The craftsmen at Shires Organ Pipes in Leeds have a lot in common. They have all only ever worked in the one industry, they share a belief that you can’t rush perfection and that quality counts. Surprisingly though, not one of them has a musical bone in their body. “Given what we do for a living, you’d have thought that out of the six of us, one of us might be able to play a little,” says company founder Terry Shires. “But honestly, we are all as bad as each other.”
The UK is home to just two organ pipe makers, both of which happen to be in Bramley and what the team at Shires may lack in musical talent, they more than make up for in craftsmanship. The workshop is tucked away in a side street and inside it’s much as it would have been 100 years ago. Most of the tools date back to the Victorian age, handed down by successive generations of craftsmen, and the process of hand-making the pipes from large sheets of flat metal is also largely unchanged.
“There isn’t a better way to do it,” says Terry, who began his apprenticeship straight after leaving school. “I’d always been pretty practical and for a while I thought I wanted to be an engineer. That all changed when I walked into one factory and all I could see were rows of lathes and lads wearing ear defenders. It was so loud I couldn’t hear a thing and I began to doubt that it was the job for me. The next place I went to was the organ pipe makers FJ Rogers and that was like a different world. It was so peaceful and serene. I began my apprenticeship and the rest is history.”
Not quite. In the late 1980s having learnt his trade, Terry decided to go it alone. Originally operating out of his garage, within 18 months he had enough work to move into his current premises. When FJ Rogers closed, he also saw an opportunity to reunite some of his old colleagues, including John Warr, one of the men who had first shown him the ropes.
“It’s been more than a job, it’s given me an enormous sense of satisfaction,” says John, who is now in his 70s and still works for Terry two days a week. “I can still remember my very first day on the job, it was like stepping into a time warp, one where a lot of the older guys still wore bowler hats to work in. Right in the centre of the old factory was a Victorian coke stove and one of my tasks was to keep it alight. With that and the tallow used in the welding process, the place had a very distinctive smell, one I’ve never forgotten.”
By the time Terry arrived a couple of decades later, John was an old hand and for a while they sat side by side on the same bench as the experienced craftsman passed on his knowledge to his young apprentice.
“It’s the only way you can do it,” says Terry, whose firm now has an international reputation. “Making organ pipes is an expensive business so you can’t afford for anything to end up on the scrapheap. Everything not only has to be finished, but it has to be perfect, because there really is no hiding. When I first started out I remember watching the older guys work and thinking I am never going to be that fast, but you get there. It probably takes five years just to pick up the basics, but the truth is you never stop learning.”
While the walls of the workshop are lined with the kind of tools which would be impossible to buy now, there have been some concessions to the modern age. Terry’s son Chris, who joined the business three years, uses an electric soldering iron, but over in another corner, George Fowler, who picked up his very first organ pipe 55 years ago, favours a technique used by monks in the Middle Ages when they built some of the very first instruments
“We use gas instead of coke, but aside from that it’s the same,” he says, placing a metal soldering iron into the burner. “It’s trickier because with the electric version you can maintain the same temperature, but I have to gauge how hot this is. If it’s not hot enough the solder won’t set and if’s too hot it could melt the sheet metal. This is the way that I was trained and I’m too old in the tooth to change now.”
It’s the same for much of the manufacturing process, all of which is done by hand at Shires and without the need for precision measuring tools. Instead the craftsman rely on their eye and their many years of experience. Once complete, each set of pipes is fine-tuned in situ so the church’s individual acoustics can be taken into account.
Terry and his team’s handiwork can be seen around the world, including Rikkyo University in Japan and Auckland Cathedral in New Zealand.
Three years ago they also provided 1,300 pipes for the new OBE Chapel organ in St Paul’s Cathedral. Proposals for the new organ were first mooted in the in the early 1990s, but it took almost two decades to raise the necessary funds for the instrument which is now played in the chapel where recipients of the OBE and their family can be married and baptised.
Today, a lot of the team’s man hours are going into a new organ for Manchester Cathedral, consisting of well over 4,000 pipes. Terry Doyle is working on the display pipes, which will be visible to the congregation and visiting public. For now though they are lined up along one of the workshop walls.
“We’re lucky in that the team here all have different specialisms,” says Terry. “George likes working on the smaller pipes, Terry tends to do the big display section, the tallest of which can be 32ft high.
“There aren’t as many organs as there once were and there has been competition from digital versions, but we have a reputation for quality which has served us well. A standard parish church organ probably costs about £500,000, but you can get a digital one for around £150,000, so you can see why some go for the cheaper option.
“However, the components will wear out far quicker and it will probably have a lifespan of around 30 years compared with 100 years for a traditional handmade organ.”
While the Leeds workshop may have one foot in the past, it has embraced social media and its Facebook page has resulted in a number of contacts from America.
“There is one guy who whenever he is over in England makes sure that he pays us a visit. I guess we are that traditional workshop that most people thought had been consigned to history,” adds Terry.
As for the future, while Terry has no plans to retire just yet he hopes that some day he will be able to pass the reins onto Chris. “I’ve grown up in the business so working here just seemed like the natural next step,” says 20-year-old Chris. “There is a lot to learn and when I first started I was surprised just how physically demanding it was. For the first few weeks I’d go home at night with my arms aching, but I love what I do. Some people wouldn’t be happy stood at a workbench doing the same thing for hours on end, but I enjoy it. I guess you’ve got to have the right mentality.”
And with that he returns to soldering another set of pipes with the same quiet precision his father showed all those years ago.
“I guess it is in the blood,” says Terry, as he looks on. “Fingers crossed the company will be in safe hands.”