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Pipe Organ Prices

By Charles Hendrickson
Copyright 1985 The American Guild of Organists. Used with permission.

One of the most frequent questions asked a pipe organ builder is "How much do you charge per rank?" Some decades ago, it was easier to answer that question, since most organs were somewhat alike, were installed in chambers (cabinetry and grilles being charged extra), were mostly built by large firms, and had few, if any, mixtures to complicate the cost-per-rank computations.

With the reappearance of tracker action, mixtures, extensive casework, pipe shades, labor-intensive construction, wide variations in tonal and constructional styles.  Long delivery times from small specialized builders, escalation clauses, electropneumatic and electromechanical actions, and optional facade metals (tin, zinc, aluminum, copper), the purchaser faces the problem of trying to compare the prices of widely differing specifications and styles.

Some organ committees make the mistake of sending a sample specification to many builders, in an effort to assemble cost estimates based on a standard design.  Organbuilders with a high degree of idealism or a very busy schedule (or both) are not interested in building from someone else's design, so the committee is left with quotations from the most eager or the most willing.  Jack Bethards of Schoenstein & Co.  has suggested that it is perhaps both impossible and unwise to try to compare prices from various builders.  Fritz Noack has pointed out (Music.  May 1976.  p.58) that for reputable builders, price is directly related to the work planned.  and a lower price usually means a simpler or more economical instrument.

The organ committee should also be aware that there is no uniformity in how such things as casework, transportation, installation, hoisting and local moving, blower and rectifier installation and connections are handled by different organbuilders.  The committee should determine how each builder's contract reads for these various items, so that an accurate estimate of the total cost of the project may be obtained.

With the reintroduction of mixtures, it became necessary and popular for builders to quote a price per stop rather than a price per rank.  This solved only one of the builder's pricing difficulties.  Modern-day diversity of style makes it very difficult to quote a price per stop before a considerable amount of information is known, and the contract details are approved.  An organ committee member who would never ask a car dealer how much per wheel a vehicle costs, or a contractor how much per room a house will cost, will still demand precise information from a pipe organ builder about the cost per rank of an unspecified pipe organ.  Consider the problem of just one possible stop in an organ design: the pedal principal 16'.  If a given pipe organ is to have such a stop, the cost per stop for the entire organ will jump dramatically.  if that pedal principal 16' is to be in the facade, the cost will be even more, and if it is to be a straight rank rather than an extension of another 8' rank, the price will increase even more; if those pipes are to be polished tin rather than zinc, the price will increase to the point that the committee will surely wonder if such a stop can be justified.  Some stops (such as this pedal principal 16') have a very large effect on the cost per stop of an organ.  while other stops have little effect.  Pricing an organ can only be done in a precise way when the specifics of the design are worked out with the organbuilder.

A less well-known aspect of organbuilding is that there is a range of quality or luxury available from some firms.  The client who tells the builder that "price is no object: do everything right" will be paying more per stop for extra tin, extra wood and many more hours of careful work than the client who tells the builder "give us the most pipes for $60,000" Within the limits of their own style, most builders try to respond to the needs and perceived budget of the client, just as most architects and contractors would do.  This range of quality varies widely.  Some firms strive for a consistency in all instruments, while others offer a wide latitude- lavish materials, style and workmanship for special instruments, but rather ordinary specifications in others, depending on the budget and wishes of the client.  This is the least known and most difficult area of organ pricing, and the concepts are rarely understood by organ committees.

Complicating the problem of comparing prices from different firms is the issue of inflation.  A builder with a six-month delivery time will have a different cost per stop and a different style of legal contract than one with a four-year delivery time.  No computer program or accounting system is available which will be able to predict how a client's fundraising ability, interest rates, inflation rate.  etc., will turn out for such differences in delivery time.  Each builder has his own method of pricing to compensate for inflation, variations in stop lists (more for big mixtures, reeds, casework, etc.), delivery time, architectural difficulties and payment schedule.

There is little uniformity in pipe organ pricing.  Some firms quote only a total price, only for an instrument of their own design, and only after all details are firmly understood.  Other firms have price lists or cost-per-stop figures readily available, or would be able to supply quotations after a brief communication about the proposed instrument.  Some firms do not quote on specifications received in the mail, while others will respond quickly to any inquiry.  Sonic firms have a design or inspection fee that is charged before making any quotations or proposals, and other firms will travel great distances or have representatives available to meet with any prospective client.  Unfortunately, most committees expect that every organbuilder will respond with instant quotations, unlimited visits to the church, extensive drawings and pages of stop lists.  Some firms can and do supply such things, while others do not.  Within this apparently bewildering array of differences in personal and corporate style, the organ committee is seeking a builder who will seem best suited to build the instrument they are after.  The thoughtful and informed committee will work out its ideas of quality, price, style, appearance, function, placement and sound with the organbuilder in a way that is honest and considerate of all these important details.  If the organbuilder ducks the question of "how much will the organ cost?," the committee should understand that, eventually, the competent organbuilder will supply complete plans, specifications, price quotations and legal details for the purchaser to consider.  The good pipe organ builder is very much interested in helping the committee understand every aspect of the process of designing, pricing, building, and installing a pipe organ.



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