The Wanamaker Organ

A very long year ago I posted about our experiences at Woodworking in America, the one in Pennsylvania. I mentioned in that post that I’d be adding more later about our visit to Philadelphia and our tour of the Wanamaker Organ. I was reminded of my forgetfulness this morning by an Open Thread post on Crooks and Liars (.com) by Susie Madrak reminiscing about her childhood visits to Wanamaker’s Department Store (now Macy’s) in downtown Philly at Christmastime to see Santa, etc. Her post includes a video of an October 30 “flash-mob” performance of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s “Messiah” with music from the Wanamaker Organ.

One of the many wonderful things that happened to us at WIA in PA (it was at the Valley Forge Convention Center, right across the street from, you guessed it, Valley Forge National Park which was a huge treat to visit in itself) was meeting Scott Kip. Scott’s an artist/woodworker/sculptor and organ restorer. We talked woodworking, etc, and he offered us a tour of the Wanamaker Organ, the world’s largest pipe organ.

This is not an organ.

See the photo with all the pipes that look like what we think an organ should look like? That’s not it. Those are fakes. The real organ occupies some 3000 square feet by about six stories behind that very tall wall behind those fake pipes. We’re talking 28,543 pipes. Some smaller than a pencil stub, others large enough to walk a pony through. Honest.

Scott Kip

We met Scott at Macy’s as he was finishing his shift. He does all sorts of high-level woodworking and mechanics in the ongoing preservation of this organ. The photo above shows Scott explaining about the room we’re in. This is a newer room where some of the over-crowded pipes were moved for better sound. The ranks of pipes in the background are typical of the many thousands that make up the organ. Different shapes correspond to different “voices’. There are ranks of clarinets, oboes, etc, etc. You can see holes in the chest to the right. Those are for pipes that are in the shop being restored by Scott and the several others who keep this enormous music machine working.

Wooden pipes in the shop for restoration/preservation.

The keyboard you see is just for tuning the pipes in this room because the real keyboard console is on the mezzanine of the main store and would take about ten minutes to get to from here.

The left half of the console. The Wanamaker Organ has been played twice a day for a century.

The console itself is a work of art and engineering (the history of the organ is fascinating, btw) that connects all those keys and stops to the pipes about fifty yards away (or more, the organ is spread around the building some). The main organ room is a cross between an eccentric’s dusty library and the innards of a steam ship boiler room. There are catwalks and ladders and rooms within rooms. The walls contain huge baffles that rotate to let the sound out and can be controlled to make the music louder or softer.

The larger pipes here are about 6" in diameter
More pipes in every nook and cranny. Boxes on the right are bellows that are pumped quickly for tremolo. That's a ladder in the background.

Yes, these photos were taken from inside the organ. We happened to be there as it was being played and were inside while air rushes through chests, ducted to the appropriate pipes, all the while the tremolo bellows are pumping away. We climbed up six stories to see the whole thing, high enough that Linda opted out of the last ladder-climb.

From up on high, the view here is of the main Macy's floor, way down below. This grill is where some of the music comes out.

I know I haven’t begun to do justice to the experience of that tour. We walked through sales racks of women’s fashions, through a nondescript door and into a huge wooden box full of complexity that was unlike anything I’d ever imagined. My photos can’t begin to show what this musical instrument is really like. I am still amazed at the amount of work it takes to keep it going and the dedication of Scott and the Wanamaker crew. Thanks again, Scott.

And to everyone, Linda and I wish you and yours a happy holiday season.

The Monkey on My Back

Tom Iovino’s blog is one of my favorites; his frequent posts are informative, amusing and personable. He and his brethren woodworking bloggers provide a real service to our industry with insightful posts about all aspects of woodworking. We all owe them big time.

Recently Tom emailed asking for my shirt size. I couldn’t see how it could hurt to tell him and sure enough, soon enough, this showed up in the mail:

Support Your Local Blogger!

He has a few more of these available for sale and I think he deserves a reward for all his hard work so, what the heck, order a Shop Monkey tee. Tell him Ron sent ‘ya.

Thanks, Tom!

And next time you get a chance, thank a blogger for all they do for us. I mean it. Some of the blogs I read regularly (as best as I can keep up) are listed in the column to your right —> (and down a bit.)

Keep up the good work, bloggers!


Note By Note

Linda and I enjoyed a great documentary last night: Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037.

Here’s the Netflix blurb: Documentary filmmaker Ben Niles chronicles the creation of Steinway pianos and the vanishing breed of craftsmen who build them. Follow the journey of these beautifully handcrafted, unique instruments from the factory to great concert halls. Interviews with such world-famous artists as Lang Lang, Harry Connick Jr., Hank Jones and many others highlight how Steinway grand pianos are selected by musicians.

We get to follow the production of one piano, #L1037, through the year it takes to build. There is a lot more to making a Steinway than I ever imagined. And a zillion details that I never even considered. We were both dazzled by the subject, the photography and the interviews with management, crafters and pianists. 80 minutes, 2007 and yes, it’s on Netflix instant. Highly recommended!

The Edge Joint

One of the new things I learned while writing The Perfect Edge was Harrelson Stanley’s edge jointing technique. We’re not talking about jointing boards for gluing, but jointing a cutting edge on the finest stone as a last or near-last step in sharpening.

"Even after removing the burr after sharpening with your finest grit stone, you can feel a slight “tooth” to the edge. This is normal, but not advantageous. A step I’ve added to my sharpening is to remove that tooth by running the blade on edge, lightly along the length of the stone. You’ll feel the difference instantly." -- Harrelson Stanley
2000x magnification* of an O1 edge sharpened and jointed with a Shapton 16000-grit stone

Harrelson describes the technique here and at the 1:00 mark in this animated video. It’s just a gentle swipe of the edge, held vertically on the finest stone to remove the “teeth” that remain from honing. Harrelson claims this technique strengthens the edge. I know it sounds counterproductive but the photo above is one of a blade that I honed this way and I think the smoothness of the edge tells the tale.  I didn’t get a micrograph of an un-jointed 16000-grit edge but compare to an 8000-grit edge without jointing and you’ll get the idea:

2000x magnification* of a blade sharpened with a Shapton 8000-grit stone

It’s an interesting bit of sharpening detail and nuance from someone who knows a lot about sharpening. Try it out and please report back on how it goes.

*SEM Photos from The Perfect Edge.

An aside for you tech-heads out there: When you see an image from a scanning electron microscope (SEM) it will inevitably include a scale of some sort. In these that I’ve included here you’ll notice a row of small dots above the type in the lower right corner. It says “20um” meaning the row of dots is 20 microns long. A micron is a millionth of a meter and is represented by the Greek letter mu which looks like a lower-case u with a leading descender (like this: µ, but your browser may not support it).  Some other SEM’s will include a horizontal I with the micron size above it. I’ve claimed 2000x magnification on these but that’s the magnification of the raw image when it was shot. The actual magnification will depend on how it is reproduced. So if you measure that row of dots as you see them and do the math you can calculate the actual perceived magnification.