When tens of thousands of acres of his beloved Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness were reduced to kindling in the great July storm of 1999, outfitter and guide David Seaton looked for a way to assuage his grief.
He picked up his chainsaw and went to work. When he was finished, he had built the Ghost, an acoustic guitar created out of the fallen poplar and spruce near Hungry Jack Outfitters, the Gunflint Trail business he runs with his wife, Nancy, and their two children.
Today he has a second business in the north woods as a guitar maker, using as many local materials as he can.
“It was a healing thing, for me to do something positive out of all those downed trees,” he said.
From that guitar made from timber in the driveway, Seaton has slowly grown his business. His client list includes Michael Monroe, the popular Minnesota singer-songwriter, and famed nature photographer Jim Brandenburg.
Monroe plays only Seatons
“David’s guitars have inspired my songwriting and fueled my performances with new energy,” Monroe told me. “I have never felt so connected to an instrument.” Monroe owns four Seatons and plays them exclusively now, both in the studio and on stage.
Micheal Monroe, playing one of David Seaton’s creations last December at the Cedar Cultural Center.
Guitar building had been David Seaton’s previous life, the one he thought he’d left behind when he moved from the Twin Cities to the Gunflint Trail in 1989. “I was sick of it,” he said.
The St. Louis Park native built his first guitar, an electric, as a 14-year-old following along with a book he found in the Edina library. “From a design standpoint not too bad, but not too playable,” he said with a laugh.
From there he eventually landed in an entry-level job at O’Hagan Guitar in St. Louis Park, spending his first 8-hour shifts buffing finishes –15 to 16 coats of urethane – on electric guitars and basses with names like Shark, NightWatch, Laser and the popular Twenty Two (Terry Lewis’ white bass in The Time).
After brief surge, O’Hagan closed
O’Hagan had a brief surge of popularity in the early 1980s – Sammy Hagar owned one of its Flying Vs (red, of course) – but it eventually shuttered and left the young Seaton out of work. “It was a great experience [in that] I worked on a lot of instruments and learned a lot of about the business,” he said. “But …”
Seaton, 45, picked up work as a furniture maker and the odd repair job – “lucrative, but not artistically satisfying” – before he left for the Gunflint.
“I could see that I wasn’t getting to where I wanted to go in life in the city, and I wasn’t even sure where I wanted to go,” he said. “I said, ‘Let’s try something completely different.’ “
He took a summer job guiding canoeists on the Gunflint Trail. Within three weeks he had met Nancy, an accomplished watercolorist and mosaic artist whose parents owned a cabin in the area. They decided to stay. After a period of years guiding and managing one of the businesses for Bruce Kerfoot at Gunflint Lodge, he saw that the Hungry Jack Outfitters operation down the road had come up for sale.
Gave outfitting business a try
Guitar making was becoming a distant memory when David and Nancy closed on the outfitting business during the Halloween snowstorm of 1991. Give it a try for a couple of years and see what happens, they thought.
As the small company found its footing, David began to think about his old line of work. He traveled to Colorado to study with a master luthier in 1996; the tools felt good in his hands again. He built a shop in his basement. When the blowdown happened and the spirit moved him, the tools, ability, materials and workspace were all at hand.
“He turned a negative, devastating moment into a joyous thing,” Nancy said. “That’s how he chose to work through everything that happened in that moment and made something that lives on.”
But it was not enough for Seaton to pick up his chisels where he left them. For one thing, his experience at O’Hagan was with electric guitar construction, which has only a passing relationship to building acoustic models. Feeling the need for more insight, in 2004, David traveled to Galilee.
Kasha’s radical design changes
In Israel, he studied with master luthier Boaz Elkayam. His goal was to learn about Kasha bracing, a sophisticated form of framing and supporting the guitar. Michael Kasha was a scientist, not a guitarist, who made several radical changes to guitar design starting in the 1960s, the most visible being the shift of the sound hole from the front of the guitar to the top. This leaves the entire face of the guitar free to resonate with the sound made by the strings and forces the music up to its maker. Greater sustain and greater volume are the results.
“It was just what I wanted in a dreadnought guitar,” Monroe said of the first model he bought from Seaton in 2003. “And it looked like nothing I’d seen before.”
There are no pins holding the strings to the bridge. Instead, the strings are threaded from under the face of the instrument, then travel up the neck to the nut and headstock. Other elements of the Kasha system are complicated, time-consuming and difficult to produce, which makes the guitars expensive and hard to find. Seaton’s sell for $5,000 and up.
“It’s like birthing a baby,” Nancy said. Perhaps with that in mind, David names each guitar.
Local materials include antlers
His quest for using local materials extends to every nonmetal piece, including the saddle, nut and tuning knobs, which are made from deer and caribou antlers that are shed every spring. “Deer sheds up here are as common as blueberries,” David said. “They are not consistent enough for commercial settings, but I can pick and choose.”
One design element that continues to evolve is the material for the inlay in the big “S” on the headstock. The mussel shells from local lakes are too thin and curved to get a large and flat enough piece for a good inlay. He’s working with a new system that de-laminates the shells and puts them back together again in a useful way.
Winter is Seaton’s prime guitar-building season because of the seasonal requirements of running the outfitting business, when he provides everything from canoes to cookstoves to fresh blueberry muffins for clients.
“I don’t look at it as a job,” he said of his work as a luthier. “It’s an artistic expression.”