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Meet the Craftsmen: Dalton Bell

By Michael Eck

Dalton Bell starts his day in the spray booth, but even when his body has left the clean, dust-free room at the rear of the shop on Bend’s American Loop, his head is still in there. Bell has an artistic sensibility that flows out and through everything he touches, whether it’s a painting he’s making at home, a new song he’s developing on guitar and keys, or your Weber mandolin.

A native Oregonian, born in Bend and raised in La Pine, Bell has done his share of the requisite fishing, hiking and dirt biking required by state creed, if not by state law, but he also leads a very healthy inner life. Under his ever-present watch cap, he’s always thinking, usually about art and music.

Reared largely by a single mom, Bell exhibits a certain patience that can sometimes present as reticence. But don’t be mistaken, that Zen quiet shows the heart of an artisan. The 26-year-old’s tasks at Weber are tailored to his personality, whether the hypnotic application of stain, the precision scraping of binding or the freehand, interpretive dance of spraying.

Bell, in fact, had a strong voice in the new “rustic” Weber colors and sunbursts for 2018.

He grasps that making instruments for others is a way of making music for the world. His own first axe, at 13, was a cheap Rogue bass. He liked the way it felt in his hands, but he didn’t realize it would lead to a life of lutherie. That came later, after he’d spent time fixing—and playing—his own guitars and working his way through all branches of the Two Old Hippies manufacturing operation, beginning with Breedlove; following with a journeyman stint at Bedell Guitars; and, eventually, landing as the finish expert at Weber Fine Acoustic Instruments.

“I’ve worked through a lot of the processes,” Bell says. “When I started with Breedlove in 2013, I did finish, but I also worked in white wood. I cut out tops and braces; I put in rosettes; I did a lot of saddle sanding, and a lot of kerfing. But I found my way back to finish with Weber. It’s my niche.”

While Weber mandolins are frequently put to use in bluegrass, jazz, folk and other acoustic genres, Bell’s ears lean towards harder stuff, but always with a sense of melody. He loves, for example, the classic sound of The Cars—Boston rock with a beat, and the deft string work of Elliott Easton.

“My mom really likes the Cars, so we listened to them a lot when I was real young,” he remembers.

Bell can also reel off monikers of dozens of modern metal bands, while digging the 80s sheen of Missing Persons and Duran Duran, too.

“Mom worked in a pawnshop when I was a kid.  She bought me my first CD, The Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill. I would hang out and flip through all the discs they had, and just listen to them on the shop stereo. Pretty soon I started buying my own, but my tastes were formed there.”

Bell’s ultimate dream, he says, is to create a fusion of his varied interests. Visually, he loves creating new worlds within worlds. He aims to do the same with sound, merging the riffing of metal and the swoosh of vintage synths with his images.

“There’s a project I’ve wanted to do for quite a long time. I like to paint, so I want to make music videos to go along with the paintings, in a comic book style, with the pictures going along with the theme of the song. I’ll paint in the lyrics and sync them up, so you can watch the visuals while reading the words to the songs. That’s my life goal right now, to get that rolling.”

Bell himself is covered with ink, an illustrated man. He sees his tattoos as a diary in blacks and reds and blues. Some of the choices he made when he was younger, he says, he would make differently today. But he doesn’t regret the designs on his arms and torso, even the ones he did himself, holding the tattoo gun while he grimaced through the ache.

Bell understands that art is a statement. With some more years and some more wisdom under his belt, he is confident of himself when he’s in the booth. He knows it’s not only a special place, but that the key to the room comes with a real responsibility.

He’s making your mandolin, but he’s investing himself as well. So much so, that sometimes, he says, it’s hard to let go.

“There are quite a few mandolins I wish I could personally own, just because I think they came out so beautifully. But it feels good to have them out there in the world.