Since I am the commercial organization that builds mechanical organs
based on the plans by John Smith, as mentioned in Ed Gaida's posting
in MMD 010121, I thought it might be useful to the group if I added
some points based on my experience.
I have built musical instruments, both kit and from scratch, for
over 30 years. I have built harpsichords, clavichords, pipe organs,
guitars, dulcimers, recorders, and flutes. I have served an
apprenticeship with a master pipe organ builder, taught music privately
and in the public schools, and currently have several successful
businesses, one of which is our little organ factory. We build several
models of mechanical organs, one of which is a modified Smith Busker
Our busker model is owned by entertainers, collectors, and enthusiasts
throughout the US and around the world. Our larger instruments are
built exclusively on individual commissions. You can see and hear our
busker organs at http://www.floraco.com/organs/
Having built more instruments based on the Smith design than anyone
else, here are some observations based on my experience and attitude
toward the process.
As a publisher, I understand the challenge of profitably producing
materials for tiny, niche markets. Perhaps John should add a
disclaimer such as that mentioned by Ed, or avoid calling his offering
"plans". However, given the total potential market for his
instructions, I am grateful that John gave them the time that he did,
and that he actually made them available.
While they don't have the snob appeal of a beautiful set of Dom Bedos
plans, John's plan set belongs on the bookshelf of every collector and
enthusiast, regardless of whether the buyer intends actually building
an organ from them. I am also grateful to Robbie. Without the MMD
I would never have found the John Smith website, and would never have
started building great sounding little organs.
Between the printed instructions, drawings, and video as provided by
John, I got about 90% of what I needed to build my first Busker.
Rather than view this as a disaster, I preferred to view it as an
adventure. Far from being left on my own, I found that Chris Doe,
who hosts John's website, and John himself, via fax and phone, were
concerned and helpful to a fault. Other people who were building
Smith organs were very helpful as well, especially Charlie Randazzo.
If you go to John's website, you'll find lots of information from
others who have signed his guest book. Visit
I built my first instrument strictly according to the plans, and
encountered the same disparities and confusion as others. After a
little adjusting here and there, though, I ended up with a great little
instrument. In fact, I saw Opus 1 just a few weeks ago, as its owner
was driving through town and stopped by to say Hello. It still sounds
great, even with its balsa wood pipes. And, at less than 15 pounds, it
is still sturdy and truly portable.
It's worth noting that sealing the inside of organ pipes is not unique
to those made of balsa. This process, called "sizing" is used on most
wooden pipes in most pipe organs, regardless of the wood used. Most
organ builders that I know size the pipe after the basic tube is built,
using a mop and hot glue. This not only seals the pores in the wood
but doubly seals the joints. Any builder who does not size his pipes
is courting heartbreak when it comes to voicing, as even a pinhole can
keep a pipe from speaking.
Speaking of voicing, there was more to John's decision to use hardwood
blocks in his pipe design than just the softness of the balsa. By
using a moveable languid, he made the voicing procedure much easier for
the beginner. The windway spacer is specified at .5 mm, and should not
be a problem for anyone - most posterboard is .5 mm. So, you can
continue to eat your favorite cereal and still produce good sounding
We have made some very simple changes to John's design and material
specifications. Most of the challenges with John's design were solved
by making everything a little bit bigger. The addition of an inch in
depth made it much easier to tube off the pipes, and an increase of an
inch in width accommodates more robust pipes and mechanical components.
We use impregnated bushings instead of the traditional hardwood block
and oil. We use aircraft plywood where needed for strength. We use
leather on our bellows and pipe stoppers. We do use the foam
weatherstripping for the pressure box seal with no problems in almost
Orgoflex makes the connection from the reservoir to the pressure box
painless. A piece of brass stock installed on the front of the
pressure box will keep the friction wheel from eating into the wood, as
will careful grinding of the back of the wheel with a small grinding
We make our pipes of pine and assorted hardwoods instead of balsa.
We make all of our pipes about an inch longer than the scale calls for,
and trim to pitch and fit. We use plastic elbows on pipes 16 and 17
to reduce the stress on the large poly tubing, and use thick-walled
surgical rubber tubing on all of the smaller pipes. We use a
spring-loaded catch for the pressure box, as per John's "Senior" plans,
as we found that the hardwood method specified in the Busker plans will
warp over time and no longer hold.
Most of the mistakes I made the first time through were the result of
getting ahead of myself, and trying to be too clever. For instance,
angles for the pipe miters are not given in the plans as they depend on
the final dimensions of the case, clearance from the bellows, and
spacing of the tracker bar from the ends of the case. If you try to
miter the bass pipes before your case is assembled, as I did the first
time, you may have problems, so just wait and miter them at the right
time in the process!
Of course, several times I cut a little more off a piece of wood, and
find that it is still too short!
I can't think of any problem with the plans what could make someone
abandon it or have to start over multiple times. Other than the steel
crank, it's all just pieces of wood. While there are a lot of pieces
involved, it's a very simple project. It ain't brain surgery. If
something is the wrong size, cut it again so it fits.
If you can't get something to work, ask Chris, and if he can't answer,
he'll put you in touch with John. If you have a specific question,
I can probably help. It's such a simple little design that it would be
a shame to let a little frustration keep anyone from enjoying a
wonderful little organ. If you will keep a positive attitude and take
advantage of the resources that are available, you can do it.
Having said that, I can't imagine building any pipe organ without a
table saw, band saw, drill press, belt sander, router, joiner, and
disc sander, in addition to all of the standard hand and power tools.
I even invested in a horribly expensive tiny modeler's table saw for
cutting all the little pieces of hardwood needed for the Smith pipes.
I'm sure that it could be done by having a lumber yard or local wood
worker cut the necessary plywood parts for you, and I did cut all of
the balsa for my first set of pipes with just a ruler and craft knife,
but the right tools make the process a pleasure and the results more
I understand that John's new organ design has over 80 pipes and a
glockenspiel. Plans (oops, there's that word again) should be ready
Brian Flora, Organ Builder