Has Someone Been Shooting at Europe’s Organs?

No, those aren’t bullet holes, though the round black dots found on some tin organ pipes look like Al Capone’s been using them for target practice. The holes are signs of a far greater danger to organs than a gangster’s gun: corrosion.

The problem of corrosion in organ pipes is not new, explained GoArt engineer CarlCracks and holes in a corroded pipe from 1467 in the Stellwagen organ in St. Jakobi church, Lübeck Johan Bergsten on a recent inspection of Cornell’s baroque organ. In the 15th century an organ’s pipes might have been destroyed in just 50 years. Since organ builders had no idea why, their solution was to replace the pipes. But as Bergsten said in a Newsweek interview, “These pipes are like the Stradivarius violins. No one knows how the organ builders back then made them sound so beautiful,” so preserving them is vital.

Thanks to the COLLAPSE research project led by Bergsten, pipe lead corrosion is now known to be caused by organic acids released from an organ’s wood. These acids are airborne, and become concentrated in the pipes as they pass through the wind system. High humidity quickens the corrosive process.

A new type of glue developed before 1960, PVA or white glue, also releases acetic acid. So for Cornell’s organ, organic hide glue was used for the bellows and parts of the wind chest. (This glue also has the added benefit that it’s easy to remove despite its strength, a plus because the leather in the bellows needs to be replaced every 3-5 decades.)

Cornell’s organ pipes will be examined periodically, but they have less chance of corrosion because of the low temperature maintained in the chapel- although warm and humid summer weather could prove a problem, which is why plans call for a chapel air conditioning system. But climate control of the chapel will have to wait for funding to be found. Please see Giving to the Organ if you would like to support this project.

See also A Corrosive Enemy