In the Wind. . . .

June 5, 2015

The right tool for the right job

Parking a car in New York City is not for the faint of heart. I can reliably find a space in our neighborhood, as long as I remember to feed the meters ($3.50 per hour), and move the car, following street sweeping regulations, between 8:00 and 8:30 a.m. every day except Sunday. If I park at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday, I don’t have to do anything until the Monday morning sweepers. There’s an easy rhythm to weekday parking on East 9th Street. The entire street turns over for the sweepers, and like clockwork, at 8:30, the parking spaces fill with contractors’ trucks. There are six apartment buildings on our block, perhaps eight hundred apartments, and there are always a slew of home renovations going on. Co-op apartment buildings have rigorous rules stating the hours during which contractors can work,1 so they all drive off between 4:30 and 5:00, and the whole street opens up.  

People in other neighborhoods enjoy “Alternate Side Parking” (ASP). There, parking is free, but cars must be moved at times designated on signs on every street, for example, 9:00 to 10:30 a.m., Monday and Thursday. At those times, car owners sit in their vehicles reading the newspaper, doing e-mail and crossword puzzles, and drinking coffee. An armada of police cars and tow trucks lurks at the end of the block until the appointed time, followed by the sweeper with lights flashing and horns blowing. No one doubts the sincerity of the enforcement of these regulations. The moment the posted time passes, motorists jockey to reclaim their spaces in a two-ton ballet that can get pretty comical.

The city maintains a website/app/phone service called 311 where they publish announcements such as snow-related school closings, and the blessed suspension of ASP for such reasons as religious holidays. When ASP is suspended, parkers get the relief of a few extra days of not having to move their vehicles. Funny when you think of it though—why have a vehicle if you have to go out of your way not to move it?

I have two secret weapons when I need to park my car for more than a couple days. One is a space in a commercial lot at 125th Street in Harlem, frequented by moving companies, bookmobiles, and bloodmobiles. It’s a thirty-minute ride on the subway, but it’s inexpensive and handy. The other came when we finished the installation of an organ in suburban New Jersey a couple years ago, and the pastor generously offered me parking privileges in their lot. It takes me almost an hour to get there by train, but if I’m not going to need the car for more than ten days, it’s worth the ride.


City slicker

Throughout my career, I’ve kept a fleet of tool bags, work lights, and vacuum cleaners in my car, taking for granted that I would always be able to park easily close to the job site and carry my tools inside. But when Wendy and I moved to New York City a couple years ago, I realized that I should create a “City Bag” that would stow enough tools for typical service calls and be light enough to be carried on the subway. Simple idea—but it turned out to be a tricky challenge. We work on organs with electric, pneumatic, and mechanical actions, which means I need to have several layers of specialized tools with me. Electrical testing equipment, soldering iron, tuning cones, voicing tools, pallet spring pliers are added to a collection of ordinary hand tools. You don’t need a wind-pressure gauge at every service call, but when you need one, you really need one, and Ace Hardware doesn’t carry them. And a good tool kit includes at least a dozen screwdrivers of different shapes and sizes—there’s always one ornery screw hidden behind a windchest leg that calls for an impossible angle. 

Besides tools, the conscientious organ technician carries an assortment of five or six different types of leather and felt for pneumatic repairs. He has little packages of replacement chest magnets and magnet armatures, leather and Heuss nuts for tracker action (and the special nut driver for the Heuss nuts), felt punchings for keyboards, screws, nails and brads, doodads and widgets. He has wood glue, contact cement, epoxy, and super glue, and he carries a tube of silicone adhesive (tub caulk), but he won’t admit to it. He has silicone lubricant, graphite, WD-40, a styrene candle stub (for lubricating screws), and oil and grease for blower motors. He has a couple flashlights and a fluorescent worklight with extension cord.

The terrific advances in battery technology means that cordless drill/screwdrivers are really useful, and there are some compact models that are surprisingly powerful. With a charger and one spare battery, you can work all day. Add that to your kit, along with a couple indexes of screwdriver and drill bits. I add a Tupperware container full of unusual bits. This includes bits I’ve filed fine and/or narrow for special applications, some extra long ones, and a messy heap of screws, just in case.

When I set out to assemble a City Bag, I found a neat, briefcase-shaped bag with lots of pockets, zippered compartments, a padded shoulder strap, and a little plastic tray with dividers to hold assortments of doodads. I stuffed it with hundreds of tools, bottles, vials, sandpaper, lens cleaners for my glasses, earplugs, band-aids, and all the scraps and paraphernalia I could think of. I included an electric meter, soldering iron, test light, and a wind-pressure gauge. Great, but it weighed a ton. 

I lumbered onto the 6 train to go to the Upper East Side for a service call and was exhausted by the time I arrived. And I was missing tools from the first moment. Over the next several sessions I kept a list of things to add, and tried again. During this period, my piano tuner came to our apartment twice, and I envied the backpack-shaped thing he carries. It seemed to include everything he needed, but of course, he just doesn’t need as much as I do to service pipe organs.

In the months before Easter I visited dozens of churches, some in New York where I lugged the City Bag on and off the subways, and some in suburbs and in Boston where I could use my car and the larger, more comprehensive sets of tools. But even then I was often missing things, or at least having to trudge back to the car for something. It was time to start over and get it right. I figured that after more than 40 years in the business, I should at least have a proper tool kit.

We spent a week at our place in Maine where I have a nice workshop. I dumped out both of my tool kits in separate piles and spread them out on a clean workbench. Now it was easy to compare the two, take an inventory, and complete them both by routing through drawers of old tools and buying a few new things. I decided not to worry about some details—it’s okay if diagonal wire cutters in the two kits have different colored handles.

I compared and combined the lists of stuff besides tools—leather, parts, lubricants, adhesives, solvents, and the like. Because the City Bag is necessarily smaller than the Car Bag, I had to make some tough choices, but I did save some space by switching to small containers of things. (I don’t need the 11-ounce WD-40, or the 8-ounce Titebond glue in the City Bag.)

I had grown to dislike my Car Bag. It was made of heavy nylon fabric, but it was square and bulky with hard corners, so it banged against my knees as I carried it. I found a new beauty with 60 pockets and a big center compartment. I added a second larger kit with wheels and collapsible handle that holds the cordless drill and lots of the other heavier stuff. And I got a couple of bungees so I could strap the Car Bag to the top of the Roller Board. Terrific. 

I stuck with the same briefcase style thing for the City Bag, but added a Big-Mouth satchel for the bulkier stuff and a totally cool collapsible two-wheel dolly, again with bungees. It’s heavy on the subway stairs, but rolls like a dream on the sidewalks—and when I go to a church and open my bags, those tools gleam and fairly jump into my hands.


It’s a tool thing.

People who work with tools have a thing about tools. My Facebook page is loaded with colleagues’ photos of new tools. One colleague posted a video he took aboard his new tractor while rototilling his voluptuous garden. “No texting while tilling!” Another friend shared photos of his stroke sander—a cool rig with very long belt of sandpaper that passes “360 feet of abrasive over the wood per second.” Several organ shops have recently acquired CNC routers, those pickup-truck-sized magical computer-guided rigs that take much of the hand labor out of building just about anything from wood.

Near our place in Maine, there’s an old-timer who runs a boatyard. He’s also the town’s harbormaster. The centerpiece of the place is an ancient truck-tractor (the front part of a semi-trailer truck) moored to the ground and fitted with a huge winch. A forty- or fifty-foot wooden sailboat is floated up to a huge car mounted on rails, balanced and secured on stands, and the powerful old diesel engine roars and belches as it draws the 80,000-pound boat out of the water. That machine is just as much a tool as the knife in his pocket.

A couple months ago, the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City (5th Avenue at 91st Street) hosted an exhibition of tools. It included a remarkable variety of things from tiny pocket kits of gentlemen’s grooming tools, to a scale model of a 4,500-ton Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) with a cutting diameter of more than 50 feet. The centerpiece of the exhibit was a spectacular sculpture comprising thousands of hand tools suspended mobile-style, arranged with pass-through aisles. But the one that really got me was the “Tonometer” designed and built in 1876 by Rudolph Koenig (French, born in Germany, 1832–1901). It comprises 670 tuning forks that span the 49 semi-tones of four octaves (that’s almost 14 forks per semi-tone), which “afforded a perfect means for tuning any musical instrument.”2 I wonder what Monsieur Koenig would have thought of the $9.95 Cleartune app I have in my iPhone.


Chimps do it.

Jane Goodall started studying chimpanzees in the Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve in Tanganyika in 1960. I expect that most of us have seen films produced by the National Geographic Society that document her work. In November of 1960, she watched a chimp she had named David Graybeard poking pieces of grass into a termite mound, then raising the grass to his mouth. She didn’t understand what he was doing, so after he left, she tried it herself and found that the termites gripped on to the blade of grass. She realized that David was using the grass as a tool to feed himself by fishing the insects out of their otherwise inaccessible habitat. 

It’s funny to think that there is not much of a leap from a chimpanzee fishing for termites to a French scientist machining 670 tuning forks or to a modern crane or hydraulic machine. Of course our tools have gotten increasingly sophisticated and complex, but every tool shares the same conceptual origin—the adaptation of something to help us do work. Tomorrow, I’m joining a couple of my colleagues from the Organ Clearing House in Pittsburgh to dismantle an organ. Can’t wait to wheel those new kits into the building.


Government regulation

When I lived in rural Ohio, I had a neighbor who was a truck driver for a well-known chemical company. You might guess that his job was delivery of product. But no. They filled his truck with frightful waste, cracked the spigot at the back of the trailer, and sent him driving across the country, dribbling poison on the highways. It’s reasonable for the government to contain that sort of activity. 

In 2006, the pipe organ trade was involved in an example of government regulatory hooey when the European Parliament passed the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive, which restricts the use of six substances in electrical equipment. It was aimed at the careless disposal of millions of cell phones and other personal electronics. Fair enough. I agree that we shouldn’t poison our rivers and lakes with lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, polybrominated biphenyls, or polybrominated diphenyl ether. Each one sounds nastier than the last. (You can read more about this at….)

But wait: Pipe organs are electrical equipment, and it’s hard to hide that they have significant lead content. The European Parliament was talking about parts-per-million, while we measure our lead by the ton. Nevertheless, the restriction stood. The organ from a British cathedral was dismantled for restoration, and the new restriction would mean it couldn’t be put back together. The short story is that the international pipe organ community flung petitions back and forth across the Atlantic, and a loophole was created to separate pipe organs from
this restriction. 

The September 2014 issue of The Diapason included an excellent and troubling article by Anne Beetem Acker titled “The 2014 Ivory Trade and Movement Restrictions.” On February 11, 2014, President Obama issued an executive order effectively banning the trade and transportation of ivory, period. Ms. Acker describes the loophole: 


You may import an item containing ivory as part of a household move or inheritance, or as part of your own musical instrument or as part of a traveling exhibition as long as the item contains “worked elephant ivory that was ‘legally acquired’ and removed from the wild prior to February 26, 1976, and has not been sold or otherwise been transferred for financial gain since February 25, 2014.”3


That’s it. Until February 11, 2014, we at the Organ Clearing House considered ivory keyboards to be an asset. A simple organ built by Schantz or Reuter in the 1940s would have ivory keyboards, and because ivory is such a durable material, they would often be in perfect condition. I choose not to share my political views in this public forum. That’s not the point of this magazine or my regular column. But I sure wish my president had thought this one through a little better. To the best of my knowledge, Harry Truman and Richard Nixon are the most recent presidents who played the piano. I don’t know if Bill Clinton’s saxophone has any ivory on it.

I’ve had the thrill of an hour-long ride through the Thai jungle on a huge and gentle elephant. I am horrified by photos of majestic animals slaughtered for their tusks. I may be shortsighted and politically incorrect, so help me here. How in the name of tarnation will selling and moving a sixty-year-old pipe organ contribute to the slaughter of elephants?

I work with keyboard instruments every day. I talk regularly with dozens of colleagues across Europe and the United States. And I read the publications from our professional organizations like the Organ Historical Society, the American Institute of Organbuilders, and the Associated Pipe Organ Builders of America. Excepting a few private conversations, Ms. Acker’s article is my first exposure to the severity of this order.

Some of my colleagues only build new organs, so are not affected by President Obama’s executive order. But the market for new instruments has been shrinking steadily for years, and many of us in the world of organbuilding find much, if not most of our revenue in the renovation and restoration of historic organs. 

On February 10, 2014, it was perfectly legal to dismantle an organ with ivory keyboards, load it in a truck, take it across state lines to your workshop, restore it, return it to the church, and be paid for your effort. Now it’s not. The fact that Obama’s language includes “trade and movement” implies that we couldn’t even do it for free. 

What do you think? ν



1. This is good for the quality of life as it limits noise to certain hours of the day, but surely adds to the cost of renovations.

2. Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, legend at tool exhibit.

3. Anne Beetem Acker, “The 2014 Ivory Trade and Movement Restrictions: New regulations and their effects,” The Diapason, September 2014, 28.