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150 years of craftwork carries on at Schantz Organ Company

Making pipe organs by hand is a slow art. The pipes start as flat pieces of metal before they are soldered together and eventually tuned to play right.

On a recent morning in the pipe making workshop at the Schantz Organ Company in Orrville, a handful of workers focused on exacting tasks, such as scribing metal to mark the place for the pipe’s mouth. That process is repeated for the 244 pipes in that set.

“We're holding onto traditions of craft where people make things actively with their hands,” said Victor Schantz, president of the company.

 A.J. Schantz, founder of the Schantz Organ Company
Schantz Organ Company
A.J. Schantz, founder of the Schantz Organ Company

Start of a legacy

Victor's great-grandfather, A.J. Schantz, started the tradition of making organs at the family farm in Kidron, Ohio, just south of Orrville, 150 years ago.

Uninterested in dairy farming, A.J. set up a workshop for building furniture and fixing things. When a church brought him a reed organ to repair, he realized he could make reed organs, Victor said.

“That little farm in Kidron was the beginning of the company in the sense that A.J. started to invent and build reed organs,” he said.

By the early 1900s, the factory moved to its current location in Orville at the corner of Oak and Walnut streets. With the advent of electricity, the Schantz Organ Company transitioned from making reed organs, which require foot pumping to play, to pipe organs. Business today involves both making new pipe organs and refurbishing existing ones, and the staff continues to do the work by hand.

A variety of craftwork

“What's really incredible about being around all of the different folks that work here is that everything that they do is unique,” said Victor’s son, John, comptroller for the business. “There's no one project that we do that’s the exact same thing.”

In addition to making both metal and wood pipes, Schantz craftwork includes building electric blowers, constructing wooden consoles, installing the electronics and “voicing” the pipes, which involves getting the sound right.

“Organs are a reflection of the people who build them both in terms of what they look like and how they sound,” said Jeff Dexter, tonal director at the Schantz Organ Company.

While organ sound continues to evolve over time, Dexter said there is a uniformity to the sound of their organs.

“It's influenced by the places in which we work. It's influenced by the people we get to work with. It's influenced by musical tastes of the time,” he said.

Once an organ is built or restored in Orrville, workers transport the instrument to where it will be played. On site, they adjust the pipes to get the sound right.

“That’s the process that we call tonal finishing,” Dexter said. “That's marrying those pipes to the acoustical and physical environment that the organ sits in.”

Organs play on

The team recently refurbished a pipe organ from a church in North Carolina for Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church in Cleveland.

Schantz Organ Company workers install a pipe organ at Our Lady of Peace near Shaker Square in Cleveland.
Carrie Wise
Ideastream Public Media
Schantz Organ Company workers install a pipe organ at Our Lady of Peace near Shaker Square in Cleveland.

“I think one of the more humbling things about this craft is that, if we do our jobs in a good way, this instrument will outlast us all,” Dexter said.

The overall market for pipe organs has declined in the last several decades as church attendance has declined nationally. However, the number of organ businesses has declined too, Victor Schantz said, which keeps the company busy both restoring and building organs around the country.

Past projects include work at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York and Severance Hall in Cleveland, but the majority of the company's business is for churches.

“We have this little niche in America of churches that still are using traditional music in the worship service,” he said. “So long as they exist, we exist, because the demand for those instruments continues.”

Carrie Wise is the deputy editor of arts and culture at Ideastream Public Media.