In the Wind. . .

November 1, 2019


In the late 1970s and early 1980s I lived in a four-bedroom house in the rolling farmland outside Oberlin, Ohio. I had just graduated from Oberlin, was working for the local organbuilder John Leek, and was director of music for a big Presbyterian Church in Cleveland. The house was part of an eighty-acre farm, and like most similar properties in the area, the fields were rented by a farmer who worked a total of about 1,500 acres in the neighborhood. It was typical to rotate corn and soybeans year by year, because their effect on the soil is complementary. Around the house, there were three or four outbuildings including a large barn that I remember as being in better condition than the house. The house had a natural gas well, pretty unusual for many people, but common there in those days. After all, now we know it as fracking country.

Our neighbors Tony and Claire-Marie across the street had a similar property with a neat house, an enormous barn, and fields that were rented by a farmer. They were friends of the Leeks from church and lovely, considerate people. Tony ran an excavating business and used his barn to store and maintain his huge pieces of heavy equipment. Occasionally, Tony invited me to help him with a repair project. I do not think he really needed my help but knew that I would be interested, so I would spend a Saturday with him doing things like changing the wheel bearings on his Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer.

That machine was over twenty-five feet long, fifteen-feet wide, and weighed over 100,000 pounds. You don’t just jack it up, pull out a tire iron, loosen the lug nuts, and pull the wheel off. He had a homemade hydraulic jack made from parts taken from old construction equipment. The hydraulic pump came off an excavator and was driven by the power-take-off of a farm tractor. The lug nuts were three inches in diameter (his sets of socket and open-end wrenches went up to five inches), and he used a backhoe and a hoisting strap to lift the wheel off the machine. I was a young apprentice, the proud owner of a new set of Marples™ chisels (I still have them and use them regularly), and I had never seen such an ingenious caper. Because of my career in organbuilding, I have had a lifelong fascination with tools and, as Tony realized, I would always be interested in seeing something new to do with tools.

Watching Tony make that heavy work look easy by using the right tools influenced my work with organs. It was not long after that time that I was helping to install a large three-manual tracker organ in a high organ loft. We centered the floor frame properly, but when the case started getting tall, we could see that it was not going to center under the peak of the vaulted ceiling. We used hydraulics to move the entire organ with case, windchests, reservoirs, keyboards, and actions, budging it to the right about an inch-and-a-half. (Don’t tell anyone.)

When we were done with the wheel bearings, we started the D-9 (the starter motor is a forty-horsepower diesel motor), climbed on board, he backed it out of the barn, and let me drive it around in a circle in the big gravel apron. I had another experience running heavy equipment when the farmer who rented our fields was harvesting corn, and I got to run the combine for a couple rows. Glad I didn’t have to parallel park it.

A man and his tools

As more than forty years have passed since my heavy-equipment-operator days, I have downsized to a small private workshop which is the three-car garage attached to our house. I have a table saw, drill press, and band saw left from my big shop days, and shelves and drawers full of countless hand tools and odds-and-ends. I have a terrific woodworker’s workbench, the maple job with built in vises and bench dogs, and I have a sturdy well-lit, double-length workbench where I do most of my work. Wendy and I are thinking about enlarging the laundry room (sometimes called the mud room) that shares a wall with my shop, a wall covered with shelves. We were standing there tossing ideas around, and she commented that I might just get rid of all that stuff. Quickly and defensively, I pointed out the house jacks.

Why does an organbuilder need house jacks? When releathering a reservoir, you get to the step where the pairs of ribs are glued to the top frame and the whole assembly is glued to the body. You cut and glue on the eight leather or rubber cloth belts and let the glue set overnight. In the morning, you have to open the reservoir by lifting the top, as if it were filling with wind. All that freshly set glue and nice stiff material has to be convinced that this is a good idea, and the reservoir is on your workbench, so you are lifting it to chest level. That is a perfect use for a small house jack. I prop the jack up on blocks and pump the hydraulic handle. You can also use a house jack lying sideways to budge an organ an inch or two to the right.

But more to the point, remember when our daughter Meg wanted to convert the little shed out back to a pottery studio and we realized that one of the posts had rotted? Remember how her husband Yorgos and I jacked up the corner of the shed and sunk a new post into the ground? That’s why I need a house jack.

What is that next to the house jack? An ultrasonic cleaner, a little tub with a metal basket and a dial on the front. I use it to clean brass parts like reed tongues and shallots, cabinet hinges, escutcheons (look it up), and the fancy little brass doo-dads that organbuilders like to use for trim pieces, specialized controls, and the like. Parson’s Sudsy Ammonia™ is a great solvent. Fill up the little tub, fill the basket with your parts, and Bob’s your uncle. Oh, and anytime you have metal jewelry that needs cleaning . . . .

There is a big stainless-steel double boiler, the thing you ladle soup from in a cafeteria line. It’s on the shelf next to the glue pot. Hide glue comes in dry flakes or crystals. You mix it with water and heat it in the glue pot. You keep adding more water or more glue as you work to keep the consistency the way you want it. You can also put cloves of garlic in a cheesecloth bag and let it soak in the hot glue—it’s supposed to keep the glue from getting moldy, and it makes it smell a little better. When you are working with that glue, you need to have a hot, wet rag nearby to clean off excess. I can fill the double boiler and use the thermostat to keep the water just exactly as hot as I can stand putting my hands in, so I always have a good hot, wet rag. Oh, and when we have a cookout, I can clean it up and serve chowder from it.

There is a beat-up old steam iron. For the same reason I use hot water to clean up while gluing, applying heat is a big help when ungluing something. Crank up that old iron and heat up the rubber-cloth strips on an old reservoir, and voilà, off it comes, smelling like burned rubber. You can put heavy paper between the iron and the rubber to keep it from sticking, but it is hard to avoid gumming up the iron with melted rubber, so when it cools, I hold the iron on my belt sander to clean it off. This maximizes the awful smells you can extract from old rubber cloth. You should not take this iron into the house and use it on white linen. There is a household benefit, however. When it finally stops working, I will steal the iron from the bedroom closet and buy a new one for pressing clothes.

A popular meme says that you only need two tools, WD-40™ and Duck Tape™. If it’s supposed to move but doesn’t, use WD-40™. If it isn’t supposed to move but does, use Duct Tape™. As a professional organbuilder, I find that pretty sophomoric. But Wendy wanted to know why I need so many spray bottles. WD-40™ is great stuff, and it smells better than burned rubber. But it is oily, so you might want to use silicone for some applications. That is what I used on the sliding doors in the living room the other day. If you have WD-40™, why do you need Marvel Mystery Oil™? Simple. I love the pepperminty smell of it.

Goof Off™ comes in spray bottles, aerosol cans, and squeeze bottles, different dispensers for different situations. It is a terrific solvent for Duck Tape™ residue, or any kind of adhesive. The last time I used it on a service call, I was removing old chewing gum from under the keyboards of a distinguished organ. C’mon, people. And that is what I used to remove that nasty tar from the fender of the car. Works on stubborn windshield bugs, too.

3M 77 Spray Adhesive™ is terrific for gluing felt and leather together to make valves or for covering pallets. Spray that stuff on both surfaces, and according to the instructions on the can, “make bond while adhesive is aggressively tacky.” The can bears the warning,

Extremely flammable. Vapors may cause flash fire. Vapors may cause eye, skin, nose, and throat irritation and may affect the central nervous system causing dizziness, headaches, and nausea. Intentional misuse by deliberately concentrating and inhaling the contents may be harmful or fatal.

At least the valves do not come unglued. When Wendy finished that beautiful woven tapestry and wondered about fixing it to a piece of fabric for framing, that’s what I used. I feel fine.

My two favorite general cleaning agents are Murphy’s Oil Soap™ and Simple Green™. Both are biodegradable, and both are really effective. Both can be used full strength or diluted in water. Murphy’s is terrific for cleaning old woodwork, Simple Green™ cleans just about anything. I have two spray bottles for each, one diluted by 50%, the other full strength. You can also pour a bit in a bucket of water. And they both smell great. And there is some of each under the kitchen sink.

There must be thirty heavy plastic cases. Get rid of half of them?

• A set of dado blades I use to make the table saw cut wider. I used them to make that bookshelf.

• A propane torch that is good for light metal work. That is how I bent that piece of iron to hang the birdfeeder on the deck.

• A tap and die set that cuts threads on metal wire or rods (outies) or inside holes (innies) from one-eighth to one-half, in coarse and fine threads.

• A set of ratchet socket wrenches, both English and metric, with quarter-inch, three-eighths, and half-inch drives with extensions. The last time I used that, I was tightening all the hardware on your loom because you said it had gotten wobbly.

• Many sets of drill bits.

* One goes from one-eighth to half-inch, graduated by sixty-fourths.

* One has about a hundred bits graduated by the numbers and letters of the American Wire Gauge (AWG).

• Say you are using bronze wire that’s .064′′ as an axle in tracker keyboard action parts. You want the wire to be tight in the hole in the part that moves, and barely loose in the mounting hole. Use the .059′′ bit (#53) for the tight hole, and the .067′′ bit (#51) for the loose hole.

* One is metric from two to twenty millimeters, graduated by tenths.

* One is Forstner bits from a quarter to two inches, graduated by eighths, especially useful because they drill flat-bottomed holes, and since they are not guided by a central pin, you can drill overlapping holes.

* One is “airplane” bits from one-eighth to three-quarters, graduated in eighths, especially useful every few years because they are eighteen-inches long. I don’t need them very often, but when I do, nothing else will work.

* One is spade bits from three-eighth to two-inches, best for making very sloppy holes in soft materials, and for spraining your wrist. I do not use those very often.

* Okay, okay. I have two of the AWG sets, and two of the sixty-fourths sets. There are a few bits missing from each, and one of the drawers over there has replacements bits for every size.

• Digital calipers that read in fractions or thousandths of an inch, or hundredths of a millimeter. That is how I know that piece of bronze wire was .064′′.

• Another big set of socket wrenches that does not include metric sizes. That is the one we carry on the boat. I forgot to put it on board this summer.

• Caddies with assorted screw sizes that I bring to installation sites, so I never have just the size I am looking for.

• You get idea. The next time, I will write about why there are eight toolboxes full of tools. Sometimes they are all in the car at once.

That huge rolling steel cabinet with drawers that looks like it belongs in a gas station? In my previous shop, all my hand tools hung on purpose-made racks. There is not enough wall space for that here, so I bought this. In the drawers, from top to bottom:

• hinged tools like pliers and wire cutters. I used this big Channel Lock™ wrench last week to fix the drain for the outdoor shower;

• open-end wrenches;

• measuring tools like squares, scribes, miter gauges, calipers, micrometers, folding rulers, steel rulers;

• cutting tools like dovetail saws, Exact™ knives and blades, scissors, rotary knives and blades (for cutting leather and felt), small carving tools, razor blades, and the three beautiful leather knives that John Leek brought me from Holland in 1976;

• screwdrivers;

• that set of Marples™ chisels;

• pneumatic accessories like blow guns, detachable couplings, and assorted valves for inflating things. That is how I blew up the soccer ball. And remember when friends from New York were worried about their tire pressure? There is the gauge and valve;

• staple and pop rivet guns, staples and pop rivets;

• arch punches for cutting round pieces of leather and felt, or for cutting round holes in leather and felt. My set goes from one-eighth to three-inches;

• rotary bits for routers, cutting plugs, deburring holes;

• multi-spur bits—the big dangerous looking ones for drilling the holes in rackboards, dozens of them from a half-inch to three inches.

That cabinet serves me well and is big enough for the available space, but I admit to having tool-chest-envy when I walk through the big stores and see the jobs as big as a bus that have charging stations for power tools and mobile phones, refrigerators, and mirrors. What a great idea. You can tell which mechanic has a mirror in his toolbox because his hair is always combed.

It is easy enough to explain all these tools and supplies, especially when I can argue their domestic usefulness. How does anyone get by without an ultrasonic cleaner? But I also have boxes by the dozen with cryptic markings. “Schlicker Console Parts” is full of the little toggles that set stops on pistons, salvaged when I installed a solid-state combination action in a Schlicker console. Anyone needs some, I’ve got them. “Austin Coils” are the “electro” part of the Austin electro-pneumatic note motors. Anyone needs some, I’ve got them. “Skinner Toggle Springs,” “Misc. Peterson,” “Large Slide Tuners,” “Spare Ivories,” “Reed Organ Reeds,” anyone needs some, I’ve got them.

It’s not just an organ shop.

There is a cabinet full of flowerpots and gardening supplies and tools. There is a cabinet full of stockpots and lobster pots, overflow from the kitchen. There is a bag of life jackets, ready for winter storage. There are a half-dozen boxes full of spare parts for a sailboat, an outboard motor, a couple anchors, and lots of nautical line. You never know when you’re going to need a piece of line. Or an air horn. Or Schlicker combination parts. It would be aggressively tacky to think that I would get rid of them.