Devoted to the sound from experienced hands and quality woods, seven men build guitars, five at a time.
by J. Clayton Barbour
photography by Keith Lanpher
STAUNTON, VIRGINIA – It all starts with the wood.
Rosewood from India. Mahogany from South America. Spruce pine from Italy, Alaska and the mountains of Virginia. All of it chopped down and freighted over vast expanses of water and land until it reaches a small, two-story brick building just off Interstate 81 in the foothills of Virginia.
There, exactly 14 hands will wet it, bend it, drill it, sand it, paint it and buff it until it becomes one of the prettiest acoustic guitars you ever did see. Pretty sounding too, with a tone somewhere between the high twang of a Taylor and the muddy bottom of a Martin.
The Huss and Dalton Guitar Company recently began its 20th year making these high-quality instruments by hand. What started in a garage has grown into a respected boutique company that lists Paul Simon, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Stone Gossard and Albert Lee as customers.
It’s a learned skill, making guitars, fueled more by passion than by common sense. It doesn’t make you rich. It rarely makes you famous. But there is pride in creating something that sounds so good. You could even fool yourself into thinking it takes a bit of magic, though it’s really just craft.
Stretching steel strings from the bridge to the head creates tension equivalent to 180 pounds of torque. Essentially, the strings try to fold the instrument in two. A good guitar requires wood strong enough to withstand that tension, but light enough to transfer – and enhance – the sound. You could say the same thing about a good guitar company.
With precious few nods to modernization, Jeff Huss, 55, and partner Mark Dalton, 51, have made it through good times and bad by focusing on quality wood, and the precision of calloused, experienced hands.
“A guitar’s sound is the result of who makes it,” Huss likes to say. “Do you want your guitar to sound like a person, or a robot?”
Every Huss and Dalton guitar begins up on the second floor, in a room above the business office. On this day, three men are working quietly in separate sections. Country music plays in the background. The smell of sawdust is everywhere.
John Calkin, 66, is seated by a bench, his hands patiently working a celluloid binding around the edges of a guitar body. A New Jersey native, Calkin trained to be a gunsmith. He also worked as a freelance writer for American Lutherie, a trade journal. In 1996, he wrote a story on Huss and Dalton. He liked the company so much he spent a year persuading them to hire him. December will mark his 17th year with the company. “This kind of work, it just gets inside of you,” he says. “It’s more than a job, really.”
Every so often Calkin moves in a way that hints at pain. The repetitive nature of sanding and shaping takes its toll, especially on shoulders and hands. Attaching wood bindings takes more than an hour for each guitar. Celluloid is easier. Still, it’s tediously slow. Calkin inches along for 45 minutes, making sure to avoid mistakes.
One nicked binding or scratched sound hole can set the whole process back, something an operation the size of Huss and Dalton can’t afford. “This kind of work, you miss by a fraction, you might as well miss by a
mile,” Calkin says.
The company produces guitars in batches of five, with each moving through stages at the same time. Huss and Dalton employs five craftsmen, each responsible for one aspect of construction. Dean Jones pulls the wood and builds the tops and backs. Calkin puts the bodies together. Bryan Bridges stains them. Jeff Hill sands and buffs. And Zack Deming assembles the bodies and prepares them for shipping.
The owners both work alongside the crew. Huss builds and fits the necks to the bodies. Dalton works in several areas, including the finishing and quality control. In other words, he makes sure the guitars
It’s an efficient operation, and a successful one. Not bad for a couple guys who started out in separate worlds and vastly different professions.
Jeff Huss was born and raised in North Dakota. As a young man he attended law school at the University of North Dakota. But law was boring. Huss loved music. His favorite type was bluegrass, the melodies of transplanted Scotsmen and broken-hearted hillbillies.
Polka was about the closest thing he could find – and that’s not close at all. “I needed to move somewhere people played bluegrass, somewhere I could be surrounded by it,” he says.
Huss’ wife, Diane, was a physical therapist. The couple figured she could find a job no matter where they moved. So, when he graduated in 1984, they headed for Virginia, settling in Staunton. She quickly found work and he got dangerously close to landing a job as a lawyer. But when the firm decided to hire someone else, he seized the opportunity to work for Stelling Banjo Works, nearby. He was a little apprehensive when breaking the news to his mother, but she took it well. “There are plenty of lawyers in the world and not enough banjos,” he remembers her telling him.
Huss worked for Stelling for nine years. Toward the end, he started building guitars in his own garage. It was slow, taxing work, bending the wood by hand with a hot pipe. He averaged about one a month, some going to Stelling, the others released under his own label. Without molds or gigs to standardize the process, every guitar was different. Imperfections were common. But those early models were pieces of him. He could look at one and remember every busted knuckle and sliced finger that went into it.
He sold Huss Guitar #6 to a friend, who in turn gave it to his son. Some 20 years later Huss ran into the young man at the Red Wing Roots Music Festival and immediately remembered the nick he left in the instrument’s purfling, a decorative outline on its back and sides. “It was like Cindy Crawford’s mole,” he says, only half joking. “It added character.”
One of his creations, as fate would have it, was purchased by Mark Dalton. Dalton had only recently started working at Stelling. Huss was already on his own. The two men met at a bluegrass jam session and bonded over their love of music and desire to work in the industry.
Dalton grew up in Pittsylvania County, between Danville and Lynchburg, where his family owned a farm and ran a local auto body shop. Music was a big part of his family life. He grew up listening to bluegrass greats like Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson and dreamed of one day being that good. He picked up guitar at 13 and was playing banjo by the time he graduated high school. He played in a number of bands and even toyed with the idea of performing professionally. “I wasn’t good enough, though. Not to be in a touring national act. Plus, truth be told, I wouldn’t have liked the life. I’m too much of a homebody.”
Affable and funny, Dalton fit in nicely with the reserved Midwesterner. Plus, a lifetime of handling stains and paints gave him a skill Huss sorely needed. By the fall of 1995, the two men were taking orders from Huss’ garage and the company was officially born.
From the start, Huss and Dalton’s goal was to create a legitimate guitar company, nothing to rival the giants of the industry but one that would fit nicely between the Taylors and C.F. Martins and the likes of Wayne Henderson, Virginia’s most famous luthier. Henderson, who has made guitars for Doc Watson, Gillian Welch and Eric Clapton, makes maybe 20 a year and sells them for about $1,500 each (though they have been resold for as much as $100,000). He has a waiting list 10 years long.
Achieving a balance between the giants and the old-school craftsmen was not always easy.
In the guitar world, there is a practice some find distasteful. Some companies solicit endorsements by showing up backstage with a collection of free guitars. The goal is to get a well-known musician to pose for a picture holding one of them.
“It’s kind of a slippery slope,” Dalton says. “Anybody will take a free $5,000 guitar if you offer it to them. But does that do you any good if a week later a picture comes out and they are playing a Taylor? We have always believed that it’s best to focus on relationships. If they come to us, then it’s real. And then that will turn into a long-term endorsement.”
It’s not that Huss and Dalton opposes advertising. The company does its share. It’s just that the partners prefer to focus on the work and hope it pays off. It has been that way since back in the garage days when they would load up their cars and drive around to retailers. “We just built them and then tried to find someone to buy them,” Dalton says. “We were kind of naïve, but it worked.”
The company started slowly in 1995, making four guitars a month. After the first year the partners were able to hire an employee and move into a new place in Stuarts Draft. This was mostly Dalton’s idea. A lifetime of living next to his family’s auto body shop had taught him the dangers of working where you live. “Taking your work home is way too short of a trip,” Huss says.
Business picked up after the partners attended a National Association of Music Merchants convention in 1997. The event exposed them to hundreds of retailers. “You have to remember,” Dalton says. “The economy was really hot then, so people were willing to spend more money.”
This marked the beginning of a period of growth that allowed the company to move to a new, bigger, location in Staunton, and increase its staff to 13. At its peak, Huss and Dalton produced as many as 400 guitars a year. Then in 2007 the recession hit. Orders for guitars slowed. Dramatically. “We didn’t lay anybody off, but we did have meetings where we told them: ‘We got enough work for this week. Next week? We don’t know,’ ” Huss says. “It was tough.”
The partners had their reasons for hanging on to workers. Finding someone who fits in with the tight-knit crew is not easy. Neither is teaching a new employee. It takes three years to get someone fully trained. “Until then, we’re all carrying them and that’s not easy,” Dalton says. “The last thing we want to do is cut staff and end up needing to find new people to hire later.”
In an attempt to stave off potential cuts, Huss and Dalton came up with an idea for a less-expensive guitar. Typically, the company’s guitars sell for about $4,200, though it’s not uncommon to receive orders for tricked-out instruments that cost as much as $14,000. The company once worked with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation to make six guitars out of a tulip poplar most likely planted by the former president. The collector’s items sold for $20,000 each.
In 2010, the company sent an email to retailers announcing its new Road Editions, with matte finishes and basic trim, priced at about $2,000. The company received more than 100 orders in the first six days. “We didn’t make any money off of them,” Dalton says. But the new product line did allow the company to keep its staff together during the toughest stretch.
Eventually Huss and Dalton lost staff to attrition but avoided layoffs and kept filling orders. The company made 300 guitars last year. Though that’s nothing compared to the 600 guitars a day put out by Taylor, a large California-based company, it’s a healthy number the partners hope only increases.
Now a few years removed from the tough times, and facing a significant anniversary, the company is again looking to grow. Dalton says they would like to return to pre-recession levels, and even expand globally. They’ve been working on making contacts in Germany.
If successful, they plan to keep making guitars the way they always have. No assembly lines. Just rough hands, and sore backs, and a group of craftsmen who hear the music even before the instrument is made. “This is going to be a slow thing,” Dalton says. “Always is. Building is slow. But that’s OK. We’re not going anywhere.”
Copyright © 2014 Distinction Magazine / Reprinted by permission