. got its start in 1873, when A.J. Tschantz, the son of Swiss-Mennonite dairy farmers, began building pipe organs in nearby Kidron, Ohio. Tschantz, who eventually changed his name to Schantz, had a creative mind, inventing farm tools and a pneumatic oil pump before ultimately using his mechanical and engineering skills to build organs.

Schantz passed the organ business on to his sons, and today, several of his third- and fourth-generation descendants own and manage the company. “Craft skills and family are important,” says Victor Schantz, 54, company president and the founder’s great-grandson. “People here have a sense of honesty and a strong work ethic.”

Schantz’s 90 employees devote up to nine months to design, build and install a single organ, which produces music by sending compressed air through sets of metal pipes of various lengths. The process begins with a customized architectural design to suit the space and wishes of the customer. Working from blueprints, craftsmen and apprentices build every component of the elaborate, often massive, musical instruments. Pipes, electric blowers, wooden cabinets and consoles are constructed by hand and with simple machines, using methods passed down through the generations.

After constructing and testing the components, workers carefully label and pack them into a truck, which transports the organ to its permanent destination. Once on site, the organ is unloaded piece by piece, often aided by parishioners happy to participate in the process. A team of Schantz employees assembles and installs the organ over a period of one to four weeks, before checking and adjusting the tone of each pipe, readying the instrument for its premiere.

“Those of us who have been here a while have a feeling of pride in the process,” says Neil Jackson, 52, a supervisor in the company’s pipe-making department. “You want to make sure this work continues, that it isn’t lost.”

The pipes—from 1,200 to 3,000 for each instrument—form the heart of a Schantz organ and can produce the sounds of an orchestra. Flue pipes of various lengths can mimic stringed instruments and flutes, while reed pipes, with brass reeds at their base, can sound like oboes, trumpets, tubas, clarinets, and English or French horns.

Each year, Schantz builds eight to 24 organs, which sell for $70,000 to $2.2 million, depending on their size and complexity. For organists, the hefty price is worth every penny.

“It continues to amaze me,” says Jim Mismas, who plays a Schantz organ each Sunday at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Akron, Ohio. “It’s singing, full, resonant and warm. It’s one of the best I’ve ever played.”

The songs of praise that resound in churches across the nation are testament to the talents of Schantz craftsmen, who maintain a rich tradition of perfecting pipe organs.

Vivian Wagner is a writer based in New Concord, Ohio.