The 18 employees meticulously craft raw lumber, leather, wooden and metal pipes into pipe organs designed specifically for their final destination. Using vintage equipment and contemporary electronics, craftsmen rely on traditional techniques to create these one-of-a-kind instruments.
Heading the operation is company owner Jack Bethards, whose interest in organs began when he was 8 years old. That year a Schoenstein crew came to his Santa Rosa church to refurbish the organ.
“I was thrilled with the idea of working at an organ factory, even as a boy.”
His dream came true in 1977, when he purchased Schoenstein & Co. from the family that started the business in San Francisco a hundred years earlier. The company moved to Benicia in 2004.
The company usually completes three organs per year, unless employees are working on a particularly large instrument. Jack is the firm’s president and tonal director, meaning he personally oversees each organ’s final sound. Average production time is nine months once size and specifications are determined, and current orders will keep the company busy through 2021.
About 80 percent of the work is new construction with the remainder being maintenance and repairs. The firm’s largest and best-known organ is seen behind the Mormon Tabernacle Choir when it performs at the Mormon Church Conference Center in Salt Lake City.
What does a tonal director do? A tonal director determines the technical details of the pipes. Pipes have to be given their tone because they don’t make a sound at the start.
Before we begin building an organ, we take a set of test pipes to the site and listen to how they sound in the room. If a room doesn’t carry bass sounds well, for example, we make adjustments for that.
Work on tonal finishing involves listening to each pipe after it’s installed and is based on how the pipes are working in the room. It takes several weeks to make those final adjustments, and I’m back and forth to the installation site during that time.
Do you play the organ? No, I play trumpet, double bass and percussion.
It’s better that I’m not an organ player. When you play the organ, your teachers tell you that a certain kind of organ is the best. Our style is developed from a general knowledge of music, not tied to some specific type of organ. We make symphonic organs.
What distinguishes a symphonic organ from other types? Orchestras have a tremendous variation of tone value, a tremendous variation of dynamics in terms of volume. Our organs are designed to have all the tones and dynamics of an orchestra.
An organ is a machine. The trick is to make it seem to the audience that it’s not a machine but to create the same feeling as an orchestral performance, to make it as expressive as an orchestra, to do things that transmit emotional feelings to the audience.
What’s your favorite aspect of creating an organ? I like it all, but I think my favorite part is having an idea of what I think it should sound like and designing it so it comes out that way. To have it come out as envisioned, that’s the fun.
What’s the key to having an organ sound like you envisioned? I think the biggest secret is watching the details. It’s all about accuracy. Workmanship is key.
There’s a lot of reasonable perfectionism in this business.
What brought the company to Benicia? We had to relocate. We had a beautiful, very quaint building in San Francisco. But we had only 6,500 square feet there. We have 30,000 square feet here.
I looked in the Bay Area for a business-friendly town. I narrowed it down to San Leandro and Benicia. It was a pretty easy choice. It was strictly on that one point: Being friendly to businesses.
What motivates you to keep doing this? I get a kick out of it. Not every single thing I do is fun, but most of it is. There are still so many things to learn.