Pipe organ builder Timothy Patterson looks into his soul
to create his perfect instrument from scratch.
BY RICHARD CHIN Pioneer Press
12/17/2007

Timothy  Patterson's organ is a handmade labor of love that rises nearly 18 feet and now waits in a converted St. Paul warehouse for a buyer with $300,000. Virtually every element of the instrument was fabricated by Patterson of traditional materials. "I had total freedom," he said. "This is what I like." (RICHARD MARSHALL, Pioneer Press)

Hidden in an old converted warehouse in the West Seventh neighborhood of St. Paul is a pipe organ looking for a good home.

It has about 900 pipes, a case made of American walnut, an African zebrawood keyboard and a custom-made, adjustable bench.

And if he hadn't worn cloth gloves when he carefully handled the pipes, it would have Timothy Patterson's fingerprints all over it. Patterson built the organ over the course of eight summers and about 5,000 hours of work.

The 53-year-old Minneapolis resident has been building and fixing organs for 33 years, in the United States and Europe. He's worked day jobs ranging from driving taxicabs to doing computer work to make ends meet when the organ business waned.

"It's been a struggle for most of my life," he said.

But his latest project is even more of a labor of love than usual.

He built the instrument on speculation, with no actual buyer in mind. He was limited by a budget for materials and the height of the ceiling of his workshop - about 18 feet - but other than that he was free to create his dream organ, an instrument he describes as Gothic in appearance and French in sound.

"It's a classic shape and design," he said. "This is the way the old boys made it."

NO SKIMPING

He didn't stint on materials. About 4,000 board feet of solid walnut make up the case.

"The walnut all came from Wisconsin," he said. "This is a local-built organ."

The wood is finished in beeswax, and the case is designed so the whole 3,000-pound instrument can be taken apart and reassembled in another location.

He could have bought a plastic keyboard to operate the instrument, but he decided to make his own keyboard out of zebrawood.

"It's an oily wood. It has a certain resistance when you slide your finger back and forth," he said. "A keyboard like this, just one keyboard, is $4,000."

Magnets aid the action on the organ stop knobs, not springs. A lot more expensive, but Patterson said it provides better performance.

"You're looking at about $5,000 worth of action," he said.

He has a patent on the electric-mechanical valves in the organ, an invention he came up with that allows the air pressure to build up at just the right speed to avoid turbulence in the pipes.

"We kind of give a piece of our soul when we build an organ," Patterson said.

It also cost him a piece of flesh. He's missing the tip of his left index finger, the result of an accident while he was making the organ's case.

ALL FROM SCRATCH

Maybe the most unusual feature of the organ: Virtually every element of the instrument - the woodwork, the metal pipes, the keyboard, the bench, even the engraved brass labels for the controls - was fabricated in the warehouse by Patterson.

"I had total freedom. I had no church architecture to fit," he said. "This is what I like."

Patterson said only a handful of organ builders in the nation build their own pipes instead of ordering the parts from a supplier. But Patterson said making pipes from scratch allows him to create the sound he's trying to achieve.

"I design my pipes knowing what they're going to do," he said.

"That's what sets real organ builders apart from organ assemblers," he said. "The whole point is there's nobody around who can do the whole project like this."

Patterson said the price tag on his organ is about $300,000, installed.

"I have to install it. Nobody else could," he said.

But it hasn't left Patterson's workshop since he completed it two years ago. So far, he hasn't gotten any serious interest in the instrument. He said it would be suitable for a small to medium church, depending on the acoustics.

"A nice church would be a stone church, depending on the shape. Long, narrow churches are always the best," he said.

"It sounds very nice. I'm very, very pleased with it. I'd take two of them right away," said Stephen Self, an organist and music professor at Bethel University who has played Patterson's instrument.

Self said Patterson's organ has the versatility that would make it ideal for a church setting, but he could also see it being purchased by an organ fan with enough money and space to stick it in his home.

Patterson said if he built the same organ today, he'd have to charge close to $500,000 because the prices for raw materials - wood and metal - have risen so much in recent years, often driven by demand from Asian markets.

"Just that first big pipe," Patterson said pointing at the organ. "Just the metal is $500."

AFFINITY FOR ORGANS

Since he was young, Patterson has been both musical and mechanical, good qualities for an organ builder.

He built his first ham radio when he was 13 and has owned Corvettes since he was 19. He studied piano as a kid until he discovered organs and began playing them in churches in Minneapolis while he was still a teenager. One church organ he played was in Northeast Minneapolis.

"The organ needed maintenance and no one had money to fix it," he said.

So Patterson started working on it. A back injury prevented Patterson from studying the organ at the University of Minnesota. Instead, he ended up dropping out of college, driving a taxi and working on organs in his free time.

"At the time, it was such an interesting mystery. These wonderful machines that produced wonderful rich sounds," he said. "Some kids like fast cars. I liked powerful organs. That's pretty much it. It got the hormones going. The organ was my high."

Largely self-taught, he built his first organ at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Minneapolis. "That organ still plays today," he said.

"The business became good," he said. "In 1980, I had four years of contracts for future work."

He worked and studied with another local organ builder, Geoff Hunt, for about seven years. "That's where I learned to cast metal."

But when the organ business went into a lull, he went back to school to get a computer science degree.

MANY TALENTS

After he graduated, however, the organ business seemed to be improving. Patterson found a small, 108-year-old warehouse in St. Paul that had originally been used to make the scaffolding used in building the Cathedral of St. Paul. He spent the next year and a half remodeling the building and making the specialized tools he needed to build organs.

"I could have made a lot of money in the computer world," he said. "I chose to do this."

His computer skills still come in handy, since computers control many modern organs. Patterson uses a laptop to do sound analysis. And he draws up organ plans using computer-aided design programs.

But he also has to be a woodworker and a metal worker. He has to understand electrical systems and the physics of air movement.

"I love every aspect of organ building," Patterson said. "The organ is called the king of instruments. It's far above everything else."

"He is a very devoted man to what he does," Self said. "He loves the mechanics of the instrument, and he loves the idea of creating an instrument that can make beautiful sounds. He's a very, very diligent kind of guy. Probably you could say obsessive."

PERFECTION

Patterson works with everything from welding equipment to big lathes to delicate dental tools to tweak a pipe to get just the right sound or voice.

Tuning is adjusting the pitch of the organ, but voicing "is adjusting the color of the sound. That is an art," Patterson said.

"This is a beautiful pipe," Patterson said, producing a satisfying toot by blowing into the end of one he built for his new organ. "It speaks perfectly because we spent a lot of time on it."

Patterson said he's built about a dozen organs, but most of his business is in maintenance, repair and restoration of organs put into churches built in the 1960s and 1970s that are just now showing their age.

Patterson has an apprentice working with him, a 22-year-old St. Paul resident and fellow organ fanatic named Andrew Jirele.

When the two are in the workshop, they typically have organ music blasting away on a bank of speakers.

"The organ is the most vibrant instrument on the face of the earth. It allows a musician to express your soul," Patterson said. "This is my world."

Richard Chin can be reached at rchin@pioneerpress.com or 651-228-5560.

 

HOMEMADE ORGAN FOR SALE

903: Number of pipes

33: Number of stops

4,000: Board feet of walnut in the case

3,000: Weight of the instrument in pounds

18: How high in feet your ceiling would need to be to house it

5,000: Hours of labor to build it

0.5: Number of fingers lost in construction

300,000: Cost in dollars, installed

 


A trompette stop regulates a 16-foot pipe on Patterson's organ. His lifelong attraction to the instruments began "at my First Communion. I turned and saw the organ, and it hit me hard." (RICHARD MARSHALL, Pioneer Press)

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