By Adam Perlmutter
On a blazing hot July afternoon in Austin, Texas, a patter of guitarspeak could be heard in the front office of Collings Guitars. Mark Althans, the company’s esteemed artist relations and product specialist, expertly fielded a caller’s many questions about tonewoods and body styles, while sales director Angela Wade handled an inquiry about new orders.
Guests filed into the adjacent lobby, arriving early for a factory tour. To keep them entertained during their wait, Tanya Jauregui, in customer service, turned on one of the company’s videos in which Bill Collings speaks about his building philosophy. Alex Rueb, Collings’ marketing guru, staff photographer, and resident mandolinist—apparently startled by hearing his late boss’s voice—strode into the lobby with a fresh MT mandolin at hand.
It had been a year since Collings died, but his presence was clearly felt throughout the shop, in the pictures of his bearded mug posted on workbenches, doors, and other random surfaces, and especially in the fine acoustic and electric guitars, mandolins, and hardshell cases seen at varying stages of completion.
Neatly perched on a workbench in the wood-acclimation room were stacks of spruce, mahogany, and rosewood, on which guitar tops and backs were outlined in pencil or chalk, having just entered the production phase. Bruce Van Wart—Collings’ first official employee, who has personally selected the woods for some 30,000 instruments—picked up the rough Adirondack spruce soundboard destined to be an orchestra model, and bent it, to demonstrate both its strength and its thinness.
Though Collings, like any maker of its scale, uses CNC machinery for efficiency’s sake, it was striking to see the amount of handwork that goes into every aspect of production—from the voicing of each soundboard to the shaping of each neck. In the mandolin department, the craftsman Joshua Bridgewater was hand-sanding an F-style mandolin, with its ornate curves, in preparation for finishing. He explained that this critical job takes at least eight hours.
One of Bill Collings’ last projects involved designing sleek, vintage-style hardshell cases for Collings guitars and mandolins, and tooling up to build them in house. The cases are assembled in a smaller building across from the main shop, as are Waterloo guitars, Collings’ line of instruments inspired by 1930s budget models. In that building, an enormous fan blew as Audrey Bartlett, Waterloo’s lead builder, carefully bent the sides of a WL-14 Scissortail. A large cart of shopworn Waterloo cases awaited the instruments that would be wheeled to the main shop for finishing.
Back in the other shop, a small workbench accommodated the raw components for not one but two examples of Collings’ rarest and most coveted guitar—the AT 16 16-inch acoustic archtop. Semi-completed necks, glued-up curly maple blanks, ebony fretboards, and bindings in the shape of Collings’ trademark haircut headstock were ready for Aaron Huff—the brilliant luthier who presides over the archtop and electric department (and whose wife, the artist Tiffany Huff, designed the avian headstock detail on the Scissortail)—to assemble them.
The tour ended in the lobby, where in an adjacent conference room, Steve McCreary, Collings’ illustrious general manager, fingerpicked an attractive passage with Amaj7 and Am9 chords on his 1983 Collings roundhole archtop. As the guests made their exit, at least a few could be heard plotting the specs for their next Collings instruments.
Collings Guitars is open for public tours every Friday. See more info at www.collingsguitars.com/shop-tour/.