Care of pipe organs

Pipe Organs

A long tradition associates the organ with Christian worship. The pipe organ is described by its devotees as the King of Instruments and it certainly is very versatile when properly designed. The organ’s ability to lead and sustain congregational singing is its primary role. Lively singing is best encouraged by the pipe organ. For the accompaniment of a large congregation there is no substitute, and the sustained and under-girding tone of the organ’s pedal department makes it particularly suitable for bold, harmonic music such as stately hymn tunes and marches.

Depending on its design, the organ has a wide variety of tone, from pungent reeds to mellow flutes, and a great range of volume, from pianissimo to fortissimo. So, this also makes it a most useful instrument for solo pieces and for the support of small groups of voices. For example, the imaginative use of stop changes can greatly enrich the singing of the psalms and other parts of the liturgy.

Pipe organs also play an important evangelical role in churches’ outreach to the wider community in sacred concerts and other musical and cultural programmes.

Parish churches find it increasingly difficult to persuade organists to accept appointed positions. Organists require adequate instruments for practice purposes and the church with a pipe organ that has been well maintained and cared for will find it easier to attract trained musicians than the church whose organ has been neglected or replaced with an electronic instrument. Realising this, the dioceses asked Church Music Dublin to draw up the following guidelines.



Prepared by Church Music Dublin and approved by the Diocesan Councils on 8th September 2019

The following guidelines are intended as a resource for clergy, Select Vestries, organists and other persons responsible for the care and maintenance of pipe organs in churches. These are general principles for best practice and are not definitive. Independent and impartial advice should always be sought before seeking tenders or signing contracts. In some cases, work may require the consent of the Diocesan Councils. Church Music Dublin can provide further advice.

Evaluating an organ

Pipe organs are complex instruments, and so are expensive to build and maintain. Before deciding to invest money in an organ, it is worth evaluating an existing instrument in terms of its suitability for the musical needs of the church, and its historic and aesthetic value. Is the organ used for playing repertoire, accompanying congregational singing, accompanying a choir, or a mixture of these? Are the resources of the organ adequate for this purpose? Is the location of the organ satisfactory and does it sound well in the building? Does the organ contain historic pipework? Was the organ donated to the church for a particular purpose (e.g. given in memory of a deceased member of the congregation)? Does the organ add to the beauty of the church?


An organ should be tuned and maintained at least once a year. A reputable organ-builder should be contracted to visit the church at agreed intervals to carry out tuning and any necessary minor maintenance work. Cost will depend on frequency of visits, the size of the organ, and incidental work. The organ-builder should be required to supply a brief written report when submitting their invoice, and these reports should be brought to the attention of the Select Vestry. A representative of the church should speak regularly with the organ-builder regarding maintenance of the organ. A log-book should be kept at the organ console in which users of the organ can record faults (notes not working, unusual noises, etc.) so as to maximise the benefit of visits from the organ-builder. Ensure that the church is heated to normal Sunday temperature when the tuner is in, as the pitch of the organ alters with the temperature. In the case of an organ that is not used regularly or at all, an organ-builder should be asked to carry out a basic inspection at least once every two years, so as to prevent the organ falling into an unusable state. If your organ has fallen into an unusable state, seek the opinion of an experienced and reputable organ-builder. Be sceptical of any suggestion that an organ is not worth repairing. It may well be that the instrument requires only minor repairs, some electrical work, and cleaning, to restore it to a playable state. If in any doubt, seek a second opinion.


Organs are particularly at risk from water damage from roof leaks. If any evidence of water is found near the organ, seek advice from an organ-builder immediately. Pipe organs contain substantial quantities of wood and metal that respond to changes in temperature and humidity. Ideally, a steady temperature of 15–20 degrees Celsius and 60% humidity should be maintained. While this ideal is seldom achievable in church buildings, church officers should be reminded regularly that excessive heat and high humidity can cause parts of the organ to warp and crack. The days before Christmas and Easter, when heating may be powered on for long periods, are times when such problems may occur. Organs are frequently damaged in the course of redecoration or building work in a church. Covering an organ with blankets or plastic sheeting can prevent damage by dust or debris, which may cost thousands of euro to repair. It is essential that an experienced organ-builder is engaged to install such protection. Do not allow a building contractor under any circumstances to get into the organ, unless the organ-builder is present.


The pipe organ may well be the single most valuable asset in the building. Depending on its size, the instrument’s replacement value could run into hundreds of thousands. Insurance cover should take this into account.

Major restoration and renovation

Significant work on an organ may be required if it is found to be unfit for purpose, or in a state of major disrepair. In the course of normal use pipes can become dirty or damaged, and may need cleaning and repair. Outmoded technology (such as an old-fashioned pneumatics or electrics) may need to be replaced. It may be advisable in some cases to add or replace pipes or alter the pitch. In such circumstances, the first step is to appoint an experienced and reputable independent organ consultant. Such a consultant should understand the workings of the organ as well as the musical needs of the church. Next, a detailed specification for the work required should be prepared, to provide a base for evaluating quotations. Best practice is to seek quotations from at least three different organ-builders. Owing to the wide range of approaches to organ-building, you may well receive three entirely different proposals, which will need to be evaluated carefully.

Faculties and controls

In most denominations there are controls on what happens to the fabric of a church. In the Church of Ireland, a faculty is required to add, replace, remove or reposition an organ, or carry out any work that alters the existing artistic character of the instruments, such as changing the keyboard action, adding or removing a rank of pipes, or changing the outward appearance. The Diocesan Registrar will be able to offer help and guidance on the faculty jurisdiction and how it relates to the role of the Representative Church Body as trustee of parish property. For more information on the RCB and alterations to fabric or furnishings see the ‘Parish Resources’ section of the Church of Ireland website. Certain dioceses will require a parish to obtain the permission of Diocesan Council prior to spending over a certain figure. It would not be difficult for works on an organ to exceed this threshold. The Diocesan Secretary can offer advice on this.