I acquired my Bell organ back in 2002 from McAdoo’s Piano store in Kingston Ontario. The history of the Bell company is well known (see also here). Founded in 1864, in Guelph Ontario, by brothers William and Robert Bell, it made organs for 64 years. The Bells had 200 employees by 1881 and were making more than 1200 instruments a year. It changed its name to Bell Organ and Piano company in 1888 and again in 1907 to Bell Piano and Organ Company, reflecting the increasing popularity of pianos. At its peak it produced 600 reed organs and 200 pianos every month. Its buildings dominated a major block in downtown Guelph. Through various different owners it diversified its products, but stopped making organs in 1928. Now its products can be found around the world. The Museum of History in Ottawa has a fine example with an ornate top and fake pipes. In summer 2018, I visited a Bell organ in Lac Mégantic Quebec — and in summer 2019, I found another on Haida Gwaii, British Columbia. They both come from post-1888 period.

Bell Piano and Organ Company (>1907) organ in antique shop in Lac Mégantic Québec.
Bell Organ and Piano Company Organ (1888-1907) in museum at Skidegate, Haida Gwaii.

My own Bell organ is older than those two. It is a sweet little cottage organ made in Guelph Ontario in about 1887 or 1888. It has five octaves, 11 stops, two banks of reeds (front and back), treble and bass couplers, knee swells (one broken), and a vox humana. The mouse-proof pedals were patented in February 1887–but the company named changed in 1888; hence, my organ can be dated. Everything was working nicely — only a few reeds were blocked and needed cleaning.

A similar instrument ca 1888 with an elaborate top is described by Warren Seale and one identical is offered for sale for $100 in Saanich, BC and another in Ottawa for $50 at the time of this posting (March 2020). A wonderful web page about a restoration of a similar Bell organ is here, placed by Nickelodeon company of Mount Forest Ontario. It came along after I did most of this work. I wish I had had it back then.

Here is my organ in 2002.

Bell organ in 2002

The first thing I did was replace the dull fabric.

Bell organ with replaced fabric

I cleaned the reeds by pulling them out with a reed-puller made of a bent coat hanger, and wiping them gently — just as is described on my Uxbridge organ page. I got at them by removing the key slip (or lock rail) under the keys in front, and for those behind, by removing the back.

Things were fine for several years — until about 2015. Then the sound seemed to diminish, and I had to pump a lot harder and faster. I was worried that the bellows were dying or perhaps the connection between the bellows and the wind chest was blocked. Time to take it apart and investigate.

The back of the organ is in two parts: upper and lower. Removing the upper part exposed the inside — where a notice was pasted explaining how to clean the reeds.

Inside of top part of back– note the notice on the right (close up below)

The lower part exposed the back of the bellows box with a release valve so that excess air pressure could escape. When pumping suction attains a relative vacuum, it closes flat against the board. The better the seal, the longer it adheres to the board. Timing the duration of the seal indicates the integrity of the pumping action.

Release valve lower part of the organ. Note my cat’s toy mouse, unable to get inside the mouse-proof organ.

Removing the stops was next –easy to do. The underside of the stem of each stop has a rounded wooden block, the height of which can be adjusted by screws. When the stop is pulled or pushed the block rides over metal levers that open or close the various mutes, valves, and couplers.

Stops removed
Stops from above

Removing the vox humana was next. It is a heavy paper vane that spins when its stop is opened, sending air through its enclosed wheel (like a water wheel). The spinning gives a slightly wobbly tone to the notes–a “human voice.” There was nothing wrong with it, and it was fun to see how it worked. A wooden lever on right is moved up or down by a stop at front of organ, and the action is translated through a dowel that opens a valve inside the wind chest to allow air to move inside and set the vane spinning

Vox Humana. The dowel of the lever is taped to the box so I would not lose it.
Underside of vox humana..one hole for air entry, the other for air release. Ingenious!

Now to lift the wind chest, keys, reeds, and stop levers. They were all easily removed by loosening the screws with washers holding the chest to the foundation board — they come from above at back and sides, and from below at the front.

Keyboard from above, note the metal levers that are moved up or down by the stops some of which connect to the side of the keyboard.
Top of wind chest with reeds, keys, and metal levers for stop action. Note round patch.

But wow!! What is this? A round patch on the top of the wind chest beside the holes for the vox humana! This poor, little organ has a dark past — it may even have been shot! And when you look closely you can see that the bullet — (or spike — or rod) — pierced the top of the wind chest after passing through the back of the organ (look at the photo, above, of the top part of the back with the printed notice). Somebody loved it enough to repair both holes.

Close up of patch repair of hole in top back of organ.
Close up of round patch repair on top of wind chest–note holes for vox humana air flow.
Underside of round patch repair, inside the wind chest.

Looking up at the underside of the wind chest shows the pallets and their long finger-like springs all nicely lined up, looking as good as new.

View looking up at the inside of the wind chest with the pallets for each key. Although there are two reeds for every key, front and back, only a single pallet covers them. Note on left, the patched hole and white block for vox humana.

Removing the upper actions and the wind chest revealed the foundation board. It is made of several boards fitted tightly together and sealed with thick grey tape. Disintegrating blue felt was used as a gasket through which the screws holding the wind chest would pass. At the back it has a series of big holes to allow air to be drawn out of the wind chest from the bellows suction action. None of them are blocked. Rats! maybe the bellows is leaking and that has created the problem.

Looking down on the foundation board from the front.

I have not been able to figure out how to remove the side panels of the organ without damaging them. I am sure that it can be done, but the joins are mysterious. Consequently I cannot easily get at the bellows and had to peek around the edges at the back looking for leaks.

Back view of lower organ. Next picture is from the lower corner on left.
In this close up you can see the rubberized fabric on the bellows. It seems thin but is not cracked or flaking…no obvious holes here at least.
Pushing my camera deeper into that same corner as above, one can see the burlap straps and rollers attached to the pedals and the big metal spring that is squeezed tight when the pedal is pushed down (to open the bellows) and expands when it is released. Valves on the bellows boards (not visible) preserve the suction.

In order to inspect the bellows for leaks we tipped the organ onto its back to be able to examine the bottom of the bellows. Again it looked OK– but deep inside, way up near the top, there seemed to be a tiny rip in the fabric. Sorry — impossible to photograph without taking it all apart. But good images of a similar hole are at the restoration site here. My friend, retired mechanical engineer Henk Wevers, came over to assess the situation in August 2017. He took a long dowel and put a drop of liquid silicone on its tip, running it gently along the apparent rip. We let it sit for 24 hours. Problem solved–at least for the moment, but I still have to pump harder than before.

Some day I will probably have to take it all apart again and rebuild the bellows.