SULPHUR SPRINGS, Texas – John Kinsey, David Hallmark and Bob Casey are partners in a joint business venture to make what might have helped some country singers gain their fame.
Their shop is not very big, and they don’t produce many products, but they are immensely proud of what they do – carry on the legacy of guitar maker Stuart Mossman.
Friends, partners and musicians themselves, the owners of Mossman Guitars turn out from six to eight professional-quality handmade guitars a month, “depending on the weather and how we feel,” Mr. Kinsey said, smiling. They bought the business in 1989 and moved it to a converted dairy barn a year ago. “Actually, it takes about 40 hours of work per guitar before they’re ready,” he said. “We usually work on them in batches of five to seven at a time.”
This, says Mr. Casey, who carves the guitar necks by hand, takes up about 90 to 95 percent of their business.
“We make five basic models,” Mr. Kinsey said. “That takes up most of our time, but sometimes, like now for instance, we’ll get swamped with a bunch of custom orders.” Since most all of their guitars are constructed in basically the same way, Mr. Kinsey said, “custom” usually means fancy.
“People are basically looking for three things in a guitar: They want something that’s aesthetically pleasing, an instrument that sounds good and something that nobody else has. “So a lot of times, that means using alternate, or exotic, woods and fancy inlays,” Mr. Kinsey said. In some of their custom models, they’ve used exotics such as Brazilian rosewood, Honduran mahogany and other woods from Africa and Hawaii.
“People just want theirs to be different, I guess. There’s really only so much variation in building one of these,” he said, holding a custom guitar still in the construction state, “so we’re looking for a marketing edge as well.” Fortunately, by simply keeping the Mossman name, they may have all the edge they need. “Mossman guitars have some serious dyed-in-the-wool fans from back in the old days,” Mr. Kinsey said, referring to the 5,000 or so Mossman guitars made by Mr. Mossman himself up until about 1978.
“They’re real popular with bluegrass and country musicians,” he said. “For example, Emmylou Harris has a few Mossmans, John Denver used some of our custom-made guitars, Ray Wiley Hubbard has a bright red one we made … There are a few others. We really don’t need to advertise, because we sell everything we make.
“In this business, at least in our case, that’s the key,” Mr. Kinsey said. “We don’t want to build more guitars simply because we have the facilities and the capability. We’ll only do it if we can keep the quality. The Mossman name is synonymous with quality. We’re all over 50 or so, so this is what we’re going to do for the rest of our lives. It was really a conscious decision for us. We have the time and the discipline to do it, so we’re going to keep the quality, even if it means less quantity.”
A basic Mossman guitar, or at least the top of the instrument, usually starts life as a spruce tree. The wood is split into the proper thickness and cut into the desired shape. “Then we’ll inlay the design around the middle,’ Mr. Kinsey said. “We’ll decide which design we want, depending on the model we’re making, and put it in first. Then we’ll cut the hole in the middle.
“The making of a guitar takes basically three different processes,” he said, pointing around the tidy shop to the different work areas. “Making the body, carving the neck and making the fret boards.” Around the open work area, there are guitars in all three of these various stages. There are pearl-inlaid fingerboards on one table, guitar backs on another and guitar sides drying on a shelf after being heated and bent. The front room serves as the office and “finishing room,” or the last place the guitars go! before being sent out to dealers and buyers. Here, they receive a final tightening and buffing before they go, and, of course, a good strumming.
“David’s our test pilot before we send ’em off,” Mr. Kinsey said, tuning his own guitar as David strums lightly on a newly finished model. “Bob here is the real picker out of the bunch. Chet Atkins could still probably teach him something but not much.” A few minutes later, after all the tuning and joking is done, the three businessmen, guitar makers and friends do what brought them into this business in the first place. Sitting on stools and benches in a loose circle in an old dairy barn, they play.
As the sun comes up outside the window, and the strains of their music floats across the fields during their impromptu break, one less guitar gets made. There’s no hurry, though. There’s always tomorrow.
Distributed by The Associated Press
Copyright 1992 The Dallas Morning News Company