Guitar Stories

Stewart Mossman opening the Guitar Factory on Strother Field, Winfield, KS 1974Old Fashioned Craftsmanship: Mossman Guitars

Story and Photos by John Southern

In this day and age when the importance of quantity overrides the need for quality, there is very little left of the "Old-Fashioned" craftsmanship for which our ancestors so diligently strived. With the advent of mass production and the things they call unions, few of our industries could deem it feasible to retain that quality of craftsmanship. For some reason, it doesn't seem to matter to most folks that this part of our heritage is near extinction, and even fewer people are doing anything about it. However, there is a small group of about twenty-five young craftsmen, led by a man named Stuart Mossman, who are doing their part to revive some of the nearly non-existent craftsmanship in a modern day industry.

Stuart Mossman has been making guitars since 1961. Between the years 1965 and 1969, he spent most of his efforts building 40 or 50 proto-type guitars in his garage at home. These guitars were mostly "experiments in bracing" although he did build two guitars with the inlaid vine on the fretboard. In 1966, Mossman and a former school buddy, Sam Ontjes, originated the Walnut Valley Folk Festival. Then in 1968, Mossman joined with Bob Redford and Joe Muret to form the Walnut Valley Association. The Walnut Valley Association has put together the National Guitar FlatPicking Championship every year since then.

Since 1969 when Mossman incorporated his business, he has been building guitars in his facilities which are located at Strother Field in Winfield, Kansas. Mossman, who had previously worked in the shipping department at one of the most reputable American guitar factories, stated his reason for starting his business as "somebody had to do it".

Stuart Mossman had previously worked for Gibson, and applied to work at Martin, but was refused a job. Evidently he learned the jist of guitarmaking enough to realize that there was room for a small business to prosper by making a good quality guitar. According to Mossman, the three most important steps to guitar building are as follows.

I. The selection of high quality materials is essential. The best woods and tools prove invaluable in achieving the final result. Luckily no woods were lost in the fire (of last February) that destroyed the guitar assembly building, because they were in another building.

II. Proper design is also imperative. The design of the bracing structure must assure maximum strength, but must also be flexible enough to permit the optimum sound to project from the chamber.

III. On top of these considerations, Mossman sees the necessity for excellent craftsmanship in the execution of a high-quality instrument.

Since there was no need to even try to compete with the Japanese market on the "cheaper" guitar business, a high-quality guitar shop was the perfect answer. Also Mossman felt like somebody had to revive the personal pride and devotion that a true craftsman feels when he knows he has done his best.

Mossman's employees migrated to Winfield from all over the United States. They came because they too shared his opinion that "somebody had to do it". And since 1970, together they have been making some of the finest, quality-crafted guitars found anywhere in the world. Since the shop was first set up, they have built better than one-thousand guitars, and expect to make another thousand within a year's time. Mossman states the primary reason for such a successful growth: "there's no way a small industry such as ours could succeed by making anything other than top quality instruments".

Stewart Mossman scraping binding on David Carradine's guitar 1974At present, S.L. Mossman and Co. Inc. make only traditional flat top acoustic guitars, and are only interested in making this type guitar. It is this kind of guitar that most of the employees at Mossman play and the type that they have grown to love.

It is doubtful if Mossman will ever make an "electric" guitar or anything other than flat top acoustic guitars. However, they do electrify some flat tops with the Barcus Berry "Hot-Dot" pickups which are built into the underneath side of the bridge with two contact points, one on either side of the bridge saddle. The wiring on these is totally hidden within the guitar. The only visible means of electrification is a small female jack mounted in the end pin. This method of amplification seems to give the most natural electrified sound from a flat top and in no way affects the unamplified sound of the instrument.

One of the most important prerequisites of building a quality guitar is first obtaining quality materials. Due to rising costs of lumber and scarcity of fine hardwoods, several other reputable guitar manufacturers have recently been using plywood for guitar backs and sides. Since it is easier to guarantee a plywood guitar from cracking, and the cost of using veneered backs and sides is more practical, more and more "plywood" guitars are flooding the market every day. One way to tell if you have a plywood guitar is to compare the wood grain pattern on the outside of the guitar to the grain pattern inside the instrument. Also check for knots in the wood and if they don't match inside and out at the same point, there is a good chance that you may have purchased a veneered instrument.

The woods primarily used in Mossman guitars are Sitka Spruce, Honduras Mahogany, Ebony, and Rosewood. Sitka Spruce is used for guitar tops, because it is a lightweight wood and it is also strong and flexible. Mossman buys Spruce tops three or four thousand tops at a time. The backs and sides of the lowest-priced Mossman guitars are made of Honduras Mahogany as are all necks. The higher priced guitars, such as the Golden Era, have backs and sides of solid Rosewood. The fingerboards and bridges are made of Ebony from Africa, which, by the way, sells for more than twelve dollars a board foot. It is my understanding that in the production of a guitar at Mossman, seventy-five percent of the lumber purchased goes to sawdust.

There are six basic models made at Mossman. They range in price from $550 for the Tennessee Flat Top to $1,400 for the Golden Era. One outstanding characteristic of the higher-priced Mossman guitars is the ornate vine-style inlay work on the fingerboard. This inlay pattern is Stuart Mossman's interpretation of other vine patterns which were made around the turn of the century by companies like Washburn and Mauer. The material used in these intricate inlay patterns is Abalone.

Although the Mossman people consider themselves to be makers of traditional guitars, they use inlay patterns and carving patterns found on instruments which were made in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. For example, the binding marquetry found on the Tennessee Flat Top guitar is the same pattern as the binding used on the Hellier Stradivarius violin.

It is doubtful if Mossman will ever make an "electric guitar" or anything other than flat top acoustic guitars. However, they do electrify some flat tops with the Barcus Berry "Hot-Dot" pickups which are built into the underneath side of the bridge with two contact points, one on either side of the bridge saddle. The wiring on these is totally hidden within the guitar. The only visible means of electrification is a small female jack mount- Truing the edges for flush top and back mounting, possible. He looked back to the past at what had been done, and chose good examples of inlay work from extinct guitar shops like Washburn and Mauer. Mossman started with blank copies of his fret scale and drew and re-drew inlay patterns such as the one on the Golden Era as many as twenty-five times before he was satisfied with the way that the joints fell (in the pieces of pearl) and coincided with the frets where possible. This not only makes the job of inlay a little easier but also serves to add continuity to the appearance of the over-all fretboard design. In looking at the inlay pattern on the Golden Era, the influence of the Washburn vine can be detected, but a closer inspection reveals that they are only similar. Stuart Mossman makes four or five guitars a year by himself, and usually makes them extremely fancy.

From start to finish, the production of a guitar takes about three months. These guitars are made several at a time so that about eight completed guitars are produced a day. Stuart Mossman personally inspects each guitar so he says that "eight a day is as many as we ever want to make, because it would be difficult to personaJly inspect more than that amount". If somewhere along the road to completion a guitar develops a defect or becomes structurally unsound, that guitar is destroyed. Or if only half the guitar is defective, the instrument is cut in half, and the good half is sent to a Mossman dealer somewhere in the country for display purposes. Each guitar made carries a lifetime guarantee on the wood, materials, and workmanship.

The process of making a guitar starts with aging the wood for a year. After being air dried, the wood is then taken to a special dehumidifying room where the temperature and humidity of the wood are gradually altered so as not to crack the wood. The sides are then molded by boiling the wood in a solution of acetic acid and water, until the sides become limber. The sides are then placed in a heated bending mold which shapes them to size. After they have dried the required amount of time, the notched mahogany lining is glued to the inner edge of the sides. This lining serves to join the back and top of the sides. The bracing is glued to the tops and backs separately. The necks are also made separately, and numbered to correspond with the body which is also being made. After the necks are cut to shape, the fingerboards are then shaped, inlaid, and slotted. The box and neck are fitted together. Then they are separated for the finishing process. After all the lacquering is done, they are buffed; the neck and box are then joined. The guitar then goes into "limbo" in the back room where it sits for one week. It is then reinspected for changes that may have occurred. If everything checks out, the guitar is then shipped in a hard-shell case to the dealer or individual who placed the order for that particular guitar.

Since there aren't many guitar manufacturers, there is little demand for machinery to make guitars. Therefore, most of the machinery used by Mossman is designed and built by Mossman. Items like a twelve foot belt sander and a saw that cuts fret slots 21 frets at a time, all had to made for the Winfield shop.

The employees at the shop number about twenty-five. There are five members of the office staff, and a production manager, all the rest are craftspersons in the shop. Both men and women are employed; most are under the age of thirty, with the exception of Stuart Mossman, who is thirty-two.

Some of the custom work offered by S.L. Mossman is additional inlay work, engraved name plates on the fretboard, wood carving on the heel of the neck, and a service called voicing. Voicing is the process of shaving and sanding the spruce bracing on the underside of tye guitar top to achieve the desired sound from each instrument. For example, if overbalanced bass is desired, the bracing on the bass string side of the guitar is shaved to allow that side of the guitar top to vibrate more. There are other voicings: over-balanced treble for lead pickers, and balanced bass and treble for the solo performer. All of these custom services, with the exception of voicing, are ordered through the shop.

Since the fire (Feb. '75) which destroyed the assembly shop, Mossman has had many offers from other communities to re-locate. After pursuing a few of the possibilities, he decided to stay in Winfield. Evidently the neighboring towns of Winfield and Arkansas City were glad that Mossman decided to stay because the two communities built Mossman a new assembly shop which is about forty percent larger than the one that burned. The new building is not only sprinkler equipped, but the finishing room, where the fired started, is a completely separate building. Luckily none of the heavy equipment from the previous shop was destroyed, and with the addition of some more precision machinery for the new shop, the new facilities will be capable of producing more and better guitars. (The only production change on Mossman guitars will appear on the back of the "Great Plains" model, which sells for $690. Instead of a twopiece back, due to popular demand, this model will now have a threepiece back.)

I asked Stuart Mossman what his goals were for the future, since he is apparently making all the guitars ·per day he wants to. His goals are to build toward a future where he and his fellow workers can look back on the present and say "We built a really quality instrument back in 1975, the best instruments we could build". Next time you're in a music store, pick up a Mossman guitar and check it over thoroughly yourself. Hear the natural sound of a solid wood, qualitymade guitar.