At Collings, every instrument has to be special. Beyond the basic information of construction materials and specs, we wanted to provide our current and prospective players a deeper understanding of what goes into making our guitars, mandolins and ukuleles some of the finest instruments in the world. In the sections below we’ve detailed some of the elements that make Collings instruments what they are.
To quote Bill Collings- “There are three things that go into a great guitar: the design, the craftsmanship, and the wood. If you have great wood but not a great design or great craftsmanship, you’ll get a dead guitar. If you have bad wood, your guitar will be okay but never great.” To attain these three elements, Bill has combined his woodworking and machining experience with his highly developed aesthetic sensibility, allowing him to create designs that are equally artistic, musical and functional. Rather than build instruments by himself in small numbers, Bill was drawn to the unique production challenge of combining the highest levels of consistency with all the benefits of hand-crafting and voicing. Combining modern CNC technology with the best of vintage instrument-making techniques, Bill has created instruments that embody both incredible precision and immense “soul”.
When discussing wood selection at Collings one must first introduce Bruce VanWart. Born into a family of lumber suppliers that have been operating in New England for over 100 years, Bruce was originally trained as a master boat builder in Massachusetts. After a move to Austin in 1981, Bruce continued to hone his already sharp skills with custom carpentry projects and historical restoration jobs. Bill and Bruce first met in 1982 when Bruce was hired to build a flight of stairs in Bill’s shop. Bill was immediately impressed with the quality of Bruce’s work and when he decided to expand Collings Guitars in 1989, Bruce was hired as Collings Guitar’s first employee. With his extensive expertise, Bruce is responsible for selecting the wood used for every Collings acoustic guitar.
Every piece of wood is different and varies widely even within the same species. It’s very important to pick woods that will be most suitable for each individual guitar, and this is done based on the density and flexibility of each piece. In addition to the stiffness to weight ratio, we seek pieces that are well quarter-sawn and of exceptional appearance. Wood of this quality is difficult to source in any quantity and we rely on our 30 year strong relationships with some of the world’s premier vendors to procure premium grade tone wood that meets our strict criteria.
In addition to having a great cut of wood, one has to know how to evaluate its tonal potential and bring out its best qualities to make a great instrument. Over the years Bill and Bruce have developed a set of voicing criteria and techniques that are applied to each of our instrument lines. From the starting point of the wood’s density and rigidity, these techniques allow us to treat each top as an individual, allowing each completed guitar to be its own unique self. Although they all sound different, through the correct voicing techniques they all sound good.
Bill has also developed unique voicing techniques for achieving the tone of his electric guitar line. Our “Deluxe” models feature hand-sanded premium flame or quilt maple tops and each billet of mahogany used in an electric is sorted to fall in a certain density range depending on the model. Being of the opinion that "You're not a wood worker until you've worked with plywood", Bill decided that in addition to the solid wood “Deluxe” models, he would offer an “LC” and “LC Deluxe” line constructed of thin wood layers that are custom laminated in house. Bill found that the 3 or 5-ply laminate designs used on many classic hollow and semi-hollow electric guitars imparted a focused tone when combined with electronics that suits a wide variety of musical styles. Using the unplugged acoustic response of some classic laminate instruments as a guide, Bill developed his own lamination recipe of various wood densities and grain orientations to create his own electric guitar “tone-wood”.
Bill’s fascination with finding out what made his favorite guitars “tick” drove him to analyze the bracing patterns of dozens of pre-war guitars. Through careful measurement of these prized guitars and countless “trial and error” experiments in building his own instruments, Bill was able to identify the design features that worked and those that did not. These experiments resulted in his design for a modified version of the famed advanced X-Brace pattern first developed in the 1930’s. While Collings guitars capture the traditional pre-war sound, they also carry a voice that is uniquely Collings.
An instrument’s neck joint defines its playability and to a large degree its tonal response. That is why it is crucial to get it just right every time. Collings acoustic guitars are built with a hybrid neck joint that combines the benefits of both dovetail and bolt-on designs to achieve a neck that provides the best combination of tone and functionality.
Over the course of several years, string tension will inevitably pull the neck angle up towards the top of any acoustic guitar. When this happens it is necessary to adjust the neck pitch angle. In order to provide heirloom quality instruments that can be easily adjusted to play correctly over the course of decades, Collings employs a hybrid ¾” deep wood to wood mortise and tenon joint with two bolts attached through the neck block. This allows for easy adjustment of the neck through the years should the need for a neck re-set arise.
Bill has also developed a method of voicing the response of Collings acoustic guitar necks by placing two strips of spring steel on either side of the truss rod. These increase the density of the neck and help direct string vibration to consolidate acoustic resonance in the body.
Because they are not subject to the same stresses and/or string tensions as the acoustic guitars, Collings ukulele, mandolin, and electric guitar models use mortise and tenon neck joints that maximize wood to wood contact for the transfer of string energy.
We’ve always taken pride in the fit and finish of Collings instruments. A finish’s composition and application techniques, along with its final thickness, all play a tonal role in allowing a guitar to resonate freely and speak with its full voice. Hard, thick finishes inhibit the vibrations of wood, which can adversely affect tone. In our effort to maximize acoustic vibrations, we use an ultra-thin nitrocellulose lacquer finish that won’t restrict the instrument’s natural resonance and sustain. Through multiple finish layers that are meticulously hand-sanded between coats, we can produce a finish that measures between .005” and .007” in final thickness. As you can imagine, these tolerances don’t allow much room for error in final sanding and buffing, which is why many guitar builders resort to thicker and harder finishes. While our finish is thin, multiple coats provide durability that can withstand the test of time. In designing our instruments, we strive for clean lines and graceful curves which can create many crisp edges. Designs like these can prove especially difficult to sand and buff which leads other builders round over their corners and edges to avoid this difficulty. We prefer the elegance of crisp lines to showcase the careful workmanship of each instrument.
Every Collings instrument must have a playability and feel that is equal to its looks and tone. Each instrument is meticulously set up over a three day period; this allows it to adjust to string tension and ensures it will play correctly right out of the case. We devote this extra time and attention to ensure that each instrument will play and sound as it should wherever it reaches our players, be it in a retail store or over the internet, domestically or internationally. We craft our ebony bridges and bone nut and saddle material all from rough blanks to ensure the proper intonation, string break-angle and action. We also utilize a combination of exacting PLEK machine fret leveling and hand rounding and dressing to achieve excellent playability and a silky fret feel. All of our models contain adjustable truss rods so that the action can be adjusted to best suit various playing styles and individual preferences.
At Collings our low production environment allows us to invest heavily in the training of each employee, so that each step of construction is completed to our extremely high standards of craftsmanship. Our production level also allows us to have a minimal number of people performing each step of construction. For example, one person selects the wood and voices the top for each guitar, one person shapes each neck, and one person sprays each sunburst and so on. In a larger scale operation this would simply not be possible. This production structure allows us to achieve the consistent quality that Collings instruments have built their reputation on. It is also worth noting that we don’t build instruments in model batches; we operate largely as a custom shop where each guitar is built to its own unique specifications. We aim to build each specific instrument to its full potential and provide a level of attention to detail that is impossible to achieve in most production environments. We don’t operate on tight production schedules or with strict financial goals in mind, rather we embrace the general philosophy that the job isn’t completed until it’s done perfectly. All these elements come together to make Collings instruments some of the finest examples of the lutherie craft.
We build our instruments not only to be some of the most exceptional sounding and playing examples on the market today, but to stand the test of time. “Heirloom quality” is not something easy to achieve even when building thick and sturdy items that don’t need to withstand 185+ lbs of string tension! By their nature, the best stringed instruments must possess a unique combination of build lightness and robustness to ensure good tone and withstand decades of playing. All the elements from design through build completion must come together to achieve this. Every new model we offer goes through an extensive process of R&D to determine which wood, construction and dimensional elements will best serve its intended use. We stand behind our designs and craftsmanship with a limited lifetime warranty to the original owner.