Crank Organs

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Project by Don Johnson posted 10-18-2010 01:40 PM 7007 views 9 times favorited 21 comments Add to Favorites Watch

Back in 2003 I discovered John Smith’s Busker Organ plans on the ‘net, and thought that it would be an interesting item to make. It was certainly not a ‘fine woodworking’ project, as there is little that is critical in the construction, which uses plywood for the case, and balsa wood for the pipes. Music is stored as holes in a roll of paper, which allow air pumped by bellows to pass to each of the twenty pipes – which are just the same as church organ pipes, only smaller. It was fun to make, and I later discovered that that I had joined a community of world-wide makers of John’s little organ. You can hear it playing here

I became good friends with John, and after I retired, he persuaded me to make a version of his latest design, ‘Topsy’, which has 78 pipes, and uses the MIDI system to operate solenoids to control the flow of air from a windchest to individual pipes. Topsy is shown in the second picture. Some other constructors use card readers to store their MIDI files, but mine are held on an old Palm Vx – so the music takes up a miniscule amount of room compared with paper rolls. The third shot shows Topsy being used for a charity collection by the ladies from Inner Wheel – my wife, Avril, being in the middle.

A monkey is an essential part of performing with a street busker organ, and Avril gave me a toy version for this purpose. It just sat there however, so I eviscerated one of those singing reindeer toys, and put the mechanism inside the monkey skin, so it now waves to the audience as I play. ( I did disconnect the internal speaker that played ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’).

Before I finished the case, my grandchildren kept asking me how I was getting on, so I posted a video of me playing ‘China Boogie’ by Peter Griffiths (view it here), which explains the strange antics as I turn the handle. This was before I made the case, so some of the innards can be seen. I constructed a four-wheeled cart for the organ, and later, I added a detachable motor to operate the organ instead of the crank, but someone actually turning a handle makes a greater impression when performing in public.

Picture 4 shows the basic construction, with the crank operated bellows and reservoir, driven by the renovated wheel from an old mangle. Picture 5 shows the two sets of 22 melody pipes (each pair being tuned slightly ‘off’ each other to produce a ‘celeste’ sound). Picture 6 shows the solenoid – or pallet valves – inside the main winchest.

-- Don, Somerset UK,

21 comments so far

View Toolz's profile


1004 posts in 3769 days

#1 posted 10-18-2010 01:47 PM

Don, what a fantastic gem you made! I really enjoyed listening.

-- Larry "Work like a Captain but Play like a Pirate!"

View Broglea's profile


685 posts in 3118 days

#2 posted 10-18-2010 01:51 PM

That’s what I hate about this website. Too many great projects and I don’t have enough time to build them all.

This is way past being cool. I love the sound. Thank you for sharing this masterpiece with us.

Welcome to LJ!

View Chip's profile


1904 posts in 4119 days

#3 posted 10-18-2010 01:58 PM

Outstanding piece of work Don! Just when you think you’ve seen it all on LJ’s along comes something like this. And what a beautiful sound it makes. Great job on a very unique instrument and thanks for posting it… and welcome to LJ’s.

-- Better to say nothing and be thought the fool... then to speak and erase all doubt!

View Brit's profile


7387 posts in 2870 days

#4 posted 10-18-2010 02:44 PM

I’m not sure John will thank you for talking about his little organ :-)

Seriously though, you’ve done a fabulous job Don. A great project, well executed, and being put to good use to raise money for charity. I’m going to add this one to my favourites. Thanks for sharing it.

-- - Andy - Old Chinese proverb says: "If you think something can't be done, don't interrupt man who is doing it."

View Cozmo35's profile


2200 posts in 3063 days

#5 posted 10-18-2010 02:48 PM

Great job! Outstanding craftmanship!

-- If you don't work, you don't eat!.....Garland, TX

View CharlieM1958's profile


16275 posts in 4245 days

#6 posted 10-18-2010 03:51 PM

Fantastic device! Your cranking technique is top-notch as well. :-)

-- Charlie M. "Woodworking - patience = firewood"

View Mary Anne's profile

Mary Anne

1058 posts in 3235 days

#7 posted 10-18-2010 04:27 PM

This is absolutely WONDERFUL! I don’t know what would be the most fun, building it or playing it.
Could you give us an idea how many hours goes into building them?

View helluvawreck's profile


31403 posts in 2894 days

#8 posted 10-18-2010 04:28 PM

This is really an interesting project and you did a great job on it.

-- helluvawreck aka Charles,

View DYNO360's profile


151 posts in 2892 days

#9 posted 10-18-2010 04:35 PM

Bravo! A great project

View a1Jim's profile


117126 posts in 3604 days

#10 posted 10-18-2010 05:05 PM

A most amazing project unique and wonderful build.

-- wood crafting & woodworking classes

View kapanen's profile


121 posts in 2809 days

#11 posted 10-18-2010 06:19 PM

That is just way too cool. Awesome. Love it.

-- "Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life"....Pablo Picasso

View TheGravedigger's profile


963 posts in 4051 days

#12 posted 10-18-2010 08:28 PM

A busker organ run by MIDI files – who’d have imagined it? Wonderful!

-- Robert - Visit my woodworking blog:

View mcoyfrog's profile


4145 posts in 3621 days

#13 posted 10-18-2010 08:48 PM

WOW thats cool

-- Wood and Glass they kick (well you know) Have a great day - Dug

View SPalm's profile


5320 posts in 3909 days

#14 posted 10-18-2010 10:32 PM

That’s cool. I wanna retire.


-- -- I'm no rocket surgeon

View MsDebbieP's profile


18615 posts in 4188 days

#15 posted 10-19-2010 12:56 AM

that is wonderful and amazing how you fixed up the monkey as well!

-- ~ Debbie, Canada (

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