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Mechanical organ making

The Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts


Mechanical organ making


The making and restoring of mechanical organs. See also organ making.


Status Endangered
Historic area of significance England, Holland, Belgium, US, Cuba, France
Area currently practised Canterbury, Kent, Yorkshire, Buckinghamshire, Whitchurch, Bristol
Origin in the UK 1700s
Current no. of professionals (main income) Approximately 6
Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
Approximately 6
Current no. of trainees 0
Current total no. serious amateur makers
Current total no. of leisure makers



The mechanical organ is a variation of the church organ, but the two technologies developed very differently. Barrel organs were the first type to be developed but were eventually superseded by the pneumatic punched card and paper roll systems in the late 1800s.

In newer systems electronic and computer systems have been used on both new and old instruments whilst retaining the pipe organ element.

Mechanical organs are associated with dance halls, fairgrounds, cafes, pubs, stately homes, old cinema, street entertainment, public shows and churches (church barrel organs).



  • Woodwork
  • Metalwork
  • Leatherwork
  • Carving
  • Painting
  • Instrument making e.g. acoustics, musical knowledge, tuning, fluid dynamics
  • Engineering


Local forms

Mechanical organs vary depending on country of origin and application e.g. different materials may be used according to local availability and climate considerations.



Related crafts:

  • Reed organs
  • Pianola
  • Music boxes etc.
  • Manufacture of folding cardboard music books, paper roll and barrel manufacture.


Issues affecting the viability of the craft

  • Training and recruitment: There are no qualifications, and funding and time to train are a problem.
  • Lack of skills: There is a lack of passed down skills in conservation and restoration. The work is time consuming and requires knowledge and skills in multiple parts and components.
  • Market issues: There is still a demand despite the decline in traditional use at fun fairs etc.
  • Market issues: Financial and legislative changes in recent times have led to a decline in usage and wider ownership.  For example, large instruments require transportation, licencing, vehicle, taxation etc. There is also an issue with the high costs of storage for private owners.
  • Supply of raw materials: Some materials are difficult to source such as metal parts that have to be engineered or types of wood used.
  • Small business issues: Typically the restorer/builder has to deal with all the administration as well as the technical work. The work is time consuming with a slow turnover.
  • Legislative issues: Some materials are now difficult to source and some health and safety restrictions can make things difficult.
  • Global and geopolitical issues: Brexit has had an impact on the flow of materials and parts as many come from Europe.
  • Poor repairs due to lack of skills: Many instruments have been poorly repaired to the point that they become unsalvageable. Instruments also need regular upkeep and servicing that can be expensive.


Support organisations

  • Mechanical Organ Owners Society
  • Mechanical Music Radio
  • Great Dorset Steam Fair


Craftspeople currently known

  • David Burville, Burville Organs
  • Richard Dean, Dean Organ Builders
  • Andrew Pilmer, AC Pilmer Automatic Music Ltd.
  • Allan Guest
  • Kevin Meayers, Meayers Organs
  • Rob Barker, Rob Barker Organs
  • Stuart Dobbs Organ Builder


Training providers

There are no specific training courses or apprenticeships for mechanical organ making.


Other information




  • Q. David Bowers, Encyclopedia of automatic musical instruments, 1997
  • Laurence Elvin, The Harrison Story: Harrison and Harrison, Organ Builders, Durham, 1973
  • Laurence Elvin, Organ Blowing: Its history and development, 1971
  • Rollin Smith, The Aeolian Pipe Organ and Its Music, 2018
  • Robert F Gellerman, The American Reed Organ and Harmonium: A Treatise on Its History, Restoration and Tuning, with Descriptions of Some
  • Outstanding Collections, Including a Stop Dictionary and a Directory of Reed Organs, 1996
  • Anthony Burton and Rob Scott, Britain’s Living Past, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2019