Organ Company Uses 123 Years of Experience to make Sweet Music

The Schantz Organ Company custom-makes pipe organs by 'harmoniously' combining 'old world' craftsmanship with new technology.

Most worship services in America are punctuated by their musical interludes, and the instrument most associated with a religious institution's music is the organ. When an immense pipe organ bellows out the traditional music of, say, the Gregorian or Baroque musical periods within the walls of a church, one can envision the ancient cathedrals of Europe or the older churches in urban America and enjoy the "Old World" craftsmanship which created these splendid "kings" of musical instruments.

At the Schantz Organ Co. in Orrville, OH, that vision is not just a sentimental journey, but a living artifact. Many "Old World" methods of pipe organ construction are still utilized in this fourth-generation, 123-year-old family business, but combined with modern machinery and technology.

"We use a procedure that has been handed down for 300 years, yet with many modern adaptations," said Victor Schantz, the company's vice president of manufacturing.

Each Schantz Organ is built entirely by the company, which custom designs and hand crafts instruments for many different churches. "Every pipe organ is a unique custom instrument," Schantz said.

A typical pipe organ's wood components consist of air boxes, or windchests, which supply air to the pipes (some of which are made of wood and some of metal). These pipes produce the sound. There also is a console cabinet, which surrounds the keyboards, and the facade, which includes the decorative tracery, casework and crown mouldings. The woodworking part of building an organ takes into account many unique variables, such as a church's decor and architecture, and the atmospheric/climactic conditions a church endures. The Schantz Organ Company purchases nearly 100,000 board feet of hardwood lumber per year, and utilizes an arsenal of modern wood machinery that saves time and furthers efficiency, yet does not detract from the time-honored, craftsmanship-oriented principles of organ building.

"We have to be prepared to custom match any church furniture, whether that is walnut, mahogany or maple," Schantz said. "The cabinet grade hardwoods for the organ's casework are always FAS Select or better."

For the interior wood of the organ, used for the construction of mechanical action parts such as the windchests and air reservoirs, the company uses Appalachian poplar of the same high grade. In fact, poplar and red oak are the major species that Schantz uses.

"Poplar is a 'dimensionally stable' hardwood. It is durable and machines easily, making it resistant to swelling and shrinking," Schantz said. He added that poplar and red oak are also used in the construction of wooden organ pipes, which complement the often more noticeable metal pipes and make the "flute-like" sounds of the instrument.

"Just like the woodwind instruments in an orchestra, the organ's wood pipes generate certain harmonics in the structure to deliver a specific sound," said Schantz.

Moisture content in the wood is also a crucial consideration. The company strictly ensures that, upon arrival from kiln-drying at the mill, the wood has a moisture content between seven and eight percent.

"We humidify the plant in winter to maintain a stable amount of humidity," Schantz said.

Since there are so many different and extreme weather patterns to contend with in the United States, wood movements are a challenge for pipe organ builders. The wood must be resistant to swelling and shrinking, but be permitted to move, so the company joins the various parts containing air channels with spring-loaded screws to compensate for variations in temperature and humidity.

"If you build an organ in Europe and put it in a huge cathedral without central heating, [it will be exposed to] higher relative humidity indoors, which means you have less variation winter to summer. The American builder must take humid conditions in the South and bone-dry conditions in Minnesota into account for the design of his components," Schantz explained.

While these age-old factors of climate and decor still must be addressed, today's woodworking technology has made organ construction easier in other areas. Schantz said production has become more efficient since the company purchased a CNC router and a moulder, and adapted computer-based drafting and designing methods as produced by AutoCAD and Surfcam interface software.

According to Schantz, many steps previously done using a cross-cut saw, a gang ripsaw, a planer and joiner are handled by the company's new moulder, a Weinig Profimat. He said that the moulder, combined with the Motionmaster CNC router, provide a substantial labor savings in the wood construction process (enough to pay for the machinery expense in three years' time), yet do not diminish the preservation of the traditional methods of organ building.

"We're in the business of preserving craft skill," Schantz said, even though the modern equipment speeds up the process.

The computer-based drafting information, which is sent to the CNC router, is responsible for the accurate drilling of the holes in the windchests. Other data can be supplied to the router to create tracery patterns for the facade of the organ that match the tracery patterns in particular churches.

The company has a wide array of woodworking equipment in addition to that mentioned above, including a DeWalt cross-cut saw, a Diehl gang ripsaw, an Oliver joiner, a Whitney planer and a Hitachi miter box saw.

Other important considerations the company takes into account concern the appearance of the wood in visible areas. The organ's facade, or casework, is visible to most of a church's assemblage and therefore needs to match the church furniture. For the finish, Schantz implements four steps, applying an oil stain with a brush-on, wipe-off method, followed by two coats of clear lacquer, sanding and then two final coats of lacquer.

The console interior, however, is constructed of solid cherry wood and has a six-step finishing process. The company begins with the same process of brushing on and wiping off an oil stain, followed by two coats of clear lacquer, sanding, two more coats of lacquer, more sanding and then the final two coats of lacquer, the last coat hand-rubbed, producing a mirror-like finish.

"When we do hand-rubbing, we try to emulate a high-class, interior finish," said Bruce Schantz, the company's chairman of the board, as well as Victor's father. "For an organist, the console of the organ is his private domain," he added.

The Schantz plant covers about 20,000 square feet, has 80 employees, with 62 involved in some capacity of the woodworking aspect and the rest engaged in metal pipe construction and musicianship. It reaches approximately $5 million in annual sales volume, and an average sized pipe organ is priced between $200,000 to $250,000, Schantz said, adding that some smaller organs run in the $80,000 range, while a huge organ for a cathedral can be as much as $800,000.

Founder Abraham Tschantz (the original spelling of the family's name) was the grandson of a family that emigrated from Switzerland to Kidron, OH, in 1824. Although Abraham had no prior experience in organ building, he began the business in 1873, developing it modestly, and established a shop staffed with a few craftsmen. When the company became larger and its reputation grew, Tschantz moved it to Orrville.

Today, the Schantz Organ Company is right at home in Orrville, a town that is the headquarters for other companies descended many generations from European immigrant founders, such as the jam/jelly company, Smuckers. Despite the advancements in modern technology, Schantz still adheres to the principles of Old World craftsmanship.

"What we're doing is reproducing antiques," said Bruce Schantz.

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