The tuning process

Pulling reeds

First of all you need a tool to easily extract the reeds. Every reed has a notch. This makes it possible to pull them out

With a simple bicycle spoke, you can make a reed puller.
With a file, you can shape the head so that it perfectly fits in the notch of the reed.

Soldering extra material

Slide the postcard under the reed tongue

  • With the soldering iron add some solder at the tip of the tongue. Assure that no material cross the edges of the tongue.
  • mark the reed at the front with an alcohol marker, so that it's easy to find it back when it's back in its position
  • Slide the reed back into its position
  • Open the harmonicity Tuner app on your smartphone
  • Play the note
  • Read the note detected by the app
  • When the note is too low, remove the reed
  • With a small triangular file, remove some solder
  • Repeat the process until the note is correct
  • Remove the reed
  • With a file, clean up the front so it blinks. This is a good way to see which reeds are already tuned
  • Choose to tune the notes that are part of chords.
  • Choose lower octave notes, since the bass coupler also plays them.
  • Check if chords and octaves sound in harmony with pleasant beats

The Keyboard layout

This organ has a keyboard with 61 keys starting with an F

This is as follows

This seems to be common for pump reed organs. I have no idea why this is.

Organ characteristics


  • Bass Coupler
  • Diapason (rear row of reeds)
  • Principal (front row of reeds)
  • A vibrato knop which is broken off
  • Dulcet (front row of reeds)
  • Vox Celeste (front and rear rows of reeds)
  • Melodia (rear row of reeds)
  • Treble Coupler 

Keyboard lay-out

The organ has a 61 keys F keyboard.

Current tuning

After going through all notes I realized that the organ is tuned with a 455 Hz reference instead of 440Hz. This is almost exactly a quarter of a note higher.

When googling "tuning with A4 = 455 Hz", it seems that is has been the standard tuning pitch in England until in 1953 a worldwide standard was defined at A4 = 440 Hz.

Since my organ originates from England, this explains its tuning reference at 455 Hz.

Here a sample from the book "Physics and music"

For several hundred years, the pitch of (the notes of the musical scales has been determined by specifying A4 as the standard of pitch. The frequency of this standard note has varied widely and changed so frequently that no set value could really be called standard.
In Handel's time (1685-1759), A4 was determined by his personal tuning fork, which had a frequency 422.5 Hz. Since the brilliance of string instruments, like the violin family, appears to increase with higher frequencies, the standard A4 gradually went up in value until ar the end of the nineteenth century it had reached 461 Hz in the United States and 455 Hz in England. Since a change in standard pitch imposes major problems on musicians and
instrument manufacturers, a fixed value became more and more essential. Finally in 1953, the International Standards Organization recommended that A4 = 440 Hz be adopted as the standard frequency for music throughout the
world. Unfortunately, not all musicians followed the recommendation, and (here still exist some orchestral groups that tune their instruments to A4 = 442 Hz or A4 = 444 Hz.
Opera singers today are singing Beethoven and Mozart arias about a semitone higher than the pitch for which they were written.’ This necessitates tuning the accompanying string instruments by increasing their string tensions by nearly 12 percent. To do this. some of the violins made by the old Italian masters have had to be strengthened, which means that their tone quality is not the same. 
Some years ago a scientific scale was developed that was based upon C being given by integral powers of the number 2, On this scale, middle c has a frequency of 256 Hz. There are many of such tuning forks still around and
commercially available, and many high school and college science teachers still like middle C at 256 Hz
The standard of pitch for most symphony orchestras today is taken to be A4 = 440 Hz. The oboist usually carries a tuning fork or pitch pipe to sound the correct pitch. The other musicians then tune to the oboe.


Tuning organ to 440Hz : The Plan


A couple of years ago I bought an old reed organ which was still in pretty good state for its age. The organ is manufactured in the United Kingdom at the end of the 19th century.
The reason I bought it was to use it in our Neil Young Tribute band.
After a mechanical restoration, I introduced it to the band.

There was one problem. It was not tuned with 440Hz as reference. At the end of the 19th century there was no standard for tuning instruments.
As a result it could not be used with other instruments. Guitars can be tuned differently. So that could have been a workaround.
But Neil Young uses his organ together with his harmonicas. And harmonicas cannot be tuned.

So the organ ended up in a corner collecting dust.

The plan is to tune it to 440 Hz reference tuning, so it can be used together with other instruments.

Tools needed

Soldering Iron (35 Watt)

A spoke

Smooth triangular file

A postcard

A guitar or any other reference instrument

Alcohol marker
Harmonicity Meter App


Reed organ introduced in the band

At the moment of writing this, The reed organ has found its place in our rehearsal studio, where it will bring songs of Neil young. We recorded two songs with it that are posted on http://www.reverbnation.com/yellowmoonrising.

The next plan is to fix some minor issues regarding keys that get stuck sometimes. I also want to amplify the organ by aid of some electret microphones. This requires some electronic circuitry, but is quite easy to manufacture.


Visit to local reed organ Museum

Very funny. Merely 20 km from my home, there is a decent harmonium museum in an abandoned church.
So I went for a visit, to have a look to similar organs.
I found out there are two sorts of reed organs. basically you have pressure and vacuum organs.
The oldest are of the vacuum type and are often called American organs. Mine is clearly of that type.
The pressure type organs have a totally different character. They're more powerfull
I took some pictures of simiral "American" type organs.

Canadian Vacuum type reed organ

American vacuum type organ manufactured by Estey. Neil Young owns an Estey, being a more luxuary type.

Overview of the "pressure" type side

Vacuum type reed organs

Volume valves and lever installed

Valves put in place. Side panels not glued yet
As the organ is constructed with natural materials, I found it appropriate to use natural tools too ;-) Side panels are drying      

Side panel glued with wood glue. They were screwed which was not as designed originaly. So I omitted the screws

Side panels dryed

Valve lever positioned and checked for good operation

Lever mounted and fixed.

The unit before it could be mounted in the organ

Some guides needed to be fixed first before the unit can slide back into the organ

Update : Treble coupler restored

I had a lot of work restoring the couplers. From dusty, rusty peaces of wood and iron to shiny neat peaces of fine mechanic
Restored treble coupler. Hinge cotton strip replaced. Coupler levers more ore less sanded well. Guides provided with fresh red filt.
Put in place on the organ unit


extractable reeds, yes they are!!!

How naive I have been. An instrument constructed in a genius way, with reeds that were not reachable? I thought it was the case. How wrong I was! Really.
This is such an interesting story. I bought a dust covered instrument for 80 Euro, just because my greatest musical inspiration "Neil Young" uses it in quite some of his songs.
As a guitar player, I didn't have the "keyboard" connection before but I was so fascinated by Neil's passion for this old instrument.

But I'm very interested in history, you know. Things that got lost, since interest has been refocused to technological evolution. I've been into 1900-1945 piston engine aircraft, am a Royal Enfield motorcycle driver and am fond of the English pride about there heritage. Old Warden is one of my favourite places I have visited twice, and want to visit a couple of times more.

Back to the organ.

Let me show the elephant and mouse :

Big Elephant and small Mouse (both ends of the keyboard) extracted with a 5 cent Euro coin


Air valves for reeds restored and installed

The built-up has started. Since I do not dare to break open the wooden construction holding the reeds on the base panel, I'll leave it for what it is. The whole construction is glued together. Reeds are nailed with very small nails on the base panel.

I chose for a technical restoration. This means :
  • Wood treatment for long durability. Unprotected wood tends to pick up a lot of dust. Most of the wooden parts have been painted with a rosewood colour varnish.
  • Worn felt parts are replced
  • Broken steel rods were reproduced
  • Hinges were cleaned up
  • Old varnish has been waxed
Reeds are visible when air valve is lifted to open position. They can be extracted!!!!
Felt "guides" are replaced. My children go to a Steiner School, where felt is commonly used.
 Hinges cleaned up with copper polish
 Reproduced steel rod. Here my experience in model aviation comes out very handy.
Overview of the "base" unit. Long red felt strips are kept original since they are glued and not worn badly

Overview of the "workshop"
First lever for opening the air valves cleaned up and installed



The "core" of the organ removed. Actually it is an independent "unit". Those days modular systems already existed. Note the damage on the cabinet. Plan is to replace the back of the cabinet completely with a new plywood.
It is clear that the organ has been overhauled once with "modern" materials. The white strips are plastic tape. Normally leather was used to seal airflow containers.
 The "unit" seperated from the cabinet. The actual "break-down" can start. Brrr, hope everything will fit again together, after every part has been cleaned up and/or repaired.
The best way to know how to re-assemble is to take pictures, pictures, pictures. Glad these days they are instantly available and are darn cheap.
 Side View Treble Side. The levers are connected to the stop knobs above the keyboard and actuate different valves or couplers (Bass and Treble)
 Side View Bass Side
 Front View. Mention the lever at the right side. It is basically actuated by the right leg and open two big valves for volume increase. One at the front side, one at the back side.
A reed organ is a very human instrument. You have to do everything yourself
  • Producing the air flow
  • Playing the keys
  • Using the stops during play
  • using your legs to open valves
 The actual "valves" of the organ. They are hold in place by springs.
 The levers are removed here. Carefully named by their stop knob. Names are
  • Bass Coupler
  • Diapason
  • Principal
  • The broken one (I HAVE to find out what the name might have been)
  • Dulcet
  • Dox Celeste
  • Melodia
  • Treble Coupler
The broken one is connected to a kind of "hamond" style rotator which gets air from the "basement by opening a valve.

 The "control unit"
 The bare keyboard. At the back the hamond style Unit
 All keys removed, The heart of the organ start to show up
 All the keys piled up
 Key frame removed
 Couplers for bass and treble removed. They can use a major overhaul. Every lever is corroded quite badly. Felt "bearings" are worn out and need to be replaced (the red stuff)
 The organ push rods. They open the valves on the very bottom of the organ unit when a key is pressed. These are the push rods that are not part of the couplers. They are different in shape
 The push rod guide
 The bass coupler push rods. They are also actuated by the bass coupler unit. One is broken, but can be re-manufactured easily. Felt is worn here too.
 Treble coupler push rods. They're all intact, although one if them is mysteriously black. Felt has to be replaced.
 The pile of coupler push rods
 The actuators for reed valves. When opened the volume is increased
 Close-up if actuator
 This needs a small explanation. The fact that the core of the organ is glued, might indicate it was a cheaper model. I would guess a more expensive organ might be unmountable to the bone. So I was not able to reach the reeds themselves. They are nailed doen to the base plate, while the wooden construction on top of it is glued indeed. This is clearly visible at the bottom side, when the valves are removed. So we decided to keep it like it is. With a vacuum cleaner I removed as much dust as possible
 Another view on sucking out the dust
 A mysterious number "20" was found back on the base plate of the organ.
 Since all varnish is probably very old, it is quite dull. So I used the car polish I use for my Royal Enfield Motorcyle to give it a new shine

All the valves removed.
Actually these are the actual valves making the sound possible.
The reeds produce the sound. But the valves allow the air to reach the reeds. The base plate is screwed against the base of the bellows in the cabinet. The seal avoids air escaping.
The whole chamber as seen above is under vacuum. All valves are closed when there is no key hit.
When a key is hit, the push rod is pushed down, opening the valve, allowing air flowing from the atmosphere via the reed element into the bellows, causing the sound. It's not clear to me yet, on how the bass dispason works though. When activated, a supplement of lower octaves are added on top of the bass notes.

The valves themselves are built up with natural materials, being wood, felt and presumably deer leather. As clearly visible, they are polluted by soot dust. The outmost 3 right valves were cleaned with a brush. They have an imprint due to the long lasting pressure. Question here is. Do they need to be overhauled, or can we keep them as is?

Here I need some experts in organ restoration to provide a correct assesment. In the motorcycle world, they discourage to replace valve seats if this is not necessary, since the valves adapted themselves into the seats. Don't know if this is valid for organ valves though.