Thursday, September 25, 2014

Making a Homemade Pipe Organ

One of my long term crafting projects is to build my own working pipe organ. Do I know how to play the organ, you ask? The answer is no. No I do not. Why did you ask that? I hardly see it as relevant.

Moving on, this will be a "positive organ," or in other words, a small desk-sized one. In the layout below, the entire table there is about 4 foot by 2 foot, and the largest pipes are 2" in diameter and would just barely clear a typical apartment ceiling (top pipe in the splash image above). The color coding is for commercially available widths of PVC pipe, my primary building material:

I don't remember at all what made me interested in this project, but hopefully it will be capable of creating wonderful art when it's all done, whether or not I'm the one making art with it!

Overall, a pipe organ requires the following components, and thus these are the major areas of the project:
  1. A frame of some sort -- this can be anything from a modified table to a huge gilded architectural wing of a building. In my case, my most important design consideration is portability - I am keeping the organ small and desk-sized, and I want to be able to break it down for transportation.
  2. A lot of pipes -- My organ has five octaves (61 pipes) in flute-like sound, give or take a few pipes possibly for different harmonies at the end(s). One octave is a 2x difference in pipe length. You can "cheat" your way for one bonus octave without longer pipes by making ones with stoppers in the ends which effectively doubles the virtual length. Thus, my organ will have pipes from about 4 foot to 6 inches. They also get narrower as they get shorter. I am planning 2-3 additional redundant octaves in something much more fun. Tentatively, "bubble" sound. I.e. bubbling water, but in specific pitches. Because reasons.
  3. A keyboard (called a "manual" on an organ). This doesn't have to have a key for every tone, although it is convenient and mine will. The color coded keys above are ones that would be able to play either/both bubble and flute pipes, based on a pull-control knob (a "stop").
  4. A "wind" (air) supply, including some sort of fan or bellows, as well as a regulating reservoir to control for consistent pressure despite however many keys you are playing at once. Without a regulator, an 8-note chord would play 8x more softly than a single note. We want consistency, which requires building up a reserve of air pressure. i will use a squirrel cage electric fan and a box with a rising, weighted lid for a reservoir.
  5. A windchest, which is an interface that takes in the main air supply, and uses linkages from the keys and any number of control stops to distribute wind to the appropriate pipe or pipes.I plan to take advantage of plastic tubing to greatly reduce the mechanical complexity compared to traditional church organs. Basically all I need are some small boxes and flap valves for each key, and some airtight gaskets, and that's it. Possibly one sliding board to convert between flute and bubble pipe voices.
  6. Finish. Most of the pipes in my organ are going to be made out of PVC plastic plumbing pipe, so paint is a high priority to hide that fact. A tentative paint scheme is something like this (the arrangement of pipes here is not realistic, just slapped on the image):

(Possible paint scheme of my organ. An air pressure reservoir is on the floor. 
The tube sections on top of the pipes are tuning slides.)

In my next post for this project, I'll dive right into the design and airflow diagrams for individual organ pipes, which are all homemade here, mostly out of PVC.

In the meantime, here's a sound clip of the four pipes from the splash image. In order from the top: 1,2,4,3. Sorry, the highest note is a bit wheezy and cracks its voice--it's not the pipe, it's just that I can't play it as hard as it is designed for without blowing out the audio on my microphone. At normal strength, it is crisp.


    I'd like to extend deep thanks Raphi Giangiulio, who I have never written or talked to myself, but whose website about homemade organ building has been my #1 go-to resource for this project so far: Mr. Giangiulio's homemade pipe organ. Here's a sound sample using flue pipes similar in construction to what I have planned (mine would be less warm and rich): Giangiulio sound sample

    Matthias Wandel's project has also been especially helpful as an inspiration: A less ambitious but still awesome homemade pipe organ

    (I don't think either of these guys knew how to play the organ either, by the way!)


    1. Hi! My welcome to our "organ diy world". I'm trying to build one on the basis of using simple materials. If you want, I'm sharing my experiences on:

      1. Cardboard is an impressive feat! Do you have any sound samples available? Can't be much worse than my current audio quality =(

      2. This comment has been removed by the author.

      3. You can hear a sample of a cardboard pipe in:

    2. Wood pipes would be easier to make. You can get the charts with the sizes on them off the internet. If you are worried about getting the largest pipes under the cieling, you can used stopped pipes which are half length for the bass octave.