Engineer becomes pipe organ builder in Palo Alto woodshop
In a scene from the film "Amelie," a grocer cups an endive in his hand with great care, as though it's a baby bird.
That's how Andrew Nelsen holds a small organ pipe he's built out of wood. He runs a finger along it, pointing out the maple and redwood, then blows into it gently.
Now he just has to learn how to make his bird sing.
For about three years, this Palo Alto engineer has spent his spare time building a pipe organ. He's not a musician and he wouldn't call himself an artist. But his creation gleams with more than the precision of engineering.
The three octaves have exquisite white keys of pale bird's eye maple. The black keys are rich ebony. Here and there are scrolling designs carved from cherry wood, inspired by a building Nelsen saw in Baltimore.
Nelsen speaks with quiet care. But it's clear that he loves his chosen medium of wood, just as he loves the sharp, fresh scent of the woodshop at Palo Alto High School.
"It's living, or it was," Nelsen says of wood, "and there's something magical about that. My father was into metalworking; its precision appealed to him. Wood's a little more unpredictable, like we are."
Wood is all you see at the organ's front. Nelsen has even covered the screws with small wooden pieces.
Round back, the view is more technical. Nelsen points out various components, including a blower, an air filter, and white plastic pipes that the air will pass through to power the music. He still needs to build a pressure regulator to adjust pitch and loudness.
Nelsen, who has lived in Palo Alto for 30 years and leads a group of engineers at Alza Corp. in Mountain View, got interested in organs during a less successful job stint — as a college student, he tuned organs for two weeks.
That was pretty much the end of it until a few years ago, when Nelsen came upon some old organ pipes at a Foothill College flea market. He found further inspiration in a book called "The Art of Organ Building" by George A. Audsley.
(He was only slightly derailed when Audsley started grumbling about this newfangled electricity, and Nelsen realized he had been reading a book published in 1905.)
Everything came together when Nelsen and his wife built two Adirondack chairs in a woodworking class at the Palo Alto Adult School, which holds courses in the woodshop at Paly. He was hooked.
Now Nelsen has been taking classes at the adult school one night a week for about four years. Needless to say, he's no longer in the beginner class.
Like others in the mixed-level course, he's "more or less self-sufficient," said Rayan Ghazal, who teaches woodworking at the adult school. "Andy will solicit some advice, but usually he's thought about it and researched it so much that he already has his own ideas about how to solve a problem."
Despite the stereotype that only low-income people go to adult school, the woodworking program has several engineers, Ghazal said. It has a varied population that also includes retirees and people who just want to try something different. At least a third of the students are women.
Beginners start out with assigned projects, which are typically utilitarian furniture. But teachers Ghazal, Roy Williams and Marcus Miller encourage them to meld creativity into their work, too.
"In the end, if you're just going to make table after another table, then you're basically a cabinet maker. There's not going to be as much drive to keep you coming back," Ghazal said.
While Ghazal said he's never seen anyone build a pipe organ, he was particularly impressed by one student, a drummer who built a Japanese taiko drum.
As for Nelsen, his musical skills extend, by his own admission, to "playing the radio." He says he doesn't yet know how to tune the organ, but doesn't seem daunted by this. After all, he reads a lot. He also learns from the people he buys wood and parts from.
Then there are the experts who send Nelsen advice, contacting him via his Web site, home.earthlink.net/~anelsen/organ.htm.
"I've had a couple of professional organ makers send information to me," he says. "They're from all over the U.S., Australia, Moscow, Newfoundland." He ponders his last statement, a smile breaking above his beard. "An organ enthusiast in Newfoundland," he marvels.
Nelsen hopes to hold an open house when the organ is ready to be played; he predicts "it will start speaking" in a couple of months. Perhaps the first piece will be Bach, he says.
Nelsen regards his creation with fondness. But when an onlooker says it's a work of art, he demurs, calling himself a simple woodworker.
"A woodworker is a skill or trade; an artisan is a level of accomplishment," he says. "I leave it to you to decide the level of accomplishment."
Info: Information about the Palo Alto Adult School is at www.paadultschool.org.