Build It, They Will Play

By Edward Tutwiler
During this magical, mystical, Americana string-music tour that I’ve been so blessed to take, I have had the privilege to document the stories of many fine instrument makers. Some have been renowned musicians who also construct a special instrument that delivers the perfect sound to their ears and then build a copy of that instrument one at a time for special friends. Others have been fine craftspeople, with some musical talent, who do quality woodwork and have the ability to put that knowledge into fine stringed instruments that they custom-build upon order. Once, I met a creative artist whose artistic expression just happened to be unique, exotic guitars with perfect sound and constructed to the finest standards. His finished work was more art to be admired and displayed as such for its unique beauty than for playing music.
What Makes A Luthier
This time, I will tell you about two special people who are musicians, luthiers, and skilled craftsmen but who are also pragmatic businessmen with a primary goal to build fine quality, great sounding guitars; and to sell them in volume as a successful business venture. Who are these men, you ask—they are Jeff Huss and Mark Dalton and they are the creators and driving force behind the internationally known and respected HUSS & DALTON acoustic steel-string guitar. I sat down with misters Huss and Dalton in their Staunton, VA production center recently at the end of one of their busy days, and asked them to tell us how they put it all together and made it all happen.
Jeff Huss began by telling me that he entered the music instrument making world in June 1985 when he started working at Stelling Banjo Works. Jeff tells it this way, “I play guitar and banjo and that interest led me to going to work for Stelling and I worked for him (editor note: him, being Geoff Stelling) for the next nine years. While there, I became interested in how guitars are made. I got some books and begin studying, and I built my first guitar in 1989.”
Jeff went on to say, “Around that same time I met up with Mark Dalton (who is a very good banjo and guitar player by the way) I had made a few guitars on my own and eventually made a guitar for Mark. I had a shop at home in my garage where I was building guitars on my own. I eventually transitioned completely out of Stelling’s shop and started building guitars for him to market as his branded offering.”
Improving Skills
As Huss began ramping up his one-man operation, Dalton went to work for Stelling doing the finish work on Stelling’s banjos. (Mark comes from a finishing background and trained in his father’s auto body repair shop.) Jeff injected, “Finishing is my weak area. I was doing the building but I did not know much about finish work.”
In 1995, Mark Dalton left Stelling’s employ; and he and Jeff Huss formed their own company. Mark spoke up and said, “This year, 2015, is our 20th anniversary.” Jeff continued, “So, we ended up in my garage—just the two of us—and half of our output was Stelling Guitars. This was a good thing as it meant that we had half of all we built pre-sold. That guaranteed income gave us the opportunity to develop our own line of guitars, which we could market on our own.” Mark added, “We were also doing the inlay work on the Stelling banjos in our shop as well. So, in the early days we were both closely associated with Stelling Banjo Works first as employees, and then as suppliers of finished guitars, as well as subcontractors on some of the fine finish work that the banjos needed. In the beginning, when it was just Jeff and me, we could build four finished guitars a month—two of which were Stelling guitars and two of which were Huss and Dalton guitars. That’s how we started.”
Mark continued, “By 1996, we moved to larger rented quarters in Stuart’s Draft, VA and hired our first employee. In 1999, we bought this building here in Staunton, VA, moved our operation to this present location, and hired more employees. In 2008, we bought the adjacent building, and here we are in 2015.”
I asked about the fact that they both were musicians as well as luthiers, and Jeff said, “Yes we are. Everybody who works here now or who ever worked here plays a musical instrument. I think that fact (that is; being a musician) is what draws people to make instruments for their living.”
I asked how they decided upon the style or design that their signature guitar would have. Huss said, “It is a traditional design. When I started, I was studying a book that discussed flat-top, steel-string guitars.” Did it describe a standard design, I wondered? Jeff continued, “Yes. We’ve never been ones to experiment around with different designs. We love old guitars and do not want to deviate from those traditional designs—those designs are tried and true.” Mark added, “Almost all steel-string instruments are really just copies of everything that everyone else has ever made. It is a real tradition-based world. Even in the electric guitar world many people make copies of the Telecaster, Stratocaster, and Less Paul designs. You can make an electric guitar into something weird and people will still purchase it; however, the acoustic guitar world is very tradition based. We do our little take on ever part of the process—our unique stamp—but for the most part our guitars are copies of guitars that were made in the 1930s such as the Martins and Gibson’s. We have a few models that are more unique to us; and as I said before, everything has our stamp upon its process in some way.”
I ask them to comment on the process of building their guitars, and Jeff told me that their process covers the range of modern manufacturing techniques but there is still a great bit of handwork involved as well. Jeff added, “There is a lot of handwork; however, we have and use a CNC machine so we can have perfect parts one after the other. Even the leading companies noted for their innovation still have portions of the build process that is handwork.”
I asked if they design to achieve a certain sound from their guitars, and do their guitars have a unique sound? Jeff answered, “The sound is a product of the way we build rather that us saying we want a certain sound and experimenting with the build until we achieve that sound. We figured out how to build our guitar the way we wanted it to be, and the sound that resulted was the sound of our guitar. People seem to think that our guitars have a distinctive characteristic to their sound but that unique sound is the result of the build. The sound is fairly close for all of our guitars. Most of the sound comes out of the top of the guitar and that is where we need to be consistent. Some people certainly do tap testing and use a bit of black magic to achieve uniformity in sound. We have a fixture that we use that applies a standard pressure to the guitar top and measures the top’s deflection. In effect, we are measuring the stiffness of each top. We then sand the top until it meets our specifications. Therefore, while the thickness of the top can vary, the stiffness of the top is maintained to our standards. This technique seems to give us very consistent results. We do some custom work with exotic woods in our backs and sides. That is part of the fun part of the whole thing. The different backs and sides certainly will color the sound. A mahogany guitar will sound different than a rosewood guitar. If one uses the exotic woods enough, one can start to recognize the sound resulting from each type. During one period, we used a lot of Honduran rosewood. Those guitars have a very distinctive sound to them.”
I asked if they ever produced a custom guitar. Here is Mark’s reply, “We do a lot of custom work but we do not change the structure. The structure must match what we do. We do not change our bracing design; and we don’t modify or omit this or that brace. Any custom work we do will be mostly cosmetic or using special woods. One can do a long list of things to customize a guitar, and we do most everything. With bindings, inlays, and wood choices, there are numerous things one can do to change a guitar in a custom manner.”
When asked how someone could become an owner of one of their guitars, both Mark and Jeff quickly told me, “We sell to stores. We do not sell direct to the consumer. We wholesale everything to the retail stores. While most of our output is sold when we build it, it is sold to the retail outlets. We are manufacturers not retailers.” Mark continued, “You can not do both. You either must be the builder or the retailer. If you have a production line at all, then that is what you must concentrate upon. You can not do direct sale. If you have dealers that retail your product, you can not compete with them. That just would not work.”
Currently, Huss & Dalton produce several hundred guitars a year for the retail market. Before the recent recession, their production was somewhat greater but they needed to cut back due to that economic situation. Mark, expanded, “We would always like the production number to grow. When the recession came along, we had 13 employees. By late 2007 to early 2008 we begin feeling the effects of the slowdown. Many of our employees are young and they tend to come and go so we were never in the position to need to lay anyone off from their job—everyone always got 40 hours of work each week. That took us down to seven folks but we just recently added someone to take us back to eight employees at present. We think that our current work load is growing and maybe we can add another person this year. We remain conservative about adding folks too quickly. It is hard to train many people at one time. It takes a very long time to train people to do what we need them to be able to do. The work is all very skilled. We spend time trying to take some of the skill out of the work and make it easier for someone to come in and do a job but our system is not such that you can just pull someone off the street and put them to work.” Jeff added, “Even the guys that go to school still need to learn our system the way we do it. We have had good employees that were school trained and we have good employees off the street that we’ve trained, and we had some that were not so good from both places; it more depends on the person.”
Spreading Talent Around
Do not get the idea that these two men sit in an office somewhere and never get their hands on the product they produce. When asked if they were still hands-on, Mark and Jeff replied in unison, “Yes, very much so. At least 80 percent of Jeff’s time and 96 percent of Mark’s time is spent in the production room.” Mark added, “We don’t sit here in the office.”
Each one has his special areas of expertise and responsibilities. Jeff works upstairs doing the neck and inlay work plus overseeing those employees while Mark runs and programs the CNC machine. He previously was involved in the setup work but is slowly moving out of that area. Of course, they run the business together. Mark summed up, “It is a small business so we all wear a lot of hats. It is a typical small business—it just has an unusual product.”
When Jeff and Mark started building one guitar at a time, they learned to do things smarter and quicker as they grew. Now, they must get new folks to that point a lot quicker. I asked how they do that. Mark said they were still learning and Jeff chuckled and agreed. Mark went on to say, “We are always trying to improve the system by improving the methods, the procedures, and the fixtures. It always needs improvement. We are always trying to do that. We can achieve quality but we are trying to achieve quality easier. We are always trying to figure a better way to put a certain part into a specific hole consistently instead of having to shape each part individually to fit the hole.”
Uniquely Their Own
I wondered about what makes their guitar unique and desirable. Both guys replied but each had a somewhat different view. Jeff said, “I think it is just the sum of all of the parts. We didn’t go at it that way to see how we could make it stand out. Rather, we decided to make a really good guitar because we believed that is what people wanted.” Mark’s take was, “The difference between us and our competitors, which are all bigger that us, is very subtle. Our guitars look just like theirs when they are hanging on the dealer’s wall. We all have our signature sound but when one does enough research and gets past the generalizations, there are just subtle differences between us and the others, and we reach our niche.  It as a musical instrument to its full potential.”

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