It’s all about the tools.
Last December, I spent several weeks driving around the Boston area tuning organs. In the Boston suburbs, I-95 is an unavoidable, perpetual traffic jam.1 It was opened in 1951 as the first circumferential highway in the United States, and has been in a perpetual state of expansion ever since. It runs about sixty miles from Braintree to Gloucester, at a radius of about ten miles from the center of the city. A lot of wonderful pipe organs have left the Gloucester workshop of C. B. Fisk, Inc., at the northern end of Route 128.
These days, they’re finishing adding a fourth lane in each direction between Needham and Waltham, complete with the expected construction delays. During the recent tuning season, my colleague Amory and I drove up and down that stretch of highway over a dozen times. We’re both machine nerds, and each time we passed, we had our eyes on the construction site in the median strip, especially a particular Caterpillar Payloader (Model 938M). According to the Caterpillar website (www.cat.com) it’s an 18-ton machine with a bucket the size of a standard dump truck, around five cubic yards. That particular machine stood out from the throng because it was operated by a young woman. The usual hulking, cigar-chomping operating engineer looks small in the cab of a machine like that. This one with the braided ponytail looked tiny. She sat up there in perfect control, carrying materials up and down the narrow lanes. We saw her standing on the ground next to the machine, talking with the guy with the clipboard about the next chore, the wheel of the machine towering over her. I expect that she had to work hard to earn the respect of her co-workers. Some women face a glass ceiling. She was facing a rubber ceiling—a rubber tire seven feet tall that weighs 500 pounds.
But when you consider that a cubic yard of gravel weighs about 3,000 pounds (a bucket full would weigh 7½ tons) it wouldn’t matter if the operator of the machine weighed 100 or 300 pounds. It’s the tool that makes it possible, along with the operator’s skill.
I have two different kits of hand tools that I use in my work. One is the size and weight of a small air conditioner; I use a folding two-wheel dolly to cart it around. It has hundreds of tools in it, and I use it in my workshop and on job sites where I’ll be working for more than a day or two. I call my other kit my “City Bag.” When Wendy and I moved to New York City, and I started making service calls on organs here, I found a neat bag about the size of a briefcase, with lots of pockets and slots for tools and supplies. It has a padded shoulder strap, and I can carry it on subways. Even though the kit is intended to be compact and lightweight, it includes about twenty screwdrivers, some of which are multi-tools with as many as ten different bits. Why so many? In a pipe organ, we encounter massive steel screws that support huge pedal stops that weigh many tons, and tiny brass jobs that my sixty-year-old eyes can barely see. While some screws are out in the open and easy to reach, others are squeezed into tight places, hidden behind the legs of a windchest and stuffed into dark corners. I pick through the multitude of choices in my bag, and choose the perfect tool for the job. A couple of my screwdrivers even have lights in them.
Besides the travel bags, there are thousands of hand tools in my workshop. I have cordless drill motors and screwdrivers and cordless saws, an array of electric hand tools, and stationary machines such as saws, drills, and planers. I have hand planes, soldering irons, multimeters, arch punches, files, and knives. I have a drawer full of staple and pop-rivet guns. My collection of hammers includes tack and brad hammers, ball-peen hammers, hammers with plastic and leather heads, dead blow mallets, sledge hammers, and the expensive lignum vitae mallet I use with my chisels along with the usual carpenter’s hammers. If you have to whack something, you’d better whack it with the right tool.
When I’m tuning an organ, I’m climbing and crawling all over the thing, and while it’s a nuisance to try to carry too much with me, it’s more of a nuisance to have to climb down out of the organ to pick up a tool I need for a ten-second job, like a pair of pliers for a tight magnet cap or a file to remove the burr that snagged my shirt. So I carry two things in holsters on my belt, a Leatherman™ and a small flashlight. I have a Leatherman™ in each tool kit. They include sharp blades, scissors (for cutting that treble pipe that’s a tad too long), pliers that are sturdy enough to give a good squeeze, a file, a saw, an assortment of screwdriver bits, and a bottle opener that I actually never use on the job. It’s an excellent tool, and my name is engraved on it.
Not just any tool
Back in the days when Sears was robust, I bought many of my hand tools there. They were good sturdy tools, but the best part was the lifetime guarantee. When I broke a pair of pliers, chipped the blade of a screwdriver, or when the tip of the screwdriver got rounded, they would replace it instantly. The broken tool went in a bin in the tool department, and I walked away with a new replacement, no questions asked. There’s a wide range in the quality of the tools we buy, and cheaply made tools give cheap results. Wire cutters whose jaws don’t meet can’t cut wires. A dull screwdriver hops out of the slot in the screw head and gouges the surface of the wood. A saw with poorly set teeth cuts a curved curf. And a hand plane whose blade won’t hold alignment chatters along a piece of wood leaving a path of destruction.
Hand planes are essential to fine woodworking, and every organbuilder has a variety of them. Mine rest in a drawer on a pad of thick (Swell Shutter) felt. A good plane has a smooth machined “shoe” and a mechanism that holds the blade tight at an angle just right for the particular task. I use a styrene candle (the stub of an altar candle) to lubricate the soles of my planes. The blade should be made of tempered steel so it will hold a good edge. The Stanley Tool Works of New Britain, Connecticut, was the standard bearer for producing a wide variety of excellent hand planes, but as the company diversified in the middle of the twentieth-century, many of the specialty planes were discontinued, and the general quality declined.
Lie-Nielsen Toolworks is located in Warren, Maine, about twenty minutes from our place there. It’s right on Route 1, the coastal highway that stretches from Key West, Florida, to Fort Kent, Maine, and we often drive past on our way to the rich culture and fantastic restaurants in Rockland, Rockport, and Camden. Lie-Nielsen occupies an attractive campus of frame buildings, and though I own several of their tools and have visited their website often, I never stopped in to visit until recently. There’s a sales showroom so the public is welcome to stop in, but when I called saying that I was interested in writing about their products, they invited me for a tour of the workshops.
Thomas Lie-Nielsen founded the company in 1981 to produce a single specialty tool patterned after the original made by Stanley, the “No. 95” edge plane. It’s made of bronze with an “integral 90° fence,” and it’s used for squaring the edge of a piece of wood. The bronze edge plane sold well from the beginning, and over the years the company has expanded so that today, more than 90 workers produce a line of more than 150 tools.
My tour started in the showroom, where senior sales representative Deneb Pulchalski shared the company’s history and philosophy with me. He put tools into my hands, one after the other, allowing me to feel the heft of the specialized metals and the jewelry-like polish of all the surfaces. While an ordinary Stanley bench plane sells for around $50 at Home Depot, the equivalent Lie-Nielsen tool costs about seven times as much. You might imagine that the market for expensive tools of such exceptional quality would be limited to professional woodworkers, but the company understands how valuable they are to enthusiastic amateurs. A skillful woodworker can get decent results from a mediocre tool. A tool of exceptional quality allows the amateur to make a clean cut.
As I handled those beautiful tools, I was struck by the notion that a tool designed for a particular task, made with exquisite care from the finest materials, is an inspiration to the craftsman who uses it. The quality of the tool transfers to the quality of the piece. The weight of a tool is critical. It must be heavy enough to generate momentum as it passes over a piece of wood, but light enough to be easily managed. The tempering and sharpness of the blade, the angle of the blade, and the integrity of the controls that position it have everything to do with the alacrity of the shavings jumping off the piece.
What’s in it?
Julia Child taught us that if a bottle of wine wasn’t good enough to drink, it shouldn’t go in the sauce. Fifty years after her charming attitude toward food and cooking hit television screens across the United States, the farm-to-table movement grows in popularity. Besides Lie-Nielsen Toolworks, Warren, Maine, is home to Beth’s, a prolific produce farm with a richly stocked retail stand, and Curtis Meats, a cooperative butcher that provides locally produced meat and poultry. The quality of each ingredient adds to the quality of the dish.
Organbuilders work hard to procure the best materials from hardwoods for cases to chrome-tanned leather for pneumatic actions, from pure metals for organ pipes to woven felt for action bushings. You can’t make a beautiful cabinet out of bad wood. The people at Lie-Nielsen go to great lengths to be sure that their tools are made from the best materials.
As we’ve learned to dread the sight of an iPhone plummeting toward the floor, the experienced woodworker cringes when a prized plane falls from the workbench. Most commercially available hand planes are made of standard cast iron, otherwise known as “Grey Iron.” The internal microscopic structure of that metal is shaped like flakes, which allows the metal to crack easily on impact. Lie-Nielsen tools are made of “Ductile Iron,” a variation of cast iron whose structure is rounded nodules that resist cracking. They’ve tested their #60½ Rabbet Block Plane with a 15-foot drop to a concrete floor without cracking the casting.
Manganese bronze is used for the bodies of smaller planes and for many components of other tools. According to the Lie-Nielsen website, this material is “heavier than iron, and adds heft to the tool, doesn’t rust, won’t crack if dropped, and has wonderful warmth in the hand.”
The castings of iron and bronze are “stress relieved” by soaking them at high temperatures. Slow cooling then relieves internal stress so the tools will stay perfectly straight after machining. With all that attention to the bodies and parts of the planes, you can imagine how seriously they take making the blades, using a particularly high grade of double-tempered tool steel to ensure that the blades will take and retain the sharpest cutting edges.
For two hours on a rainy afternoon, I walked through the Lie-Nielsen workshops with customer service representative Christopher Stevens. I saw the world map with pins showing the distant locations where Lie-Nielsen tools are used, including the Geographic South Pole. I saw rows of precision production CNC machines producing exact copies of myriad tool bodies and parts. I learned that each worker at a production station acquires a dial micrometer when hired and saw them holding tool parts up to the light, squinting to see the measurements accurately. I saw workers methodically moving through bins of parts, rejecting those that were not within specifications. I saw men and women sitting in front of huge, high-speed buffing wheels, putting a polish and shine worthy of fine jewelers like Shreve, Crump & Low on large tool bodies and small adjustment screws.
I was greeted cordially at each workstation and saw smiles that showed the satisfaction that comes from the awareness of participating in excellence—a smile that is often seen at the workbenches in the finest organbuilding workshops.
And I saw bins and carts loaded with fabulous examples of engineering and craftsmanship, along with an army of specialized craftsmen pouring their skills and energy into the tools that will soon be prized by the seasoned hands that hold them. All this in a bright and airy working environment, designed to keep the workers comfortable, enhancing the quality of their products.
You can visit the Lie-Nielsen website at www.lie-nielsen.com. You can peruse through the terrific list of tools and purchase everything from a temporary tattoo to the finest premium tools. Your next project will be the better for it.
From tool to tool
The organ in a church is the primary tool for the resident organist. I hope it was beautifully made by craftsmen using the finest tools. The high-end smoothing plane leaves a lustrous finish on the wood. The bench, the music rack, the key cheeks are all made of exquisite woods, smoothed to be luxurious to the touch. The joinery of the case and the internal structure are the source of the instrument’s integrity, both its sturdiness and rigidity, and its resonance and ability to project musical tone. All those steps are accomplished by skilled hands handling familiar, even beloved tools. If an organ does not sit firmly, if it’s free to sway, wobble, or tip, it cannot have stable tuning or adjustment of the intricate mechanical parts. A structure that’s not plumb will ultimately be wrecked by gravity. An instrument that stands straight and true will be kept stable by gravity.
Windlines must be rigid and roomy with gentle bends so the organ’s air, its breath, passes from blower to regulator and from regulator to windchest without obstruction, with a minimum of turbulence. If organ pipes receive little tornados through their toe holes, they speak not with the tongues of angels, but of tipsy demons. The organbuilder creates the wind system with care and thought, his sharp tools fitting comfortably in his hands, adding to the pleasure and enhancing the outcome.
Windchests are built with dovetailed corners, not because dovetails look so lovely, but because they are the strongest joints for connecting pieces of wood, end to end, at 90° angles. The internal channels of pitman chests are formed, drilled, bored with the sharpest tools, ensuring that there is no tearing of grain allowing leakage between notes. If air can leak from one channel to the next, two notes play at once. Organists don’t like that. The ribs that form the note channels in slider chests are made with “vertical grain.” Since wood only splits perpendicular to the growth rings of a tree (like the spokes of a wheel), a rib made of slab grain can split, causing air to leak from one note to the next. If the joints are made with dull tools, air can pass through. No matter how hard you try, quarter-inch glue is not air-tight. Organists don’t like this, either. If I meant to play Chopsticks, I would have played Chopsticks.
And the organ pipes, whether metal or wood, are made precisely. Each is an individual musical instrument; the myriad joins together in chorus. Metal is cut with perfectly square corners so the joints and seams fit exactly. Solder seams are straight and even. The “cut up” of the pipe mouths is executed exactly. You might use saws and files for the mouths of huge 16-footers, but the mouths of the top notes of a 2-foot stop are less than a quarter-inch wide. Only the tiniest blade, with the pointiest point and the sharpest edge, can make such a cut. And if that blade is not made of good tool steel, you’ll spend all your time sharpening and have no time left for cutting. The voicer’s fingers are firm and strong, cutting through the fine metal like a surgeon.
A fine pipe organ represents the height of human achievement. Math, physics, and structural engineering all combine with simple fine craftsmanship. Every cut of a piece of wood or metal contributes to the stability, reliability, and majesty of the instrument. The people who made the tools are as much a part of the music as those who built the organ, or the musician who plays it. It all starts with the toolmaker’s tools. ν
1. Boston natives know I-95 as Route 128. It was built in the 1920s, and in 1951, 27 miles of the road was opened as a limited-access highway. Since then it has been in a constant state of expansion. It was the first limited-access circumferential highway in the United States. In the 1960s, there was a plan to build a new highway directly through the center of Boston, linking I-95 coming from Providence, Rhode Island, and points south to Florida with I-95 heading north through Portsmouth, New Hampshire, into Maine. But in the 1970s, a moratorium on new highway construction was enacted, and Route 128 was renamed as I-95, using the circumferential route to link the two ends of I-95. Natives still call it 128.