Restoring a 1973 Phelps Practice Organ

May 2, 2017

Viktoria Franken serves as Tonal Assistant for Buzard Pipe Organ Builders, LLC in Champaign, Illinois, and is a member of The Diapason’s 20 Under 30 Class of 2017. A native of Germany, she started organbuilding at H. P. Mebold in Siegen, attended Oscar Walcker School for Organbuilding in Ludwigsburg, and worked at Killinger Pfeifen, Freiberg.


In January 2015, Buzard Pipe Organ Builders dismantled a small practice instrument in an apartment in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (The organ was originally installed on the campus of St. Cloud State College, St. Cloud, Minnesota.) Although nothing seemed to be special up to this point, this instrument is one of several practice/home organs built by Lawrence Phelps & Associates.

The design of this two-manual and pedal instrument served the main idea of an instrument made just for practicing: that of experiencing the direct touch of the keyboards, and the little resistance before the pallet opens. It has a pure and honest “touch” experience for the player, with a simple and traditional design, providing clear music without anything that could take your eyes and ears away. The voicing of course was of its time—“open-toe baroque.” The disposition of the instrument was: Manual I, 8 Gedeckt and a prepared-for stop; Manual II, 8 Rohrflute, Octave 2; Pedal, 8 Bourdon.


The windchest and the trackers

Switching on the organ, still assembled at the former owner’s residence, we heard many ciphers, which could have been caused simply by infrequent use of the instrument. Opening the windchest at the shop, however, showed its real problems. The chest is divided in two manuals, separating each set of pallets with a board drilled out to provide wind-flow. The mechanical design fit a full set of pipes (61 notes) on a chest, but to be able to make the chest as small as possible, led to really tight spacing of the pallet slots. The pallets, made out of cedar, are drilled out to reduce their own weight, and they are pulled down in the middle guided by two pins on each end. They were covered with a thick felt and leather combination and held up to the pallet board with two spiral action springs. Having the pallet slots so close to each other caused the builder to cut the pallets very narrow and almost give them no space on the pallet board to seal. 

Also, the felt and leather had to be cut exactly along the pallet’s edges, because otherwise the pallets would interfere with each other. That caused ciphers and led the people who took care of the instrument to cut even more of the material away, so that some pallets were totally under-cut and not sealing against the pallet slots anymore. The plywood pallet board was uneven, and a lot of pallet guide pins were bent. Our shop stripped all the pallets and glued new felt and leather on, as well as cut them correctly, evened out the surface of the pallet board, and straightened the pins. 

In addition, the whole chest was flooded with glue to make sure there were no run-throughs after finding several cracks in the channel bars where the toeboards were directly attached to the chest. The last modification to make the instrument leak less and make it more silent was switching the old hard plastic seals for neoprene ones, as well as threading the action wire through a drilled-out bullet resting on a felt punching to seal the hole in the pallet box.

The action is historically inspired mechanical tracker, with cedar wood tracker parts, aluminum wires, and plastic nuts. Directly underneath the bottom board is a set of backfalls, directing the movement of the keys to the pallets. To transfer spacing from the keyboard to the pallets, the backfalls are oriented fan-like. It is a 1:1 proportion comparing the pallet travel to the key travel (11 mm). All the damaged cedar backfalls have been restored conserving as much of the original material as possible. The backfalls themselves are pivoted in (at that time popular) low-friction “Wienerkapsel” axle holders. [“Wienerkapsel” is a term for a certain design of axle holders.] The pedal chest, being larger, is located at the bottom of the organ and serves as a foundation for the rest of the instrument. It had fewer issues than the manual chest.  Nevertheless, all pallet surfaces were renewed to guarantee proper working since it is almost impossible to get to these once everything is assembled.


The coupling system

Although the organ was designed to be very small overall, Phelps made the console normal size, putting in two 61-note manuals and three couplers (I/P, II/P, II/I). The coupling action also looks to be a standard console with iron frames, iron bevels, levers, and pistons. It uses slotted one-armed backfalls in the frame to catch the aluminum and plastic-nut tracker wires. Unfortunately, calculating the travels of each coupler in combination with the travel of the key and the pallet was not compatible with the small organ design and the console dimensions. That caused a heavy impact upon the rollerboards as well as on the coupling mechanism. All rollerboard parts had to be re-glued because they literally got “kicked out” of place. After recalculating, adjusting and modifying travels, and relocating the bevel points for the backfalls, everything now works as well as it can. All the couplers are playable now, unlike before when notes pulled through or even did not play.


The wind system

The blower was sitting in a box on top of the reservoir and right underneath the toeboard for the low octaves of the 8 Gedeckt and 8 Rohrflute. There was no way to oil the blower or fix something on the reservoir. So after removing the blower box from the organ, the pedal and manual reservoirs received new leather, and the rhombus springs were adjusted to give them more space to be effective than before (they were so compressed they had no function at all). The blower was serviced and mounted in a new blower box, which sits right next to the case. (The new blower box was made to hold a larger blower, if the organ’s next owner wants to add a 16 Bourdon to the Pedal.) That makes more space inside, and provides for better maintenance of the blower.


The stops

As mentioned earlier, the organ had an 8 Gedeckt stop and a preparation on Manual I and an 8 Rohrflute and 2 Octave on Manual II. The prepared stop for future addition was covered by a board. We took the opportunity to add a 4 Kleinflute, so that the organist will have more registration possibilities. Only the 4 and 2 are on sliders, because the 8 toeboards are glued directly onto the chest and play all the time. We renewed the stop action parts completely, making new sliders and their actions as well as new seals underneath the 2 and the newly made 4 toeboards. Two new hand-turned drawknobs represent on the outside that things have changed. Originally the low octaves of the 8 stops were tubed off the chest onto a toeboard above the blower box. At some point in the organ’s history, revoicing of the low octaves of the 8 stops was attempted to make them louder. That caused all kinds of wind flow problems and resulting voicing instability. The only proper way to fix that problem (given the small amount of wind flow from the chest and the too high cut-ups of the pipes) was to build a pneumatic firing-chest, which gets the note impulse from the manual chest, but plays the pipes from wind produced by the pedal reservoir. The pneumatic firing-chest found a place underneath the low octave toeboard, in the former blower box space.


The pipework

Being a “child of its time,” the organ’s metal pipes are spotted metal, with open toes and narrow flues but surprisingly large scales, which is not typically baroque, but makes it possible to use the instrument as a house organ without having a screaming 2 directly in your face. Fortunately there was not too much to do to the pipes, since they were in good condition. Except for some dents, which we removed, nothing really looked too bad. The temperament is equal and A=440 Hz. The Gedackt 8voicing was bad. In the attempt to revoice it, pipes were cut up really high to get more volume, not taking into account the lack of wind provided by the chest thanks to the long tubing. The Gedackt 8 was turned into a 4 by moving all the pipes down an octave, putting an addition of twelve treble pipes on top, and storing the low octave pipes in a basement, where they were luckily found while moving the instrument to the shop. By putting in the new firing chests, the voicing issues are fixed now; the pipes play on higher pressure than before, helping the high cut-up and therefore bringing the old 8 back.

Now this instrument provides you with the basic practice conditions as originally intended, and with the new Kleinflute 4 you have more possibilities for sound and registration variety. There is also the ability to add a 16 Bourdon in the Pedal if desired.


In conclusion

We can honestly say every wire, every pallet, even every single little action nut and all the other smaller and bigger parts have been disassembled, checked for proper work, renewed, or restored. Every inch of the instrument has been worked on without changing what it is—a practice organ. All technical issues were improved as much as possible. We put a lot of passion in this little instrument to make it the practice organ it deserves to be, to show its character and personality. Almost 30 years after Mr. Phelps built it, it is now more ready than ever before to be played without losing the spirit Mr. Phelps designed it for. If you want a glimpse of its sound, visit our website Now it is waiting for someone who will fall in love with it and take it home! ν


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