Sunday, September 14, 2014

Huss & Dalton Guitars - A Visit

Irene and I were busy paying our bills, a necessary evil, even on the road. We had put off buying our tickets for the James Allen Shelton dreadnought signature edition guitar being raffled off at IBMA's World of Bluegrass in two weeks as a fund raiser for the family after James' recent death. "Where should I send it?" I Googled Huss & Dalton and stopped, "They're right here in Staunton! Let's go over there to buy them and pick up the tickets." We drove over to the address given on the web site, to discover that it was the Huss and Dalton factory, a small compound of three buildings on a tidy back street. Realizing we had stumbled on the shop, we walked into the office, met the receptionist, who turned out to be Kim Dalton, a pretty, vivacious woman, (turns out to be Huss & Dalton's General Manager) who happily took our money. We asked if we could also tour the factory and were told there was a tour scheduled for 1:00 PM the next day. Worried that there would be a mob to try to keep out of our pictures, we nevertheless, scheduled ourselves in and went on about our way. Early on Friday afternoon, Mark Dalton met us and Pierre, a delightful guitar aficionado from Montreal, and the tour commenced.

Mark Dalton Examining a Neck Blank

At the beginning of the tour, Mark Dalton, emphasized that although Huss & Dalton is a relatively small shop, the manufacture of Huss & Dalton instruments is a production process. That is, like much larger instrument builders, Huss and Dalton guitars are built over a number of days in a production line with, these days, eight workers in the shop in a well-ordered and efficient process. He noted that it takes about sixty man-hours to produce a guitar, and that we would find a number of instruments in various states of production as he took us through the line. Huss & Dalton is well known for the quality and tone of their guitars, ranging in price from the high $3000's to over $5,000 depending on the model and options the buyer selects. A Price List can be found here. A list of authorized dealers is here. Both Mark Dalton and Jeff Huss had their early training as luthiers at Jeff Stelling's nearby banjo shop before deciding to build their own well-known instruments. They have recently returned to banjo making.

Rough Stock for Necks & Backs is Shaped and Dried

Molding the Sides Requires Heating and Then Shaping
in a Mold

Deflection Meter Measures Thickness and Pliability of a Top

Each top is subjected to testing on this deflection meter, which measures pliability and strength. Pierre asked whether they do a lot of tapping, but Mark suggested the major test, within limits in the thousandths of an inch provided most of the data they needed about the future sound of the particular instrument being built. Perhaps the most interesting element of this tour was the emphasis on bringing modern construction techniques to bear on making traditional looking and sounding instruments. Regardless of the modern tools used, Huss & Dalton guitars are traditional looking and sounding instruments crafted to meet the needs of pickers seeking the highest quality acoustic instruments. They are generally modeled on the Martin & Gibson instruments of the 1930's with the addition of computer assisted design and construction wherever it's deemed possible. Construction of Huss & Dalton instruments combines the best of hand  built and modern assembly-line  construction.

Braced Backs Awaiting a Body

Forming the Sides

Preparing for Top and Back to Be Applied

The Neck Still Needs to Be Shaped

Inlays are Shopped Out

The CNC Machine (Bits in Foreground)

The CNC Machine (Computer Numerical Control) has permitted much of the detail work to be done by machine. Once programmed, the CNC can actually change its own bits to meet the needs of the tasks assigned to it after computer assisted design has designated in excruciating detail, what the back, top, neck, or fretboard needs to look like. 

The Finish Room

Dust and dirt are the enemies of fine guitar finish. In the Finish Room, fine layers of lacquer are applied and built up. Here, Mark shows a freshly finished suburst body. The room is clean, antiseptic almost, and smelling of the alcohol in the finish. When work is going on, a strong fan removes most of the odeor.

Buffing is Painstakingly Slow Detail Work

The James Allen Shelton

This is the actual guitar that is being raffled to help the late James Allen Shelton's family with their obligations after his recent precipitous death from cancer. It is a precise copy of the Signature Model TD-R specifically made to his specifications and played on stage. T (traditional) D (Dreadnaught) R (Rosewood). The winning raffle ticket will be pulled at the Beard Guitar Booth in the IBMA World of Bluegrass Exhibit Hall on Saturday, October 4 at approximately 4:00 PM. Raffle tickets are $10.00 a piece, and can be bought here. Tickets will also be sold right up until the drawing at the Beard Booth in the Exhibit Hall at World of Bluegrass to be held in Raleigh, NC from September 30 until October 4th.

Technician Attaches the Neck

String, Setup, and Out the Door

 Mark Dalton completes the final steps of placing a number plate inside the guitar, stringing it, and completing final setup before placing the new instrument in a distinctive Huss & Dalton case and sending it out the door. Nearly all Huss & Dalton guitars are already sold by the time they're built. Here's a list of authorized dealers. There's also a lively online market for these fine instruments. Mark Dalton shows no great eagerness to make the shop much larger or to rush the process. Huss & Dalton completes approximately five guitars a week. Mark Dalton himself is a friendly and forthcoming man who never ducked any questions. When I asked him if there were any trade secrets I should be careful about disclosing, he said there really aren't any. Top luthiers, while competitors, are usually pretty friendly rivals, working together and sharing information when necessary or desirable.

We very much enjoyed our visit to Huss and Dalton, which is located at 420 Bridge Street in Staunton,
VA. Tours are free and offered on Fridays at 1:00 PM. Call (540-887-2313) to schedule yourself onto one.

How to Get to Huss & Dalton