Building a pedal board

In order to play organ music, a pedal board is pretty much required. Without a strong bass line, the organ will sound weak. And you shouldn’t add 16 foot ranks to the manuals – that produces an awful growling.

There are some alternatives out there. But just a few companies makes pedal boards suited for a huge pipe organ. Depending on which standard you’ll shoot for, pedal boards usually has 30 or 32 notes. As far as I know, the european standard is 30 notes, while US standard dictates 32. Personally, I went with 32 notes. I believe that it is better to do it now, than to be sorry later for not having the full compass.

A good pedal board radiates as well as it is concave. This means that the pedals is spread out in a fan-like form in front of you, and the center pedals is lower than those on both edges. This makes it easier when you play, since the distance to each key remains about the same. The radiation prevents twisting of the foot when you play the highest or lowest notes.

This is the AGO (American Guild of Organ builders) standard pedal board:

And that’s what I am going to build.

Starting out

My initial plan was to build the framework and the main parts of the pedals from plywood. Cheap, strong and very little chance that the pedals will be bent out of shape over time. I planned to add solid wood on top of the pedals to get a nice and strong playing surface. This turned out to be a bad idea, but it gave me valuable experience none the less.

I started out by cutting 64 strips from plywood, then I glued them together to form one pedal.

I used clamps and two L-shaped metal profiles to get a good pressure on the parts. I used regular wood-glue for this. By doing it this way, you get a VERY strong bond. One pedal can easily support the weight of one person – even us who are a bit padded…

This is a quick setup that I did to visualize how this will look. And believe me – I got really exited just from the look of it! Keeping motivation high is important when you do projects like this.

At this point it became clear that I didn’t cut the pieces correctly – most of the pedals looked like a banana! I could’ve solved this relatively easy, but it would take a long, long time. Too much work, and I started to doubt that this was a very smart idea in the long run.

By doing a little research (that means: actually going to a store that have hardwood in stock), I found that the cost of all-wood pedals made from hardwood didn’t cost as much as I thought (as a matter of fact, about the same!). I gave up on the plywood idea, and went for the all-wood approach.

I purchased a bunch of planks made from Ramin (toxic, can irritate skin and eyes and cause asthma attacks. Keep the dust under control!). This is an easy-to-work-with hardwood with a clean and beautiful surface. I got the wood cut at the store, in lengths of about 90 cm.

I  straightened the sides with a plane, then I cut the planks with my band saw (use hardwood saw bands, or it takes a looong time to do just one pedal!). Then I used the plane to smooth the sides:

After a lot of work and sore hands (if you’re not a carpenter, use gloves…), I had finally made 32 pedals and 19 top-pieces.

The pedals consist of two parts: the base and the playing surface:

In the picture above, one octave of the pedal board is laid out to demonstrate the concept. The next step is to use a huge electric plane (table model), and then a thicknesser (kind of an electric planer) to get the correct dimension on all the pedal parts.

As a little motivation, I placed all the pedals on the previous rig to get an idea – now with all the pedals in place:

This gives a good idea what we’re talking about! This was a very good moment – and things are starting to evolve here.

Update 02.11.2008

All the pedal parts are now ready for assembly. By using a planer / thincknesser, all the parts have the same dimensions. This could be done by hand, but it would’ve taken me a VERY long time to get right – the power tools took only two hours… Here’s a pile of pedals and playing surfaces for the naturals:

I also ran some Ramin planks through the planer / thicknesser so that I could make the concave parts of the framework:

I cut the piece with my band saw, smoothed the cuts and sanded everything off to a smooth finish. I used sanding paper grit 60 and an electric oscillating sander for this. The result is smooth, yet rough enough for the varnish / lacquer to adhere.

For the base of the frame, I intend to make a “ladder” from square steel tubes. I will get them welded together and then mount the rest of the frame to the “ladder”. This way, the “ladder” will carry everything and be a stable and strong foundation for the pedal board I plan to add rubber feet to the frame to protect the floor under it.

The two white pieces are the steel tubes running front to back. I cut grooves for the tubes in the front and back concave parts of the frame. I will add two “steps” in the “ladder”, one step underneath each concave parts. This will stabilize and strengthen the thinnest part of the curved pieces.

I’ve mentioned this earlier, but it can’t be said enough: It is important to keep your motivation up, and to get an idea on what the end result will look like. This enables you to think ahead and plan for unforeseen obstacles. I placed all the pedal parts on the frame to get an idea on what it will look like. I tried as best as I could to get the correct spacing – at least as good as eye-balling it could get me! 🙂

Here you can get an idea on the concavity. To the right, the playing surfaces of the naturals are placed roughly in the
correct place (they form a circle with a radius of 8 feet 6 inches at the back, 9 feet at the front).

In the picture above, my trusty band saw is in the back. Fantastic piece of power tool! Make sure you buy a high-quality one…

The base of the pedals is probably a bit too thin – about 20mm. Should I’ve done this over, they would be 30 or 40 mm in height, for strength. But since this pedal board is intended for home use, I doubt I will ever break a pedal. Another reason for thicker pedals is that it will be easier to eliminate twisting or sideways rotation. My plan is to use the playing surfaces to aid this – by letting them extend to the tip of each pedal.

As you can see in the image above, the pedals are too long. I found that it was a wise choice to do that, because you’ll always get some of them with cracks or other faults. This way, I can use the best parts of each pedal.

I am not sure whether to use two guide pins, one on each side of each pedal, or to make a “fork” at the front of each pedal and let the pedal slide on one single guide pin. I will have to investigate this when I figure out the exact placement of each pedal.

To make the toe boards at the front and back of the pedal board, I will laminate plywood to form the concavity of the pedal board To do this, I purchased some huge pinewood floor beams and cut them to shape:

The process is fairly simple: Place a sheet of plywood on the templates, add glue, then another sheet of plywood, glue and so on until you finish with the top sheet of plywood (which of course won’t have any glue on top of it). Then press the plywood into the template by placing the upper parts of the template on top and press together. Use a lot of strong clamps to press everything tightly together. When the glue has hardened, the plywood will stay in the shape forever. Then all there’s left to do is to cut the shape, sand off and varnish.

Update 10.11.2008

I’ve made the hinges at the back of the pedals. I got some pieces of stainless steel sheets cut to size (20x150mm). I made a “template” from a scrap piece of wood by drilling the holes at the correct positions, and used a screw to mark the alignment:

All I needed to do was to place the template in the vice so that the hole in question lined up with the drill bit. From there, it was 32 x 3 times “press for instant hole”:

After all the holes were drilled, I grinded the pieces to a smooth surface:

I marked the placement and pre-drilled the screw holes to prevent the pedals from cracking:

I made one pedal as a template, and used it to adjust the placement of the hinges. Here’s a shot of the template and all the pedals:

And after a lot of work, this was the result:

I also drilled the hole for the screw that will fasten the pedals to the aft frame. Initially, I didn’t plan to have that much “overhang” on the hinges, but as it turned out it was for the best. More on that later.

The next job is to screw all the pedals to the framework in order to mark the exact placement of each pedal on the foremost frame.

The idea to use a steel plate as the hinge came from Raphi Giangiulio’s organ. He reports that this method improves on lateral stability and the overall “feel” on the pedals. The only drawback is that the pedals won’t be strong enough to stand on, but there’s really no need for doing that, I think. At least not on my organ.

After a LOT of hours in the workshop, this project is now well under it’s way. The best part? I can already see how it’s going to be, and when the pedals are finished and hooked to my Hauptwerk computer, I’ll be instantly rewarded. How nice is that?