In the Wind. . . .

April 2, 2018

What’s it going to cost?

When you’re shopping for a car, it’s reasonable to start by setting a budget. Whether you say $10,000, $30,000, or $75,000, you can expect to find a vehicle within a given price range. Of course, it’s up to you whether or not you stick to your budget, but we all have experience with the exercise, and there’s plenty of solid information available. Printed advertisements broadcast prices in huge type, and you can fill in forms online with details about a given car to receive a generated price.

When you set out to buy a piano, you can start with a simple search, and get a quick idea of price ranges. I just spent a minute or two surfing the internet to learn that a new Steinway “B” (that’s the seven-foot model) sells for over $80,000, and that you should expect to pay about 75% the price of a new instrument to purchase a reconditioned used piano. If you start with that in mind and do some serious shopping, you may well get lucky and find a beautiful instrument for less, but at least you have a realistic price range in mind before you start.

There is simply no such information or formulas available for the acquisition of a pipe organ, whether you are considering a new or vintage instrument. In a usual week at the Organ Clearing House, I receive at least two, and as many as ten first-time inquiries from people considering the purchase of an organ. These messages often include a stated budget, usually $100,000, sometimes $200,000, and they typically specify that it should be a three-manual organ. Each time, I wonder how that number was generated. Was it the largest amount they could imagine spending? Did they really think that an organ could be purchased for such an amount?

It’s as if you were shopping for that car, but you promised yourself that this time, you’re going to get your dream car. You test-drive a Mercedes, a Maserati, and a Bentley, and oh boy, that Bentley is just the thing. You offer the salesman $20,000. He rolls his eyes and charges you for the gas. It’s a $250,000 car.


There’s a popular myth out there that people think that organ companies can be compared by their “price per stop.” The most common source for public information about the price of an organ is the publicity surrounding the dedication of a monumental new organ. You read in the newspaper that Symphony Hall spent $6,500,000 on a new organ with 100 stops. Wow. That’s $65,000 per stop. We only need a ten-stop organ. We could never raise $650,000.

The problem with this math is that the big concert hall organ has special features that make it so expensive. The most obvious is the 32 façade. How much do you think those pipes cost? If they’re polished tin, the most expensive common material, maybe the bottom octave of the 32 Principal costs $200,000? $250,000? More? And if the organbuilder pays that to purchase the pipes, what does it cost to ship them? A rank of 32-footers is most of a semi-trailer load. What does it cost to build the structure and racks that hold them up? This week, the Organ Clearing House crew is helping a colleague company install the 32 Open Wood Diapason for a new organ. It takes ten people to carry low CCCC, and once you have it in the church, you have to get it standing upright. Years ago, after finishing the installation of a full-length 32 Wood Diapason in the high-altitude chamber of a huge cathedral, my colleague Amory said, “Twelve pipes, twelve men, six days.” It’s things like that that pump up the “price per stop.” In that six-million-dollar organ, the 32Principal costs $400,000, and the 135 Tierce costs $700.

Here’s another way to look at the “price per stop” myth. Imagine a two-manual organ with twenty stops­—Swell, Great, and Pedal, 8 Principal on the Great, three reeds, and the Pedal 16stops are a Bourdon and a half-length Bassoon. The biggest pipes in the organ are low CC of the Principal, and low CCC of the Bourdon, and the organ case is 18 feet tall. Add one stop, a 16Principal. Suddenly, the case is twice as large, the wind system has greater capacity, and the organ’s internal structure has to support an extra ton-and-a-half of pipe metal. The addition of that single stop increased the cost of the organ by $125,000, which is now divided over the “price per stop.”

Or take that 21-stop organ with the added 16Principal, but instead of housing it in an organ case, you install it in a chamber. In that comparison, the savings from not building a case likely exceeded the cost of the 16Principal.


Ballpark figures

On June 10, 1946, a construction manager named Joseph Boucher from Albany, New York, was sitting in seat 21, row 33 of the bleachers in Boston’s Fenway Park, 502 feet from home plate. Ted Williams hit a home run that bounced off Boucher’s head and wound up 12 rows further away. Boucher’s oft-repeated comment was, “How far away does a guy have to sit to be safe in this place.” That still stands as the longest home run hit at Fenway, and Boucher’s is a solitary red seat in a sea of blue. That’s a ballpark figure I can feel comfortable with. I have other stories saved up that I use sometimes as sassy answers when someone asks for a “ballpark figure” for the cost of moving an organ.

If you’re thinking about acquiring a vintage organ, you’ll learn that the purchase prices for most instruments are $40,000 or less. Organs are often offered “free to a good home,” especially when the present owner is planning a renovation or demolition project, and the organ has transformed from being a beloved asset to a huge obstacle. But the purchase price is just the beginning. 

If it’s an organ of average size, it would take a crew of four or five experts a week to dismantle it. Including the cost of building crates and packaging materials, dismantling might cost $20,000. If it’s an out-of-town job for the crew, add transportation, lodging, and meals, and it’ll cost more like $30,000. If it’s a big organ, in a high balcony, in a building with lots of stairs, and you can’t drive a truck close to the door, the cost increases accordingly. With the Organ Clearing House, we might joke that there’s a surcharge for spiral staircases, but you might imagine that such a condition would likely add to the cost of a project.

Once you’ve purchased and dismantled the organ, it’s likely to need renovation, releathering, and perhaps reconstruction to make it fit in the new location. Several years ago, we had a transaction in which a “free” organ was renovated and relocated for over $800,000. The most economical time to releather an organ is when it’s dismantled for relocation. Your organbuilder can place windchests on sawhorses in his shop and perform the complex work standing comfortably with good lighting, rather than slithering around on a filthy floor in the bottom of an organ.

The cost of renovating an organ is a factor of its size and complexity. For example, we might figure a basic price-per-note for releathering, but the keyboard primary of a Skinner pitman chest with its double primaries costs more than twice as much to releather as does a chest with single primary valves. A slider chest is relatively easy to recondition, unless the windchest table is cracked and split, and the renovation becomes costly reconstruction.

It was my privilege to serve as clerk of the works for the Centennial Renovation of the 100-stop Austin organ in Merrill Auditorium of City Hall in Portland, Maine. (It’s known as the Kotzschmar Organ, dedicated to the memory of the prominent nineteenth-century Portland musician, Hermann Kotzschmar.) That project included the usual replacement of leathered pneumatic actions, but once the organ was dismantled and the windchests were disassembled, many significant cracks were discovered that had affected the speed of the actions for generations. Another aspect of the condition of that organ that affected the cost of the renovation was the fact that many of the solder seams in larger zinc bass pipes were broken. The effect was that low-range pipe speech was generally poor throughout the organ, and it was costly to “re-solder” all of those joints, a process that’s not needed in many organ renovations.

It’s generally true that if an organ that’s relatively new and in good condition is offered for sale, the asking price will be higher knowing that the renovation cost would be low or minimal. But sometimes newer organs are offered for low prices because they urgently need to be moved.

Let’s consider some of the choices and variables that affect the price of an organ:



With the exception of lavish and huge bass stops, like that 32-footer I mentioned above, reeds are the most expensive stops in the organ. They’re the most expensive to build, to voice, to maintain­—and when they get old, to recondition. When you’re relocating an organ, the quality of work engaged for reconditioning reeds will affect the cost of the project and is important to ensuring the success of the instrument. You would choose between simply cleaning the pipes and making them speak again by tuning and fiddling with them or sending them to a specialist who would charge a hefty fee to repair any damage, replace and voice the tongues, mill new wedges, and deliver reeds that sound and stay in tune like new.



An organbuilder can purchase new keyboards from a supplier for around $1,000 each to over $10,000. The differences are determined by the sophistication of balance, weighting, tracker-touch, bushings, and of course, the choice of playing surfaces. Plastic covered keys are cheaper than tropical woods, bone, or ivory, which is now officially no-touch according to the United States Department of the Interior (remember President Obama and Cecil the Lion). Some organbuilders make their own keyboards and don’t offer choices, but especially in renovations, such choices can make a difference.



If an older organ has been exposed to extremes of dryness, moisture, or sunlight, it’s likely that the cost of renovation will be higher because of the need to contain mold, splits, and weakened glue joints.



A fancy decorated organ case with moldings, carvings, and gold leaf is an expensive item by itself. As with keyboards, some builders have a “house style” that is built into the price of every organ they build. If you don’t want moldings, towers, and pipe shades, you can ask someone else to build the organ. Especially with electro-pneumatic organs, chamber installations are often an option, and are considerably less expensive than building ornate casework. However, I believe that it’s desirable for a pipe organ to have a significant architectural presence in its room, whether it’s a free-standing case or a well-proportioned façade across the arched opening of a chamber.



Drawknob consoles are typically more expensive than those with stoptabs
or tilting tablets. Sumptuous and dramatic curved jambs speak to our imagination through the heritage of the great Cavaille-Coll organs, especially the unique and iconic console at Saint-Sulpice in Paris. Those dramatic monumental consoles were the successors of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century stop panels, as found on the Müller organ at Haarlem or the Schnitger at Zwolle, both in the Netherlands. The default settings of most woodworking machinery are “straight” and “square,” and by extension, curves require more work and greater expense.

Many modern consoles and most renovation projects include the installation of solid-state controls and switching. There is a range of different prices in the choice of which supplier to use, and the cost of individual components, such as electric drawknob motors, vary widely.


What’s the point?

Some of the items I’ve listed represent significant differences in the cost of an organ, while some are little more than nit-picking. Saving $30 a pop by using cheap drawknob motors isn’t going to affect the price of the organ all that much. And what’s your philosophy? Is cheap the most important factor? When you’re commissioning, building, purchasing, or relocating a pipe organ, you’re creating monumental liturgical art. I know as well as anyone that every church or institution that’s considering the acquisition of an organ has some practical and real limit to the extent of the budget. I’ve never seen any of the paperwork between Michelangelo and Pope Julius II, who commissioned the painting of the Sistine Chapel, but it’s hard to imagine that the Pope complained that the scheme included too many saints and should be diminished.  

You may reply that putting a 20-stop organ in a local church is hardly on the scale of the Sistine Chapel, but I like to make the point that the heart of planning a pipe organ should be its artistic content, not its price. If you as a local organist dream of playing on a big three-manual organ, and you imagine it sounding like the real thing, and functioning reliably, you can no more press a job for $100,000 or $200,000 than you can drive away in the Bentley for $20,000.

Let’s think about that three-manual organ. Money is tight, so we think we can manage 25 stops, which means that while you’ve gained some flexibility with the third keyboard, that extra division might only have five or six stops, not enough to develop a chorus and provide a variety of 8 tone or a choice of reeds. Sit down with your organbuilder and work out a stoplist for 25 stops on two manuals, and you’ll probably find that to be a larger organ because without the third manual you don’t need to duplicate basic stops at fundamental pitches. Manual divisions with eight or ten stops are more fully developed than those of five or eight, and let’s face it, there’s very little music that simply cannot be played on a two-manual organ. Further, when we’re thinking about relatively modest organs in which an extra keyboard means an extra windchest, reservoir, and keyboard action, by choosing two manuals instead of three, you may be reducing the cost of the mechanics and structure of the organ enough to cover the cost of a few extra stops.


Let the building do the talking.

Because a pipe organ is a monumental presence in a building and its tonal structure should be planned to maximize the building’s acoustics, the consideration of the building is central to the planning of the instrument. It’s easy to overpower a room with an organ that’s too large. Likewise, it’s easy to set the stage for disappointment by planning a meager, minimal instrument.

Maybe you have in your mind and heart the concept of your ideal organ. Maybe that’s an organ you played while a student or a visiting recitalist. Or maybe it’s one you’ve seen in photos and heard on recordings. But unless you have the rare gift of being able to picture a hypothetical organ in a given room, there’s a good chance that you’re barking up the wrong tree.

While I state that the building defines what the organ should be, five different organbuilders will propose at least five different organs. Think about what the room calls for, think about the needs of the congregation and the music it loves, and conceive what the organ should be. Then we’ll figure out how to pay for it.