A family worthy of blowing its own horn
Bruce Lawson can't stop blowing his own horn literally. He's testing one of the French horns that he and his family have just crafted by hand in the Maryland woods. And considering it took them about 80 hours they could probably use a little recognition.
The three generations of Lawsons spend each day transforming huge rolls of sheet metal and long tubes of copper into graceful curves and gleaming bells some of the world's finest French horns. You can hear a Lawson Brass horn for yourself just listen to the CNN theme music on TV. The instruments also fill the French horn sections of major symphony orchestras in the United States.
To an untrained eye and ear, though, the Lawson horns may look and sound ordinary. But consider this: The French horn is actually made up of more than 100 pieces and 22 feet of coiled plumbing. That leaves a lot of room for differences from one horn to the next.
Bruce works in the "factory" a two-story workshop on 18 acres of wooded land near Boonesboro, where the family used to go camping. The workshop is just down the winding dirt road from his parents' house and a few yards from the Appalachian Trail. He and his dad, Walter, started Lawson Brass in 1980 with Bruce's brothers, Duane and Paul. Duane has moved on to other interests. But the company has gained the help of Paul's wife, Rebecca, and sometimes Bruce's teenage daughter, Amy.
These instrument builders are also a bunch of musicmakers though they have different tastes. Bruce prefers the keyboard, while Amy likes the cello. Walter is the real French horn fanatic: He played second chair with the Baltimore Symphony for 29 years until he retired in 1976.
Most French horns are made by big companies like Yamaha and C.G. Conn. They might have hundreds of people making and assembling horn parts. They churn out more than 4,000 French horns a year, a lot of which are sold to students for about $3,000 each.
Lawson Brass, on the other hand, makes fewer than 40 horns a year that cost about $8,000 each.
"You can compare us to a carmaker," says Walter. "If you want to buy a regular Ford car, you go to a Ford dealer. But if you want to modify it and race it, then you go to a custom carmaker." Lawson Brass mostly sells horns to professionals, who often have specific requests.
They might want a French horn that sounds richer, just like one they heard on a CD. Or one that glows a distinct shade of gold under the bright theater lights where they perform. Or one with a longer pipe leading to the mouthpiece to account for a player's especially tall figure.
But one thing all horn players strive for is emotion, Walter says. "After all, the Oxford English Dictionary defines music as 'a story stirring emotions by means of sound.' " The French horn, especially with its long tubing, "enables a player to hit more notes and express more shades of anger, hate, love, and joy," he says.
A musician varies a horn's sound by changing the position of his lips, moving the location of his hand inside the bell (the horn's funnel-shaped end), or pressing down on the valves that control the air flow through the tubing.
But every detail of the manufacturing process affects the instrument's sound, too.
A horn with a lighter tone, for instance, will have a narrower diameter inside the tubing. This horn is often used for chamber music, played in a small room as opposed to a grand symphony hall. A handful of different metals can also produce horns that may be described as sounding "brassy," or "rich," or "mellow." And the degree to which the horn tapers, or gets wider, from the narrow mouthpiece all the way up to the foot-wide bell, also gives horns a lighter or heavier tone.
Paul is the one who makes the larger horn parts. He starts with the tail, the long piece that connects the coiled tubing to the bell. (See photo, next page.) From a roll of sheet metal, he cuts out a long rectangular shape that is wider on one end so that it will taper.
Then he heats the metal in an oven to soften it. Once it cools, Paul shapes the metal into a tail by bending it around a tapered, solid-metal mold called a mandrel. He gives the tail a smooth, round outside by forcing the tail through a hole in another metal mold.
Now how does he give the tail that nice arch? (See photo, left.) He can't just bend it because like a hollow garden hose, it could easily kink. So he fills it with hot, liquid tar. When it hardens, he can curve the tail and still maintain its width. To remove the tar, he just heats up the tail.
Paul uses similar techniques on the bell (which he molds from sheet metal) and on the tightly coiled tubing (which are pre-formed tubes that he bends a lot).
Next, Bruce, Walter, and Amy assemble the horn and attach the smaller parts they've made, such as the mouthpiece and the finger levers. They add a handful of parts the family doesn't make, such as the screws. Then they polish and lacquer the surfaces of the horn.
Finally, Bruce plays the shiny instrument to test the way it sounds. A computer program listens in and indicates where, among the 100 parts, the horn needs an adjustment. This is a real improvement from just a few years ago, says Walter. "It used to be that you'd have to pass a newly made horn around to several players, who only might be able to tell you what you needed to adjust."
Walter has been either playing or building French horns since the 1940s, but he still enjoys them.
"It's incredibly fun and interesting always trying to perfect the French horn," he says. "The next time you go to a concert hall, think of all the fancy stuff that goes into making those instruments."