Collings: Lost Art of Handmade Guitars Still Alive in Texas

Reviving the Lost Soul of a Guitar

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."
bill collings guitars handmade musical instruments texas
Josh Franer/Man Made ContentCollings Guitars CEO Bill Collings.
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.

Collings guitar handmade texas musical instruments
Josh Franer/Man Made ContentCollings Guitars employee Bonnie Chipman.
"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!"

One Bike Ride Changed Her Life Forever

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."

Looking for more Made in the U.S.A. stories? Check out This Built America.

10 Financial Rules You Should Break
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Collings: Lost Art of Handmade Guitars Still Alive in Texas

This is the granddaddy of them all. Start to type "emergency" into Google (GOOG), and the first suggestion is "emergency fund." The rule is to make sure you have six month's of living expenses tucked away in cash in case you losefyour job or suffer a financial setback. Of course it's important to have a financial safety net, but when you earn virtually nothing on your cash, this rule can cost you. For example, if six months of living expenses for you is $25,000, you'd be sacrificing close to $1,000 of income a year by keeping this money in a checking or money market account.

For years, I've broken the mold on this financial rule by telling clients they shouldn't have their emergency fund in cash. Instead, choose a short-term bond fund that pays 3 percent or higher for your safety net. If you need the money quickly, you can easily sell the fund and get access to the cash. If you don't need the cash –- and these emergency fund accounts are rarely used –- you can still make money on the assets.

Not so fast. There are many good reasons to contribute to a 401(k), such as tax savings, tax-deferred growth and a possible employer match, but there are also good reasons not to contribute as well. Don't blindly dump money into your 401(k) if you don't have an emergency reserve of some sort and there is a chance you will be laid off. It is taking longer for most to find a job, so if you think you may be out of work, make sure you have the resources to pay rent and buy food until you land a new job. 

​Also, if your employer doesn't provide a match and you are in a low-income tax bracket, it may make more sense to pay the tax now (since you are in a low tax bracket) and invest in a Roth individual retirement account instead. Use this 401(k) vs. Roth IRA calculator to crunch the numbers.

You cannot cut your way to wealth. Too many people and financial advisers focus on trimming expenses when they should be focused on the other half of the equation -- income. I'm a proponent for living within one's means, but too often that creates an artificial barrier or ceiling. "This is what I make, so I have to cut back to save more," is often the thought process. Rather than living within your mean, work on increasing your means.

There are many ways you can make more money, including asking for a raise, boosting your skills –- your human capital –- and getting a promotion, starting a side project in the after-hours or going back to school and starting a new career. What you make today is not necessarily what you can make tomorrow. Cut unnecessary expenses and then use your energy to increase your income.

You should only save for your children's education if you can afford it. That means when you're on track to having enough assets for your retirement. Assuming you have the retirement assets and now want to save for college, most advisers will recommend a 529 college savings account.

Not so fast. These 529 accounts have some real advantages, such as tax-free growth of contributions if they are used for approved higher education expenses. This tax-free growth is a big benefit. However, if you withdraw money from this account and do not use it for approved higher education expenses, the gains will be subject to ordinary income tax and a 10 percent penalty.

The big risk is if you fully fund your child's college education but he or she decides to not go to college, drops out, finishes early or goes to a less expensive school. You have the ability change the beneficiary to another qualifying family member without penalty, but if you have just one child, there may not be anyone you can transfer the funds to. You would then have to liquidate the account and pay the tax and penalty. If you are undeterred and still want to pay for your child's college education, start with a small contribution into the 529 and fund up to a maximum of 60 percent of the cost in case one of the above scenarios occur.

The average age of cars on U.S. roads is 11.4 years. So if you're average, then it may make sense for you to buy a car -– especially a car a year or two old –- instead of leasing. However, if you do not intend on driving the same car for over a decade, a lease may be a much better option. A new study by found it was better to lease than buy based on its criteria. And under certain circumstances, you may be afforded a larger business deduction with a lease compared to a purchase.

The certified financial planner designation is the gold standard when it comes to financial planning. I wouldn't think of hiring a financial planner if they weren't a CFP practitioner. However, just because you are working with a CFP doesn't mean you shouldn't research your adviser, his or her areas of expertise and how he or she charges. The CFP tells you he or she has advanced training in areas related to tax, investing and retirement planning; has passed a comprehensive and difficult exam; and has agreed to adhere to a high code of ethics.

The onus is on you to know what you need and to make sure your CFP financial planner can deliver. Don't get lulled into thinking that just because he or she have three letters after his or her name that he or she has been screened. Ask tough questions before you trust your money to anyone -– even a CFP.

Most financial pundits will advise taxpayers to have just enough taken out of their paycheck so when April 15 comes around, they will neither owe money nor receive a refund. The rationale is if you get a refund from the Internal Revenue Service, it means you paid too much in over the year -- and the government has had use of your money without paying you any interest. Keep the money and invest it yourself is the theory.

'Again, that's the theory, but reality is much different. It all comes down to psychology. I look at paying a bit more to the IRS as a forced and automatic savings account. Sure you won't earn interest, but human nature tells us you probably won't save the money anyway. There is a greater chance you will squander $100 a paycheck then if you receive a $2,400 check from the IRS. One approach takes a plan and discipline each month to save and invest while the other doesn't. A check from the IRS isn't an interest-free loan; it is an automatic savings plan.

Nobody wants to endure an IRS audit, but too often I see honest and ethical taxpayers avoid claiming certain deductions or taking certain positions that are completely legitimate because they fear it will increase their chances of an audit. First, your chances of being audited are small –- about 1 in 104 chance. If your return doesn't include income from a business, rental real estate or farm, or employee business expense deductions, your chances are even smaller -– 1 in 250. Second, if you and your tax preparer are not crossing the line, you have little to worry about. In fact, thousands of taxpayers get a check from the IRS at the end of the audit. Don't let a small chance of an audit keep you from taking advantage of every tax strategy for which you qualify.

Do what you love, and you'll never have to work a day in your life, or so the saying goes. It sounds good and feels good, but it's not necessarily true. Sometimes –- often, actually –- doing what you love can be a great hobby but not a good career. There are a lot of things I enjoy that I'll never make a dime doing. A better approach is to find something you enjoy, are good at and that you can get paid to That is the financial trinity you should aspire to find because it ties your interests with your skills with the marketplace

Follow this rule, and I'll send you straight to detention. We know college costs are soaring, and we don't want to bury our kids in college debt, so most parents prioritize college saving over retirement saving. Big mistake. If worse comes to worst, Junior can get a loan, work while in school or go to a less expensive school. Basically, Junior has decent options, and you have tough choices. 

​If you haven't saved enough for retirement, you are stuck. There's very little you can do other than slash your expenses, work longer or both. Save for your own retirement first. That's the financial rule you should follow. If you have amassed so much wealth when your children head off to college that you can afford to help them, go for it. If you haven't, you'd be doing your kids a disservice by jeopardizing your own retirement by paying for their tuition.

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