There’s something about an annoying office job that makes you idealize working with your hands, even if you have—like me—no aptitude for it at all. Last winter, I applied for an apprenticeship at the organ builder Orgelbau Scheffler, in the tiny, former East German village of Sieversdorf, outside Berlin, with a romantic idea of learning a craft. They were wise not to accept me for the position. (They did give me a miniature organ pipe as a souvenir.)

Still, I was fascinated by their workshop. Recently, Christina Stoll and I returned to Sieversdorf to take pictures and speak with the employees of the company. The conversation was easy but fragmentary; the organ builders talked while they worked.


The wood in the machine room: ash, beech, birch, hornbeam, linden, mahogany, maple, oak, pear, pine, spruce.

While Christina took pictures on the ground floor, I flipped through old issues of Ars Organi, a trade magazine.

“A normal person calls it air; an organ builder calls it wind.”

“Part of our job is scratching the remains of dead pigeons out of the organ pipes. And sometimes there are ancient messages written on those pipes.”

This organ is outfitted with a volume display, so that the organist can get a sense of how loud he is playing—he might not be able to hear himself clearly in the church. Like a small airplane, whose instruments help orient the pilot when clouds obscure his vision, the organ assists where the senses fail.

“Sometimes I spend three weeks a month away on different jobs, and then I’ll be at home for three months straight.”

Outside the upstairs window, there were several wind power generators, a flock of birds, fast-moving clouds.

“We spend a lot of time working in the fetal position.”

“These consoles have been sitting around here longer than I’ve even been alive.”

“At least the Catholic churches are heated, and they’ll even get you a cup of coffee. In Evangelical churches you’re lucky if they have running water.” ¶

Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.