Sound business The Art of Building an Organ

Philipp Klais is the world’s leading organ builder. He explained where to use pine or spruce, why the moon matters and how what counts most is taking time.
Philipp Klais, at work putting an organ together.

An organ builder needs tin, wood, cattle bones and mammoth teeth. He needs the skin from sheep and kangaroos. He needs tools that can’t be purchased anywhere.

But most of all, he needs time.

Philipp Klais was taught how to build organs by his father. As a boy, he played by the work bench, so he knew how an organ sounds before he could speak.

The workshop that Mr. Klais runs today was opened by his great-grandfather in 1882. Organs built there are among the best in the world. They stand in the Cologne Cathedral and in the Twin Towers in Kuala Lampur, in the largest concert hall in Buenos Aires and in the Beijing National Theater.

The red brick workshop of Klais Orgelbau GmbH & Co. is on a busy street on the north side of Bonn. Here, between an Aldi supermarket and shisha lounge, Philipp Klais takes his time even on the smallest pieces of the instrument. "We're not selling a product,” he said. “We sell sound.”

In the courtyard, spruce logs are delivered from the mountainous state of Vorarlberg in Austria.

The workshop is full of electric saws and carpenter’s planes, bench vises, anvils and tool chests. The air smells of fresh wood and warm glue, and a film of fine sawdust covers the floor. Men in wool sweaters and blue overalls file, shave and sand, listening to blues guitar on a portable radio.

Philipp Klais stands in the middle of it all, his black leather shoes buried in a pile of wood chips.

About 2,000 people work in the German organ-building industry, according to the Federation of German Organ Builders. It’s a small world where all the builders know one another. They read the same trade journals, Organ International or The Musical Instrument. They meet each year at the Gloria church fair.

In this world, no one is as successful as Mr. Klais.

He is the world’s leading organ builder and 70 percent of his clients are abroad. Soon Mr. Klais will install an instrument in Taiwan. Recently he got an order from Budapest.

It can take more than three years to build an organ. Then a 40 foot-long container is driven into the workshop’s courtyard, and the organ – disassembled into single pieces and packed in wooden cases – is  carefully loaded and shipped to its destination. Mr. Klais always books a place in the middle of the container ship, where the load is most stable. When it arrives in Beijing or Singapore, he puts the organ pieces back together again.

In Germany, there are many small and mid-sized companies that are world market leaders in niche markets, from companies producing toothbrushes to book-binding machines, wheels for hospital beds or clips to close sausage casings. They are all highly specialized to compete against their rivals.

Quelle: dpa
Organist Winfried Boenig at Cologne's cathedral.
(Source: dpa)


What's different about Mr. Klais' business is that his company does not grow. There were times when he might have expanded, but he did not succumb to the temptation. “I don't know why,” he said.

Mr. Klais never builds more than four organs at once. He has a steady workforce of between 60 and 70 employees. If Mr. Klais gets an order but lacks the capacity, he rejects the order instead of hiring more people. It's not a common strategy.

With new construction, years often go by between the signing of an order and the first note. Tuning a large organ can take several weeks. Clients are mostly church parishes, but also supporters of concert halls and private organ lovers. Among Klais clients are the Beijing National Theater, the Elbe Philharmonic and Cologne Cathedral.

Of all musical instruments, the organ is the largest and loudest. There are models with more than 8,000 pipes. Pipes that produce the highest tones are as tiny as a child’s finger. Those with the lowest tones are more than 20 meters long. Organs from the Klais workshop weigh up to 55 tons and cost up to €3.5 million. The smallest models start at €60,000, or about $65,000.

German organ builders have been famous for centuries for the quality of their instruments. They are joiners, acousticians, architects, casters, carpenters and musicians in one. They build new organs and restore old instruments. Many organs are more than 300 years old and are being eaten by wood worms or are threatened by mold.

For organs in Asia, Mr. Klais uses teak. For Cologne, he builds with oak and spruce.


Quelle: dpa
The organ in the cathedral in Cologne.
(Source: dpa)


In the furthest corner of his workshop, Mr. Klais steps into a dark chamber lined with dozens of gleaming silvery bars, each 37 kilograms of tin. Mr. Klais calls it “our Fort Knox.” The bars – 99.997 percent pure – are the raw materials for organ pipes.

Next door in a foundry, a man in a welder’s helmet and blue uniform sweats in the heat, his sleeves rolled up and hands in sturdy gloves. He stirs a tank that hangs from the ceiling, heating tin bars to 300 degrees Celsius, (572 degrees Fahrenheit) until they turn to liquid. He checks the temperature with a thermometer, then he pours the tin into a form and spreads it out. It cools into a flat sheet that looks like matte aluminum foil.

Later the sheets will be cut, bent and soldered into organ pipes. They will some day fill the church nave of St. Joseph in Bonn with their sound. Until then, no one else can touch them with bare fingers – sweat from skin could put the pipes out of tune.

Mr. Klais is 48 years old, has four children and has built dozens of organs out of spruce wood and sheep’s leather. He has made bellows and bent pipes out of tin sheets.

Today Mr. Klais is not in the workshop, but on an airplane. He has flown 379,530 kilometers, or about 236,000 miles since January 2014. He's a member of Lufthansa’s Honorary Circle, an elite group of frequent flyers who never have to wait to board.

Mr. Klais sleeps 180 nights a year in a hotel. On his travels, he examines organs, signs contracts, threads orders together. He has the daily routine of a consultant – but he goes by the moon rather than cost-benefit analyses.

“Naturally we have to watch our costs,” he said. “But we don't have checklists to optimize our tasks. What we do is far too specialized for that.”

For example, the wood that Mr. Klais buys for organs comes exclusively from spruce trees grown at elevations of 700 to 1,200 meters. The trees grow more slowly at those heights and the growth rings are finer. When the trees are felled, their wood hardly warps.

The timing for chopping the trees down depends on the farmer’s almanac – only during a waning moon.

“If the moon affects the seas, it might also determine the water balance of organisms,” Mr. Klais said. He wants to avoid sap in the wood, which attracts parasites.

For organs in Hamburg or Cologne, he always uses spruce or oak. But for those in Beijing or Singapore, he switches to mahogany or teak.

“If you place spruce in China, it’s like laying a coffee table out with tree parasites,” he said.

The leather that his company uses to build bellows is also special. Mr. Klais swears by kangaroo skin, it's “clearly superior” to sheep leather, he said, at least when the organs are in warm rooms. Kangaroo skin adapts to heat better and the leather rarely becomes brittle.

Once, Mr. Klais built an organ in Siberia and carved the keys out of a Siberian mammoth horn.

Like a star chef who chooses regional vegetables because they are healthier and taste better, Mr. Klais is a supporter of indigenous raw materials. They sound better and last longer, he said.

Mr. Klais’ company also makes its own glue – a slimy yellow mixture of water, skin and ground-up bone. They don’t use synthetic glue, which is cheaper but has only been around for a few decades. That wouldn’t do for a craft that is centuries old.

Costs that clients estimate is a problem for his bookkeeper, who has worked at Klais for 14 years. “If I didn't set him boundaries, he would always bring along a more expensive wood,” she said.

“We are in a constant battle (over costs),”  said Mr. Klais.

As an organ-building apprentice, Mr. Klais once observed the company administration at Bayer, the pharmaceutical and chemical giant in nearby Leverkusen. But he didn't adopt the strategy of optimizing costs; with Mr. Klais, there will be no outsourcing, no search for cheap glue. If it has to, his company even forges its own screws and tools.

“My management tool is having lunch together,” he said.

At noon, Mr. Klais and his workers gather in the workshop library. They sit at one long table, the collected volumes of the American Organist magazine behind them on a shelf, the poster from church naves on the wall.

At lunchtime, a delivery service drops off curry-lentil stew in thermos boxes. The organ builders eat soup but barely speak, sitting like old married couples who don’t need words to understand each other.

Most completed their apprenticeships at the company and then stayed on. A few years ago, four employees retired at once. Together, they had worked more than 200 years at Klais.

Mr. Klais and his people work a good three years on a single organ. Orders are planned in the long term. The economic crisis came late to the workshop in Bonn. Up until last year, Mr. Klais had started to believe that churches and cities would no longer invest after the financial crisis.

When clients dissipate, long-term planning is a problem. In Singapore, the Klais company built an organ for a concert house that was not completed for years. Mr. Klais had negotiated a fixed price in dollars. While he waited, his employees’ wages grew and the exchange rate fluctuated. Suddenly, he was losing money on the organ deal.

Meanwhile, there is the issue that wood in every organ ages. It warps, it swells and, even worse, it molds. Many churches have sealed windows and insulated walls today. For people, it's pleasant because they don’t have to be cold. But the organs suffer. Their wood molds because church naves don’t have enough ventilation.

So in addition to building new organs, Philipp Klais refurbishes older instruments. That way, the organs his great-grandfather built long ago will still tell the story of his art, hundreds of years from now.



Video: The different sounds of the VCH’s Klais Organ.


This article originally appeared in Die Zeit newspaper. To contact the author: [email protected]