Scott Gorsuch: Pipe Organ Voicer

7 December, 2010: Scott Gorsuch: Bunn=Minnick Pipe Organs

Columbus, Ohio. Bunn=Minnick Pipe Organs comes as a recommendation from my high school buddy, Christopher. He works in the corporate display business, and recalls paying a sales visit to an eclectic business partnership downtown which seems right up my alley in its involvement in a highly specialized field of an old – if not forgotten – craft: pipe organ building. I had been exposed to this trade in season three of Dirty Jobs, when we traveled to Philadelphia to clean and maintain vintage instruments with Walsh Pipe Organs. From that memory I know the trade is appropriate. After a couple of phone calls and a discussion with founding partner Phil Minnick, we agree on a subject for me to focus on: the prodigy of the company – a guy talented in both carpentry and music – pipe voicer and former builder Scott Gorsuch. Scott, Phil assures me, will give me everything I need. He is, after all, ‘a natural.’

I arrive on a cold and snowy morning to discover an old, dignified, four-story building standing anomalous amongst comparatively generic structures in an otherwise forgettable industrial zone. Each of its renovated windows is adorned with a single white candle. I am taken with this elegant attention to detail.

I ring the entry bell, and in short order I am welcomed into the lobby by a fair-featured man of light build, whose tousled hair and spectacles impart an academic grace. This is Scott, and I’ll be spending the day with him. As we exchange the necessary greetings, my eyes are already exploring the lobby: while the showcase of the entry is a cool vintage organ, the entire building is a project of restoration, with exposed plaster and recently repaired moulding. The floor is vintage marble, and the staircase is a stately design of wrought iron coiling around an open column of negative space. They certainly don’t build ’em like this anymore.

From around the corner comes a dignified gentleman in a cardigan, followed obediently by an old wire-haired terrier mix. This is Phil Minnick, founding partner, president, tonal director, and the source of my invitation. His dog is Elsa. Phil gives me the history of the building as the former headquarters of Dresser-IDECO Co., a company that built oil derricks and radio towers in the heart of the industrial age. Built in 1926, Bunn=Minnick bought it on the cheap in 1991 when it was a condemned husk of eroding stone. A new roof and many low-e windows later, it has been re-commodified to suit the endeavors of a pipe organ business.

Scott takes over, giving me the tour of the operation. On the ground floor is the requisite administration, with personal offices set aside for Phil and fellow partner Robert Bunn, one for design, and another for marketing and customer relations. Downstairs in the basement is the wood shop, where the resident cabinetmakers and carpenters bring plans and drawings into the physical realm, cutting various hardwoods into frames, bellows, and organ pipes.

It is here, in the basement, that Scott was originally hired to work, back in 1997. After a couple of weeks in the shop utilizing his carpentry talents to build wooden pipes, Scott was seen (that is, heard) tuning his guitar at lunch. He did so with such accuracy and ease that Phil took note, remarking that the new guy possessed the coveted ‘perfect pitch.’ They approached Scott with the idea of moving upstairs to become a “voicer” (or tuning specialist), which the company needed more urgently than a carpenter. Despite his lacking experience in that realm, he made the transition with an effortlessness that stunned both partners. And Scott never looked back.

Up two floors we find ourselves in an engineering area overlooking the erecting room where a massive pipe organ is being constructed from the ground up. This is a multi-level loft with a balcony affording access to incredibly tall pipes, and, as a functional space, represents a critical step in the completion of a pipe organ: a venue to not only test assembly of the large and complicated construct, but an opportunity to play the complete instrument to verify its integrity and sound quality. The project on hand is due for a church in the Carolinas, but it has months to go before testing, dismantling, packing, transport by company truck, and ultimate installation a thousand miles away.

On the top floor is the finishing area, where frames, bellows, and pipes are assembled and calibrated to mechanical specification. This involves plenty of hand tools, like rasps and files, knives and scissors, awls and punches, as well as glues and stitching to adhere wood to wood, and wood to leather. At one end of the floor is a room devoted to melting tin amalgam into sheets that will be transformed to pipes. At the other end is Scott’s workshop, where the pipes are built and tuned, or voiced.

After some discussion over where to start our shoot, I vote for the vat room. Scott explains that the smelting equipment is a recent acquisition, and that he has not yet learned the process of pouring sheets. Eventually, he explains, co-owner Robert Bunn will educate him on the process; until then, his hands are tied. I detect in Scott’s tone an unspoken layer of complication, one that conveys a deep respect for a man that must be appreciated. This, I reason, necessitates a creative detour in lieu of a production roadblock. “No problem,” I counter. I convince Scott to convince Robert to fire up the vat of tin and teach us both how to pour. “Easier said than done,” Scott sighs. “But I suppose we can try.”

Back to the first floor we go, while Scott explains that he doesn’t even know if Bob is in. Then, through an open door we go and suddenly introductions are being made in Robert’s office. Robert Bunn is vice president and co-founder of the company, and he’s a bit of a brilliant eccentric. Surrounded by stacks of relics from projects past – many of them accomplished, many left behind for more compelling endeavors – Bob is a private guy. Until now, he’s had nothing to do with my being at Bunn=Minnick, and I figure that’s probably because he’s got a lot going on and/or he can’t be bothered with something like a photographer poking around and delaying productivity. Suddenly he’s being asked to prep the new vat and go on photographic record for all eternity for someone he doesn’t know, let alone trust. So I pour it on thick, pointing out that Scott’s relevance in my photo essay is directly related to the craft he is learning from the master of the trade – namely, himself.

Despite the condemning glances at Scott, it’s the subtle grin on Bob’s face that encourages me to keep pressing, and, eventually, victory is mine. Bob explains that he’s not dialed in the temperature settings on the recently acquired equipment, and that he has not refined the amalgam mixture. “I haven’t done a proper pour yet. This will be guesswork … but I guess we can try after lunch.”

Over noodles in the break room, I learn some fundamental things about Scott. He’s an avid musician and has experienced some success in the local indie rock scene. (I’m loving Scott’s self-produced 2000 release, Purple. Think progressive Brit pop with flourishes of the late Jeff Buckley.  Lots of cynicism, beauty, and surges of fuzzy guitar.) This is where he met his wife Nicole, also a musician and singer, and with whom he has a 7-year old son, Henry. At the moment, Scott is the sole breadwinner in the family, his wife currently unemployed after widespread layoffs last year at the Columbus headquarters of NetJets. Since then, the salary of a pipe voicer has been a tenuous reality. Despite the stresses of a tight budget and the daily sacrifices that go with it, Scott is “fortunate for being able to work with, in, and around music every day. I love my job.”

Surrounded not only by music but the tools that make the instruments that make the music, I can understand Scott’s contentedness. He shows me a guitar restoration project he’s picking away at on his lunch breaks: a friend found a rare but damaged 2002 Gibson SG Special in the trash, and Scott’s already repaired the body and is on his way to refinishing and rewiring the beauty. I can’t help but think that the guitar’s second life will eclipse its first.

Lunch is followed by a good time in the vat room. I reassure Bob and Scott that no one has to know that they’re NOT pouring a perfect sheet of tin, and that I’ll do my best to make them look good while experimenting with the new gear. I suggest that no one reads the dumb blog anyway, so relax.

In the end, while no usable sheets are made, it is clear that progress is. By analyzing mixtures in ratios of tin to lead against temperature and resulting density, one can eventually optimize the ever-elusive pour and refine the metallurgy that will ultimately be rolled, bent, ground, cut, and soldered into a flue pipe with perfect tone and pitch. Utilizing metal from an ample supply of back stock, Scott demonstrates the craft. As he goes from step to step, Bob occasionally appears to offer a trick or shortcut or to simply critique the work with that wry grin.

As the mechanics of construction are completed, it’s into the realm of sound we venture. This is where Scott is without compare, and Bob and Phil watch with admiration as their man with the golden ear adjusts the length of the pipe with a tuning collar against the refinement of the windway opening to absolutely dial in proper pitch. Since tone is largely determined by diameter, combining groups of pipes with like diameters and differing lengths creates a ‘tonal group.’ The voicer then combines the three tonal groups of ‘flute tone’ (wide scaled), ‘diapason tone’ (normal scaled), and ‘string tone’ (narrow scaled) in varying arrays to create a ‘foundation sound’ of a given organ.

As Scott escorts me through that lengthy process of creation, I delay him time and again with my questions, all the while knowing that we are planning to visit a local church or two to hear a Bunn=Minnick organ in its full glory. This field trip will add time to our day, and, from the frequent phone updates to Nicole, I’m concerned that our expanding itinerary is causing some domestic stress. “No, it’s actually quite okay,” Scott says. “My wife wants me to stay as long as we need to do this right.”

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6 Responses to Scott Gorsuch: Pipe Organ Voicer

  1. Acrophile says:

    No Bleeping Way! He is *still* working there?! I am incredibly impressed. Go, Scott, Go! … “signed” … The Only Girl You’ve Ever Had A Discussion With About Rush!

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  3. Sal says:

    Wow Troy, brilliant idea coming up with this blog. You are a talented photographer and excellent writer. Look forward to more.


  4. C. Weed says:

    MORE AWESOME PICS! Great story too!!
    You’re doing an awesome job, Troy! Looking forward to seeing your next project.

  5. Rholloway says:

    What a great story! I felt like I was there. Who would’ve known that was going on about 30 mins from my house.

  6. These are great pictures that tell a story. Thank you for posting this. I would add a quick description of what is going on for those who are not part of the trade.


    John A.

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