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Meet Virginia: Robbie Lawson

On a recent Saturday, Robbie Lawson suddenly realized his mistake: he’d put the sign of St. Peter, two keys and an upside down cross, on the wooden organ case the wrong way—a crucial detail, given that the first-century saint was symbolically crucified upside down.

“Some days, I feel like I’ve just spun my wheels and done nothing, like, ‘Well, that’s just a big waste of time.’ We all have those days,” Lawson admits. “But if I’ve done work—carvings, production, all day—go home, die content.”

Since he was a few years out of high school, Lawson has built pipe organs. Today, he’s one of a dozen employees at Taylor & Boody Organ Builders which operates in the rural outskirts of Staunton where it’s been since the 1970s.

When he arrived at age 24, after a few years as a car mechanic, Lawson’s first job was to shape organ pipes.

“It was really cool because the way we make pipes is similar to what they were doing in, you know, 1500, 1600 in northern Germany and the Netherlands. We cast our own metal. It’s hand-formed around the mandrils. The pretty pipes in front, sometimes they have embossing. We call it bling for the front of the organ.”

Robbie Lawson displays a carving of St. Cecilia.
Christine Kueter
Robbie Lawson displays a carving of St. Cecilia.

It wasn’t long before he became a woodcarver, too. Because organs channel air, rather than vibrating strings, like on a piano or violin, the cases enclosing the instrument are open and surrounded by ornate, hand-carved panels. It’s where Lawson began to make his mark.

“George Taylor gave me a shot as far as carving back in 2000, 2001, asked me if I was interested and thought I could do it, which I was. I have no formal background or artist’s training, but I’ve always been artistic, liked to draw, do creative things.”

His first assignment was close to home: five panels for Opus 34 in a Staunton church. But three years later, he’d designed and carved panels for Opus 37, installed in San Francisco. Fast-forward 50 projects and 30 years to last winter’s Opus 84, in an Indiana church, and Opus 85, currently being made for a North Carolina church, and Lawson’s accidental career has become a calling.

He’s carved cats, dogs, fish, certain choir members, birds, rabbits, turnips, and countless other things. Now 51, he’s one of five vice presidents at the organ company, the only one unrelated to the founders by blood. It’s a role he’s still getting used to.

“I came here, looking for a job, and found a career, 27 years later. It is a nice balance of, you know, work and creativity. We’re not millionaires here, but you know, I do feel like the time I’ve spent here hasn’t been wasted,” Lawson says.

While clients sometimes bring design ideas, many times, the vision is all Lawson’s. After a site visit and poring over photos, he pulls architectural details into his organ sketches. Then, the team engineers the instrument, which can weigh 8,000 to 10,000 pounds, cost $1 million to $3 million, and involve 30 to 50 “stops,” which are clusters of pipes that activate when certain knobs are pulled.

Today, Taylor & Boody births about one large pipe organ each year. In between the big builds, they make and refurbish continuos, which are smaller organs used as stand-alone instruments.

Before they’re transported to their new homes in churches, private homes, and recital halls, the company hosts an open house to celebrate the organs’ send-off for the curious, the musical, and the organ builders’ family members.

Before he died last summer, Lawson’s dad John attended every one. Working with his hands, Lawson said, is in his blood.

“It’s funny… We found my dad’s high school senior quote was ‘Work hard, live high, and die content.’ And he did that. Looking back, maybe I’m thinking maybe I’m trying to do that as well.”

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

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