The Last Word

Lucchese Culture + Inspiration

The Workbench: Collings Guitars
Where technology and craftsmanship make sweet music
Collings uses an ultra-thin nitrocellulose lacquer finish.
credit: Jessica Pages

Located in the heart of Texas, Collings Guitars has been making world-renowned, hand-crafted instruments for 30 years. It all started when founder Bill Collings —a “mad scientist” who comes from a family of engineers — began building guitars at his Houston home in the 1970s. Once his early guitars found themselves in the hands of groundbreaking artists like Lyle Lovett, Rick Gordon and Patti Smith, Collings quickly sent himself in luthier school to formally study the craft.

Today, Collings has expanded to a 27,000 square-foot warehouse space near Dripping Springs, Texas, where the company produces approximately 3,600 instruments per year and employees 90 craftsmen. A self-identified “boutique manufacturer,” the company operates as a high-end assembly line where everything is built to order — and every craftsman has a specialty.

The multi-month process of building a Collings guitar is as hands-on as it is high-tech. Alex Rueb, director of marketing for Collings, affectionately describes the process as “a unique marriage of technology and old school craftsmanship.”  

Production starts with the exacting process of acclimating the wood for each instrument. “Working with wood is kind of like a sponge; you have to get the right level of moisture in it,” Rueb explains. Most wood resides in the acclimation room for a minimum of four months to ensure it has the proper moisture content and will remain stable during the building process.

Collings wood comes from around the world, sourced by vendors who the brand has cultivated relationships with over the past 30 years. “We use a lot of solid woods, where some people will use laminate materials,” Rueb says. “A lot of the wood we have here has been here for years and years.”

Once acclimated, the wood for every guitar is hand selected by the same individual. Selecting the wood entails deciding how thick it should be, which is not only essential to the individual guitar’s sound but also to ensuring consistency among Collings’ instruments. “Having one person who does that on every guitar — and has for the last 20 years — is definitely a big part of that [consistency],” says Rueb.

In the mill — a rugged space full of woodshop machinery, handsaws and sanders — each piece of the guitar is created. VMC machines are used to cut out specific parts to the guitars, which are drawn up in CAD drawings. “We couldn’t do what we do without these VMC machines,” says Rueb in a nod to the technology portion of the business, who notes that at any given time over 900 instruments are in production at Collings.

While the machines help with production efficiencies, Rueb also notes that almost all pieces that come off the machine have handwork done. “It may take two or three weeks to gather all the parts for a guitar,” he says, “but it may have two to three months of handwork.”

After the months of delicate handwork is complete, the guitars — which are based on Martin and Gibson designs from the 1920s – 1940s — move to the finishing room. An average finishing process takes nine days, after which the instruments move to the sanding and buffing stage. Finally, instruments make their way to the setup room, where they are put together and strung up, a process that takes just a few days.

With its “boutique” operation, Collings is able to offer much more customization and care for its handcrafted instruments. “Every instrument gets a lot more attention and care than you can do in a large-scale production environment,” Rueb explains. He estimates that 20 percent of the instruments are ordered by individuals through Collings retailers; the remaining 80 percent by retailers and then sold on the floor.

“We don’t make a batch of this model and batch of that model,” says Rueb. “Every one is pretty much unique.”

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Collings Guitars are found at retailers across the world. 

10.25.2013