Back to Index

to David Rumsey’s home page

to David Rumsey’s mediæval page

Pipe technology in changing musical cultures - a summary

Materials used in pipe-making have included copper, bronze, tin, lead, metal alloys, woods, paper, glass, alabaster, gold, silver, iron, glass, earthenware, ivory, stone, feathers, horn, the bark of trees, and paper. The most common and consistent have been copper, lead, tin and wood.


-3rd- 2nd















Ars Antiqua

Ars Nova


separate stops available

Blockwerk, no separate stops

stop-separation (Stimmbruch)

modern stop control systems

most common tempering






most common scaling practice

constant diameters

constant ... persisting ... 15thc?

variable, “empirical”, geometric,

de Caus, Kircher, J.A.Sorge (logarithmic)

halving ratios, octave ratios 3:2, 9:5 &c. Töpfer, register-dependent

experimentation with variable (2:1)

variable (2:1) with addition constants

Typical keyboard ranges (octaves)

1-2 diatonic

(Winchester c994 with b?)

11/2-3 (Perrot 13thc)

diatonic with b, later f# etc.

(<2 Norrlanda, c2 Halberstadt) 3 -31/2 chromatic

31/2 (Schlick, Ebert)

later 4-41/2

short octave, split keys

long compass (GB) ravalement (F)


(some windchests 6: coupling/extension)


Cu, Cu + Sn (Bronze)














































Fe, Iron / Tinplate




























● Exclusive, predominant, normal practice

●● regularly used, together with others so marked

• found, but only occasionally, also as an impurity, trace element or alloy of limited tonal significance

1 limited revival from 16thc (Italian tendency) e.g. tromba bassi 8' at Roma, S Maria della Pace (copper alloy); the French also echoed this, e.g. Jean-Pierre Cavaillé

2 anomaly, also Italy: Roma, Chiesa Nova Cu content unusually high (39%)

3 largely wartime (WWII) metal-shortage-driven revival which continued into the 1980s, rarely beyond

4 Florence, S Annunziata, 1379, used both tin and lead;

= Aquincum (Cu 81.8% + Zn 17.83% + Sn 0.08%, + Pb 0.08%) Avenches (Cu 75% + Pb 20% + Sn 5% )

●●5 earliest known use of wood was to replace metal-fatigued (lead) bass pipes at Arezzo Cathedral 1454 (a complete rank?) and Bologna Cathedral (four pipes). Once introduced a certain flamboyance was sometimes seen in notable instances of the use of woods e.g.:

            - Hillerød (DK) - Compenius 1610 organ (all wooden pipes)

            - J.S.Bach expressed preference for wooden Gedackts for continuo work (Mühlhausen 1707)

6 The first reed resonators known to have been made from tinplate were by Peter Breisger at Koblenz in 1534 and Jehan Crinon at Leuven in 1554. In 1686 Lana-Terzi published an acoustic assessment of iron. It was taken up during the 19thc by Italian builders, who wanted particularly bright, penetrating and strong reed tones. Brass later returned to succeed this short “tinplate era”, mainly confined to Italy.

●●7 mostly adopted because of war-driven metal shortages (Franco-Prussian War and WWI)

? - the syrinx (panpipe) and some ancient Greek instruments used wooden pipes but they never appear to have been used in the hydraulis; some attribute the Rutland Psalter iconography as possibly depicting wooden pipes. Markovits (2003) states that wood began to be used for organ building generally during metal shortages in the mediæval era, but that may not have been for pipes, rather to replace metal sliders and windchests.

Metalurgy and related matters

materials used in pipe making - historically, metals, metal alloys and woods are the most commonly used materials for making organ pipes. Metal - copper, bronze - was the first to be used for pipes but wood began to be used for organ building generally - not necessarily pipes - during metal shortages in the mediæval era (Markovits 2003). By 16thc pipes in England and elsewhere were being manufactured from wood. Examples are at Barcelona, Santa María del Mar c1550; Caldas de Montbuy, Iglesia Parroquial 1552; Einsiedeln 1577 - a “small organ with wooden pipes” (organo di legno?) was victim to a fire; Worcester, Cathedral 1613) but tin, lead and some alloys of these, such as lay metal were the most typical. Glass pipes were mentioned by Praetorius (17thc) in reference to a Venetian organ, and alabaster was reputedly used in a Neapolitan instrument of this era. Adlung (18thc) lists possible pipe materials as gold, silver, tin, lead, copper, iron, metal, glass, earthenware, stone, wood, feathers, horn, the bark of trees and paper. Paper/cardboard has had a long history as one of the less frequently encountered materials (e.g. the positive of 1494 by Lorenzo da Pavia; Freiburg, Welte Premises 1909). Ivory and similar rare and precious materials have occasionally been used, generally as a veneer (e.g. Bückeburg, 1615) or inlay (e.g. Gottfried Fritzsche). Bamboo was used in Japan in early 17thc, in Europe by late 17thc (Leżajsk 1680) then around the Manila area by Fr. Diego Cera in early 19thc (Las Piñas, St. Joseph Church 1816-24 where it is found in all but the metal trumpet). It was also used for some dummy pipes in Uganda. Experiments have been made with plastics and a variety of other media, often with the objective of saving costs or enabling easier manufacturing, sometimes on account of market scarcities, and sometimes simply for novelty value or experimentation. Musically speaking, and for reasonable cost containment in manufacturing, traditional woods or metals generally achieve optimum results.

metals used in pipe making - the most common metals used for resonators are copper, tin, lead, zinc and to a lesser degree, iron (“tinplate”). Each of these, and their various alloys, has been used at some stage of organ history as a preferred medium for pipes. Some, like copper, have been abandoned for a time and then returned to limited favor for one reason or another, often economic. Adlung (18thc) listed gold, silver, tin, lead, copper, iron and “metal” as possible materials.

Occasionally precious metals, such as silver and gold, are mentioned, but distinguishing between fact and allegory, confusions between names of metals, or adjectives used for sheens or colors, and the fact that no organ survives with pipes actually made of such a material to any substantial degree, may be significant in this context cf. Innsbruck, Silbernekapelle; Hillerød, Sølv Orglet. One of the eight El Escorial organs in Madrid was supposedly made entirely of silver.


Very few metal pipes are not made from some alloy or other. Even “pure” tin, copper and lead need traces of “impurities” left there or added back during the mining, refining and casting processes. Various other alloys, outside the traditional ranges and consistencies mentioned here, were used by individual builders or were favored in particular regions where sometimes special names for them existed (e.g. “lay metal”).

Normally just two main metals and very small quantities of additives are involved. In the English-speaking world, reference is made to two common alloys of lead and tin: “organ metal” (often contracted to just “metal”) and “spotted metal.” “Hoyt's metal” ("common metal") was also used from early 20thc onwards. M.P. Möller used a very strong substance during the 1930's called "Blue Metal," probably of high lead content.

Trace elements

Trace additives are used in various ways to affect these alloys. They may include any of the aforementioned metals as well as e.g. bismuth, cadmium or antimony. Traces of antimony make lead+tin alloys very hard. Whenever aluminum is used, including lead+aluminium alloys, it causes a severe and persistent growth in the metal grain and is therefore avoided. Copper is rare, but some notable examples are found, e.g. simply added to lead at Ostönnen, Andreaskirche c1430, but copper, tin and silver all give better pipe stability. Such traces added to zinc can make it very hard.

In many questions relating to metals used in pipe making - from tonal and acoustic to structural - experimental data is scant, and conclusions are often indefinite or disputed. GOArt in Sweden was notable in the late 20thc for its work on metallurgy and casting processes.

            Copper (also brass, bronze, alloys of copper and tin)

Either “pure,” or as a significant component of brass or bronze, copper was the first consistently-used organ-pipe metal. The pipes found at Pompeii (1stc) and Aquincum (3rdc) are of bronze. An interesting alloy of copper and lead is found at Avenches (3rdc). Julius Pollux (2ndc) attributed the “vigorous” sound of brass or copper pipes to their copper component. Theophilus, in De organis (11thc), endorsed a contemporary anonymous text, Cuprum purissimum, in specifying very pure and thin copper. Its sounding qualities were linked with Stentor’s “voice of bronze ... [equaling] the voice of fifty men”.


The first era of its application lasted about one and a half millennia from the hydraulis until c13thc. Copper or bronze is noted in the organs of Dunstan (10thc) and Baldric (11thc.). Copper can give tonal and tuning problems: as early as 11th-13thcs it was reputed to “bother the ear.” Tests (Boner and Newman, USA 1940) showed that copper pipes can continue to sound for a second or two after their wind supply has been stopped, with one of the lingering frequencies being slightly lower than the other; thus causing undesired beats. It also has malleability problems, so parts that need sensitive manipulation in the voicing processes, such as pipe mouths or languids, can also be made from softer metals used in pipe making or alloys e.g. of lead and tin.


Copper was largely abandoned for use in flue pipes after 13thc, but it continued to have limited use in alloys. At Rome, Chiesa Nova (17thc) the pipes had a copper content unusually high at 39%. More commonly small traces of it were sometimes used to harden the main metal e.g. “soft” Malaccan tin. Dom Bédos suggests it as a 1% additive for such purposes; it can also be effective at resisting metal creep (“cold flow”), whereas antimony needs to be at 6-7% to achieve the same result. The results are not always predictable.


From the 16thc, there was a gradual but limited revival in the use of copper for reed resonators, where it could achieve “tonal penetration.” It thus enhanced qualities for e.g. “military” trumpet stops. This was something of an Italian tendency, e.g. the tromba bassi 8' at Roma, Santa Maria della Pace (1506) has resonators of copper alloy. The French sported with it, too, at about this time: Jean-Pierre Cavaillé wrote in his copy of Dom Bédos a recipe for pipe resonators involving copper which was purified by throwing it as shrapnel into water, then alloyed. Even in the 20thc, copper was occasionally still used for reed resonators, e.g. in Alsace by Roethinger for both the Bombarde 16' and Régale 8 at Schiltigheim, Ste Famille 1968.


In such contexts brass came to be used more consistently in the 19thc, especially for the wind-band imitative stops that started to appear in Italian organs. By mid-19thc use of iron (tinplate) gradually began to pass out of favour, a largely Italian practice, its position was then supplanted by brass, another of copper’s “revivals.” Luigi Tronci II of Tuscany included a Trombe reali of brass for an organ in Lugo di Romagna, saying that tinplate oxidized too easily and brass was better suited to making a more robust and harmonious sound. “Brass is hard to work and very costly, but it lasts for ever.” (Abdy Williams)


The main revival in the use of copper for flue pipes, especially facade Principals, occurred by the 1940s as WWII material shortages set in - e.g. notably with Marcussen at Jaegersborg, 1944. This persisted awhile, even after the supply crisis was over, with a few, but often relatively important builders: Metzler in Switzerland (Zürich, Grossmünster 1960), Flentrop, e.g. Seattle, St. Mark’s Cathedral 1965, Fincham (influenced by Smenge) in Australia, and Fehrle in South Africa, were among what became a world-wide trend for a time.


Copper is sometimes treated, since it can tarnish, or be made to give “flame” effects. These can be aesthetically pleasing in the hands of good case designers such as Poul Gerhard Andersen. In facade pipes it can be used to interesting visual effect, e.g. at Utrecht, Nikolaikerk 1956 or Hälsingborg, Mariakyrka 1959/74. Some unusual facades have a mixture of copper and tin pipes such as a Frobenius organ at Takayama, Main World Shrine (J:).


Brass was commonly applied to making reed shallots, such as those by Cavaillé-Coll, with their characteristic dome shapes. Other uses have existed in some notable installations: Enrico Priori replaced three reeds with brass resonators in the organ at Rome, S. Maria Maddalena in 1864. William Hill used brass pipes in his signal organs for the Birmingham and St. Petersburg railways. Brass reed resonators are also found in orchestrions and cinema organs.




Lead was possibly introduced during the 13thc or at least from then adopted consistently, virtually entirely replacing copper by the 14thc. Confusion sometimes arises since ancient Latin terminology gave tin as plumbum album and lead as plumbum nigrum. The earliest mention of lead seems to be by Jerome of Moravia in Tractatus de musica (1272-1304) and proven use of it in an organ comes from England, specified in a contract of 24 January 1338, for York Minster, by Adam of Darlington (cf. also Rutland Psalter). There is nothing to indicate that this was viewed as a new practice. Italian records show lead used by Domenico da Siena at Firenze, SS Annunziato 1379 where tin was also used. In 1396 at Ely (England - 14thc-mid-15thc) lead is mentioned although it is unclear whether it was for pipes, bellows’ weights or other purposes. Lead again at Fano (Duomo 1424) and at Siena (Duomo 1457) where the pipes for an old organ there were recorded as having been of lead (the new organ was to have pipes of tin which was considered to be progressive). It was thought that tin was “more sonorous and silvery,” whereas lead gave a “sweeter” tone. 17th and 18thc French builders linked lead closely with this “sweet” tonal quality, dedicating high lead alloys to flutes and cornet ranks. This assessment survives to the present day and lead has remained in common use, despite transient problems such as supply shortages and metal creep. Tonally it gives a highly characteristic sound - “dark,” “hollow,” “ancient” - and is noted for a “musical agility” that suits flute-stops very well. Even some Principals were made of lead, producing distinctive, gentle, but full and ample tones when used alone, helping to build a powerful intensity in combinations. A relatively small Gothic organ with its mostly lead pipework could thus fill a large building. Mounting the organ in a swallow’s-nest installation helped the pipes speak fully into the room (acoustic coupling); other similar situations, such as high galleries e.g. at Oosthuizen, also assist lead principals to project that organ’s “brave sound” (so described in a mid-20thc recorded commentary by E. Power Biggs).


Some northern European builders, such as de Mare, Niehoff, Müller, the Scherers, Bockelmann and Hoyer are noted for their dedicated use of lead. By 1539, Niehoff pipes could be of 98% or more lead. From around 14th through until mid-17thc in most regions high lead content pipework was fairly universal. Lead-pipe façades may be tin plated or wrapped with tinfoil to give them visual sheen, although tin façade pipes were not unknown in this era e.g. Hamburg, Petrikirche 1548. In Italy tin facade pipes could continue change into the same rank’s lead pipes on the inside (Florence, S Annunziata, 1379; Cattaro, San Trifone 1488). Sicilian organs from around late 16thc seem to have had two Principal 8' registers: one of tin (in the case) and one of lead (inside). During the industrial age, especially late 19thc, lead, e.g. as spotted metal, could envelope zinc pipes for similar visual ideals, though the effect is very different and significantly “industrial age”. In that era lead also came to be used for pneumatic action tubing, an application where it can easily prove to be too soft.


English lead was preferred by some, e.g by Dom Bédos (little else was available to him). North German builders developed sophisticated casting techniques producing strong lead sheets with graduated thicknesses that were less prone to metal creep and eventual collapse. Interesting lead alloys were also used in later centuries, e.g. by Puget, who often mixed 30% or more lead with his tin.


Because it needs high temperatures, lead casting is difficult, but the metal is desirable for its general availability, cost (which can vary greatly), high density, malleability and softness. These properties dampen unwanted pipe wall resonances and can thus favourably influence tonal outcomes. However it is sometimes considered as the metal closest to being a liquid at room temperature and has a low strength/weight ratio so is particularly prone to metal creep. Mostly it has been cast, but sometimes rolled, e.g. by Flemish organ builders such as Hermans in the 17thc. It is often found with small or large traces of antimony added. Mining and smelting methods nowadays achieve too much purity, and trace elements - e.g. antimony (“old type-metal” - Audsley), bismuth, copper, silver, aluminium, iron and nickel - must be added when using industrially pure lead for organ pipe metal. Virtually up until Schnitger’s era, lead with c3% trace metals was the normal production standard. Typically now antimony (0.75%), copper (0.06%), bismuth (0.05%) and tin (1.0%) are added, making lead sufficiently resistant to metal creep. Interestingly, Gothic and Renaissance lead pipes often still stand straight, whereas many from the 19thc do not.


Hammering the metal before forming it into pipes has been found to be particularly effective with lead. Voicing processes, such as nicking, can be needed less with lead pipes than with spotted metal or tin, depending on such details as the languid’s camber. An interesting 19thc specification, maintaining high lead-content for Flute pipes, is found in the contract by Henry Willis for Liverpool, St. George’s Hall 1855.




Tin has always been a relatively costly metal, but highly regarded in certain regions and eras. It was first introduced to organ building c11th-13thcs when it was regarded as having a “friendlier” sound than the “crude” sound of copper, similar descriptions being applied to lead. It remains one of the most-used. Provenance was a major issue. Historically there were three main mining sources of tin:


1) England/Cornwall - for centuries considered to be the best tin, although habitually alloyed at source with traces of lead. Consistently specified for its high quality and “lack of impurities” from c1150-, Cornish (English) tin was the preferred source for virtually all organ builders, Europe-wide, over the succeeding c6cs. Italian builders used it from 1421 through to early 18thc. Scarcities have sometimes had an influence on the apparent popularity of some metals used in pipe making or the introduction of others (e.g. zinc). Thus it was in the 18thc, when the popularity of Cornish tin was at its zenith. English law at that time prohibited the export of pure copper.


2) German mines also produced tin from early 13thc, but their metal was regarded as “soft” in reports from 17thc omwards. Considered the worst available because of a high iron content, Dom Bédos specifically advised against its use for facade pipes, since rusty surfaces could develop. In 1688 the Flemish builder Antonio Gehenni had to cover pipes rusted in this way with tin-foil (at Roma, S. Maria in Aracoeli 1585).


3) Malacca produced the purest (only 4% impurities), but structurally weakest tin. 17thc Netherlands colonization of the East Indies led to the importing of tin from Malacca or Banca. Dom Bédos advised adding copper to harden it. It was more expensive than English tin and De Fourcroy informs us (1791) that it was used less. However in the 18thc some notable Italian builders such as Pietro Nacchini, Donato del Piano and Francesco Dacci used it consistently.


Early references to the use of tin in Italy come from Firenze, SS Annunziata 1332; Siena, Duomo 1372; Firenze, SS Annunziata 1379 by Domenico da Siena (used both tin and lead); Orvieto (Duomo 1441) where the tin was “clean and burnished so that it looked almost like silver.” In England (- mid-15thc -1644) the organ at Barking, All Hallows 1519 by A. Duddyngton, seems to have had high-content tin pipes. Tin was probably used, as well as wood, by John Howe II (Howe family ...) for the pipes of Coventry, Holy Trinity 1526.


Descriptions such as “Flanders tin” and “Venice tin” refer to the locations of traders, not mining sources. “Provence,” “Mallorcan” and “Marseilles” tin also appears in the late 18thc. Since no tin mines existed in these regions, the material actually came from elsewhere, probably Cornwall. In Italy “Rake” tin (del rastrello/rastrello) was imported, and had a brand name imprinted with the sign of a rake. It was especially available around Venice, and used e.g. by Graziano Antegnati at Bergamo, 1566.


All early sources of tin contained impurities, either present from its mining, or added later, e.g. lead, antimony, bismuth, copper and iron. Iron was never intentionally added: it was an impurity and considered damaging. Typically, a minimum of 3% lead might be added, improving malleability, especially when casting. Lemery (1756) said “common tin” was alloyed with lead and even copper and zinc. These impurities had varying effects, good, bad and unpredictable, on the properties and problems of various metals.


Tin is virtually indispensable where brilliance is needed, for harmonically-developed stops, such as principals or strings and their choruses, it encourages bright sounds and tonal qualities which can be aesthetically desirable. It is a hallmark of organ traditions such as the classical French, especially from Clicquot to Dom Bédos, or north German after mid-17thc (Gottfried Fritzsche, Friedrich Stellwagen and Arp Schnitger rarely used less than 20% tin for their principals). The Silbermann family of organ builders achieved their “argentine” tone, seemingly true to their family name, with thin-walled resonators of hammered tin. North American organs after c1920, Organ Reform Movement organs of Denmark, Netherlands, and Switzerland are some of the typical 20thc traditions where tin has been preferred for both visual and tonal reasons.


Tin can, nevertheless, also produce too much unpleasant brilliance: “upperwork from tin pipes with walls that are thick (a waste of material) and low cutups (a French technique) with toeholes wide open (a German idea) is piercing beyond the bounds of music ... [but high cutups can be a means to further refinement and tonal excellence in this style of pipework]”. (David Smit)


For visual and other reasons tin has found consistent use in organ façades. Audsley: “[tin] resists to a remarkable degree the action of impure air, generated by the breathing of large masses of people, and the corroding effects of the fumes sent off from burning gas, coals ...” (Vol II Chapter XXXV § 3 pp501-502). And, one might hope, modern vehicle emission pollution.


Iron (Tinplate)


Manufacture of tinplate - iron sheets with a coating of tin (“galvanized iron”) - may have started in Wundiedel, Fichtelgebirge (D:). As early as 1428, it is recorded that “28 short tons” of it were delivered to the Netherlands from Nürnberg (for uses other than organ building). France had production plants by 1665 and England became the major producer during the 18thc. Tinplate was rarely used for resonators, the main instances being found in France and the Netherlands in 16th and 17thc. Iron has tonal implications of a noteworthy “brightness.” In 1686 Lana-Terzi became the first to publish an acoustic assessment of iron, post-dating the known introduction of the practice by well over a century (Nick Waanders). It was then taken up during the 19thc by Italian builders, who wanted particularly bright, penetrating and strong reed tones. This was a somewhat Procrustean rationale since at about this time there arose a tendency to transfer from hammered to rolled reed tongues with the aim of achieving “sweeter” timbres. But the use of iron persisted, e.g. with tinplate resonators for the lower octaves of some reed stops.


The first reed resonators known to have been made from tinplate were by Peter Breisger at Koblenz in 1534 and Jehan Crinon at Leuven in 1554 (Vente). These resonators reportedly gave a more aggressive timbre because of the tinplate. Gielis Sterck, organist at Mechelen, St. Rombout, 1623, recommended replacement of lead trumpet resonators with tinplate to give a “clear and fiery sound.” The Langheduls continued to use tinplate for reed resonators in France through the late 16thc, but with influential Parisian builders tin eventually supplanted it. The earliest use in Italy has been attributed to Willem Hermans (17thc). All his surviving Italian instruments show this, e.g. Roma, S. Agnese in Agone. Tinplate trumpets are also found in the organs of other foreign builders active in Italy around this time. Some surviving organs in Rome have 8' reed resonators of tinplate. 


While the use of tinplate might have slowed the corrosion of iron, been easier in some ways to work with, and solved the metal creep problem, it was iron and eventually corroded. Seaside locations were vulnerable. Treatment is possible, but not always reliable over spans of centuries. Some builders made hybrid resonators: Jan Van Belle made the lower parts of his trumpet resonators typically of tinplate, but the uppers of tin (West-Capelle) or lead (Diksmuide, 1680). Also in the Netherlands the Hagerbeers used tinplate for the Trumpets at Alkmaar, Grote of S. Laurenskerk (Great Organ 1645).




Zinc is first documented merely as an alloy or trace element. In 1657 Johann Rudolph Glauber suggested adding zinc to tin to increase tonal clarity and structural hardness. In the 18thc the Savary brothers noted: “there are tins which are fatty, as the workers dub it, and planing is then difficult if one does not aigrissoit it a little by adding zinc, which they call degreasing the tin ...” Zinc came into favor in its own right during the 19thc, although it had its detractors. In 1820 the builder F. Marx built an organ which had a cast iron case and entirely zinc pipes. Likewise an organ at Tomaszow/Petrikau dating from the 1830s had zinc facade pipes. In 1843, C.F. Becker, editing the third edition of an 1820 book on organ building by G.C.F. Schlimbach, added remarks on the difficulties of voicing and achieving stable tuning which this metal gave. In 1850 Joseph Régnier (in L’orgue, sa connaissance, son administration et son jeu .., Nancy 1850) assessed zinc as a “[not very suitable metal] on account of its hard tone [...] capricious nature, and inability to be soldered ...” Serassi reports that Italian builders began to use pure zinc for internal and bass pipes from 1871. The years 1870/71 saw metal scarcities on account of the Franco-Prussian war which possibly prompted this and a growing tendency to increase its use. As a cost cutting measure Antonio Battani proposed zinc for some of the reverse sides of a façade principal in 1901. As with copper pipes, the languids and mouths of zinc pipes are sometimes made of tin and lead alloys for easier voicing and regulating.


In mid-19thc some German builders alloyed lead with zinc. During the later 19thc, metallone, an alloy of lead, tin and zinc, was used in Italy e.g. by Girolamo Priori (1862) and Nicola Morettini (1885). With time, however, zinc added to tin+lead alloys is mechanically deleterious and produces an undesirable opaque surface. By the end of the 19thc pure zinc gradually began appearing in both flue and especially reed resonators. Pietro La Grassa’s organ in Palermo, 1878, had both Ophicleide and Bassoon resonators of zinc.


In the 19thc, the epoch of large symphonic organs, zinc was appreciated for its economy as well as its strength, resistance to metal creep and other problems. However practical zinc may be, its tonal qualities are not universally considered desirable. During WWI, many organs had their tin-lead alloy pipes requisitioned for armaments and replaced by zinc pipes. The frequency with which new zinc pipes were commonly substituted for plundered pipes might suggest that it was greatly favored, although it must be remembered that zinc was used here only as an expedient. To save money and for ease of construction, zinc has at times been used for facade pipes, but covered with a shiny veneer, e.g. tin-foil. Diapering has been another useful means of covering it. Spotted metal was used by Hill & Sons to cover the zinc pipes of a 32' pedal facade rank at Sydney, Town Hall 1890.


Spotted Metal


Since 19thc spotted metal is one of the most common alloys used in pipe-making. The characteristic surface which gives its name to this alloy is a product of the differing melting/freezing points of lead and tin. As the molten metal begins to solidify, these two metals start to separate and crystallize in small areas giving a dappled effect.


woods used in pipe making -


A great variety of woods have been chosen for the manufacture of organ pipes, both for flue and reed ranks. The earliest clear references to wood as a pipe material occur in the 15thc from Arezzo Cathedral 1454 (a complete rank?) and Bologna Cathedral (limited to four pipes). It is possible these were not the first instances, but much earlier dating is unlikely. Wood’s use was encouraged - as in Arezzo and Bologna - when solutions to structural problems with large metal pipes, especially collapse from metal creep, needed resolutions. Obviously once its use had commenced, the technology introduced, then new tonal palettes were offered and development was further encouraged. Unlike the changing fashions and trends in metals used in pipe making woods show relatively little variation over time. Fine-grained woods are generally preferred, especially for those parts of high acoustic criticality or where non-porous qualities are needed. Apart from other major influences on tone from pipe construction, the acoustic qualities of wood used also give subtly different tonal results. Oak is the most common, but aside from this the scope of choice is considerable: poplar (often American yellow poplar), ebony, cherry, mahogany, nutwood, pear, maple, walnut, boxwood, pine (including oregon pine) and sometimes plywoods of various qualities, such as marine-ply. The historic Compenius organ at Hillerød, Frederiksborg Slotskirke 1610 was made without any metal pipes, using a great variety of woods for the pipe resonators. This included wooden Principal ranks, something of a rarity. One of the two Principals on Willem Hermans’ organ at Como (1650) was of wood.


Most wooden pipes must be constructed essentially from flat rectangular boards put together like elongated four-sided boxes. But exceptions exist: the technology of recorder and flute manufacture has been adapted on very rare occasions, possibly in attempts to more closely imitate these instruments. Praetorius (17thc) mentions a Munich organ with wooden pipes as large as the largest metal pipes, made from box-trees and drilled through. Three-sided ranks exist, mostly a product of 19thc German inventiveness and experimentation. J. S. Bach, in his recommendations for Muhlhausen identifies wooden pipes as more suitable for continuo playing. Hermans also described this as suitable for accompaniments and ensemble work. Some modern continuo organs are now provided with wooden 8' ranks, something which is a significant improvement on many built in a vogue starting in the second half of the 20thc as the Organ Reform Movement took hold in this arena. Wooden pipes have a physical advantage in that they do not deform in the way metal pipes can.


For a comprehensive bibliography see

The metalurgical component of this owes much to Patrizio Barbieri’s articles in The Organ Yearbook. In gratitude!


Back to Index

to David Rumsey’s home page

to David Rumsey’s mediæval page



See also on this site:

Glossary of medieval organ topics

Explanation of Gothic-mediæval organ types

A general background to Gothic-mediæval organ culture




Revision July 13, 2012