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.
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.
And now it’s over to the
CNC room for me. Since
I do the programming and
most of the machine operation,
any issues here are in my
wheelhouse. I need to run a
part that I had trouble with
the last time, but after tweaking
the raw stock for this job,
the parts run well this time.
Nothing makes for a bad day
like finding parts strewn about
the CNC machine when you
check on a job. Satisfied with
the results, I go into the office
to check and answer emails that
came in over the weekend.
Then it’s out to the shop to
set up the buffing and fretting
schedules for the week. With two
guys out most of the week, there
will be a lull followed by a mad
scramble. But hopefully all will
be okay in a few days.
Next, it’s back to the office to
deal with a missing check from
one of our dealers. According
to the dealer, the check was
mailed and deposited, but it has
not shown up in our account.
After a lot of hand wringing
and numerous calls and emails,
the dealer discovered that he
had deposited it into his own
account! With the missing check
issue resolved, I move onto a
case supply issue. When our case
supplier gets a bit behind on
deliveries, we have to adjust our
setup schedule to accommodate.
I need to put my CNC guy
hat back on and program a custom
neck and fretboard for a customer.
Once that’s done, it’s into
the finish room to do a sunburst.
I haven’t been the finish guy for
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
the glue goes on.
I head back up to the wood
stack to choose a top for a customer.
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 personally
choose his top. I pick a nice
European spruce set for him.
To wrap up the day, I go back
to my laptop to do some CAD
drawing for our soon-to-be-redesigned
logo. While I won’t finish
this for several more days, I like
what I see so far.
Time to go home. Kimberly
and I head out to the grocery store
and on to our rental house here in
Staunton. All in all, it was a really
good day. Most of the issues were
pretty run-of-the-mill and nothing
made my blood pressure go up. I
feel lucky to have my job today,
which is the best we can all hope
for in a day’s work.
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.