In the Wind. . .

February 5, 2019

Shipping and handling included

Wendy and I live in a building with about two hundred households. We are mostly anonymous neighbors; just a few fellow residents are casual acquaintances. The people we chat with the most are the other dog owners, and we are more likely to know the dogs’ names than their owners’. Farley the goldendoodle is a cheerful and friendly guy so he attracts a lot of attention in the elevators and lobby.

Living in close proximity to that many people, we are constantly reminded of what a click-and-ship world we live in. Adjoining the building’s lobby is a large package room lined with shelves ten feet high where the doormen sort hundreds of parcels. Since Amazon started same day delivery in the city, as many as a half-dozen delivery trucks stop each day.

Twice a week, mountains of trash and recyclables are piled on the sidewalks including thousands of collapsed cardboard boxes tied with twine. Along with the boxes, we routinely throw away bales of bubble wrap, tons of Styrofoam peanuts, and miles of strips of air-cushion bladders. It can be a wicked nuisance dealing with a big carton of peanuts. It is especially annoying when they get charged with static electricity and I cannot get them off me. And for goodness sake, keep them away from the dog.

I am thinking about packaging today because I am just finishing an organ project in my little workshop in Maine, starting to take things apart and getting them ready for shipment. Yesterday, I went to a storage locker I rent nearby and loaded several empty pipe trays into my car. The standard size we make at the Organ Clearing House is eight-feet by two-feet by eight-inches deep. They are larger than those made by some other companies, and when they are full, they are heavy, but we think they are just right. Low EE of most 8′ stops fits in those eight-foot trays, so we also make some ten-footers to hold the biggest four pipes. We can get the biggest four of an 8′ Principal into one of those, or the biggest four of two 8′ strings.

My car is a Chevrolet Suburban, big enough to hold an eight-foot rowing dinghy with the doors closed. A guy at a local boatyard called it a Chevy “Subdivision.” When there is no boat inside, I can get four eight-foot trays in the car with the doors closed.

I took the pipes off the windchests and laid them out in order on a big work surface. I lined the bottom of each tray with a ¼-inch thick Styrofoam sheet (we buy it in 250-foot rolls, perforated every foot, three rolls come in a “tube”). I opened a carton of clean 24-inch x 36-inch newsprint, and started wrapping pipes. With experience, you get a sense of how many pipes should be in a package. I use several sheets of newsprint at a time to weave between six-foot pipes so they cannot bump against each other. Going up the scale, getting to around tenor F of an 8′ stop (a three-foot pipe), each pipe is wrapped individually. After middle C, two to a package, then three, then maybe as many as six or seven treble pipes. When I am putting several pipes in a package, I roll it each time so there is paper between each pipe, and I fold the ends over opposite sides to increase the padding. My favorite local butcher does the same thing with the marvelous sausages he makes. A piece of tape holds the package closed, and the bundles are lined up in the trays. If the pipes are not very heavy, I can put a couple layers in a tray separated with Styrofoam.

My personal shop is a three-car garage that adjoins our house, and this is a tiny organ. It started as an M. P. Möller Double Artiste, and we are adding a third three-rank division to make a total of nine unified ranks. The user interface is a large three-manual console, also by Möller but from a different organ, equipped with a fancy combination action. It is to be a practice organ for a school of music, providing students with a platform for working on the complex Romantic and symphonic registrations that are so popular these days. This will be a simple shipment, nowhere near a full truck. The only complication is that we will be driving it over the Rocky Mountains in mid-winter.

That load will include eleven trays, nine with pipes and two with odds and ends, bits and pieces (the stuff Alan Laufman called “chowder”), console, bench, three windchests, two “expressive” cases including shutters and shutter motors, three wind regulators with windlines, a blower, the biggest pipes of a nicely mitered 16′ Bourdon (too big for trays), and the rest of the flotsam and jetsam it takes to make an organ. I am guessing the load will weigh around 6,000 pounds including the trays and packing materials. We will also be carrying a new residence organ built by a colleague firm, as its new owner lives in the same western city. We are always happy to throw another organ on the back of the truck if there is space.


When we estimate the cost for dismantling and packing an organ, we consider the number of person-days and crew expenses like travel, meals, and lodging. We decide whether we will need to rent scaffolding and set up hoisting equipment, and we figure how much we will need in the way of packing materials. An important variable is the tray count, which varies as much by the style of an organ as it does by number of ranks. If we are packing an organ with mechanical action built in the 1970s with low wind pressure and small scales, we can figure on two or three ranks per tray. (A usual four-rank mixture easily fits in a single tray. You just have to be sure you label the packages so you do not mix up the ranks.) If we are packing a heavy Romantic organ like something built by Skinner, it is more like two or three trays per rank. A big fat Skinner 8′ French Horn can fill four trays!

Based on long experience, we run down the printed stoplist of an organ and note how many trays we will need for each stop, and I enter the totals for eight-foot and ten-foot trays into a spreadsheet that spits out the lumber list. A four-by-eight sheet of 7⁄16-inch OSB (Oriented Strand Board) makes two tray bottoms, and it takes two ten-foot pine 1 x 8s to make the sides and ends. When we dismantled an eighty-rank Aeolian residence organ on Long Island (imagine that!), we figured we would need 160 eight-foot trays and 40 ten-footers, and I sent this list to City Lumber in Long Island City, New York:

120 4′ x 8′ sheets OSB

320 10′ 1′′ x 8′′

80 12′ 1′′ x 8′′

120 8′ 1′′ x 2′′ strapping (10 bundles) for battens on tray tops

1,680 feet ¼′′ x 2′-wide Styrofoam (7 rolls)

50 pounds 15⁄8′′ coarse thread drywall screws

The bill was $5,277.33, including delivery, and we gave the driver a $50 tip.

When we have finished dismantling an organ, the packed trays go on the truck first. A standard semi-trailer is 100-inches wide inside so we can stack four piles wide. If we make stacks of ten trays each, we can cap the stacks with sheets of plywood and put 16-foot metal bass pipes up top. The big metal pipes are wrapped individually in Styrofoam for protection. Interior height of the trailer is 110 inches. Four trays wide and ten high, that is forty trays for each eight feet of trailer. The trailer is 53-feet long—240 trays is a truck full. That is less than the tray count for the wonderful Skinner/Aeolian-Skinner organ at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City.

When we are packing an organ that large, the trays are just the beginning. Think about the organ’s biggest pipes, like that 32′ Double Open Wood Diapason. The biggest pipe is more than 35-feet long, and about two-feet square. I guess that pipe weighs 1,500 pounds and by itself makes a big dent in an empty trailer. Three 32′ ranks (Diapason, Bourdon, and reed) and the windchests of that huge organ fill truck number two. Reservoirs, shutters, expression motors, tremulants, windlines, ladders, and walkboards fill truck number three. And number four brings the console, frames, expression box panels, blowers, and 8,000 pounds of chowder.


Most of the trucks with box trailers that you see on the highway are carrying loads of goods that are all the same size, packed on pallets whose dimensions are calculated to exactly fill the trailer’s interior space. Paper towels, potato chips, mattresses, and tableware are packed in boxes whose dimensions exactly correspond with the pallets. A truck backs up to a loading dock, and a forklift runs in and out carrying pallets, two or three at a time. The trailer is nothing but a metal and fiberglass box. There are no hooks, cleats, or straps to fasten the load. There is no need, because the load assembles to the same dimensions of the trailer, and it takes fifteen minutes to pack.

We engage special commodity trucks, which come with lots of special equipment. There are highway bars that span the interior by clicking into vertical tracks on the trailer walls and support plywood floors, so we can build a second story that safely carries smaller components. There are ramps and hydraulic tailgates because we almost never have the luxury of a loading dock, and a standard complement of twenty-dozen quilted furniture pads. We specify that we will need six or eight hours to load the truck as they typically charge extra when it is more than two hours. The trays go into the truck fast and neat, and the rest of the organ is like a ten-ton game of Tetrus. Because no two parts of the organ are the same size, the pallet-and-forklift equation does not work at all. Each piece of the organ is wrapped with pads as it enters the truck. At the other end of the trip, it is a huge job just to fold all those heavy pads, and the drivers are always fussy about making neat piles.


Most of the organs we move fit into “Bobtail” trucks, the standard single-body box trucks we can rent from Ryder or Penske. A usual two-manual organ fits in a single truck. Forty years ago, when I was first in the organ business, there was little in the way of regulation controlling the type of trucking we do. Today, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration makes us jump through regulatory hoops. If we are carrying an organ that we have owned and are selling to a client, there is no problem. But if we are carrying an organ that belongs to someone else, like a church or school, especially if we are crossing state lines, we have to be ready with our DOT and MC (Motor Carrier) numbers whenever we encounter a weigh station on the highway. That makes us an official trucking company, and I receive a lot of a gear-jamming junk mail that has nothing to do with organs.

In 2008, we were engaged to bring an organ to an important church in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, and we would include a dozen pianos in the shipment for a couple churches and orphanages I had visited. I found a moving company in Maine that had a barn full of surplus pianos, rented a truck, loaded them up, and started down the Maine Turnpike. As required, I stopped in the weigh station where the state trooper asked me, “What are you carrying?” “Pianos,” I answered. “Where are you taking them?” My sense of the ridiculous took control, and I answered, “Madagascar!” He directed me into a parking area where three troopers spent a half hour trying to find something wrong with my paperwork, with the truck, with its required emergency flares and reflectors, anything they could think of.

We have worked with many drivers over the years, mostly owner/operators who contract with central dispatchers. Richard Mowen was a special favorite, a wiry little man with a huge Peterbilt tractor. He had replaced the Caterpillar diesel engine after two million miles, and he traveled with a little dog in the cab. Many commercial drivers only come and go from big warehouses with loading docks, while our work in churches around the country is anything but predictable. It may be a narrow cross street in Manhattan or a winding dirt road in a rural village. Richard could put that rig anywhere. It is much more difficult to back a semi-trailer when you have to go backwards to the right, because that is the blind side. It was fun watching him figure his angle, nudging the tailgate right where we wanted it.

Richard loved carrying pipe organs. He moved many organs for us, and we recommended him to a number of colleague companies. He considered organs to be a specialty, and he was a treasure. Sadly, he had a heart attack that took him off the road, but he is still around. We miss his great work and thank him for his terrific service to our industry. Richard left us with one of the best driving tips ever. “I can drive down that hill too slow as many times as I want. I can do it too fast only once.” We will remember that next month when we are driving down the far side of the Rockies.

Then there is the guy who was dispatched to drive an organ from New Haven, Connecticut, to Reno, Nevada. With the truck loaded, we were chatting and joking on the sidewalk by the church when the driver mentioned that it was a good thing we were not shipping the organ to Canada, because he had been busted for transporting firearms illegally and was not allowed to drive there anymore. I called the dispatcher and requested a different driver.

Through all the shipments over the years, there was one that involved significant damage to the organ. We packed and loaded an organ in New York City and sent it off to Los Angeles. The shipment was to be received by a crew from the European company that built it, and they would install it in the church there. The truck arrived as scheduled, and when they opened the doors, they found a mess of broken woodwork and organ parts. There was a language barrier between the organbuilders and the insurance adjuster who viewed the damage. When they told the adjuster that they might have packed things differently, he interpreted that they were saying we had been negligent. Knowing that was not true, I got the adjuster to agree to reconsider if I went to Los Angeles to present a case.

That shipment had an unusual stipulation. We were required to remove the organ from the building in New York before a certain date, and the delivery could not happen until after a certain date, which meant that the organ would be in the truck several days longer than the actual travel time, and we had arranged to pay a daily standstill fee. Naively, I imagined that the truck would sit still in a parking lot. It did not take very much digging to learn that the driver had taken advantage of the situation and made a detour to visit family in the mountains of Tennessee. The trucking company admitted that there had been “an incident” on the road, and the insurance claim was paid.


It is fun to think of the romance of building a fine organ, with dedicated craftsmen working together in a comfortable shop, cutting and milling wood, working leather and metal, building the thousands of individual pieces that combine to create an organ. The next time you are playing or listening to an organ, especially a really big one, give a thought to the physical challenge of taking all those pieces and parts from one place to another. The shipping industry calls it logistics or material handling. I think it is a great glimpse into yet another reason that pipe organs are so special. What other musician can measure the size of the instrument by the truckload?

When a load is complete, paperwork signed, doors locked, and the driver climbs into his cab, we give a classic truckers’ greeting, “Shiny side up!”