When internationally known custom shotgun and rifle manufacturers need an engraver, they don’t place a call to the local jeweler. They seek out the finest engravers in the world. And one of the best lives not in Italy or in England, but in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, in the small hamlet of Evington, south of Lynchburg.
For more than a decade, Lisa Tomlin has engraved shotguns and rifles for such renowned gun makers as the John Rigby Company and Mountain Riflery, the latter of which recently sold a custom rifle for $225,000. Former President George Herbert Walker Bush owns a Rigby custom shotgun engraved by Tomlin. So do Gen. Normal Schwarzkopf, John Milius (director of the Dirty Harry movies) and former test pilot Chuck Yeager. Geoff Miller, Rigby’s managing director, calls Tomlin “one of the best engravers in the world, if not the best.”
John Bolliger, who owns Idaho-based Mountain Riflery, was so impressed with Tomlin’s work that he flew to Virginia just to meet her. “Our market is the top two or three percent of those individuals buying guns,” he says. “We just supplied a gun to the King of Spain.” He says that the importance of a talented engraver cannot be overstated. “I have built guns whose value has been diminished by a poor engraver, and I have built guns that have gained in value because of the engraver.”
Tomlin, who uses the classic hammer and chisel method, engraves about five guns a year. She learned her craft from Ken Hurst, a Master Engraver for Colt, whose company also did work for Ducks Unlimited and others. Says Tomlin, “I asked Ken for a job, but he said he didn’t need additional employees. However, he asked me to draw an elk on a piece of paper the size of a quarter. I submitted it and he hired me. I trained for weeks; he had me make at least a thousand commas with a hammer and chisel before he would let me work on any projects. He wanted to make sure I could handle the tools properly. If the chisel slips on the piece you’re working on, there could be a real problem.”
Tomlin has very few problems, which is why Miller considers her engravings to be works of art that could one day be “as famous and valuable as a Picasso.” That’s heady praise for a woman who loved to pencil-draw animals as a child and later hoped her work would be noticed. It has, and as she says, “In a way it has been rather humbling.”