How to Properly Clean a Pipe Organ

Pipe organs contain many moving parts with cracks and crevices where dust and dirt can pile up. Additionally, the organ’s keyboard can harbor and spread germs, so it should be cleaned regularly.

To properly clean a pipe organ, wipe down the external surfaces of the console, including the keyboard and controls, regularly with a soft, dry, or damp cloth. The organ’s pipes and internal workings are extremely delicate and should only be cleaned by professionals.

If taken care of well, pipe organs can last for centuries. Learn more about how to properly clean and care for your pipe organ with the following guide!

How to Clean a Pipe Organ

The area of a pipe organ that needs to be cleaned the most frequently is almost always the console because it’s the area that sees the most build-up of dirt and grime.

Console

A pipe organ’s console is the area that contains the keyboard and controls. Because people are constantly touching this area, whatever dirt or oils are on their hands get transferred here. That also makes the console a prime place for germs to be transferred from one person to another.

Generally, experts recommend using a dry, soft cloth to clean the console’s keyboards, control knobs, and external surfaces, unless the surface gets especially dirty.

The next section contains a recommended method for providing the console with a deeper clean.

Keyboard

If a keyboard is incredibly dirty, it can be carefully wiped down with a solution appropriate to the material it’s made from, as we’ll describe below.

The keys of organ keyboards can be made from a few different materials:

  • Wood
  • Ivory
  • Plastic

 

Plastic is by far the most forgiving of the three materials and is also the most common material for pipe organs made in the last few decades.

Wood and ivory can be hard to keep clean because they’re more porous, which allows more dirt and oil to be trapped under their surface. Their porous nature, unfortunately, also leaves them vulnerable to discoloration from the use of harsh cleaning chemicals.

For wood and ivory keys, never use disinfectants, vinegar, or harsh chemicals under any circumstance.

Some people suggest wiping down plastic keys with a disinfectant wipe. Still, many experts say that using harsh chemicals and alcohol on organ keys should be avoided at all costs, regardless of their material. It’s up to you to use your best judgment to decide whether the risk of germs is greater than the risk to the plastic keys if you use a disinfectant, depending on your situation.

Vinegar is a natural disinfectant, and some organ players use a vinegar and water solution on their plastic keys. If you decide to try this, use the method described below, replacing the soap solution with a vinegar solution.

The following method is recommended by Yamaha for cleaning piano keys, and it can be used for organ keys as well:

  1. Fill a small container with lukewarm water and add a few drops of gentle dish soap.
  2. Gather three cloths:
    1. Dampen the first cloth with plain water and wring it out thoroughly so that it doesn’t drip.
    2. Dampen the second cloth with the soapy water and wring it out completely.
    3. The third cloth will remain dry.
  3. Using the first cloth, wipe the keys one at a time, from the base of the key (the part of the key furthest from you) to the tip (the part of the key closest to you).
  4. Using the second cloth, repeat step 3.
  5. Repeat step 3 with the third cloth to ensure all the keys are dry.

Of course, the best way to ensure that the keyboard and the rest of the console are clean and free of germs is to insist that all players wash and sanitize their hands before playing.

Even when washed regularly, however, our hands do contain natural oils that will transfer onto the keyboard over time. So even if all players wash their hands often, it’s still a good idea to wipe down the keyboard every so often.

Pipes

It’s crucial that only a professional touch your pipe organ’s pipes, as they’re incredibly fragile and can be easily damaged. The slightest dent or movement can completely change the sound produced by a pipe, leading to costly repairs. Even properly polishing the pipes properly can change their sound, as many caring for historic organs have found out.

Organs can have three types of pipes:

  • Metal flue pipes
  • Reed pipes
  • Wood pipes

Each pipe requires a completely different cleaning process, but each process involves removing the pipes from the organ. This, of course, makes it a considerable time investment for a non-professional, in addition to risking accidental damage.

Other Internal Components

An organ is made up of much more than just pipes and a keyboard, of course. (Check out Britannica’s article on pipe organs if you’re interested in more details on their inner workings.)

Typically, when you schedule a professional deep cleaning of a pipe organ, they will not only clean the pipes, but adjust and retune them if needed, as well as checking out, repairing, and cleaning other parts, such as:

  • The electrical system
  • Sliders and valves
  • Chests
  • Rack-boards
  • Wind box
  • Bellows

(Source: Moe Pipe Organ Company)

Keeping the Pipe Organ Clean

Most experts recommend having a pipe organ cleaned every 10 to 20 years, along with getting a tune-up. To prevent the need for more frequent cleanings, try doing the following:

Limit Contact

As mentioned above, one of the best ways to keep a pipe organ clean is by making sure that everyone who comes into physical contact with it is clean. But it’s also a good idea to limit the number of people touching the organ, to begin with, if possible. Too many people touching the instrument will not only cause it to get dirty more quickly, but more people around it also increases the chances of accidental damage.

Organs are complicated instruments, so finding someone knowledgeable enough to repair one can be time-consuming and costly. It’s best to avoid the issue altogether if you can.

Keep It Covered

When it comes to dirt and dust from the environment, the best way to keep the instrument clean is by keeping it covered. This is especially important if:

  • The environment is very dusty or high in pollution
  • A renovation or construction is going on nearby
  • The organ isn’t played frequently
  • The organ is being stored and is not played at all for the time being

With an instrument of such size and complexity, avoiding a deep cleaning for forever just isn’t possible. But, it is possible to delay it by keeping it covered when not in use. This will make sure the organ stays in good working order for as long as possible.

Final Thoughts

If you’re unsure about any aspect of cleaning or maintaining your pipe organ, call a professional for help. Because it’s such a narrow field, pipe organ specialists are happy to talk about their instrument, and most will be more than willing to advise you.

If you’re having trouble finding an expert in your area, try searching online. Email pipe organ companies and ask in online forums, and there’s a good chance that someone will eventually be able to recommend someone close by.

Depending on the age of the organ, the organ’s manufacturer is another good place to turn to for help. If nothing else, they should be able to provide a maintenance manual for the organ.

Josh Olswanger

I've been playing and writing music since the age of 13. My father is a piano tuner/technician of 40 years, and I've been musically involved in all aspects from composing, to recording, producing and playing live for most of my life. I've always had a fascination and appreciation for all types of music and musical instruments, so creating this site is a perfect outlet to share my knowledge.

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