The word “craftsmanship” can mean different things to different people. For some, it connotes using hand tools to create objects from natural materials in a manner similar to what was done hundreds of years ago. While we respect the validity of that opinion, we prefer to think of craftsmanship as simply executing work in the best manner possible, using whatever methods and materials are most appropriate. Naturally, preferences — dare I say prejudices? — enter into this process.
I feel fortunate to have apprenticed with the Noack Organ Company; Fritz Noack was an early leader in what I think of as the second-generation Organ Reform builders in this country. His preference was always to use solid wood wherever possible, and so we in the shop learned how to deal with the different seasonal expansion rates of various species and “cuts” of lumber when designing and building parts. In our own work here at J. Zamberlan & Co., I’m more open to using alternative wood products, for example plywood, in identical circumstances. While plywood (and other panel products) has its own strengths and weaknesses, we prefer its unchanging dimensions both “with” and “across” the grain for applications where the use of solid wood might result in problems such as joint weakening or wind leakage. We use high-quality Baltic Birch, and never edgeband it for work inside the organ — we’re not ashamed of using it, and don’t feel the need to hide the multi-ply laminations.
Whether it’s using only phosphor-bronze — never brass or stainless steel — for pallet springs or Teflon-filled Delrin for mechanical stop action bearings, we feel we’ve combined the best of traditional methods and materials with new technologies and approaches. This extends to how we work with these materials in crafting an instrument. Sometimes a block plane is the best tool for removing material along an edge or adding a subtle chamfer. But, in addition to our jointer, planer, band saw and drill press, we also have a 10’ sliding table saw, and it’s been here since day one. These are gaining in popularity in the U.S., but have been common in Europe for decades. Having this saw, which we use for essentially all final cutting to width and length for both solid wood and panel products, has enabled us to tackle projects in a safer and more efficient manner than would be possible without it.
My wish, from the day I started the shop, was to utilize water-based materials for finishing as much as possible. While we have used “smelly” stains for most work, in the last few years we’ve made the switch to a completely water-based system for sprayed finishes. Using materials from one vendor should eliminate the possibility of problems due to incompatible formulations, an increasing concern as regulations get more strict each year and materials can’t be taken for granted any more. We still utilize both dyes and pigments in our staining process, giving us wide latitude to match a variety of effects and finishes, and eliminating petroleum solvents from the process has enabled us to make our finishing more efficient — as well as friendlier to both the staff and the planet. For some things like console interiors, though, our first choice is still the smooth tactile effect that only multiple coats of a wiped-on finish can give, with a final coat of paste wax.
We buy our metal pipes. This is obviously a tricky area in some regards, and many well-respected shops, turning out exquisite work, choose to make their own pipes. But I’ve also seen pipework that can at best be described as homemade. This was one area of organbuilding I didn’t get to explore during my apprenticeship, and I’ve always felt that my own clients shouldn’t be paying for me to make mistakes as I learn on my own, or my coworkers do. I believe that we can buy pipes made exactly as we wish, made by someone who has specialized in this area, for a lower cost than we could possibly make them here. Not only does this result in a better final product, but it also saves us — as well as our clients — money, and also helps support another small business.