Building an acoustic guitar may seem like an extremely complicated process, but it can be broken down into a series of chronological steps.

With a very steady hand, luthier Jeff Huss preps a fretboard for its side-position markers.

Building an acoustic guitar may seem like an extremely complicated process, but it can be broken down into a series of chronological steps. While it would take a book (and there are some good ones out there) to describe how to create this fairly simple, yet elegant machine in more detail, I’d like to give you an overview of the process with this month’s column.

Because we build our bodies first, we start by dimensioning the wood for our top, back, and sides. Choosing the top wood for its stiffness-to-weight ratio, we generally make our tops from spruce or cedar. This means these woods are light enough to not act like a “tone sink,” but strong enough to withstand the incredible amount of tension they will be subjected to when the guitar is strung up. While back and side woods color the tone that the top produces, the majority of the sound is the result of the construction choices made for the top.

The top and back “plates” are thickness- sanded to dimension after they have been joined in a book-matched pattern. We cut a soundhole into the top, install a rosette, and then profile them—a process that creates a smooth, flat surface where the top meets the rosette. Next, we brace the plates with spruce bracing. We use a traditional “X” pattern for our tops and a simpler, ladder-brace pattern for the backs. At this point, we profile the sides to a uniform thickness and bend them to shape using a bending jig and the help of a little heat and moisture.

After bending the sides, we place them into a mold that will house the body throughout the construction process, and install spreaders to hold the sides firmly against our mold. Now we’ll glue the head block, tail block, and kerfed linings into place to create the rim onto which we glue the top and back. When the glue is cured, we remove the spreader mechanism through the soundhole, pull the rough body from the mold, trim the edges, and finish the decorative purfling and binding work. After the scraping and sanding work is finished, the body is complete and ready to be paired with a neck.

Necks begin as a large plank of hardwood— generally mahogany—that is sawn into smaller billets yielding two, one-piece necks. These are rough sawn into neck blanks on the band saw, routed for a truss rod slot, and cut on an angle for the peghead. After we glue the veneer for the peghead face and shape the peghead, we drill the holes for the tuners. Using a jig, we then measure the angle of the body where the neck will attach, and that angle is transferred to the table saw where the neck heel is cut to correspond to the body. After cutting, we drill and install our corresponding index holes, bolt holes, and inserts in the body and neck heel for the bolt-on neck joint.

Our fretboards—made from ebony or rosewood—are shaped, slotted, radiused, and bound. They are indexed onto the neck blank, and the truss rod is installed and then attached with epoxy. The neck is now shaped, a nut slot is cut, and the neck is final-fitted to the body to ensure proper playability. Inlay work is then done on the fretboard and peghead, and we fit the nut, install side-position markers, and sand out the body and neck and prepare them for the finish work.

At this point, some woods, such as mahogany, are stained, and any open-pored woods are filled with a paste wood-filler that lets us apply a thinner, final finish. Then we spray the topcoats and do leveling work between coats to ensure a flat and thin finish. After it’s cured, the finish is leveled once again before we fine-sand and buff all the finished surfaces to bring out a bright luster.

Once the finish work is complete, the assembly can begin. The neck and body are bolted together, the fretboard extension is glued down, and the bridge is glued on. The guitar is mounted on a workbench that simulates string tension, and the fretboard is prepared for the fretwork. Frets are then installed, trimmed, leveled, and polished.

After the nut has been trimmed, polished, and slotted, we install it. Next, the tuners are mounted, the saddle is shaped and inserted into the bridge slot, and the pickguard is attached. And finally, we string up the guitar, adjust the action, and perform any necessary tweaks. Our guitar is now ready to begin what we hope are many, many years of making music.

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It had been his dad’s guitar since the age of 16, when his uncle bought it for him around 1940 at a pawnshop in Roanoke, Virginia.

This well-loved 1940s Gibson SJ-100 still has lots of songs to share.

The thrill is still not gone. After almost 40 years of coveting, owning, playing, building, fixing, studying, buying, and selling (generally being obsessed with guitars)—they still continue to give me the same thrill I got the first time I held one. Not every guitar, mind you, but every now and then it happens. This is the story of one of those guitars.

Back in the early ’90s, when I was working in my one-man shop at home, my neighbor Dan called and said he’d like to bring his father up to see the shop and to show me his dad’s old guitar. His dad played it regularly, but they wanted me to check it over and see if it needed any TLC. When I first saw the old case, my interest was piqued. Opening it did not disappoint—inside was a very nice, old Gibson SJ-100, circa 1940. It had been his dad’s guitar since the age of 16, when his uncle bought it for him around 1940 at a pawnshop in Roanoke, Virginia. While he remembered sending it back to Gibson for repair work not long after he received the guitar (he couldn’t recall exactly what was done), nothing else had been done to it since. This SJ-100 had a few cracks that didn’t seem to be going anywhere and the action was a bit high, but other than that, it was in really nice shape and absolutely oozed that old, Gibson mojo.

A little research showed it to be one of those wonderful, old Gibson anomalies. It had the old, stairstep-peghead design of a 1939 model, but the tiered bridge from a 1940 model. If the bridge had been changed during its early trip to Kalamazoo for repair, there was no evidence on the top. They were shocked to hear that it was a fairly valuable example of a rare model. In their eyes, it was just dad’s old guitar. I advised them to try and keep it humidified in the winter (even though it had survived more than 50 years without a thought of humidity control) and to consider getting the cracks stabilized. I also suggested they look into an insurance rider.

I didn’t see the guitar again for a number of years, but I would ask Dan about it now and then. His dad was still playing it—at gospel sings on Sunday mornings and evening campfires at the campground where he worked as a host in his retirement. I shuddered to think of this guitar being played out in the open (not to mention around a fire), but in his dad’s eyes, it was not a valuable collector’s piece or some kind of commodity. It was simply the only guitar he ever owned, and he wasn’t about to stop playing it just because it was worth some money.

Dan’s dad passed away a few years back and the guitar has been in his widow’s closet ever since. The guitar has, of course, continued to appreciate. And while the family is aware of its monetary value, the sentimental value still trumps any ideas of cashing in on this vintage instrument that represents so much of what they remember about him.

I did get a chance to see the guitar again just a few days ago. Dan brought it up one night when we were playing some old Hank and Lefty stuff. We tuned it up, toughed out the high action, and played the oldest stuff we could think of.

Mystery Solved … Almost
The recent publication of the excellent Spann’s Guide to Gibson 1902-1941, and a conversation with the author, helped me to learn more about this guitar. The order number from the factory and the serial number actually identify it as a 1939 model that was shipped to a store in Greenville, South Carolina, on September 21, 1939. The guitar must have been pawned in Roanoke fairly quickly since Gibson’s records show that Dan’s father returned it to the factory for repairs in late 1941. It was returned to him on February 1, 1942. There was no record of what repairs were performed, so the peghead/bridge mystery still remains.
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More and more young people have been coming into our shop lately, wondering how to prepare for a career as an instrument maker. Should I be the voice of reason and advise them to pursue a less exclusive career path, like the NFL?

More and more young people have been coming into our shop lately, wondering how to prepare for a career as an instrument maker. Most of them are still in high school, the time when kids are trying to figure out if they should be doctors, lawyers, cowboys, or astronauts—and at least around here, guitar makers. I’m always at a bit of a loss for what to tell them. Should I be the voice of reason and advise them to pursue a less exclusive career path, like the NFL?

With 32 teams and 53 roster positions each, there are 1,696 jobs available as a player in the NFL. I conducted a completely unscientific survey by adding up the number of employees at the guitar factories, small shops, and one- and two-man operations. My totally off-the-wall estimate indicates there may actually be fewer available positions as a professional American acoustic guitar builder than a professional football player. Maybe the best way to tell people how to get where they think they want to go is to tell them about the guys who work for us, and how they each ended up in this exclusive little club.

John Calkin has a degree as a gunsmith, but his experience putting together a dulcimer kit in his bedroom in the mid-’70s took him down this path. One of his friends who built muzzle-loaders had some shop space and machinery to share, and John was soon building and selling dulcimers. He eventually moved into his own space and began answering orders for mandolins, bouzoukis, banjos, electric guitars, and acoustics. Like a lot of builders from that era, he had to figure it all out as he went. John came onboard after interviewing us for a magazine article and has been part of our team for about 14 years now.

Dean Jones grew up in a musical family from Alabama (his uncle played Dobro with Hank Williams) and inherited his father’s love of woodworking. He went to college to major in art, but ended up with a business degree and spent seven years working in and managing bookstores. His interest in instruments and woodworking eventually led him to the Roberto Venn School of Lutherie and a job in our shop after graduation.

Ben Critzer came to us after answering an ad we placed in our local paper. He first picked up the guitar during the Great Folk Scare of the early ’60s. After graduating from Virginia Tech in 1971, he spent years working for newspapers and doing PR before a midlife switch to landscaping work, which led to an appreciation of working with his hands. Ben’s solid background (combined with some disappointing lutherie- school dreamers at the time) made him a great choice, even though he had no experience in this line of work. Ben sprays all of our finish and has been with us for over five years.

Ken McAlack’s path to our shop is similar to Ben’s. Ken grew up in the ’60s playing rock ’n’ roll, fighting the pressure to conform, until the realities of a wife and children made him buckle and get a “real job.” Auto mechanics had always come to him naturally, so he set out on a career path that eventually led to managing large service departments for auto dealerships. But he always vowed that after the kids were grown and college was paid for, he was going to do what he really wanted to do. A tour of our shop seven years ago was an eye-opener for Ken, and we just happened to be looking for a buffer. His enthusiasm and obvious eye for detail convinced us to give him a chance. Most of the guitars that have come out of our shop in the last several years owe their beautiful shine to Ken’s skilled hands.

Jeff Hill got his first guitar at age eight after seeing George Hamilton IV play “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” But as an Indiana kid, the pressure to play basketball was too great—he was soon convinced that guitar wasn’t cool and caved to the pressure. Three decades later he took up the guitar again. As an auto mechanic, he was curious about how his guitar was made and worked, and was soon spending his summers at Frank Finocchio’s weeklong guitar building and repair camps. A tour of our shop on a day we were interviewing potential employees caused him to impulsively pick up an application. Despite the unanimous advice of his girlfriend and parents that he was crazy, he resigned his position managing an auto repair service and came to work with us. His mother now proudly introduces him as her “guitar-making son.”

Danny Dollinger is our most recent hire. He grew up near Virginia’s legendary Wayne Henderson and spent as much time as he could hanging around Wayne’s shop as a kid. A lifelong musician, Danny could never afford the repair work that his instruments needed, so he learned to do things on his own. That led to a three-year stint in Texas working under repairman Mark Erlewine, and then the eventual start of his own repair business. A tour of our shop (there seems to be a theme here) at an opportune time turned into a position as our resident fret masher.

Six very different people took six unique paths to our door, and I’m not sure what overall lesson you can draw from their experience. Considering the comparison to the NFL (which, at the time I was writing this column, had still not figured how to agreeably divide the nine billion dollars they generate), they would have all been better off lifting weights and taking steroids!

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Jeff Huss details memorable custom inlays, from cheesy to heartwarming

In this age of personal expression, where everything from a temporary bumper sticker to a not-so-temporary tattoo offers the world a glimpse of our inner reality, it’s no surprise that many guitarists see an opportunity to make an artistic statement by dreaming up a custom guitar. Depending on your builder, there is an almost endless array of possibilities. But for this column, I’ll limit the discussion to custom inlay work and describe some of the projects we’ve done over the years.

Huss & Dalton serial #63 boasts this custom inlay, which was commissioned by owner Jodie Davis when he bought the flattop in 1997. “The center of the design is from the ancient ying-yang symbol representing balance,” says Davis. “It’s surrounded by a sunburst, which represents limitless energy, and that in turn is surrounded by black ebony, representing the unknown.”
Photo by Jodie Davis
When we were just getting started, one of our first commissions was one of those projects that all parties now look back on with a bit of regret. It began with a group of engineers who worked for a large electronic research and manufacturing facility. All outdoorsmen, they’d formed a club to blow off a little of the steam that inevitably builds up in a high-pressure setting. These engineers did a lot of weekend camping with fireside jam sessions as part of the program. They called themselves the Loyal Rectified Order of Ridge Runners and Skunk Callers Society (or LRORRSCS), and they all had club nicknames. Two of the club members, Possum and Derf, made their way to our shop with custom guitars in mind.

They brought a drawing of their club mascot—a skunk that looked like a cross between the Warner Bros. cartoon character Pepé Le Pew and Angelina Jolie—that they wanted inlayed on the pegheads. They also wanted the abbreviated club name running down the fretboard, complete with nameplates engraved with their nicknames. We were young and hungry and glad to have the work, but the resulting guitars were not something that we show off in our portfolio. Some 16 years later, Derf—who paid for his guitar with a paper bag full of $2 bills—still has his guitar, but Possum eventually gave his instrument to his son and got a “normal” guitar for himself.

Perhaps a more well thought-out plan came from a young man who was married and had a baby on the way. He had designed a very nice set of Chinese-looking characters that were actually English letters if you new what to look for. He wanted to have his wife’s initials on the peghead in this design, but he also wanted to honor the baby—and any more kids to come in the future. As his family has grown over the years, we’ve inlayed similarly styled initials for each of his children on the guitar’s bridge wings and fretboard.

One of our more recent projects was ordered by a group of people as a gift. Dr. Francis Collins is a local of Staunton, Virginia, who has gone on to great things. He earned a BS in chemistry from the University of Virginia and a PhD in physical chemistry from Yale. He followed that up with an MD from the University of North Carolina. He returned to Yale and began working in the field of genetics, and then continued at the University of Michigan until 1993, when he was named director of the National Center for Human Genome Research. It was there that Collins headed up the team that first successfully mapped the human gene code. The team’s discovery has given researchers a guide to studying hereditary contributors to such common medical conditions as heart disease, cancer, and mental illness.

Custom guitar inlays offer a wonderful opportunity for personal expression. Rendered in gold
mother-of-pearl, this double helix appears on a guitar we built for Dr. Francis Collins, who
headed the team that first successfully mapped the human gene code.

Collins is also an accomplished guitar player. When he announced his retirement from the Human Genome Project, his co-workers pooled their resources and arranged to have us build him a custom guitar as a retirement gift. Central to the design was a graceful, gold mother-of-pearl double helix that flows down the fretboard. We presented the guitar to him at a party that included a few speeches and a spirited jam session that went late into the night. His retirement did not last long, however, as he was then appointed by President Obama as the Director of the National Institutes of Health. With a staff of some 19,000 and a budget of $34 billion, he probably doesn’t have as much time as he would like to play his guitar, but then who does?

From cartoon skunks to family history to genetics, custom guitar inlays offer yet another way to let the world know a little bit about who you are. Maybe you’ll consider it for your next instrument?

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