A. Lawrence Smart, Luthier
PO Box 1054  Hailey, ID 83333
PO Box 1054  Hailey, ID 83333

Lawrence Smart: Building Tools for Art

Flatpicking Guitar Magazine
Vol. 7, No. 6 - September/October 2003

by Chris Thiessen

From the windows of his one-person workshop, Lawrence Smart can see the mountains that he's used as inspiration for the headstock profile on his distinctive "Quartet" mandolins. Less than a quarter-mile away from the shop's back door is an excellent catch-and-release stream teeming with cutthroat and rainbow trout. Nestled near McCall in the remote forests of west central Idaho, Lawrence Smart has managed to establish and build a quiet reputation as one of America's handful of premier luthiers.

Smart guitars and mandolins (and mandolas and mandocellos) have found their way into the hands of prominent acoustic artists in the United States and Europe, who universally extol the tone and quality of his instruments. Smart offers five models of guitars: the Grand Concert, the J-2 (a small jumbo), the J-3 (a large jumbo), the D (a dreadnought-size), and the Parlor. He also offers the full family of mandolin models.

"Most of my commissions begin with a conversation," says Lawrence. "That may seem pretty simplistic, but in that dialog I determine what a prospective client might want tonally and visually as well as how they intend to use the instrument. A bluegrass musician is going for a different sound than a classical musician. And I heard the phrase 'instrument of my dreams' a lot, so there is a lot of pressure on me as a craftsperson to work out as many of the construction and cosmetic details as possible beforehand. Most of my clients pretty much know what they want, so I don't have to educate them. We just talk about what they want." After almost two decades of building instruments, Lawrence feels more comfortable with this process. "When I first began, I'd occasionally direct a client to another builder because they wanted something I was not completely confident in building. [He laughs] I'll still do that, because time and practice have taught me that meeting my client's needs is the most important thing, even if I'm not the person who gets to build the instrument."

Essentially a custom luthier, Lawrence finds that many of his clients want a version of a Smart instrument they've see or played elsewhere. "My instruments are my best advertisements," he says. "I have a website [www.smart-instruments.com, managed by John Relph, a Smart client], and I've made presentations to the Guild of American Luthiers and attended IBMA, but my instruments generate the interest. And lots of times people play one of my guitars or a mandolin and call me based on how the instrument felt. They describe it as a combination of tonal qualities, appearance, and the weight and feel of the instrument in their hands."

The "feel" of a Smart instrument is no accident. It's part of Lawrence's long-term relationship with intensive hand-building. "I don't have a CNC," he says, "but only because I don't want to take the time to learn how to use it. Certainly it takes me more time to build, and I use some power tools to simplify my life. I'll use a router pantograph for carving, or a drill press to hog out the top and back of a mandolin, or power sanders to dimension the thickness of a guitar top or back. But there's a lot of personal satisfaction in taking the wood through the process of building. It's kind of a 'journey is the reward' idea. I really like working with wood, and respect its uniqueness and inherent imperfections. Each piece of wood presents its own challenges; that's what keeps me interested."

As much as Lawrence has perfected his building skills, he believes that absolute perfection is not the ultimate goal in creating instruments. "I know that I'm really building a tool someone else will use to accomplish their artistic vision. Whatever artistic or aesthetic considerations I have must be transparent to the will of the person using the tool. If I don't create a good tool, I've not accomplished what my client wants. So my 'perfection' has to be first the tonal aspects and visual aesthetics my client wants, followed by my vision as a luthier. I'm often reminded of the difference between the fabled Italian violins of the 1700s and their German counterparts. The German instruments were flawless in appearance and workmanship. Their Italian counterparts were often not so perfect, but had greater musical 'soul.' That's what I'm striving for."

"Basically, all these instruments are just wood joined together with glue. But I've not met a luthier who does not put a lot of sweat and toil into his or her instruments. That's where an instrument's characteristics come from, and sometimes absolute perfection takes a back seat to sound. I remember attending a craftmans' convention a few years back, and being surrounded by literally hundreds of gorgeous and meticulously crafted guitars. Maybe it was just me that day, but I found that abundance of absolute perfection very sterile. Wood is idiosyncratic, and the challenge of working with wood is continually re-discovering the compromise that must occur between instrument design, client desire, and your skills as a luthier."

Smart's clients typically select from the standard set of woods for their instruments. As Lawrence interviews his clients and clarifies their acoustic desires, he's able to suggest specific woods to meet those desires. "For guitars, most folks choose rosewood--either Brazilian or Indian--for backs and sides, but other rosewoods and rosewood-like woods are gaining acceptance. Koa, mahogany, and maple are excellent woods, depending on the sound you want. I've heard some really nice cherry guitars, and have used walnut on a few guitars. I also have some black locust in my wood stock, which is a very ugly wood, but is tonally similar to rosewood."

When asked about the diminishing resources of "standard" guitar woods, Lawrence answers quickly. "I don't think luthiers need to shoulder most of the blame for depletion. Based on what I'm seeing, most luthiers will be doing okay with the current 'traditional' wood sets for the next few decades. But it's very wise to start looking around now for alternatives." Ironically, some of what clients want is driven by luthiers themselves. "I remember when spruce was not worth anything unless it was perfect in appearance. Everyone saw figured spruce as defective. But Dana Bourgeois has done a great job of educating folks about the acoustical properties of figured spruce. Figure interrupts the grain in wood and stiffens a particular part of the top. (On the other hand, silk medullary rays is not a figure, but an indication of perfectly quarter-sawn spruce.) In my experience, bearclaw spruce is stiffer and has a very interesting tonal quality. Figures like bearclaw seem to naturally channel sound, in much the same way as braces applied to the underside of the top. Figured topwoods have acoustical qualities that we're only discovering. It's similar to the tonal differences between using flame maple and quilted maple for mandolin backs. There is a tonal difference, especially when combined with Englemann or Adirondack spruce. Again, a luthier has to know and select from the palette of tone woods to produce a specific acoustical effect."

To further his personal tone wood palette, Lawrence has driven several thousand miles searching the forests of Idaho for quality spruce. "In addition to driving to various jobbers to get woods, I've also driven throughout Idaho to find downed spruce trees. I won't cut live trees, but I have been lucky enough to find sufficient high-quality spruce in trees felled by age or storms." So does he then hit the trees with a mallet, listening to the resonance? Lawrence laughs, "Unfortunately, I can't tell what kind of tone wood a tree's going to provide until I split the wood and examine it. Age - or the size of the tree - is always a consideration. But then you need a clear and untwisted trunk free of branches to get straight grain that doesn't have runout, the subtle twisting of grain that occurs as a tree grows and responds to its environment."

Lawrence's construction process reflects his intensive hands-on approach. He builds in small, four-and-five instrument lots. "It's certainly not a mass production line, and as I move from one instrument to the next, I'm adjusting my luthier skills and really focusing on each instrument as a unique challenge. Right now mandolins are hot, so I'm building more mandolins than guitars, but I'm still building F-styles and A-styles in the same small instrument 'litter,'" he says.

When asked about experimenting with different designs or woods, Lawrence answers, "Keep in mind that I'm a custom builder, so I build based on commissions. But occasionally I'll build an instrument - like the 'Comet' mandolin that extends the design envelope. The Idaho Quartet (a mandolin family project commissioned by the State of Idaho in 1995) was another project like that." [Editor's note: Smart's Comet mandolin was an arched top A model with one comet-shaped soundhole on the treble side.] "Essentially, my client has to be willing to take a risk, so it becomes a creative adventure for us both. I have a number of ideas that might be very interesting. I've not had a commission to build an archtop guitar, but some folks have been talking to me about that. I think that would be a very challenging project, adjusting a top plate that size to my expectations of tonal response."

Asked about expansion, Lawrence remarks, "I'm basically a one-person shop, because I like the amount of hands-on work. Until 1986, when I became a full-time luthier, I had been a high school teacher. From 1986-1988 I did a lot of repair work, whatever it took to keep going. Although most of my business now is building, I do some repair work because I still enjoy it. Anyway, I did have an apprentice for about three years. This guy called me up and continued calling me until I told him to come out to Idaho and really see what this business was all about. He stayed with me for three years, and is now back in Burlington [VT] building violins. He didn't have a background in woodworking and didn't bring a lot of woodworking skills to the workbench, but he was enthusiastic and he was willing to listen and do whatever was necessary to progress. He was a musician with a good ear and a desire to do the work. But I've not had an apprentice since then. So that provides me with more hands-on work. Right now I've got a two-to-three year backlog of commissions, and that's comfortable for me. I'm not sure I'd be comfortable with a longer backlog. I might focus on getting the instruments out instead of getting them right. And I want to get them right. But I am encouraged by the number of small-shop luthiers who are making a living at this business."

As a testament to the quality of his instruments, many of Smart's clients have commissioned more than one instrument. "As I said, my business is to fulfill a musician's dream. And dreams change over time. I've built parlor guitars for folks who originally purchased a D-sized instrument, and built A-model and F-model mandolins. Since some clients want an instrument similar to one they've played, I can go back to my 5x7 card file and look up the specifications for that instrument. One side of the card has all the client specifications and notes from our conversations. The other side contains any construction notes or observations I felt important during the building process, like how I may have voiced the braces or peculiarities of the wood and resulting tone nuances. It's not a complex system, but it works for me. And it helps me remember how particular combinations of ideas worked."

"Since lots of my clients continue to keep in touch after they receive their instruments, I may also include notes on how those instruments have matured over time. Although pretty subjective, it's another feedback mechanism that keeps me connected to the instruments even though I don't have them in my shop. I remember one mandolinist remarking how his instrument seemed to have sonically matured over the entire length of the fretboard. Of course, he played over the entire fretboard. He'd play somebody else's mandolin and feel it was lacking in that full-fretboard maturity. I think that has more to do with the musician playing the instrument, and the instrument essentially learning. That may sound like some kind of new age philosophy, but it reinforces to me the symbiotic relationship between the instrument and the musician. Keeping those notes and observations as subjective as they may be is another aid to help me improve my skills."

So, what's next for Lawrence? "Each instrument, each day, I try to look at how and why I'm doing what I'm doing. I consider the design, the tone, the physics of the instrument, the efficiency of my work techniques, and what I might learn from simply talking with other luthiers who are looking at the same things. As a one-person shop, I have a lot of hands-on wood time, and that's the most important aspect of building for me. I can't see myself as head of a huge shop, where I do all the paperwork and very little of building. That's not at all the business I wanted to do, or want to do. I like woodworking. As to increasing the amount of machinery, I'll do that as an opportunity presents itself, but for me, for where I am and the instruments I build, I need to keep the hands-on, hand-built vibe. I think that's why my clients come to me. The process of building, the journey of taking wood and shaping it and moving into a sound-producing instrument is a great reward for me. Living out here in Idaho and getting to enjoy the lifestyle I have makes me pretty happy."

Judging from the ever-increasing number of Smart instrument owners (as well as repeat business), it looks like Lawrence Smart is focusing on just the right stuff.