Introduction: Mini-Calliope Organ

Picture of Mini-Calliope Organ


Hello Everyone,

First, I would like to thank you for viewing my instructable.
And, if you enjoyed it, please give me a vote!

Although the project seems complicated, many of the parts and components are identical,
so laying out and cutting the parts isn't as time-consuming as you might expect.

You probably will need  a couple of weekends to complete the project.
Guessing you will need about 40plus hours to build the calliope.

I've started this project about 30 years ago.
I was 21 at the time.
What I started I could not find (probably used for firewood),
so I started a new one from scratch this time.

I always had a subscription to Popular Mechanics.
I've had the December 1982 issue in my hands for over 30 years.
The plans and drawings can all be found in this issue.

If you don't have the issue (which I doubt you do)
Luckily I do have a link to the December 1982 issue, below.
Click here for the 1982 issue of Popular Mechanics
If you go to page 102 all the directions and plans are there.

So, in my instuctable I am not going to go in heavy detail about the making of this
calliope. I will probably direct you to the 1982 Popular Mechanics issue.

NOTE: I tried to use the hair blow dryers with no success!
They did not pull enough air.

So, as I am writing this, I am looking for a different motor.
UPDATE: I found a new blower motor with a speed control. Let's hope it works.
I will be installing it this weekend! Watch for a update and video!

Also, this instructable is a work in progress, I will be continually updating this instructable.

Now onto the instructable...

Step 1: Tools and Materials Needed

Picture of Tools and Materials Needed

Materials needed:
(The entire list is in the Popular Mechanics link above or picture above)

White Pine wood for the cabinet.
Walnut and Aspen for the keys.
Hardwood Dowels
Fishing line
Anodized aluminum Tubing (organ pipes)
Cone Washers
Faucet Washers

Hair Dryers (which did not work)
Speed adjusting motor
Push Button Switch

and the list goes on....

Step 2: Building the Chest

Picture of Building the Chest

To begin, cut the cabinet and wind-chest components - parts A through Q, T and U.
(see the materials list above.)
Bore pilot holes for all the screws connecting the cabinet parts with a No. 6 bit.
Counterbore all pilot holes with a 3/8" bit to receive the plugs. (V).
Then layout and bore the guide holes in the keyboard base (E) and the rocker support (I).

A drill press or drill guide is a must for accuracy.
Clamp together the tip and bottom pieces of the wind chest (parts L and N)
and bore them simultaneously so the holes will line up.
Use a depth stop to prevent from boring through the bottom board.
If you don't have a radial drill press or one with an adjustable table,
bore the angled holes in the rocker support by using shims under the workpiece
to establish the correct 5 degree angle.

Make a trial assembly of the chest.
Once everything fits properly, sand and finish the cabinet.

(step by step plans can be found from the link in the introduction page.)

Step 3: Making the Pipes

Picture of Making the Pipes

Ok, I believe the toughest part was making/forming the pipes.

Carefully follow the spec sheet above.
Particulary those concerning the sound-producing (D-shape) notches.

I used my CNC machine to cut the holes and notches. (see photos below)
If you don't own a cnc machine you can cut them with a hack-saw.
The bottom hole can be drilled out with a 5/16" bit.

Position a flue stopper of the correct size as noted in the chart and insert a cork in the bottom of each ppipe as
shown in the pipe-assembly detail.
Test each pipe by blowing gently through the 5/16" hole.
Each pipe should make a clear note.
Adjust the flue stoppers to achieve the best possible tone with the
least possible amount of air.

(step by step plans can be found from the link in the introduction page.)

Step 4: Making the Keys

Picture of Making the Keys

Ok, next is the keys and keyboard.

Rip 7/8" strips from the type of wood of your choice.
I used a hardwood, as I did not paint my keys.
I just liked the color of the wood.
You can use the same wood as your cabinet.

Cut the white keys (parts X1, X2, X3, and X4).
Cut the black keys (Y) from 1/2" molding stock.
Bore a 1/4" holes on the undersides of the keys for the guide pins (Z).
Bore a 5/16" dimple at the back of each key.

Sand all the keys smooth, removing a total of about 1/32" from teh width of each key to ensure proper
clearance between them when they're in place.
Install the guide pins and apply several coats of spray paint to the keys.
If you are painting them, if not leave them the wood color.
As I did.

When the keys have dried, insert them through the keyboard back in order.
Insert the pivot rod (BB) through the holes in the side of the keys.
Between keys 12 and 13 (notes B and C), insert the center pivot support (CC).
Attach the two end supports (DD2) and secure the assembly with the pivot rod nuts.

Attach a lengh of foam weather-stripping (EE) to the keyboard base and install the keyboard.
Check that all keys move freely and make adjustments to the elongated guide holes where needed.


(step by step plans can be found from the link in the introduction page.)

Step 5: Making the Rocker Assembly

Picture of Making the Rocker Assembly

Next, we begin to work on the rockers.

Cut the rockers (S) from 1/2 x 7/8" molding.
It's faster to bore pivot -rod holes and dimples before you cut the individual pieces.
Sand the sides of the rockers smooth, then add the screw hooks (HH) and counterweights (II).
Insert the pivot rod (BB) through the rockers and attach the support brackets (DD1)

Cut the push rods (AA) and install the rocker support (I) in the cabinet, threading the air hoses through the 1 3/8" holes.
Attach the height adjuster assembly (R), then insert the push rods making sure they seat in the keys' dimples.

Mount the rocker assembly on the support (I).
Adjust the height of the keys individually by screws (FF) to level the keyboard in the "up" position.
You may have to alter the lengths of some of the push rods, as well.
When the keyboard is level, the rockers should rest at approximately 15 degrees from the horizontal plane.
Finally, install the angled guide pins (GG). Establish the proper clearance by screwing the hooks (HH) in or out as needed,
Check to see that the rockers are moving freely.

(step by step plans can be found from the link in the introduction page.)

Step 6: Air-Release Assemblies

Picture of Air-Release Assemblies

Make the 25 air-release assemblies as shown in the detail in the photo above.
Glue felt pads (QQ) to the PVC discs (00) with contact cement or other glue for non-porous surfaces.
I used 5 minute epoxy.

Fasten the hinge leaves (SS) to the bottom of the dowel (NN) and to the bottom of the wind chest with brads that come in the
hinge package.
Form the springs (TT) by cutting the heads off 1 1/2" safety pins and bending 1/8" of each cut end with
needle-nose pliers to create "ears".

Reassemble the wind chest, leaving off the top, and chalk all the joints with silicone.

Tie an 18" of braided fishing line (KK) to the screw eye on top of each dowel and thread each through its matching
nylon tubing guide (MM).

Mount the top of the chest and chalk all the joints.

(step by step plans can be found from the link in the introduction page.)

Step 7: The Blower Motors

Picture of The Blower Motors

Now onto the motors.

I selected a pair of hair driers I had on hand.
I removed the heating elements.

I wired the hair dryer motors as in the diagram.

NOTE: I tried to use the hair blow dryers with no success!
They did not pull enough air.

So, as I am writing this, I am looking for a different motor.

Step 8: New Blower Motor (as the Hair Dryers Did Not Work!)

Picture of New Blower Motor (as the Hair Dryers Did Not Work!)

I found a new blower motor for the calliope.
Now, I have to figure out how to put it into the calliope.

It does have a speed adjuster on it, too!
Let's hope it works!

Out to the woodshop I go...

Step 9: Completing the Calliope

Picture of Completing the Calliope

Insert the pipes through the holes in the top of the wind chest.
Manipulate the air-release assemblies by pulling on the lines until each pipe seats in the base and each felt pad seats over
the round air hole.
Glue felt strips to the back of the wind chest and install it in the cabinet.
Be sure to tighten the screws enough to compress the felt and seal the chest.

Attach the air hoses of the dryers to the copper pipe reducers (XX) mounted to the front of the wind chest.
Turn on the motor.
By pulling on the lines, you should be able to make each pipe sound  in turn.
If any pipe produces a weak tone, enlarge the air hole to 3/8" diameter.

Work in order, attaching the lines to the hooks on the rockers.
Take two turns of the line around the hook, adjusting the line so it's tight, but doesn't lift the air-release assembly enough to let air enter the pipe.
Crimp a split shot on the line to secure the adjustment.

Once all 25 lines are attached, test the action of the keyboard.
If you find a sticky key (and you probably will at this point), loop a small rubber band around the base of the counterweight (II) and the
rocker guide pin (GG).

Install the music rack (J), music stop (Q) and the rocker cover (K), then apply the screw hole buttons (Y).
Finally , tune the pipes to a piano or other instrument, using the flue plugs in each pipe; pushing it in raises it.

Step 10: Painting , Handles, and Side Decorations on the Calliope

Picture of Painting , Handles, and Side Decorations on the Calliope

Painting the cabinet.

I used a milk paint on the cabinet.
I want to give it that old time feel.

You can find milk paint online.

I did cut my own side decorations.
I used my cnc machine.

The handles are made from a 1" dowel and 2.5" wooden balls.

Step 11: Final Pictures of the Calliope

Picture of Final Pictures of the Calliope

Here are finished pictures of the calliope.

I also designed the calliope it in Sketchup.
I hope you enjoyed my instructable!


Willys36 (author)2017-09-25

Did you ever get it to run? The article said to use cap style hair dryers, maybe they had the power you needed that the hand-helds didn't. Did you use 0.050" tubing? Article didn't specify.

Greasetattoo (author)Willys362017-09-26

Yes, I did get different blowers, but it has been on the back burner for awhile..
One of these days, I will get back to it!!
For the tubing, I used vacuum cleaner hose...
When I get it up and running, I will make sure and post a video!
thanks for your interest!

chefner76 (author)2017-01-14

I am trying to help a group of 12 year olds build a calliope. I think hey can manage this design but was wonder if you thought they could use pvc pipe instead of metal? They are limited on funds for this so I need to cut as many expenses as possible.

Greasetattoo (author)chefner762017-01-14

I think PVC could work! Give it a try!

JeffZ7 (author)2015-12-28

I was wondering if, because you have the original copy, you would be willing to provide higher-quality scans of the materials list and diagram, as it is a bit difficult to make out the fractions.

Greasetattoo (author)JeffZ72015-12-29

Hey Jeff,
Actually, I did this awhile ago, and don't remember where I put the magazine.
But, I believe I had a link to the magazine in the instructable.
I believe it was on google books.
Hope this helps

Cyberchipz (author)2015-07-13

My goodness, I loved reading this. This is so beautiful. I have such a fondness for musical instruments of any kind. I will be bookmarking this, with hopes that I might one day get organized to do this. Surely this is a beautiful heirloom that will live on beyond our years. Thank you so much for sharing this! I was so hoping that you'd have a video of the instrument and we would get to hear it and live vicariously through you in hearing and seeing this final piece of art at work and in play.

Greasetattoo (author)Cyberchipz2015-07-13

Thank you so much for the kind comments..
The calliope is sitting in my workshop...
Still needs tuning..
Kinda put it on the back burner, but it is on my list, to finish up and tune!

Jglotfelty (author)Greasetattoo2015-07-24

Do you know anyone who created a working unit that would like to give it a good home? Eyes are not what they use to be.

Thank you.


Greasetattoo (author)Jglotfelty2015-07-25

I don't understand, John?

AJMansfield (author)2013-08-03

You could try using a leaf blower or an air compressor for the air supply.

Greasetattoo (author)AJMansfield2013-08-03

I actually found a motor, now I have to figure out how to fit it in there..
Out to the woodshop I go!
Thanks for the advice, though...

Bob36 (author)Greasetattoo2015-03-13

I am just starting to build this orgallipe and would like to know where the musical scale fits. Is your middle C "Middle C" on a keyboard?

Greasetattoo (author)Bob362015-03-14

Not sure on that one..
As, I just build the organ...

GeorgeLangley (author)2013-11-17

Thanks for the great photos of the air release - the original instructions were kind of vague on that part.
One question - how far back did you need to cut the 15-degree angle for the hinges? Did you use the hinge as the measurement?

bassandread (author)2013-10-30


GeorgeLangley (author)2013-09-23

What sort of CFM is that pushing?

Here is the model number 116640-01
That one is CFM max at 76.

Here is a link to the different blowers.

Have not hook it up yet, to many other things going on right now...

I believe it is 50 CFM at 2 inch orifice.
Here is a link to the blower.

It only cost $970

billbillt (author)2013-09-23

wonderful job...

billbillt (author)billbillt2013-09-23

got my vote...

ldavis10 (author)2013-08-07

.I love your calliope! The music of a calliope is unlike anything else. The melodies bring back all sorts of memories. When I was at college in New Orleans, I would wake every morning to the sound of a calliope from a riverboat. i also think of going to the circus, watching all of the acts and eating peanuts and cotton candy...Ah, memories!
...All of that aside, if I had a calliope like yours, I would be thinking of a way to use it as a Halloween prop. I would probably create a Haunted Circus yard haunt for my friends and family. I would set up some tents (most likely sun shades) with different acts performing. I'd have creepy clowns and a fortune teller. I'd have someone selling "Rotten Candy" (Cotton Candy) and other Halloweenish treats.
...Unfortunately, I am not capable of building a calliope. I so did enjoy seeing yours.
Thank you for sharing!

Greasetattoo (author)ldavis102013-08-07

Wow, thank you for the kind comments!
An actual calliope is run by steam, from what I heard.
So, mine is a organ, I guess!
Looks more like a calliope though..

Halloween prop, hmmmm...

davidsweeney (author)2013-08-05

Brill's Bible of Building Plans showed a clown calli driven by a vacuum cleaner. He also listed plans for a full sized instrument.

Wyle_E (author)2013-08-02

Have you tried a vacuum cleaner, or a pair of bellows driven by the player's feet or by an assistant? You'd need another bellows with a weight or spring, to serve as a pressure regulator. Strictly speaking, that's an organ but not a calliope. A true calliope is powered by steam, and isn't worth the trouble unless you like that permanently-out-of-tune sound. Out of tune because playing a pipe heats the pipe, causing it to expand and sound flat. The most frequently-played pipes get flatter faster, so you can't adjust the tuning to compensate. The calliope was invented to announce the approach of a steamboat from miles away, more interestingly than a simple whistle. It worked well for that, but was never taken seriously as a musical instrument. An organ, OTOH, can sound as good as you have the time and resources to make it.

Greasetattoo (author)Wyle_E2013-08-05

Hmmm, vacuum cleaner...
That sounds like a plan.
I actually found a new air blower with a speed control.
Let's cross my fingers!
Yep, calliope = steam...
Thanks for the kind comments!

Davidfromcali (author)Wyle_E2013-08-05

The calliope was specifically invented for use as a musical instrument in places like churches and only later became popular on steam powered riverboats. The tunes were not intended to simply be interesting. The notes allowed a particular boat to play a song unique to itself, in this way the dock workers knew which boat was coming an hour ahead or so. This gave them time to get the cargo for that particular boat ready to be loaded in order to save time unloading and loading, keeping the dock more organized.

The song played on a full size calliope is easily discernable up to 20 miles away. A properly constructed and operated calliope is in tune, at least the one I heard was. It was kept hot by steam near the pipes. The valves are on base of the pipe itself, with the steam being constantly circulated below the valves.

The inventor's theory behind using steam and brass was that the instrument would be in tune regardless of the weather since the temperature of the brass instrument could be kept constant and the humidity was always 100%. Properly constructed, those 2 variables are constant. Wooden instruments constantly change with the temperature and humidity.

The inventor tried to tour Europe with one but was turned away at the docks in Britain after he fired it up. People 20 miles away heard it, and he was sent back to the States because the British authorities considered it a public nuisance.

Arthur Ord-Hume's book 'Barrel Organ: The Story of the Mechanical Organ and it's Repair' is a great source on the history of automated organs, calliopes included. At 567 pages it has enough information for most people, too. Check it out, it's a lot of fun and filled with tons of information for instrument builders.

MikB (author)Wyle_E2013-08-03

That is a real nice looking instrument! But: I was thinking the same thing: Where's the steam coming from (hairdryer in bucket of water maybe!!? Eek!)

Wikipedia: "The air-driven calliope is sometimes called a calliaphone" ...

I still can't work out if it's a *Cally*-Ope or a Calie-oh-*pee*, so ...

Greasetattoo (author)MikB2013-08-03

No steam..
Maybe coming from my ears, building this thing!

It is Calie-oh-*pee*!

Greasetattoo (author)Wyle_E2013-08-03

I actually found a speed adjuster blower motor.
Now, I have to figure out how to put it in the calliope!
Thanks for the comments!

spark master (author)2013-08-05

looks lovely but can you play "Melancholy Baby"?

seriously did you do a demo of it played? looks ever so nifty!

rlmarket (author)2013-08-04

Some one else who saved 12/82 issue for this project! Never built "mini-calliope" but have seen one other "in person," and yours is amazing.

Possibly blowers were intended to be older style GE bonnet hair dryers rather than hand held hair dryers--were quieter and blew large air volumes despite lower fan speed. Still available on eBay.

Greasetattoo (author)rlmarket2013-08-05

So, you have the issue too!
Took me 30 years to build, but finally found the time!
Yes, that is what I figured for the blowers!
The big round bonnet hair dryers!

I did find a speed adjustable motor at a local surplus store.
Let's hope it works!

charlene17 (author)2013-08-04 beautiful....I want one. Love your apron too!

Greasetattoo (author)charlene172013-08-05

Thank you!!!
I have a few patches, hope to earn more!

a41capt (author)2013-08-04

What, no video with you playing? After reading your Instructable, I was really looking forward to hearing your creation "sing"!

Thanks for the great Instructable, and it just goes to show that time patience and perseverance DO pay off!

Greasetattoo (author)a41capt2013-08-05

sorry for no video.
I am in the process of changing out blower motors.
As, the hair driers did not push enough air?!
I will post on as soon as it is finished!
thanks for the kind comments.

Here is a video of the same organ playing...(just not mine, yet!)

bugman113 (author)2013-08-03

That's just beautiful.

Greasetattoo (author)bugman1132013-08-04

Thank you!

rimar2000 (author)2013-08-03

Awesome work.. Please PM me when you put the video.

Greasetattoo (author)rimar20002013-08-04

Will do, hopefully in the next few days!
I did find another one playing on you tube, though..
Just like it!

Viaticus (author)2013-08-03

That article is still out there - the net is truly an amazing thing! Your i'ble is way more insightful though. But if you ever need to refer back to it you can find it here:

Greasetattoo (author)Viaticus2013-08-04

Yes, I have it linked in my introduction page!
Thank you for taking the time to look at my instructable!

Dream Dragon (author)2013-08-04

A really impressive project, thanks for sharing it. It's something I've always fancied doing but one of those things that I either have "time" or "Money" or "Space" but never in the right kind of proportions. I've voted for you in the contest, but there are a few things I've found out in my research on the subject that you and other readers might find useful or interesting. The original article is rather lacking in correct terminology.

A "Calliope" is a collection of tuned STEAM Whistles, they were popular on the old Mississippi steam boats and some steam fairs and circuses. A calliope is generally rather simpler than an organ, but what you what you have built is a very simple "Portative Organ" with a lot of similar mechanisms to a Calliope so it's not ENTIRELY inaccurate to mix up the names.

The "Air" you refer to is correctly called "Wind" in this context so you have a "Wind Chest" and "Windways"!

The "Air Release Mechanism" is called a "Pallet", and your pallets do seem to be quite innovative. I've not seen that particular mechanism before, but it's very similar to the more traditional "Pallet Chest" and "Key Channel" systems used in traditional organs.

The "D-Shaped Notches" are "Arched Fipples", the advantage of the arch is that will still "speak" more or less correctly over a range of wind pressures, which is the reason that shape is usually used for steam and mouth blown whistles. It is more efficient, if your organ does not have "Flexible wind" (variable air pressure) to use a straight fipple, but different shapes have slightly different effects on the tone and timbre of the note produced by the pipe.

I'm really impressed with this project, and I hope I'll be able to find it again next time I have the opportunity to explore pipe organs.

Wow, thank you for the GREAT information!
I actually wanted to build this 30 years ago!
Finally found the time!
Again, thank you for the kind comments!

stereophonic (author)2013-08-02

That's one hell of a build and a great instructable! Well done!

Thank you...

redfoxtrystman (author)2013-08-02

All I have to say is WOW your amazing.

Thank you for the kind comment!
Amazing, well.....

waldy (author)2013-08-03

Absolutely fabulous instructables. Could you give us an mp3 how it sounds please

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