Collings: Lost Art of Handmade Guitars Still Alive in Texas
It's beginning to rain on a hot afternoon in Austin, Texas, but Bill Collings doesn't seem to notice. Sitting across from me in a rusty metal chair behind his factory that makes guitars, mandolins and ukuleles, Collings passionately describes his struggles to design the perfect guitar case.
The sudden downpour is refreshing, as is the conversation. Collings looks and acts like anything but the typical top brass, despite owning and running Collings Guitars Inc., which employs more than 100 people and manufactures stringed instruments from steel-string archtop guitars to ukuleles for the likes of Lyle Lovett and Joni Mitchell.
Dressed in ripped jeans and a lovingly faded T-shirt, he enthusiastically jumps from topic to topic, adding in the occasional wry joke without missing a beat.
Collings journey to success has been unconventional, as are the philosophies he trusts to guide his business. While giants in the industry like Fender and Gibson have largely automated their manufacturing processes, a Collings guitar is still made mostly by hand. He estimates that each of his guitars takes about 55 hours of labor to complete, while his competitors spend around four to five hours each on their product.
But Collings has weathered the Great Recession and bounced back in recent years, by building a company that prioritizes quality over automation, buoyed by the belief that people will pay a little more for something with lasting value ... something with a soul.
Chapter 1: The Road to Right
Collings became a luthier, the technical name for a guitar-maker, when he was just 14, stringing rubber bands onto an old cigar box to make his first guitar. "My friends and I would always be building gadgets," he remembers. "I always had a thing with guitars."
But Collings never took a shop class in school, a decision he later realized stemmed from silly prejudice. "When my dad went to school, the most important class he took was shop class. He had a person showing him how to make things," Collings says. "When I grew up, the shop class was supposedly for dumb kids. I didn't want that stigma. That's why I was going to be a doctor." But he never made it to medical school. He left his hometown of Cleveland for Houston in the 1970s. At first, he worked in machine shops, manipulating metal. But soon he switched to working with wood -- and began daydreaming about building his second guitar, this time with real wood and strings. It took him a year of thinking about it before he hand built it using a chisel, hammer, saw and plane. "It sounded great," Collings remembers.
Maybe, he thought, he could actually make guitars for other people. At the time, the music scene in Houston was thriving and Collings reached out to a local musician, offering to make him a guitar if he'd foot the bill for the wood. After that musician played the guitar on stage, Collings instantly got 10 orders. "Back then I thought, 'Oh, this is easy!' " he says. "But really, I got lucky."
Over the next few years Collings supported himself mostly by repairing, not making guitars. By the time he moved to Austin in the 1980s, he was ready to take his passion seriously. "What if I just tried to make my guitar business work?" he wondered.
Collings struck a business agreement with a local seller, George Gruhn Guitars. He built guitars for Gruhn, but also built a reputation for himself by adding his stamp inside the instruments. When Gruhn went through a bumpy financial patch, Collings decided to set up his own shop. "Now we are doing it my way," he says.
"His way" is making instruments much the same way as iconic brands like Martin and Larson Brothers Guitars did back at the turn of the 20th century. Collings and his team handpick the wood for each instrument -- even going on wood-finding missions across the globe. The guitars, mandolins and ukuleles are all hand crafted, but Collings does give a nod to new technology, using a computer-guided saw called a CNC machine to cut the woods to fine tolerances. But then they are put through a rigorous assembly process that is all done by human hands.
%VIRTUAL-pullquote-The difference between us and our biggest competitors is that everyone who works here cares as much as I care and they're given more.%The journey from raw wood to a finished product involves a staggering amount of steps. Each instrument is overseen by multiple employees who individually make sure that the quality is up to Collings' standards. Specially designed braces are adhered to the inside of the instrument. The neck joint is adjusted so the guitars' sound is never compromised. Lacquer is applied in specific amounts, then sanded down and adjusted between multiple coats.
But it's more than the steps that make a Collings instrument. It's about how much Collings has infused his way of making stringed instruments into every person who works at the company.
"The difference between us and our biggest competitors is that everyone who works here cares as much as I care and they're given more," Collings says. "We're not making 10 of the same guitars, we make 10 individual guitars one at a time."
In a bigger factory, Collings says he would have a stack of 100 guitar tops and 100 backs and the employees would put them together "by the numbers ... not really paying attention to the wood, how it fits -- I'd be just making it like an object. We're building guitars here, there's the difference."
Despite the higher labor and production costs, Collings has faith that keeping a hands-on approach will continue to be the key to success.
"In a world where everything is overly mass produced, it's better to stand out," he says. "Craftsmanship is getting harder to come by, and I think people want something of quality. A guitar doesn't have to be expensive, but it can't be mass-produced, because it almost never has that right feeling. Guitars are special to people, they really are."
Chapter 2: The A-Ha Moment
Like her boss, Bonnie Chipman grew up thinking she was destined for a white-collar job. In her case, it was being an architect. But like Collings, guitars also intrigued her.
Her mother owned two -- a '54 Gibson and a '68 Martin -- that she was allowed to play as a child. "I was always just fascinated by the structural side of the guitar," she says.
But childhood fascination gave way to adulthood and five years at Texas A&M's engineering school. Burned out, but ready to embark on an engineering career, she had one of those moments that changed her life completely.
"I crashed my bike and shattered my collar bone and broke my back," Chipman says. "Instead of performing surgery on me, they stuck me in a back brace and told me not to do anything. Don't drive, don't shower, don't move."
She had a lot of time to think about where her life had been headed and where she really wanted it to go. "Building instruments had been a passion of mine," she says. "But I'd kept it secret because structural engineering was the path I was headed on, and this was pretty different. But life is too short, so I just went for it."
After taking luthier classes, Chipman joined Collings where she started making guitar flat-tops. Now she builds mandolins. Despite giving up a more traditional career, she hasn't given up what she learned in engineering school.
"I'm using it in a different way, which is a lot more challenging," she says. "When I first started engineering, I thought it would be a lot more hands-on, but when I realized it wasn't, I was very disappointed. I didn't want to sit in front of a computer all day and have my eyes glaze over. I'm a visual person -- I like physically touching, smelling and listening to things."
She starts each morning by touching wood, gluing Collings' signature braces to the inside of her instruments. Then she builds the exterior hoops that give the instrument its shape. All the while, she's rushing back and forth from her bench to check on the CNC machine, which cuts pieces for instruments on a constant basis. By day's end, she has two completed mandolins.
"It's the most satisfying feeling in the world to pick up that mandolin body that I've spent weeks assembling, and see it all come together," says Chipman. "It's very emotional. It's not like having a kid ... but it is!"
Chapter 3: Upping the Frequency
Ask Bill Collings about the future of his company and the name Aaron Huff will most likely come up in the conversation. "He's got a killer instinct," Collings says.
Huff arrived on Collings' doorstep with no technical training. In fact, he had studied archeology, anthropology and geology in college. But like Collings, he also loved making things and spent much of his free time in school making furniture.
Intrigued by the young man, Collings found odd jobs for him to do -- from working with the mandolins to buffing the acoustic guitars. Then Huff began shadowing Collings as he worked on the exclusive, high-end archtop guitar line. "To get involved in that was a really big privilege," Huff says. "I took it on personally, like I do with a lot of things."
Soon, Huff was presented with a new challenge -- making an electric guitar worthy of the Collings name. Since the company started in 1989, Collings had only ever made acoustic guitars. But in the early 2000s, Paul Reed Smith, an electric guitar company, decided to move into Collings' turf, making acoustic guitars. As Collings jokingly puts it, "Those were fighting words."
%VIRTUAL-pullquote-I really do take it personally when I'm making these guitars.%If Collings had made his name as a luthier perfecting the acoustic guitar, the electric guitar was going to be Huff's proving ground. They weren't a success when they first came out in 2005.
"I think we built a lot of guitars at first that never left on purpose," Huff says. Together with Collings himself, the team twisted what they already knew was out on the market, and began to learn what it took to make a Collings-level electric guitar. "There were a lot of valuable takeaways from that experience," he says. "We made a bunch and we listened to them. If they sucked, instead of getting all hurt, you learn from it and grow."
Almost a decade later, the electric guitar business is core to Collings. "They're a bread and butter component of the company. We produce a bunch of them and they're killer," Huff says. But he labors on, never satisfied that they've reached perfection. "I really do take it personally when I'm making these guitars."
Like his mentor, Huff believes the company's future lies in staying true to the details. "We have to convince a whole new world that this is something they want to be a part of, and how do you do that?" Huff says. "You show that this is a guitar that not only looks cool and sounds amazing, but it does something beyond that. These were made with real purpose."
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