Audrey Bartlett, the lead builder and department manager of Waterloo Guitars, in Austin, Texas, says, “I’m not a musician—which makes me different from most of the people doing this work.” That can make her feel like she doesn’t fit in, but also sets her apart for its parallels to her line of work.
It’s unusual that Bartlett didn’t have any background in lutherie before she started working at Waterloo’s parent company, Collings. What she did have was experience working with her hands, specifically as an art major at Sam Houston State University, in Huntsville, Texas. Learning on the job at Collings in her early 20s, she found that the work’s demand for acute tactile dexterity, a trained eye for the smallest details, and sensitivity to the physical natures of building materials made the guitar factory the perfect environment for her. “Early on, I became the person who other people started to bring things to, like, ‘Is this okay? What should I do about this?’”
For those unfamiliar, Collings introduced Waterloo Guitars in 2014. The lineup features instruments that take their cue from budget Depression-era models, both visually and tonally, and, like Collings guitars, are well-made and highly playable. Not long after Waterloo’s auspicious debut, Bartlett was asked to take over as department manager. Her work speaks for itself, with the instruments receiving a consistently positive response. (See AG’s reviews in the August 2016, August 2017, and September/October 2019 issues.) Not long ago, Bartlett stepped away from her workbench to share her insights and experiences in the field.
How did you get into doing this work?
I moved to Austin when I was 22 [in 2007] without any ideas about what I wanted to do—I was just getting by on basic survival stuff like waiting tables. But I ended up randomly meeting a woman who worked here at Collings. I said, “That sounds amazing—how did you start doing that?” And she said, “Well you should give them a call, they might hire you.” It seemed wild, but it’s not like I was loving waiting tables, so I thought I would give it a shot. Collings had me in for a trial day, and that same week had me buffing the finishes on electric guitars.
Did you have any experience with that kind of work before this job?
No, not really. It all pretty much comes from my work here at Collings. But my dad had a shop when I was a kid, and every once in a while he would let me do something, like cut wood very carefully on the saw. So I wasn’t super intimidated by shop tools because I did grow up adjacent to them. I’ve always been a very hands-on person; I was an art major in college, with an emphasis on sculpture. I really liked making intricate replicas of real-life objects and spent a lot of time on the little stuff. That was helpful, because buffing is the most meticulous work, and you have to train your eyes to see the flaws because they’re so minute. I remember having my first guitar inspected and they’re circling up all these spots with a grease pencil like, “You need to go back over this,” and I would look at it in the light and it just looked like a circle. Then, a couple months in, something in your eye just kind of clicks.
How did you go from buffing to becoming the manager of Waterloo?
Well, it’s been 12 years, so there’s a lot of learning that happened in between. I buffed for a couple of years, and over time I started pestering my superiors to teach me something else, and I ended up in the body build department. Then, after working at Collings for almost five years, I got restless and wanted to do something totally different, so I left. I thought maybe cabinetry or some other form of woodworking would be fulfilling. But I found myself at each of those jobs talking about how cool my old job was, so I came back and Bill [Collings] started the Waterloo department around the same time.
I moved over to Waterloo and did production work for a few years just building bodies, then my colleague who was managing it got moved to head the Collings acoustic setup department. I’ve always just thought of myself as a worker, so when they called me to the office to offer me the job, I was really intimidated. If they hadn’t come to me with it, I wouldn’t have asked. But I just decided to go for it.
What do your responsibilities look like now as department manager?
Right now it’s a team of just three of us. I’m still building the acoustic bodies, my friend Greg Pauza is building necks, and Matt Duncan is setting and fretting them and doing the in-between stuff. I just keep everything organized, delegate responsibilities, and we all work together like a breeze. Then I’m in charge of the final inspection, making sure everything is how it needs to be, and I glue in the necks and send the guitars on their way to finish.
I love the concept of Waterloo—it feels like there’s a real commitment to capturing the vintage aesthetic, more so than just remaking classic models.
The cosmetic decisions—the glue that’s left behind, the knots in the wood—are all very intentional. It’s not about building a less perfect guitar; it’s about emulating a certain look. Bill wanted you to be able to look inside of the soundhole and see the glue and flaws, because that was part of the aesthetic. But the sound and the structure and the quality are still very important. And the thing with Collings guitars is they’re just stunningly beautiful and perfect. Every detail has been considered, even stuff you would only be able to see with a light and a dental mirror. With Waterloo, Bill wanted to step away from that energy and put it elsewhere. And I think he achieved that.
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What was it like to work for Bill Collings?
If you had a question for him, Bill was really good about spending time and going into great detail about why something is the way it is. Even when I was just in buffing he would come through and tell me I was doing it all wrong and grab my sanding block and show me the right way to do it. He was a very dynamic personality, as anyone who knew him could tell you. He was, of course, still with us when I started in on Waterloo, and it was really important to him that they followed the certain idea that he had in his mind. [Collings died in 2017 at the age of 68.] Waterloo is different from Collings, but it is very Bill.
Your background in sculpture, as opposed to lutherie or music, must make your experience on the job very different.
Yeah—I still can’t really hang whenever they all start talking about their favorite Martin and what pickup sounds best and whatnot. I don’t know anything about pickups [laughs]. It has nothing to do with the job that I have to do in front of me. But it is important that it sounds good when it gets to the end of the line. I’m pretty sure if it didn’t, somebody would tell me [laughs]. I think that’s just how dialed-in Bill had things when he and the team put it together, that you could teach someone exactly how to make things—the thicknesses of the angles, the materials, the carve of the braces. There’s very little room for error. We have to get things within a thousandth of an inch at every turn.
But the thing that really makes this job different is the people who work here. I think that’s what has kept me here and what brought me back after leaving. It’s just a great group of people who are really funny, strange, and goodhearted.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.