Posted: Tuesday, March 25, 2014 3:00 pm
Anne Wooten Green/Special Correspondent
Artists can be tortured souls, trading happiness for a masterpiece.
Not Tom Lewtak. He’s as happy a man as you’ll ever meet.
Lewtak sculpts metal and wood to create pipe organs, and breathes new life into existing ones, one pipe at a time.
His latest project was refurbishing the organ at Trinity Moravian Church in Winston-Salem. It took the Polish-born Lewtak, 47, of Mocksville about six weeks to complete the restoration.
The church’s organ has 1,080 pipes. Jonathan Sidden, music director for Trinity Moravian, said that each set of pipes was removed and organized in sections in a vacant classroom at the church.
That’s when Lewtak went to work.
“The pipes were dusty and dirty. They had issues, not just cosmetic, but mechanical,” he said. “So I fixed and cleaned each pipe. I looked at the bellows. The blower was too small for the instrument, so we got a new blower.”
Lewtak said the biggest problem was the voicing of the pipes. But don’t confuse voicing with tuning, he said.
“In laymen’s terms, tuning has to do with the pitch and the height of the note. Voicing has to do with the quality of the tone,” he explained. “You’ll have a pipe that will sound like a trumpet, a pipe that sounds like a flute. Dealing with 61 pipes in one rank, they all have to sound similar.”
A rank is pipes arranged by timbre and pitch.
Lewtak uses a two-rank voicing tracker organ he built in 2005 to perfect the voicing of each pipe. With the exception of the largest pipes, nearly all them are pre-voiced on it. The organ is portable, a normal size instrument that churches can use until their organs are ready.
He puts each pipe into the portable organ and hits the accompanying key on a keyboard. He uses small tools — like a jeweler’s metal ring sizer, or a homemade hammer about the size of a small rock hammer — to make adjustments. He blows in the pipe to check the adjustment.
The pipes on the organ range in circumference from smaller than a pencil to several inches. Lewtak used his carpentry skills to build a new façade for the Trinity Moravian organ.
“What you see when you look at the organ, you just see the front of the organ, the façade,” he said. “There are 18 pipes in the façade; they are pretty, and they are visible.”
Sidden said he met with Lewtak over the Christmas holidays to discuss renovating the organ. The church had to move quickly, because Lewtak was busy with building organs, installation and renovation.
“It was either February-March or October to March 2015,” Sidden said. “And while we were deciding, October through March got booked.”
With the Trinity Moravian project completed, Lewtak turned his attention to St. Louis, where he will be for two weeks helping a friend, Martin Ott, install an organ.
“He’s up in his age and he doesn’t have the capacity to do a lot of the work anymore,” Lewtak said. “He has difficulty hiring people whom he trusts.”
At the beginning of May, Lewtak starts a “four or five” month restoration of an organ at First Presbyterian Church in Gastonia. “I like to work locally,” he said of his 12- to 14-hour days. “I like sleeping in my own bed.”
In between, he will be working on his latest construction project, building a small organ for a church in Brazil.
“I’ve done about 30 percent of the Brazil organ on the drawing board, on the computer. I have to know how much space I have available. In late July, I’ll go to Brazil to experience the acoustics of the church. It will be the smallest organ I’ve built.”
The church in Brazil wants the organ ready by Christmas of this year, Lewtak said.
Years of hard work and training led Lewtak to make a splash in the organ business when he was chosen to be the first American to build an organ for a Denmark church.
In 2010, he built an organ for First Presbyterian Church in Greenville, N.C. That organ caught the eye of leaders of the church in Horsens, Denmark. “They had heard my name and heard my CDs,” Lewtak said.
Lewtak said the process for getting the job was arduous. He was competing with a shop in Germany and a shop in Denmark. “The Germans are master builders, and Denmark has built its own organs for 1,000 years,” he said.
The church leaders traveled to Greenville to hear his organ. Lewtak said it was an honor to be selected to build the organ for the church, a marvel of concrete and stone with fantastic acoustics.
For the Danish organ, Lewtak used Appalachian white ash for the wood pipes. His metal came from Germany and Holland. The organ was finished and installed in spring 2013.
Lewtak said that hours are spent making the “machine” part of the organ. But the voicing of the pipes gives the organ a soul.
Lewtak’s soul for organ building began at an early age. Growing up poor, but “happy,” he said, in Poland with his parents and three brothers, his inspiration came at age 16 when he saw a grand organ being built at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Gdansk by the German firm Hillebrand. Later he took organ building and design classes during his five years at the Academy of Music in Katowice, Poland.
He met his wife, Jolanta, at the Academy of Music. Both became church organists in Poland. While playing a concert in Poland in the early 1990s, Lewtak caught the ear of a music professor from Binghamton (N.Y.) University. The professor offered him and his wife full scholarships to attend Binghamton.
The couple arrived in New York in 1993 with suitcases, a baby boy and $373. “We had nothing when we got here.”
Both soon got jobs as church organists.
When he was the organist at St. Joseph’s Church in Camillus, N.Y., the priest decided to replace the electronic organ with a pipe organ bought from a nearby church that was closing.
Lewtak saw the organ and realized it didn’t fit the church. Many parts were badly damaged. He offered to salvage parts of the organ and build a new pipe organ for the church.
Building an organ is a complex task.
“It is a huge exercise in carpentry,” Lewtak said. It takes years of hands-on apprenticeship to master. But Lewtak had the foundation to start the process. He minored in organ building at the Academy of Music. In addition, his brother, Paul, an architect, could help him create the right organ façade.
But he needed to learn the art of voicing. So he took a year’s sabbatical to Denmark where he worked with a veteran voicer and learned how to scribe and hammer each pipe. He also apprenticed on an organ in Norway, voicing all of its pipes.
Lewtak returned to Camillus and completed the St. Joseph’s organ, and by 2006 he became a full-time organ builder.
After trips to Greenville to install his organ there, and some vacations at the Outer Banks, the Lewtaks “instantly fell in love” with North Carolina. They decided to move.
“We liked the lower taxes and milder winters here,” Lewtak said. “The religious life in North Carolina is very active. There are more churches here, which is good for my business.”
In July 2011, Jolanta Lewtak landed the job of music director at Holy Family Catholic Church in Clemmons. The family moved to a log home on 15 acres in Mocksville.
He rents his current workshop in Cooleemee, but will be moving to his own shop next to his home in Mocksville this summer
The couple have three sons: Timothy, 25, a Harvard graduate who attends Oxford Business School in England; Kacper, 18, who attends Harvard; and Marceli, 12, a student at South Davie Middle School.
With his family and business thriving, Lewtak seems to always have a smile or an impish grin on his face.
“I am a happy man. Every morning I get up, I am itching to put my hands on this work,” he said.