Since November 2019, I have a “new” pump organ: a portable melodeon, circa 1860. It is in rough shape and doesn’t work, but it seems to have all its reeds and keys (many of which are sticky–one of which was missing its pallet and pitman). It also lacks pedals and a wind chest — someone seems to have cut it off, given the ragged edge hanging below the keyboard and bellows. These rather rare old instruments are often sold as tables.
But it is fun to see how it should work–even if I fail to ever make it work again. I learned a lot from some websites and videos, which I studied and kept pausing to examine closely. Here are my favourites by Berg Pianos and by Rodney Jantzl. This treatise posted at the Reed Organ Society by Jim Tyler is also very helpful.
It is 31.5 inches tall, 19 inches deep and 36 inches wide and weighs about 50 pounds. There are 61 keys — five full octaves F to F.
Because the melodeon was found in an antique shop about 50 kilometres northeast of Toronto, I was hoping that it might have been made by RS Williams of Toronto. Note the similarity in cabinet.
But no. It was made in USA.
The S.D.& H.W. Smith Organ company was founded by S.D. Smith in 1852, his cousin H.W. joined in 1853, and by 1883 they had changed the company name to Smith American Organ Company. So this organ was made between 1860 and 1883– likely closer to 1860.
A similar organ by the same company is here; another almost identical is here (go to pages 9-12); and yet another by Mason and Hamlin is here. They are all in better shape than mine, and you can see that they each have two pedals. The one on the right operates the bellows; the pedal on the left operates a mute or “shade” to increase the sound.
One of the keys was permanently down. When I looked under the keyboard I saw that its pallet had vanished, although the springs were still there. Here below is the view. Every key has a flat wooden pallet below held in place by two wire springs. The brass reeds lie between the key and the pallet. You can just make them out in the photo below. Under normal circumstances, pressure down on the key opens the pallet and allows air to flow through the reed to make a sound. When pressure on the key is removed the spring pushes it and the pallet back up, silencing the reed. (These are not normal circumstances, no pedals, no reservoir to hold a vacuum, and no idea how well the bellows work–more about the bellows later)
After trying to carve one myself and nearly removing my finger, I took a pallet to Da Costa Millworks and the lovely guys there replicated it for me and even gave me an extra.
Note how each pallet has slits front and back to ride over guide pins. The thickness is tapered at each end.
Now what about the bellows?
I wanted to see if I could make a mock-up pedal arrangement to test the action–a proof of concept. In all the online images of similar organs, the pedals appear to be thin metal objects joined to another vertical metal (or wooden) rod that fits in the hollow of that big metal arm on top of the bellows. They had to be removable; otherwise the legs could not be folded. This is likely how mine became lost. I decided to try to do it all in wood first — to see if it would work, and to get the right measurements.
It worked! Well, sort of. The pedal had to be narrow enough to pass under the arches in the stretcher. But that meant it could wobble side to side on the hinge pin. To avoid that, I tried adding the little blocks on either side of the pedal at the hinge. I need to add more–perhaps beads of some sort.
Also the the rod connecting the pedal to the bellows falls out at the top with anything more than mild, slow action. How to avoid that? On the Berg Pianos video it appears that the rod is screwed into the pedal with a screw coming up from below (at 15 seconds); the vertical rod might be hollow with a thread on the inside. On Jantzl’s the wooden rod fits into a little well or hole in the pedal with a pin embedded in it. There is no thread on the hollow of my metal arm–so the connecting rod must have been fixed somehow on the missing pedal–both removed when the organ was folded up for transport.
The other proof of concept was to try to reconstruct a wind chest or reservoir to see if, with pumping, I could make the reeds sound. It seems in all the images and videos that the reservoir hangs below and is wedge shaped, covered in fabric, and perhaps accordioned, so that it can collapse closed under the legs when they are folded. It would have been narrow at the front and deep at the back.
The ragged edge around the foundation board of my organ shows that the reservoir was once made of (or covered in) rubberized blue cloth — but the rubber is flaking off and knobbly. It probably did not hold air at all for a long time before someone tore it off, maybe aiming to reconstruct it. It also probably had a thin, flat plywood, or cardboard base hinged at the front, and perhaps cardboard shapes inside to guide its folding.
So using cardboard and heavy black plastic and lots and lots of very sticky tape, I tried to create a temporary — “proof-of-concept”–reservoir around the foundation board. It was interesting but ugly and, alas, it didn’t work. Either the seals that I made are leaking, or the mock-up pedal could not generate enough vacuum, or “bellows” is leaking, or the reeds are dirty and blocked–or all four.
Next steps? Take it all apart– clean and sand the keys, clean the reeds, replace felt, check the inside and side walls of the bellows. Also find out what special arrangement has caused the lower range of reeds (bass) to be set back, expose the edges of the foundation board so a proper reservoir can be created, and see if the guys at DaCosta Millworks can make me a pedal (probably not; they like wood, but they might know a blacksmith).