The organ pipes are mute when they come in the door of Nichols & Simpson Organbuilders of Little Rock. It’s up to Wayne Simpson to make them sing.
Using a trained ear and a small knife to literally carve the tune-producing flute into each soft metal pipe, Simpson will work away until each is acoustically perfect, whittling tiny, careful nicks into the edge of each tuned slit to streamline and quiet the wind flowing through it for a clear, pure tone. During a visit with a reporter, he demonstrated a reed-like pipe, thinner than a pencil and less than a foot long, with a tone so high it was almost a dog whistle. “From a 32-foot pipe to that,” Simpson said. “It all adds up to make a musical instrument. There’s a reason they call it The King of Instruments.”
In the voicing room of Nichols & Simpson, which is outfitted with a keyboard and a low-pressure blower that allows for quick mockups and testing of pipes, Simpson sat at a keyboard, made a few adjustments, then played a stirring chord that filled the room, sound layered on top of sound until it was almost thick in the air.
“Hear how it comes alive?” he said. “It just moves through the room like blue smoke. That puts the money in the plate.”
Simpson and Joe Nichols have been on a near-lifelong quest to create the finest pipe organs in America, no matter the cost or time involved, and they have customers all over the country. Since their founding of the company in 1983, the men have completed over 30 pipe organs for buyers as far flung as Kalamazoo, Mich., and Abilene, Texas. The design, construction and installation of each one is a massive undertaking that requires years of intense focus, skill and labor by Simpson, Nichols and their small team of craftsmen.
“We are what has been termed — not necessarily by us — a niche builder,” Nichols said. “If you want the best, without compromise, that’s what we do. If you want something quick and dirty, with plastic draw knobs and plastic key coverings, that’s not us.”
They’re working on an organ now for a church in Little Rock whose name they can’t disclose just yet — their first full hometown build since 2004. The project, which will consume almost every working hour for the next two years of their lives, has an estimated final cost of $2.2 million. That seems like a lot, until you consider the countless hours Nichols & Simpson will sink into the project between now and then and their commitment to using absolutely the best materials.
This might be everything you need to know about what drives Nichols & Simpson: In 2004, when the company was putting the finishing touches on the carved and exquisitely detailed wood facade of the pipe organ it was building for First Presbyterian Church in Little Rock, they looked at the apple-sized lights sent them from a factory to be recessed over the organ. They were in black plastic bezels. “We said, ‘Oh, no,’ ” Nichols said.
A craftsman was dispatched to Nichols & Simpson’s workshop in a brick pillbox of a building at 1115 S. Woodrow St., where he spent the better part of a day turning, sanding and finishing a series of perfect hardwood bezels, near-exact copies of the plastic versions, which went out with the trash.
Just above the keyboard of the console is a small white rectangular plate bearing the name “Nichols & Simpson” and the year of the organ’s completion in crisp, black letters. Affixing that tag to the console is the final thing Nichols and Simpson do when an organ is completed, tuned and ready to play.
Though it would be easy to assume, in this disposable world, that the plate is plastic, it’s actually highly polished bone. Engraved cow shinbone to be exact. Even more amazing is that nobody knew how to engrave and ink letters on bone with such precision before Nichols and Simpson sat down and developed a laborious, six-step method to do it.”
To engrave bone is problematic because of the pores,” Nichols said. “You can engrave it, but when you start putting the fill in for the color, it runs and it gets fuzzy. So [Simpson] and I developed this method by which bone can be engraved.”
That kind of slavish, near-obsessive attention to detail is everywhere in the work of Nichols & Simpson. Even in the heart of the pipe organ at First Presbyterian, every surface — even the most routine framing, in places where nobody but an organ repairperson will ever see — is sanded and finished like a piece of furniture.
The pipe organ at First Presbyterian won’t need a major rebuild for 100 to 150 years, Nichols said. “We’re building something that’s going to be there. The digital stuff? Tone generation? Twenty years, maybe.”
The parts Nichols & Simpson and staff have completed so far for the latest organ, made mostly of ash, poplar and furniture-grade plywood, are laid out on a blue taped grid on the floor of the company workshop, each in the exact position it will occupy in the church until — barring fire or flood — every person reading this is gone on to their great reward, those who built it included. The 5,000-plus pipes for the organ, some longer than 25 feet and most made from an alloy of lead and tin (called “spotted metal” after the strange, frog-skin look that naturally forms when you mix tin and lead at certain concentrations), have been contracted to a trusted firm in Alliance, Ohio. Some of the dozens of small, handmade springs inside the organ will be imported from Germany, at $25 each.
Nichols and Simpson each came to building pipe organs through a love of music and a sense of youthful awe for the world’s only instrument that’s actually married to the building in which it sits. A native of Pine Bluff, Simpson loved the pipe organ as a child. When he went to college at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, he met professor Robert Ellis, an organ instructor who offered to help him learn how to tune.
“Robert and I got to be good friends,” Simpson said. “I was a voice major, and he started teaching me to tune. He didn’t do very well at first because we were trying to tune at his house, and we were drinking scotch. Robert was a big influence on my life. He taught me to listen. You have to learn to listen. You’re not born listening, and the longer you do it, the more you hear.”
Nichols grew up in the small, south Louisiana community of DeRidder. A visit to his aunt’s house in Lake Charles when he was 7 brought him to his first church service where a pipe organ was played. “I was smitten,” he said.
From there, Nichols devoured every book on organ tuning and construction he could lay his hands on. After graduating from McNeese State University in Lake Charles as an organ major, he eventually made his way to the Little Rock workshop of organ tuner and builder Lecil Gibson. Nichols and Simpson both started working for Gibson in 1977, and Nichols became a partner in the new firm of Gibson-Nichols Inc. in 1979. After a few years of building, tuning and servicing pipe organs, Nichols and Simpson set out on their own, founding Nichols & Simpson Inc.
Both acknowledge they aren’t strong woodworkers, instead relying on craftsmen like Jorge Osorio and Duane Vanderpluym, who have been with Nichols & Simpson more than 20 years. A past president of the American Institute of Organbuilders, a position in which he served for six years, Nichols recently spoke at an organ-builders conference in Canton, Ohio.
“They asked me to speak on running an organ business,” Nichols said. “I told them, you know, there’s nothing like riding a wave of talent. I have woodworkers who can do things that I can only dream of doing. I’m not a woodworker. I can’t do that. But [they] can. So if I can dream it up and think of it, [they] can build it. It’s a team effort.”
Nichols’ primary creative role is in designing every piece of the pipe organs they build as two-dimensional Computer Aided Drafting models from which to draw schematics and plans. For the part of the organ that will be visible to the congregation, he echoes the existing architectural details of the church so it won’t look new. Simpson, meanwhile, works in the voicing room, where the walls are hung with photos of vintage pipe organs and train wrecks on the old Cotton Belt line, where his grandfather worked building boilers for steam locomotives.
There are six Nichols & Simpson pipe organs in Central Arkansas. One of them is at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in North Little Rock. Installed in 2000, the organ was expanded by Nichols & Simpson in 2018 after a successful funding campaign.
Rees Roberts has been the organist and choir director at St. Luke’s since January 2017. He said the Nichols & Simpson organ there is much more than just a musical instrument.
“I got to watch this congregation rally behind this very large investment they were making,” he said. “It’s a much more exciting thing than just installing a cheap digital organ. It’s a point of pride. They’re proud of this instrument.”
A student of the pipe organ since he was in middle school, Roberts said the organ is unique in its ability to inspire people to sing. A pipe organ can literally vibrate the air around you, he said, inspiring a deeper connection to worship.
“A digital organ just doesn’t have the same effect,” Roberts said. “It doesn’t surround you and hug you in a blanket of sound the way a real pipe organ does. … We define a sacrament as an outward and physical sign of an inward and spiritual grace. So pipe organs are kind of an outward sign of something we feel inwardly. We believe that when we come to church, we should offer our very best to God. That’s why we put on our best clothes. That’s why we try to sing well as a choir. A pipe organ is the same thing: It is our very best. A digital organ is not our very best. There’s just something about giving our best, and that’s so shone forth in the work that Nichols & Simpson does. They are giving you their very best.”
Like any craftsmen, Simpson and Nichols understand they are building things that will outlast them. They account for that by building their pipe organs with an eye toward being serviced, including components that can be easily opened, and more space between pipes so tuners and service people don’t have to squeeze through.
“You’ve got to be able to get into them, or it’s detrimental in the long term,” Simpson said. “If you can’t service it, there’s no sense putting it in.”
Today, there are only 350 organ builders in America, at a handful of firms, Nichols said. The profession seems to have a future, however. Nichols & Simpson has had apprentices in the past, and when Nichols spoke to the American Institute of Organbuilders last year, more than 50 young craftspeople attended a dinner for organbuilders under 30 years old.
As for Nichols and Simpson, they’re slowing down a bit — Simpson is 61, Nichols 67. The music still moves them both, though, especially when one of their pipe organs is doing what it was born to do.
“I can go to the dedication of one of our organs, and they can play all this highfalutin literature and do everything fabulous and impressive,” Nichols said. “But it never moves me emotionally until they start playing a hymn. When all the people are singing and the organ is doing what it’s supposed to do, that’s when I have to cry. I can’t sing.”
Standing in the dim sanctuary of First Presbyterian, still marveling over all the work that went into those carefully turned light bezels, the bone tag and the dozens of rosewood knobs on the console that cost $75 each to create even though an $8 plastic knob would do, a reporter asked Nichols and Simpson why they put so much time, energy and money into parts of their organs that most people will never see — or at least will never recognize as anything particularly special. Nichols almost whispered his answer.
“It’s ours,” he said. “My name is on that, for the rest of my life and thereafter. It’s important. Attention to detail makes all the difference in the world in everything in life.”