There aren’t many professional luthiers who are also touring musicians, but North Carolina’s Caleb Smith wears both hats. He travels the world playing guitar with Balsam Range but, back at home, he’s building instruments for some of bluegrass music’s elite. We played one of his guitars (a D-18) and can understand why Smith’s guitars have received rave reviews over at the Unofficial Martin Guitar Forum (nine pages and counting).
While figuring out the materials for our Fretboard Summit guitar, one of our podcast listeners (thanks, Gerald) tipped us off to Smith’s exceptional Black locust creations. With that in mind, it was high time we checked in on this up-and-coming builder.
Fretboard Journal: Caleb, we hear you’ve been working with Black locust? It’s a wood we’re considering for our Fretboard Summit guitar build.
Caleb Smith: Yeah. I’ve actually built four Black locust guitars. The guitar that I play right now, it actually belongs to Trey Hensley. I built a guitar for him and it has a torrefied top on it. I’ve had a bunch of customers ask about torrefied spruce. So I harvested some Red spruce trees about four years ago here in North Carolina. I sent ten tops to a guy who has been torrifying wood for Fender for 30 years.
I wanted to build this guitar and keep it for a while and watch it. I’m not really sure if I’m sold on the torrefying thing yet. I don’t think it’s the secret bullet for making a guitar sound 70 years old. There’s definitely something there about it. It shrinks it and it’s stiff as a poker.
Anyway, I’ve had this guitar together for a couple months and asked Trey if I could hold onto it and play it and take it to different climates. So far, it’s doing really well. Black locust is very cool. It’s a local wood here that most farmers and old timers either use for firewood or for fence posts. All these old timers say that a locust post will outlive three holes in the ground.
I’ve been using it for bridge plates for about six years. I’m able to get it a little bit thinner than maple. For maple, I try to find these old pianos: the soundboard is usually bound with old, cool maple. It’s hard and consistent. For locust [bridge plates] I’ve done several different grain variations, diagonal and 45°. I usually just do it quarter sawn, just straight up and down, 90°. It’s really a strong wood.
FJ: Let’s back track a bit: You’re a professional bluegrass player. How did you find yourself building guitars?
CS: From 2006 to 2008, I was actually a contractor. I was building homes, custom homes and spec homes. The crash of 2008 affected me greatly. So I left all my guys and came home and started giving guitar lessons. About that time, Balsam Range was just getting started. I think the first year we were together we worked like 160 days or something. I took on five guitar students.
For my background with guitarmaking, rewind to 1992. I was 14 years old and my dad is a great carpenter, great woodworker. He’s a very accomplished fingerstyle player. He’s extremely, extremely great.
So he got this bug for a classical guitar. We’d always had Martins, the guitar I learned to play on was a Martin D-35 that he bought me in 1975. So we always had Martins around and flattop acoustic guitars and he decided he wanted a classical guitar. Instead of buying one, he built one. I was involved in that a little bit, but not really enough to say that I had helped him build the guitar.
He bought a book back then that was written by William Cumpiano and Jonathan Natelson [Guitarmaking: Tradition and Technology]. That was the book I chose when I decided in 2007 to take up some of my free time and try to build a guitar. He had it in his library and I confiscated it and studied it immensely. I didn’t have a lot going on and I wanted to be creative; I never thought that it would turn into a job. I built one guitar and then a guitar student wanted me to build him one. So, before I knew it, I had built five guitars and then I built myself a guitar to play live. At the time, I owned two really good vintage Martins, a 1940 D-18 and a ’44 D-28. Those were the guitars that I gigged with all the time.
Prior to this I had been doing my own set up work and repair work on a few small things for friends and I just got tired of taking my instrument to a repair guy for a fret job or something and him having it for three weeks. So I just learned how to do all that stuff myself.
Then, we were flying and traveling more so I didn’t feel comfortable taking [the vintage Martins]. So I built a guitar. When I did that and people started seeing me playing that guitar onstage, it kind of went like a grenade. Everybody wanted one. I want one. I want one.
Before I knew it, I had 20 orders and no tools. I had no jigs. I had nothing! You would laugh at what I used to build my first five guitars.
I started getting stuff. I started buying tools. I started visiting people like John Arnold. He lives 45 minutes from me, so I would spend tons of time with him and Wayne Henderson, Don Wilson, all these guys that I respect. Just to see what I needed to buy, as far as what do I need. So I came home with this list after four or five months, you know, visiting all these guys, and dropped a bunch of money and bought some jigs and tools and routers and crazy stuff. That’s just kind of how I started. Bryan Sutton, he grew up not far from me, about 30 miles away. He’s a little bit older than I am, but I’ve known Bryan for a long time. He called me one day, said, “Hey man, I don’t have a guitar that’s a 1-3/4” nut and 2-5/16” bridge space. Why don’t you build me one?”
So I built him a guitar. I built Zac Brown a couple guitars. Those three guitars sold me a lot of guitars. They generated a lot of business.
FJ: So basically you started because of the Cumpiano book, but how far into it before you saw another luthier’s setup?
CS: I’ve known John Arnold for 20 years. Back before I was doing repair work and necks and new bridges and all that stuff, any time that I needed done, John was kind of the exception: I could go to him and take my guitar and sit there and he would do it. He taught me a lot. My building approach, like a lot of the guys I know, is very vintage Martin/Gibson-minded.
So John knows more about those old guitars than anybody I’ve ever been around. He’s worked on thousands of them. He’s seen all the crazy stuff that shade tree luthiers did in the ’50s and ‘60s to these things. But really, John’s shop is very, very primitive. So that’s really the only thing that I had seen up to this point. John still bends his sides on pipes, so that’s how I bent my sides for the first five or six guitars. He made his own go-bar decks. I made a go-bar deck like his. There’s a lot of very primitive things that I picked up from him.
When I went to Lynn Dudenbostel’s shop for the first time, it was like here’s a CNC machine that’s as big as a car! I was like, what do you do with that? Lynn studied with John a long time ago. So Lynn took what John gave him and… now you know what Lynn Dudenbostel does. He’s great. His shop is much more advanced than John’s.
Then I made my way to Wayne Henderson’s shop. Wayne’s shop is a pretty primitive shop too, but he had a bending machine and he had all these jigs that Don Wilson had made to glue blocks in and to glue backs together, glue rims on and all this cool stuff. They had a mill machine that they were carving necks with or at least doing the headstock and the volute and all that stuff. That was kind of the eye opener.
I’ve never have been to his shop but Jim Olson has been really good to me and really cool to talk to. Jim is a super nice guy. There’s not an arrogant or a secretive bone in his body. And most of these guys are like that. If you ask them something and you want to learn, they’re going to teach you. It’s a pretty cool community.
My first big purchase was a band saw. I had a little cheap Lowe’s band saw. Band saw, really nice drill press and a really nice table saw… Those were the first big purchases for me. And really I worked with those three big machines for another year, year and a half before I started delving into more stuff.
[Above: Black locust back in the raw and finished.]
FJ: So what are you working on right now? What’s on your bench?
CS: What I’m actually buffing out right now when you called is a shade-top D-18 style guitar – mahogany and sunburst top. I actually have a Black locust 00 guitar for David Holt that I’m building right now.
FJ: Did David ask for the locust? Or you thought it needed it?
CS: He did. He came over to the shop. I had another locust guitar in here last year. I had a Brazilian Rosewood guitar, a mahogany guitar and a locust guitar. And he played all three of them. He kept going back to that locust. The three guitars that I had were a body shape I designed two years ago: It’s a 000 size, but the waists are pushed out, so it looks like a dreadnought, but it’s small. It’s three quarters of an inch narrower and three quarters of an inch not as long. Most of the ones that I’ve built have been short scale guitars. I have one long scale and it was a cool guitar, but I think the short scale suits this body shape better.
Anyway, he played all these guitars and he kept going back to this locust and he said, “Man, I don’t know. I just keep going back to this. There’s something about it.” They measure wood in pounds per cubic foot. Mahogany weighs around 23 or 25 pounds per cubic foot. Brazilian is 53 or 55 or something. Locust is like right around in the middle at like 38 or so. I think it’s as dense as rosewood, as far as the hardness to the wood, and it actually sounds more like rosewood to me than mahogany. It’s got a very hard, clean sound about it.
So David kept going back to that guitar and said, “You know what? I think I’m digging on this guitar and I think I want you to make mine locust.”
He’s a North Carolina guy. He lives not far from me now. And the locust that I harvested came from Madison County, North Carolina, which is the next county over from where I am. So the body of this guitar is North Carolina Black locust and North Carolina Red spruce. So he was kind of digging on that, too. It was a North Carolina-based guitar.
Before all that, he was taken by the tone of the wood. It is cool. Locust really doesn’t have a color. It’s got a lot of greens in it, a lot of really light colors, so I stain it with some aniline dyes that I mix up that kind of resemble mahogany in a way and stain the outside of the guitar and make it have more of a vintage, classic appearance. It’s really cool.
John Arnold actually built a locust guitar 20 years ago. Every time that we would talk about it he just raved about the guitar. I asked,“Why didn’t you build more of them? Why did you not keep going with it?” John stays so covered up with repair work, he just kind of left it. So he was really excited about me going down the locust road. He’s seen and heard all the locust guitars I’ve made and really loves them. I respect John Arnold very much and it’s really, really uplifting to hear him genuinely brag on my stuff. It’s very humbling and it makes me feel really good.
So, yeah, Black locust is not a fable. It is the real deal.
FJ: Any other guitars that you’re working on right now?
CS: Yes, I have an OM-28. It’s a Brazilian rosewood guitar for Lee Gibson, from the Gibson Brothers. I have a D-42 for a customer that has some really, really nice rosewood and a really pretty North Carolina Red spruce top. And then I have repair work. I have a ’36 D-18 that I took in yesterday. I have a ’45 Herringbone. I have three J-35s. I have four J-45s.
I try to deter repair work, but that old stuff is really fun to work on. I do everything with hide glue and I try put everything back together to where you can’t tell that it’s been apart. I’m getting better at repair work. I’m learning a lot and all of these old guitars teach me a lot of cool stuff. This ’36 D-18 is one of the best guitars I’ve ever heard. It is unbelievably great. I’m putting a new bridge on that guitar and doing a neck set. But building is my priority. And the guys that bring me repair work understand that. Most of these guitars are not primary guitars anyway.
So I’m staying extremely busy. I stay stressed out. I drink a lot of bourbon.
FJ: What’s your preference there?
CS: I’m a Woodford man. I like Woodford Reserve.
FJ: Describe your shop. Is it attached to your house? How big is your space?
CS: When I first started building I did it at my house in the basement. But my dad is a great woodworker and he’s got really cool stuff. So I would end up going up there twice a day. My mom and dad live maybe five miles away. So, eventually, mom and dad both said, “We’re not home. We want you to be here. So just bring your stuff here and do it here.”
I started out doing it in their basement. About five years ago, my dad and I built an addition onto his basement that has a wood floor. It’s about 500 square feet. It’s skinny and long. My spray booth is off the backside. I have a sanding room that’s kind of closed off with a lot of collection in there to try to keep dust down – it doesn’t really work, but it makes you think that it does when it’s running. I keep my table saw and my big bandsaw in the main part of the basement, and they’re hooked up to the [dust] collectors. I’ve got a couple of operating tables that my buddy Don Wilson came up with. It’s not real big, maybe two feet wide and 30 inches long and it’s stacked full of drawers. And on top of it we designed this cool thing to clamp in a guitar body where you can work on it.
I have a small band saw. I have a 6″ joiner. So it’s still pretty primitive. People come in here and look around, they’re like, “Where’s your CNC machine? Where’s your milling machine?” I just don’t have any of that stuff yet. I still enjoy carving necks by hand, and I’ve got a lot of tools and jigs that Don Wilson has made me, like flywheel cutters for rosettes. I did finally break down and make a bending machine to bend sides.
What else? That’s really about it. My spray booth is really small. It’s about 4×5′ with a lot of exhaust. I actually just hired out my finish work to a guy in Missouri that does all of Tom Ellis’s mandolin work, Josh Lutrell. Josh is doing my finish work now. My waiting list is like three to four years. I’m 60 guitars in the hole! So I’m trying to somewhat get caught up. I send in three guitars at a time and usually by the time those come back I have three more to send to him. It’s speeding up the process a little bit.
FJ: And that’s all nitro?
CS: Yeah. I actually did a conversion varnish early on. It’s the same thing that Wayne Henderson did. I don’t think he does it anymore. It’s a cool finish: It has a lot of UV blockers in it. So, the spruce is not going to turn color as quick. It may not ever turn color, I don’t know. It’s a really, really hard and durable, you can wipe it down with lacquer thinner. I mean this stuff is impervious to everything. But if the humidity is not right and if the temperature is not right, it is just a major headache. So, I went away from that and went back to nitro. Josh actually offers that varnish finish that he does on Tom’s mandolins. It’s just a really cool varnish and then he French polishes Tru-Oil over top of it. It’s really pretty dense. I haven’t had him do it yet, I’ll probably have him do it on the D-42.
I have had a few lessons with Lynn Dudenbostel over the phone and I email him about what he does. He does a really cool French polish varnish on some of his tops, and he’s really good at it. He’s kind of told me how to do it. I haven’t tried it yet, but I’d like to at some point.
FJ: You’ve obviously experimented a lot with woods. On your UMGF thread, you talk about non-traditional cocobolo builds… and of course there’s the Black locust. Are you just trying to mix things up or are you thinking about sustainability and the environment?
CS: Well, we all know Brazilian is… going away. I have a good stash of Brazilian that I have paperwork on. For the Cocobolo, there was a guy that I bought some wood from in Pennsylvania. He was a huge holly dealer and somehow I got in touch with him and he had some absolutely gorgeous quarter-sawn cocobolo. I bought six sets from him. This is the stuff that looks like Brazilian. It’s not that real orange stuff.
But the cocobolo messes with my body. It’s got a lot of toxins in the resin and it breaks my hands out and some respiratory stuff, too. I try to steer away from cocobolo now even though I really liked it. I’ve built a Madagascar guitar, a rosewood guitar. I’ve built.. what else have I used? I built a guitar out of Pau Ferro [also known as Morado or Bolivian rosewood] one time.
I vibrate test the top to make sure that it’s vibrating the way it should… I’m really not afraid to build a guitar out of anything. I think it would sound OK. It’s just most of the people that I cater to and that are interested in my stuff are wanting old Martin stuff. They’re wanting quarter-sawn Honduran mahogany and quarter-sawn brick-red Brazilian rosewood guitar with spider webbing. It is what it is. I don’t think that Brazilian rosewood is a secret bullet, either. I think the cocobolo guitars I’ve built were great. The white oak guitars that Wayne Henderson makes, they’re fantastic.
Sustainability is a thing. I think at some point the luthier community in general is going to have to go another route and try different things. And having said that, a lot of them are. That’s cool. You probably hear about Osage orange, the Black locust and the White oak, and there’s still some great exotic woods… African blackwood. There’s a lot of great stuff out there. It’s funny, a lot of people pigeonhole themselves into that, “I have to have a Brazilian rosewood guitar.”
I love Brazilian rosewood, don’t get me wrong. I love it. But I love other stuff, too. I think if people start hearing these Black locust guitars and White oak guitars and Osage orange guitars, that they’re going to… the people that do hear them, they do change their mind. They’re like, “Wow. This thing sounds great. It sounds like the Brazilian rosewood guitar I played two weeks ago.”
But don’t get me wrong. I love Brazilian. I have a lot of it. It works great. It smells fantastic. It’s got that pipe tobacco, Big League chewing gum smell about it. It’s just unbelievably awesome. But finding the real stuff, that’s my big deal. This new growth stuff that’s grey and purple, it’s not better than Indian. I would rather build a guitar with Indian rosewood than I would this new growth Brazilian.
So finding old growth, brick red, chocolatey, spider-webbed… it’s really hard. When you do, it’s really expensive. I do think that Black locust is a great substitute for Brazilian. John Arnold calls it the “poor man’s Brazilian rosewood.” It’s not nearly as pretty. It doesn’t have the flamboyant spider-webbing and inking lines and stuff like that. But, the log that I cut up had fiddleback figure in it. It turned out really, really pretty. Really nice stuff.
FJ: How has being a pro player affected your guitar builds? Are you kind of straying from the vintage Martin model because you are looking for some performance that those guitars don’t have? Or are those still the gold standard?
CS: You know, I gigged professionally with ’40 D-18 for six or seven years. I bought it from the original owner and it was a fantastic guitar. It did everything I wanted it to do. My thought process on those old guitars: I’m a common guy; I don’t have millions of dollars. I built a house two years ago and both of those guitars left here. I sold them. I needed that house more than I did these guitars sitting in my safe, which is what they were doing. I never played them. I would record with them occasionally. I would loan them out to people to record with.
That was the other thing: Why am I flying with a $20,000 guitar that can’t be replaced? If something happens to this guitar, I can’t replace it. So, you know, the dreadnought… bluegrass music and the dreadnought guitar have been married for a long time. The first time I saw a plugged-in guitar was New Grass Revival back in the late ‘80s and I was like, “What is he doing?” But after I saw what he was doing and saw where they were playing, it was like, “Oh, I understand.” You can’t get that out of an acoustic guitar. You can’t make it work unless you have a sound guy that you’re paying $40,000 a year to travel with you.
In my gigging with Balsam Range, we were playing larger venues and we didn’t have a sound guy. It was easier to fly with something that I made, that I knew I could replace. So I traveled with a 000 for a long time. I traveled with an OM for a while. And for the past two years I’ve traveled with this new body size. I call it a “Cruiser.” Bryan Sutton actually named the guitar.
He said, “What are you going to call this thing?”
I said, “I don’t know.”
He said, “Let me think about it.” He calls me in a couple weeks. “Well, we all know that a dreadnought is a big battleship. So there are subcategories of dreadnoughts. The first one is probably going to sound conceited, but you can use it. You could call it a ‘Destroyer.’”
I said, “No, I don’t think I’m going to call it ‘the Destroyer.’”
He said, “Well, the next one down is called the ‘Cruiser.’”
So that’s what I decided to go with. This body shape is a “Cruiser.” It’s kind of a cool little thing. That’s what I’ve been traveling with. It performs. It is very powerful. I’m very picky on setup, like all these other guys are. I’m very picky on relief in the neck and saddle height and all this stuff. Usually on an old Martin guitar you have to manipulate them so much – I’ve taken T-bars out and re-bent them. There’s all kinds of crazy stuff that can be done, but it’s so much easier [with a new guitar]. I use a 3/16″ compression rod for a truss rod. It’s aircraft aluminum, and then on either side of that I use carbon fiber. And the carbon fiber adds a rigidity to that neck. When you string it up, the neck is usually pretty flat. In about two weeks, you’ve got that perfect relief with no tension on the rod. So you go in there and tighten just a little bit to get that, you know, 25 or 30/1000s of relief that I love to have. That’s so much easier than having to pull the middle frets out of a vintage Martin guitar and compression thread it. So much easier.
I don’t worry about flying with it. I have a lightweight Hoffee case. It fits in the overhead of the airplane. If something happens, I won’t lose sleep over it. And if I have to gate check it, I’m OK with gate checking these guitars.
FJ: That’s great.
CS: Yeah. I’m very thankful for what I’m able to do and make money and support my family. I take a lot of pains with my intricate work and people notice it. It’s very cool to hand a guitar to Bryan Sutton or Kenny Smith or Trey Hensley and they play it and they’re genuinely impressed. That’s the icing for my cake.