The 1864 William A. Johnson Opus 161, Piru Community United Methodist Church Piru, California, Part 2

August 31, 2018

Michael McNeil has designed, constructed, and researched pipe organs since 1973. He was also a research engineer in the disk drive industry with 27 patents. He has authored four hardbound books, among them The Sound of Pipe Organs, several e-publications, and many journal articles.

Editor’s note: Part 1 of this article was published in the August 2018 issue of The Diapason, pages 16–20.


The casework in pictures

The entire casework of Opus 161 is executed in solid black walnut, and in the author’s opinion is among the best of Johnson’s cases with its elegant proportions and understated Gothic ornamentation. The window above the entrance of Eastside Presbyterian Church, its original home, displayed similar, restrained Gothic form and ornamentation. Elsworth’s book illustrates a great many of Johnson’s organs, among them Opus 134, built in 1862 for St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Lanesborough, Massachusetts.17 Opus 134 has nearly identical stiles and ornamentation, but its proportions do not soar in the elegant manner of Opus 161, perhaps the result of limitations in height. It is ironic that one of Johnson’s best aesthetic creations has languished in anonymity for decades. Many American churches built in the early nineteenth century did not have a provision for a pipe organ, and as a consequence Elsworth noted that most of Johnson’s earlier organs were furnished with sides to the cases of the free-standing organs produced for such churches.18 As previously noted, Opus 161 originally had such side panels to its casework, and these were found crudely sawn and nailed behind the façade. The Piru church elected to place the façade casework flush with the wall of the church, necessitating the removal of the side panels.

As was typical of nearly all nineteenth century organs, the façade contains no smaller pipes. The side flats contain pipes of the Open Diapason with considerable overlengths. This is the only architectural flaw in this otherwise stunningly designed case. The use of pipes of very different lengths is an important architectural device—it gives a sense of scale, making the larger pipes appear more imposing in contrast. But façades with pipes of extremely different size are more complex and more expensive to make. Compared to the vast majority of nineteenth-century façades, Opus 161 is one of the finest aesthetic designs.


The keydesk in pictures

The reader should refer to Part 1 of this series for photographs of the keydesk and stop jambs (August 2018, pages 17–18). Elsworth described the keydesks of Johnson organs from the period of Opus 43, 1855, to Opus 268, 1868:


The manual compass was invariably fifty-six notes, from CC to G3. The stop knobs were disposed in vertical rows on each side of the manual keyboards, and always had square shanks with round knobs that had flat faces. Into these faces were set the ivory labels with the stop names. The labels were always engraved in Spencerian script with no pitch indication. The nameplates up to about 1867 or 1868 were of silver, engraved “Wm. A. Johnson, Westfield, Mass.”19


This description provides some evidence that the organ was modified during its installation at Piru. The stop action does indeed have square shanks leading to the bellcranks, but the shafts connecting to the square shanks and leading through the stop jambs are round. The author had initially believed that the stop jambs were original, observing well-worn and professionally installed felt bushings in the openings of the stop jambs. But a more likely explanation is that the round shafts and extant jambs were added at a later date, and this goes a long way to explain the disappearance of the split bass stops, all of which were screwed together to make continuous stops with no splits. And this nicely explains the current specification with 20 controls instead of the 22 controls indicated in the opus list of the Johnson factory.

The organ was initially supplied with a hook-down Swell shoe, normal fare for Johnson’s work of this time. This feature was deleted, and a balanced Swell shoe was installed by crudely re-routing the action of the Great to Pedal coupler rollerboard. Note the added Swell pedal in Figure 7, the missing hook-down pedal in Figure 8, and the damage to the action in Figure 9 and Figure 10. All of this damage was repaired in the 1976 restoration and the original hook-down mechanism refabricated. The figures show the condition of the console prior to the restoration.


The key action in pictures

The basic layout of the key action can be seen in Figure 6 in Part 1 of this series (August 2018, page 20). With the exception of the repositioning of the Swell chest and the addition of the balanced Swell pedal, the key and stop action of Opus 161 was well worn but virtually unaltered in 1976. The damage to the trackers on the Pedal couplers from the installation of the balanced Swell pedal was repaired in 1976 with new trackers, wires, felts, and buttons, and basic repairs to the stickers on the Swell to Great coupler were made, but this was a stopgap solution. At this time the console was in need of a complete disassembly and refurbishment of the leather on the couplers, the felts, and the leather buttons. The action was well designed, had served for a period of more than a hundred years, and had survived a move from Stockton to Piru. But the leather facings of the key tails where the coupler stickers made contact and the felts and leather buttons were showing their age. There were no funds for such work in 1976. 

In Johnson’s action we see similarities to Samuel Green. Bicknell writes: 


Green introduced or developed numerous refinements to the mechanism. He often arranged pipes from f# up in chromatic order on the soundboards, even in large organs. This reduced the extent to which rollerboards were required. . . . To make the key action readily adjustable the ends of the trackers were fitted with tapped wires and leather buttons. The appearance of Green’s consoles was enhanced by the use of ivory inserts screwed into the heads of the stop knobs, engraved with the name of the stop. . . . Green also usually made keyboards with white naturals and black sharps. . . .20


All of these features are found on Opus 161. The photographs of the action were all taken in 1976 prior to the restoration work.


The stop action in pictures

The stop action of Opus 161 is conventional, with metal squares and square wooden shanks. The stop action to the Pedal 16 Double Open Diapason is a ventil valve to the three windchests of that stop, which are placed at the sides (largest pipes, diatonic) and the treble pipes at the back (chromatic). The photographs show the details of the stop action construction.

A description of the stops and general notes on the scaling and voicing

This section provides a detailed description of the stops; two of the Swell stops were not measured (16 Bourdon and 8 Stopped Diapason). For the stops which were measured, a table of data in millimeters is shown. The photographs show some details of the construction, although the poor resolution of the camera is regrettable.

As earlier noted, there is a close resemblance between the organs of Samuel Green in late eighteenth century England and the organs of William A. Johnson in nineteenth-century America. Bicknell writes:


On the tonal side Green seems to have adopted the trend towards delicacy and developed it still further. . . . Green’s first line of development in securing the effect he desired was to experiment . . . with the scales of the chorus . . . . in 1778 the Open Diapason is larger than the rest of the chorus. . . . The appearance of extra pipes in some ranks, definitely by Green and contemporary with the instruments themselves, together with re-marking of the pipes, suggests that Green took spare pipes with him to the site and rescaled stops during the tonal finishing in the building. This is considerably removed from the standardised scaling and voicing adopted by, for example, Snetzler. The reasons for this become clearer when one understands that Green’s voicing broke new ground in other aspects as well. Delicacy was achieved partly by reduction of the size of the pipe foot and by increasing the amount of nicking. The loss of grandeur in the chorus was made up for by increasing the scales of the extreme basses. . . .21

As we will see in the graphical analysis of the data, all of the features mentioned by Bicknell about Samuel Green would apply equally well to Johnson’s Opus 161. Bicknell observes, “Where Snetzler provided a chorus of startling boldness and with all the open metal ranks of equal power, Green introduced refinement and delicacy and modified the power of the off-unison ranks to secure a new kind of blend.”22

As earlier noted by Elsworth, Johnson’s wind pressure during the period of 1855 to 1868 “was generally between 212 and 234 inches (63 and 70 mm), and in rare examples, nearly 3 inches.”23 The lower wind pressures, narrower scales of the upperwork, and reduced toes produced a sound with restrained brilliance. 

Referring to his conversations with Edwin B. Hedges (1872–1967), a voicer for Johnson organs, Elsworth made some telling observations. In the process of making the pipework, “ . . . the languids were carefully soldered in place, and the flues were properly adjusted.”24 This is a very important comment, because today the flueway is considered a variable for adjusting power in some voicing styles, especially North Germanic voicing. Johnson’s flueways are very open, often the maximum that would produce good speech, even with Johnson’s bold nicking. Power balances, for Johnson as well as Green, were designed into the scales and further adjusted by the voicer at the toe. “The voicing of flue pipes, such as Diapason, Dulcianas, and strings, consists of nicking the languid, cutting up the upper lips to the proper mouth height, and adjusting the positions of the languid and the upper and lower lips. The amount of wind entering the pipe foot must be carefully adjusted by opening or closing the orifice in the pipe toe.”25 There is no direct evidence that William A. Johnson had first-hand knowledge of the 1792 Samuel Green organ delivered to Boston, but the legacy of Green is obvious in Johnson’s work.

A few comments are in order on the nicking and languid treatment. The languids contain a counterface with a negative angle; the more usual angle is vertical, or 90 degrees. The Isnards made a positive-angled counterface at about 75 degrees with a normal bevel at about 45 to 55 degrees. The negative counterface of the Johnson languid is unusual. This languid is nicked at an angle with a knife, cutting a fine nick as deep as halfway into the languid bevel. Long knife cuts were also in evidence inside the lower lip. As a general rule there are the same number of nicks on a languid, regardless of pitch. These languids work well and produce fast speech even when the lower, negative languid bevel shows above the top edge of the lower lip; the upper lip is not pulled out to compensate for this languid position. Ears are generally found up to 1 in pitch in the principal chorus, but they are very narrow, not extending far in front of the mouth.

Many of the pipes were found in 1976 to be crudely pinched at the top, part of an effort to reduce the pitch to the modern standard. All of this damage was repaired on mandrels, and tuning slides were fitted.


Great division


8Open Diapason 

This is the first stop on the front of the Great windchest. It has zinc resonators from low C to tenor B and planed common metal feet from about tenor E. All pipes from middle C are planed common metal (30% tin, 70% lead). Zinc wind conductors to the façade pipes supply copious wind; the conductor diameters are 38 mm at low C and 25 mm at tenor C. If memory serves, at least one or two of the pipes in the side flats were dummy pipes, implying that the speaking façade pipes extended to tenor D. The façade pipes were tuned with scrolls at the back, which were entirely rolled up as a consequence of the drop in pitch to 440 Hz, where the original pitch was probably closer to 450 Hz. See the earlier notes on the pitch and wind pressure. As with all of the stops in the principal chorus, the ears are very narrow. 

The author feels obligated to point out a grave error he made in the restoration by removing the heavy nicking on the languids of the Open Diapason, and only on this stop. To make the record clear, David Sedlak advised against doing this, and the author regrets that he did not take Sedlak’s advice. These nicks should be renewed in the manner used by Johnson.


The second stop on the chest, the Keraulophon pipes were found badly pinched at the top along with crudely reduced toe bores in an effort to reduce the pitch. All of the pipes were straightened on mandrels and tuning slides added. Toes that were not damaged were used as a guide for readjusting damaged toes. This stop is voiced with tuning slots and ears, but no beards of any kind. The bass octave is common with the Clarabella, five pipes from tenor C to E have zinc resonators, and the rest have planed common metal resonators. The nicking is bold and often crossed to keep the speech stable. Flueways were often more closed on one side. This is a bolder string than a Dulciana. 



This is the third stop on the chest. Bass pipes C to tenor E are stopped wood; the remainder are open wood with lead plates covering the tops for tuning. These lead plates are somewhat closed down to accommodate the lowered pitch. The internal blocks forming the languids are lower than the front plates by 2.0 mm at tenor E, and 1.5 mm at tenor F. The bevel of the upper lip is internal for the open pipes and external for the stopped pipes. The stopped pipes have narrow, slanted strips at the sides of the mouth to form narrow ears; the open pipes have no extra strips functioning as ears. The nicking is deeper and heavier than the pipes of the principal chorus. The scales and voicing of this stop place its power on the same level as the principal chorus foundations. The only concession to power is a greatly reduced mouth width in the bass octave, a concession to its function as a common bass to the Keraulophon. 

The effective inside diameter of a wooden pipe is a calculation of its diagonal, a method proposed by Nolte.26 The potential power of a round pipe is related to the amplitude of the standing wave in the pipe, which is in turn related to its diameter. Following this logic, Nolte has pointed out that the amplitude of a standing wave in a rectangular pipe is related to its widest point, i.e., its diagonal. We often see modern conversions of wood pipe scales by relating their rectangular areas to those of round metal pipes with equivalent areas, but this does not produce balanced power. The consequence is that conventional modern wisdom decrees that wood pipes should be scaled a few half tones narrower than round pipes of equivalent area. This disconnect disappears with Nolte’s observation of the relevance of the diagonal, not equivalent areas. This is not a new idea. Many older organs, e.g., J. A. Silbermann’s organ of 1746 at Marmoutier, show very disjointed scales between the rectangular wood bass of the 16 Montre and its metal pipes when plotting by equivalent areas. Convert the Silbermann wood bass scales to diagonals and those scales merge seamlessly into the scales of the metal pipes. Diagonal computations of the effective diameters for the Johnson Clarabella can be found in the table, and those calculations are used in the graphical analysis. 



The fourth stop on the chest, the Principal has five zinc resonators from C to E; the rest are all planed common metal. These pipes showed very little damage. The flueway depths are remarkably wide, especially in the treble, and demonstrate that Johnson regulated power entirely at the toe, not the flueway. Such flueway depths are often found in classical French voicing. This data set can be taken as reasonably accurate evidence of Johnson’s unmolested voicing.


4Flute И CheminОe

 The fifth stop on the chest from tenor C, this is a classically constructed flute in planed common metal with soldered domed tops, chimneys with no tuning mechanism, and very large ears for tuning. Those large ears had been pushed in far enough to virtually touch each other when found in 1976, another effort to reduce the pitch. The cutups were lightly arched. There was considerable handling damage to the flueways. The toes were reasonably intact. The reduction in pressure from 76 mm to 63 mm allowed these pipes to speak much more freely with the ears much more opened (but not completely straightened). The pipe construction becomes open at g#′′, i.e., the last twelve pipes, and they are noticeably wider across the break. The table above shows a calculation of the total resonator length, i.e., the body length plus the chimney, and the percentage of the chimney length to the total length. This gives an idea of the harmonics that Johnson was trying to emphasize with the chimney. At tenor C the chimney is 25% of the total length, emphasizing the fourth harmonic, while at middle C the chimney is 30% of the total length, roughly emphasizing the third harmonic. The chimney progresses to larger percentages of the total length as the pitch rises. The chimney is not a constant percentage of the total length.  The photograph shows the classical construction of this stop. 


22Џ3 Twelfth

The sixth stop on the chest, this stop consists entirely of planed common metal pipes that had minimal damage.



The seventh and last flue stop on the chest, the 2Fifteenth continues the trend of extremely deep flueways and closed toes. The flueway depths of this stop are perhaps the largest the author has measured on any organ. Remarkably, this planed, common metal stop has no ears on any pipe, and its sound is exquisite. The toes are very restrained and represent the means of controlling power. The diameter and mouth width scales are considerably narrower than the Open Diapason, continuing the trend of narrower scaling with higher stop pitches, a characteristic introduced by Samuel Green. This progression can be clearly seen in the graphical analysis, in stark contrast to the Hook’s constant scaling of  the principal chorus. By this means Johnson and Green achieved a chorus with more refinement and less impact, but they compensated with very wide scaling of the extreme basses.



The extant pipework of this eighth and last stop on the chest was constructed of planed common metal with zinc bottom sections from tenor C to tenor B. The Trumpet has an obscure history. In 1976 only two octaves of pipes were found from tenor C 13 to C 37. These were all in fairly good condition without obvious modifications; some crude slotting of the tops was repaired and the pipes spoke well on 63 mm wind. All of the original pipes were cut to exact length with no tuning slots or scrolls. The bass octave of the Trumpet was originally separated on the slider, but found screwed together in 1976. Interestingly, while the bass topboards were bored and chamfered to receive pipes, the chamfers were not burned in like all other borings on both windchests. With the repositioning of the Swell chest over the Great chest, it was now impossible to reconstruct a full-length bass set of pipes, and a half-length set was fabricated with limited tonal success (a few of the half-length pipes needed mitering to clear the Swell chest). The missing treble pipes were recreated by the firm of Stinkens to scales extrapolated from the original pipework. These were quite successful and a good tonal match. The high treble from c#′′′ to g′′′ were obviously flue pipes, and the rackboard borings provided guidance for their scales. All shallots are brass and are marked “H. T. Levi,” one of the reed voicers for William A. Johnson, according to both Barbara Owen27 and Elsworth.28 This stop bears a strong resemblance to the Trumpet heard in the recording of the Samuel Green organ at Armitage, Staffordshire, England (see the section on Recordings).

The Trumpet was carefully disassembled during the restoration and its measurements carefully tabulated; see the drawings and tables below. Measurements unfortunately omitted were the height of the block and the length and width at the top of the main taper on the tongues.


II Mixture

The author added a two-rank mixture in planed common metal to the Great during the 1976 restoration. While the merits of this can be debated, it was added in a manner that did not affect the other stops. A thick oak board was mounted at the back of the key channels, extending backwards and upwards, making this the ninth stop on the Great. The pipework was narrowly scaled in the manner of Johnson, roughly -7 half tones from 23 pitch to 14 pitch, then widening to about -3 half tones at 18 pitch. A great many Johnson organs of this size had mixtures. It should be noted that Johnson mixtures of the time period during which Opus 161 was created were called Sesquialtera, and they included third-sounding ranks. Elsworth states, “ . . . these were composed of 17th, 19th, and 22nd ranks [i.e., 135, 113, and 1, the same pitches observed in Samuel Green’s Sesquialteras] with two or three breaks.”29 The mixture added by the author is more typical of later Johnson work in its composition without thirds.

The voicing of the cutups was a fortunate accident, where the pipes were mouth-voiced before realizing that they were left many half tones overlength by the pipemaker. When the cone-tuned pipes were cut to length, it was obvious that the cutups were very high. But this was fortuitous, because it taught the lesson that high cutups can have a superb blend, and this mixture provided a fine sparkling glitter in the plenum with no hint of harshness. There are no ears on any pipes. The toes are relatively more open than what Johnson would have done and the cutups are higher. The mixture composition is as follows:


C 23 12

c 1 23

c 113 1

c′′ 2 113

c′′′ 4 2


Barbara Owen noted that William A. Johnson was hired to add a VII Cymbal to the Hook organ.30 This mixture was installed in 1870, and no records indicate how this happened. The political implications invite much speculation, of course. The differences in scaling and voicing of the Johnson mixture relative to the Hook chorus illuminates the different approach to chorus design between Johnson and Hook. We will look at this in detail in the graphical analysis. The Johnson VII Cymbal provides a scintillating crown to the Hook chorus and contains a third-sounding rank. In 1871 William H. Johnson, the son of William A. Johnson, joined his father as a partner in the firm and the mixtures built from that time deleted the third-sounding rank.31 ν

Notes and Credits

All photos, drawings, tables, and illustrations are courtesy of the author’s collection if not otherwise noted. Most of the color photos were unfortunately taken by the author with an inferior camera in low resolution. David Sedlak used a high quality camera, lenses, and film to produce the high-resolution color photos of the church and its architectural details; these are all attributed to Sedlak.

17. The Johnson Organs, p. 50.

18. Ibid, p. 22.

19. Ibid, p. 23.

20. The History of the English Organ, p. 186.

21. The History of the English Organ, p. 185.

22. Ibid, p. 207.

23. The Johnson Organs, p. 25.

24. Ibid, p. 45.

25. Ibid, p. 47.

26. John M. Nolte, “Scaling Pipes in Wood,” ISO Journal, No. 36, December 2010, pp. 8–19.

27. Scot L. Huntington, Barbara Owen, Stephen L. Pinel, Martin R. Walsh. Johnson Organs 1844–1898, The Princeton Academy of the Arts, Culture, and Society, 2015, Cranbury, pp. 11, 13, 14, 16.

28. The Johnson Organs, p. 36.

29. Ibid, p. 48.

30. Johnson Organs 1844–1898, pp. 17-18.

31. The Johnson Organs, p. 48.

To be continued.


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