By Kim Brooks
The Monticello Public Library hosted Monticello resident Erik Smith during a recent evening program on March 20. Smith’s business, Crow Hill Guitars, is run from his home. He makes custom wooden guitars, each unique in its own way.
The Express did a feature on Smith last April as part of the “People you should know” series. At that time, he said he fell into the profession because he couldn’t find a guitar that sounded right.
“I never really had a guitar that I liked,” said Smith at the time. He started playing guitar when he was 15 years old. He also gained some knowledge on machinery when he worked on CNC equipment at a cabinet shop.
“I started thinking how easy it’d be to make a guitar,” Smith said.
He got his interest in woodworking from his father. Smith said he remembers his dad spending a lot of time in his shop, “building stuff out of wood.
“I loved to hang out in his shop!” recalled Smith.
Smith still has his very first guitar he made. He said looking at it keeps him humble in his work.
Smith started out making guitars in his friends’ garages, and slowly accumulated tools and equipment to build his work. Living in Colorado, he would attend music festivals and set up booths to show off his work to build clients.
While he could sell his work through dealers and distributors, Smith said he likes getting to know his customers on a personal level.
“It’s more enjoyable for me,” he said.
A couple of years ago, Smith stopped traveling and doing road shows.
“It got to be too expensive and hard to gauge the success of the shows,” he said.
Crow Hill Guitars is now Smith’s full-time job. When he first started out, he said he was charging customers around $800 for a guitar. Now he charges between $8,000 and $9,000, depending on the time and detail involved.
He uses exotic woods he purchases online or at a specialty lumber company in Iowa City. Some of the woods he’s used include Mexican Katalox, African Mahogany and Spanish Cedar. Smith said that is what sets his work apart from others.
“A lot of what I do are special requests and custom orders,” Smith said. “That’s the cool part of my job.”
He hears from a lot of repeat customers as well, who like his work and request custom-made guitars.
Depending on the time he puts into each guitar, Smith estimates he could make 12 to 16 in a year.
The amount of time it takes to make just one guitar is hard to pin point. Smith said a simple piece of work could take about six weeks. It also depends on the finish and curing time as well.
“A real detailed guitar could take a good year,” he said. “There’s something tangible about an instrument that’s made right.”
Smith said in making the right guitar, it’s all in how it feels in the musician’s hands and how it sounds. Smith knows which woods sound better when paired together versus others.
“Oak and hickory don’t sound good,” explained Smith. “Walnut and cherry sound great!”
When consulting with customers, Smith said he’s constantly on the phone or communicating through e-mail every step of the way to make sure his customers are kept up to date on the progress. He said many times, his ideas will evolve from those conversations.
“There will be 40 to 50 e-mails with just one customer,” he said. “I can spend hours on the phone as well.”
With each guitar different from the next, Smith said each one is exciting to work on.
“My formula is very well established,” he said of his approach. “It’s the shape and details that make it unique.”
Smith also names each of his guitars. He said he spends so much time working on them that they deserve some attention. He also autographs each guitar for authenticity, using his Crow Hill Guitar’s logo.
Smith isn’t the only one in the U.S. making specialty guitars. He estimates about a couple hundred people in the business exist today.
To view Smith’s work, check out his Facebook page at Crow Hill Guitars or his website at www.crowhillguitars.com.