Archive for Sunday, October 13, 2013

Lawhorn’s Lawrence: A finely tuned workshop

October 13, 2013


Tom Watgen: Reuter Organ Company voicer

Reuter Organ Company voicer Tom Watgen talks about perfecting the tones of their pipe organs. Enlarge video

Lawrence resident Tom Watgen, a 25-year voicer for the Reuter Organ Co., adjusts an organ pipe Wednesday. As a voicer, Watgen uses his acute sense for correct musical tones to fine-tune the pipes of the organs.

Lawrence resident Tom Watgen, a 25-year voicer for the Reuter Organ Co., adjusts an organ pipe Wednesday. As a voicer, Watgen uses his acute sense for correct musical tones to fine-tune the pipes of the organs.

The radio that constantly plays classical music is the first clue that this workshop may include some out-of-the-ordinary tools.

Sure, the workshops at the Reuter Organ factory in northern Lawrence include a lot of the normal hand tools that may be in your own toolbox. But perhaps the most valuable tools hang from the sides of the heads of the workers in these shops: finely tuned ears.

We're talking about ears that can instantly tell the difference between a D note and a D sharp, that understand how a G note should relate to an A, and that can detect one note that may be just a few decibels higher than another.

It's not surprising that the men responsible for making a pipe organ sound like a pipe organ need a good set of ears. But human hair? Now I'm told they need to understand that as well?

If you want to make it in what has become the increasingly rare profession of "organ voicer," it is a good tool to have in your box.

"That's how we describe it many times," said JR Neutel, president of the Reuter Organ Company. "We'll say you're off by a blonde hair or you're off by a red hair. In this business, an adjustment that is the thickness of a hair can make a tremendous difference in the sound of the instrument."

That's why you couldn't blame Tom Watgen — a 25-year veteran of the Reuter factory — for laughing when he hears people talk about sports or activities that come down to a "game of inches." An inch? That might as well be the Atlantic Ocean in this workshop.

"Fractions of a millimeter matter here," said Watgen.

And evidently red versus blonde, too.


Watgen talks of measurements that are about a third the thickness of a piece of a paper. Then he opens up his tool box and shows the tools of the trade: a simple wood-handled knife, a ball-peen hammer, a pair of needle-nose pliers and a few other tools that you could buy at any respectable hardware store.

But no computer. No laser-guided cutting machines. Nothing that resembles the high-tech pieces of equipment associated with modern precision manufacturing. Instead, with these simple tools, he "teaches pipes how to sing."

Watgen is the voicing supervisor at Reuter. There are three full-time voicers at the Reuter plant. They each have their own workshop and their own makeshift organ.

Craftsmen from other parts of the plant bring them custom made pipes of tin and zinc. The largest pipe is 12 inches in diameter. The smallest is about the thickness of a small radio antenna.

There are two types of organ pipes: flue pipes and reed pipes. Each pipe makes a different type of sound. Some are unique to an organ but others mimic instruments such as flutes, clarinets, French horns and a number of other orchestral instruments.

On a flue pipe, Watgen takes his wood-handled knife and cuts a "mouth" in the side. Later, he'll insert a flap — a tongue, so to speak — inside the mouth. The dimensions of each — along with the size of the holes in the top and bottom, and the length of the pipe — dictate the sound it will make when air is forced through it. The slightest variations can make Sousa sound like bad sushi.

"It is kind of like holding your mouth just right to blow across the top of a bottle," he said.

For reed pipes, the work can be even more demanding. A thin piece of brass — in some cases, just four-thousandths of an inch thick — acts as a reed. With wooden shims, a brass rod and a light touch, Watgen gently bends the brass to change the pipe's tone.

Each sound that an organ makes — like a trumpet or a French horn or a flute, for example — requires 61 pipes. The organ that Reuter currently is making for a Canadian church — about 95 percent of the company's sales are to churches — has 32 different sounds, or 1,952 pipes.

And all of them have to be taught how to sing, each in harmony with the other pipes, by Watgen and his fellow voicers. In the end, the pipes do a little teaching, too.

"It teaches you to be patient, that's for sure," Watgen said.


An organ voicer has to be a musical mechanic. That can be a hard combination to find.

"You have to have an ear to recognize different sounds," Watgen said, "but you have to have mechanical aptitude, too. There are people who have wonderful ears but don't know which end of the screwdriver to hold. That won't work."

All of Reuter's full-time voicers are degree-holding musicians. They also are part of a rare fraternity. Watgen estimated that there are about 40 full-time voicers in the United States, and maybe only a dozen who voice the complicated reed pipes as he does.

There are, after all, only three major organ manufacturers in the United States, Neutel said. Even though it has been a challenging decade for the organ industry, business is still solid at Reuter, which employs 32 people, he said.

Many of the employees have been there for decades. In many of the departments, masters teach apprentices, who then return the favor decades later. In addition to the voicers, the business includes skilled cabinetmakers, millers, metal workers and a host of other professions that involve precision and patience of their own kind.

They all work in their own little departments, but they don't have to wait for the corporate Christmas party to come together. When an organ is completed and ready to be loaded onto the truck for delivery, everyone comes together.

"It is a great feeling on that day because you see everybody from all these different departments wander in to see how the piece that they have done fits into a bigger picture," Watgen said.

I bet you the autoworkers in Detroit don't do that for every car that rolls off the assembly line. Maybe that's the difference between assembling and crafting. In today's world of disposable products, computer-formed pieces of plastic, and assemble-by-number instructions, it's easy to forget that there is a difference.

But out here at the Reuter plant and in the voicing workshops there are still reminders: Ball-peen hammers that tap lightly, needle nose pliers that twist slightly, and ears that hear perfectly.

"I don't tell anyone I'm a voicer," Watgen said. "No one understands that. I tell them we're organ craftsmen."

A whole community of craftsmen: That sounds perfect. Of course, from here, what else would you expect?

— Each Sunday, Lawhorn’s Lawrence focuses on the people, places or past of Lawrence and the surrounding area. If you have a story idea, send it to Chad at


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