A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A LUTHIER BY MARK DALTON
In choosing a subject for this month’s column, I decided to
“blog” a bit. I know blogging is
all the rage right now, but not
being a player in the social media
arena, this is as close as I may get.
I know some guitar enthusiasts
have wondered what it would be
like to own a guitar factory, so
I will take one day of my working life and present it, warts and
all, for your hopeful enjoyment.
I’ll tell you that most days I love
my job, while others are a test to
see how bad I want it. This brief
summary of a typical day will
show a bit of what it’s like.
Tuesday: I’m off on Mondays.
A few years ago, Jeff Huss and I
gave ourselves the luxury of four-day weeks, so he could participate
in his three kids’ young years, and
so I could get some work done
on the farm. Tuesday morning
begins with a two-hour drive for
my wife Kimberly and me from
the farm to Staunton, where the
factory is located.
As the first day of my workweek, Tuesdays are usually very
full, and this one is no exception.
Bad news greets my arrival—one
of our employees had an apartment fire this morning, and
another lost his mother to cancer.
Jeff, Kimberly, and I voice our
concerns for them and follow up
by trying to figure out how their
news will affect the work schedule for the others. We work out
a plan, but we know we’ll see an
empty UPS truck leaving the factory all week, which has ramifications for our cash-flow situation.
This is the omnipresent concern
of the small business owner—the
“evil cash-flow monster.” After
our meeting, it’s time to deal with
There is always a finish room
situation for me to deal with,
so onto today’s issue. Since we
started using matte finishes on
some of our necks recently, we
have struggled to get the level
of “matteness” just right for our
customers. We are given the news
this morning that after checking
out the matte finish on a recently
received guitar, one of our very
good dealers was much pleased
with our second attempt to get
this right. While we hate to do
any job twice, we want all to be
pleased and are happy to know
our efforts are getting there.
Some of a luthier’s time goes into actual building—selecting, cutting, and
shaping wood, spraying the finish, and fitting critical parts like the bridge
shown here. But if you do this as a business, a lot of time—much more
than you might like—goes into dealing with personnel, cash flow, supplier, distribution, and marketing issues. It’s like playing in a band: Once
the word “business” gets appended to “music,” the dynamics change,
and not always for the better.
years, but have kept the job of
spraying the ’bursts.
Next, there are wood issues to
attend to. I go up to the milling
room to sand out and cut out a
spectacular set of Makassar ebony,
so we can take photos and send
them to a dealer. He loves the
wood and places an order.
Now I’m back to the CNC
room to make kerfed lining. Since
the cedar planks I’m using are full
of knots and wormholes, I need
to fill them so the vacuum is able
to hold the planks down. Not a
good batch of cedar on this run,
so we’ll have a fairly low yield of
linings that make the grade today.
Back inside the main shop, I
help the guy who glues the necks
and bridges onto the bodies. He
has an ill-fitting bridge, and I’ve
learned the hard way you want to
make sure these issues are worked
out before the glue goes on.
I head back up to the wood
stack to choose a top for a cus-
tomer. I had taken a custom
order inquiry the other day while
our salesman was at lunch, and
after addressing the customer’s
questions, he asked me to person-
ally choose his top. I pick a nice
European spruce set for him.
MARK DALTON is a
founding partner of Huss
& Dalton Guitar Company.
When not building guitars,
Mark and his wife, Kimberly,
tend to the draft horses
and mules that inhabit their
farm in the Piedmont region of Virginia.