Cat’s Eye: Bill Collings’ Quest for Perfection

Publisher’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Fretboard Journal’s third issue. With Bill Collings’ passing on July 14, 2017, we’ve decided to post it online for all to see. -JV 

It’s an unseasonably hot and humid late-winter Monday out on Highway 290, about 15 or so miles southwest of downtown Austin, Texas. The Collings Guitars crew has been hard at work for a couple of hours when, suddenly, some sort of ruckus emanates from a far-off hallway. The boys at the shop perk up in anticipation.

“Did I hear Collings?” says one. “Here comes the man!” exclaims another.

Soon enough Bill Collings strides into the setup room of his sparkling new 22,000-sq. ft. facility, his maniacal blue eyes peering out from behind his red tartan pattern glasses. He clearly commands a mix of respect, admiration, love and fear from his employees, and it is this combination of reverence and trepidation that keeps the Collings crew on their toes. It’s also what drives them to build some of the finest acoustic instruments in the world.

Truth be told, Collings Guitars resembles a cult more than a company. The 51 employees display an incredible devotion to and passion for instrument building. Their meticulous attention to detail borders on unhealthy obsession, and there’s little doubt as to where this mindset was born.

“Collings is just a nut,” explains Steve McCreary, the company’s general manager and the business-savvy yang to Collings’ creative-genius yin. He means that in the best way imaginable. “He has an engineer’s brain, a machinist’s hand and a designer’s eye.” It’s a sentiment that’s shared by all of the Collings guys.

“At first he can be kind of intimidating,” says production manager Donovan Hoover, of his boss, “because he’s kind of crazy. Well, not ‘crazy’ crazy… ” Hoover’s been working for and learning from Collings for six years. “He has an interesting way of approaching things; how he sees things is not readily apparent to everyone else. He’s really helped me hone my eye for detail. I’ve learned a lot working with Bill and I’m very appreciative.”

Says Bruce VanWart, one of Collings’ very first employees: “He’s a nut, but he’s an incredibly talented person.” How does one deal with such a strong personality? “It’s Bill, and you accept it,” says VanWart, who’s been “accepting it” since 1989.

Oddly enough, the Collings story did not start out as a Texas tale. Bill Collings was born in Midland, Mich., in 1948. His father and grandfather were both engineers; in fact, his grandfather was president of Midland-based Dow Corning. The younger Collings always had an intense curiosity about how things worked, but his love of music dates back to hearing the “twang of Buddy Holly” for the first time in 1957.

“I remember that vividly,” Collings says, over a bottomless plate of pork ribs, sausage, and beef at the Salt Lick, a barbecue palace in nearby Driftwood. “I’m sitting in the car going, ‘What’s that?!’” His interest in the music world grew rapidly as a teenager, and he soon graduated to the folk scene of the 1960s, listening to players like Mississippi John Hurt and his disciple Dave Van Ronk. Collings’ parents, however, weren’t exactly thrilled about this development, and when he left for Ohio University, he was still slated for medical school. He decided against becoming a doctor when he “did lousy at school,” he says. “And I hate people … that’s the other part.”

Around 1970 or 1971, while working at a machine shop during his Ohio U. days, Collings built his first instrument <0x2014> only it wasn’t a guitar. It was a banjo, accomplished with the valuable assistance of Doug Unger, a renowned figure in banjo-making circles. However, it wasn’t until 1975 that the first Collings guitar was created. In search of new surroundings, Collings had migrated to Houston, winding up in another machine shop fixing oil-rig parts and such. He made a guitar from Honduran mahogany on his kitchen table. He was pleased, but something gnawed at him.

“I knew it wasn’t right, but I didn’t know what wasn’t right about it,” he recalls. “So it made me want to do another one.”

Over in the setup room, Lance Sollock is filing down the ends of the frets of a mandolin. Nearby, Collings is engaged in a conversation about the history of wood finishing (“It’s just fascinating,” he says), the relative merits of linseed oil versus flaxseed oil and the elusive concept of chatoyance, or the “cat’s eye” luster of gems or wood. In mid-sentence, Collings turns to Sollock and asks, “Is that file sharp enough?” Never mind that he hasn’t even looked at the file, or for the matter, the frets – Collings knows something is amiss. “It didn’t have the sound I wanted,” he explains. As Steve McCreary says, “He’ll see the angle you’re holding a chisel from across the room and know you’re doing it wrong.”

After Collings gives Sollock a brief but well-absorbed tutorial on fret-filing, he returns to his conversation about varnish and chatoyance. (“The glow comes from within,” he explains, holding up the back of a new mandolin as example.) He also talks about “going back in time in finish.” This idea of “going back in time” in order to improve the quality of today’s goods is a recurring Collings theme. He longs for the days when there were thousands of varnish makers hacking knots off trees in order to obtain just the right ingredients. He is quick to point out that most innovations in the manufacturing world are made for the sake of speed and efficiency (i.e. maximizing profit), not for the sake of quality.

Collings laments the death of what he calls “everyday craftsmanship” – the basic knowledge and curiosity about how things workand learns a lot about hands-on building by looking back at the old days. “We take it for granted,” he says. The materials and know-how that were commonplace 100 years ago are in short supply in the modern world. (Take, for example, a folding-top mechanism for a salvaged 1940 convertible. Two centuries ago, a craftsman could have whipped one out for you in no time flat, but Collings can’t seem to find one now.)

Guitar making turned into a living for Collings by the time he’d finished his second guitar. “Musicians at that time were starved for guitars,” he remembers, of the mid 1970s. Collings had been hanging around Theodore’s, a hub of Houston’s acoustic music scene. One of the regular acts he used to see there was Rick Gordon, who’d played with many of the leaders of Texas’ burgeoning country/folk scene and was an award-winning bluegrass picker to boot. Collings made it simple for Gordon: “You pay for the wood, and I’ll make you a guitar.” Ten days later, it was done.

Gordon unveiled the instrument at Theodore’s in early 1977, and soon after Collings had 10 new orders on his hands. (Gordon, for his part, has the honor of owning the oldest extant Collings guitar, 000-sized, made from Brazilian rosewood and German spruce, with an ebony fingerboard and a mahogany neck.)  In order to make it work financially, Collings was charging $540 for a guitar and making them each in a week’s time. The result was a ton of work but little cash.

Around 1980, Collings, tiring of Houston, decided to move to San Diego and its welcoming weather. He phoned his buddy Tom Ellis in Austin and told him he was dropping in on his way to the coast. Ellis, however, had a better idea: Why not share his guitar-repair shop in Austin? Ellis asked for only $50 a month, and for Collings, “it was too easy” to accept. (Ellis would go on to become a pearl-inlay kingpin.) And so, for better or worse, Collings spent much of the decade fixing guitars and enjoying the bacchanal splendors of 1980s Austin. He was still building guitars – and the folks in Austin were still buying them – but he was really just coasting by with repairs.

The big turning point arrived in 1987, when Collings strolled into Austin’s Guitar Resurrection and saw a guitar made by an outfit in California called Santa Cruz Guitar Co. Collings couldn’t believe it: “What? In my town?!” The encounter inspired him to refocus his energy on building his own guitars and expanding his market beyond central Texas. In short, he was almost 40 years old and felt it was about time to get serious. He wondered to himself, “What if I really work at it?”

A focused Collings is a scary thought. He’s the kind of guy who opens the car door to get out – before he’s even put the thing in park. He’s the kind of guy who carts in cacti from west Texas because they’re absolutely perfect for the landscaping around his hilltop home, where he lives with his wife and teenage daughter. He’s the kind of guy who buys a drivable, fully functioning 1934 Ford Tudor street rod – only to tear the whole thing down and rebuild it from scratch. (He’s also working on a 1965 Velocette Clubman motorbike, to go with his 1963 Triumph Cub and his 1965 Ducati.) A quick survey of the contents of his Ford F150 reveals a mostly emptied cereal bowl, a stray license plate, a straw hat – oh, and a sample guitar neck coated thick with Bondo body filler. (He’s on a quest for the “perfect neck,” you see.)

Make no mistake: his young minions know they are in the presence of genius, and they are motivated and dedicated to the cause. They’d better be. “I like to startle people,” Collings admits. “I’m always watching.” And his employees are never quite sure exactly what to expect. As if to illustrate this point, Collings rolls back into the factory parking lot after a late lunch and begins to interrogate a couple of employees who believe that they’ve put in a full day. (They have, as it’s about 5:30.) “Hey, where you going?” Collings inquires. “Home? Why??” The boys know he’s joking with them – sort of – and they play along… nervously.

As Lance Sollock, recipient of the impromptu fret-filing lesson, says, “You’re rarely, if ever, doing a good job,” at least according to Collings. Sollock, however, is unbowed. “It’s a very demanding job, but very satisfying.” Collings absolutely loves to teach his protégés the ins and outs of guitar building, and nothing makes him happier than seeing a young employee become skilled at a new task. “You can see the spark in their eyes,” he says, of his eager pupils.

Having rededicated himself to building guitars, Collings ran into George Gruhn, the venerable Nashville guitar dealer, at a guitar show in Dallas in 1988. Gruhn liked the guitar that Collings had with him – with a Bugs Bunny inlay – and approached him about making guitars under the Gruhn name. Collings and a partner, Kurt Mottweiler (now an esteemed builder of fine wooden cameras), made about 25 instruments for Gruhn, but they did not exactly fly off the shelves. By then, Collings had made a little name for himself and so they decided to start making them under the Collings name. Suddenly, the guitars started to move.

What really turned the tide was an article in Frets magazine about a “Baby” guitar – with a narrow body width, suitable for travel – that Collings had made for noted Austin songsmith Walter Hyatt and a handful of others. That got the attention of Frank Ford of Gryphon Stringed Instruments in Palo Alto, Calif. Collings then sent Ford a dreadnought, and soon after Gryphon signed on as the second dealer. Collings guitars were now in only two dealerships – Gruhn and Gryphon – but they were two of the most prominent dealers in the country.

By 1989, Mottweiler had moved on to cameras, and in came Bruce VanWart, who still plays a vital role at Collings today. VanWart picks all of the wood (always with a specific instrument in mind), runs every top and back himself, and determines all of the bracing.

“It’s amazing how much you can learn at this place,” VanWart says, while cutting soundholes, and “how much time and energy goes into making one [instrument]. There are so many facets – even designing the right tools and equipment so that you can make your parts the way you want them.” For VanWart, it’s still a thrill “to be able to put [a guitar] in somebody’s hands who appreciates it.”

As the business began to take off, Collings knew he needed more hands on deck. “I needed someone to do all that stuff that I didn’t like doing, and that’s selling guitars,” Collings explains. “If you came to my store to buy a guitar, you would not leave with a guitar because I would talk you out of that guitar. They’re never good enough when there’s a face.”

Enter Steve McCreary. Collings met McCreary in the early 1980s. “He was pretty wild back then,” says McCreary, about Collings. “They used to call him Bad Bill.” At that time, Uncle Walt’s Band had attained near-legendary status – in Austin, anyway. That beloved but ill-fated trio – the aforementioned Walter Hyatt, Champ Hood, and David Ball – was the pride of the town and quite a scene began to build around them in the late 1970s. Lyle Lovett, a longtime Collings owner, was a regular attendee at Uncle Walt’s shows.

When Collings needed help running his fast-growing business, he turned to his old friend McCreary from the Uncle Walt days. (The Uncle Walt connections remain strong for Collings. When Champ Hood succumbed to cancer in 2001, Collings gave Hood’s son Warren a mandolin with a picture of a naked woman inside – the one and only instrument that Collings has ever given away free of charge.) With the able support of right-hand man Alex Rueb, McCreary can still be found doing most anything and everything that needs to be done at Collings: inspecting the instruments before they leave the shop, handling employee health-insurance matters, courting dealers, assessing climate-control and air-flow systems, fielding customer queries, etc., although he rarely gets to put on the pickguards anymore.

Still working out of a rented 1,000-sq. ft. shop in 1991, they decided to buy an old, rundown 3,200-sq. ft. feed store outside of town. They moved in the following year and expanded in 1994; it eventually grew to more than 10,000 square feet. The guitar business boomed, and in 1999, looking for new challenges, Collings added mandolins to the repertoire. They took off, and by the end of the decade, Bill Collings’ modest one-room operation had become one of the most successful and respected guitar manufacturers around. By 2006, they were making more than 1,100 guitars and about 500 mandolins per year, and their instruments were being sold by more than 75 dealers around the world.

Just one problem: the old Collings septic tank was only built for a party of 10.

Once again, the company had outgrown its surroundings – despite the fact that growth was never a high priority. “We don’t grow just to grow,” Collings says. “Our business model is, ‘Do the best you can.’” A couple of years ago, Collings and company decided to buy a huge chunk of property across the highway from the old feed store, and earlier this year, they moved into their impressive new facility, a $300,000 project that has everyone at Collings re-energized.

Strolling through the new shop with Collings and McCreary, it’s immediately clear how much thought and effort was put into designing it – and how much pride they have in it. The biggest space is reserved for the mill, and tucked away at the back of the mill, behind the gutted 1940 convertible, is Collings’ room – otherwise known as R&D. The second biggest space is the room where flattop bodies and necks are constructed, and there’s a separate room for mandolins and archtops. There’s a room each for buffing and sanding, one for finish by the spray booth, one for all setups, and finally, the inspection room, where McCreary puts each instrument through its final paces.

The center of the shop is reserved for wood storage and acclimation. The care and feeding of the wood is obviously a vital task. “You’ve got a year of moving wood around the shop before it’s ready to go,” Collings notes, and that’s before it’s given a minimum of three months to acclimate to the shop environment. The parameters of the shop environment don’t change – ever. It’s always 72 degrees with 47 percent humidity. “We take all that mechanical guesswork out,” explains Collings. “We need to know how things fit and why they fit,” and the strictly controlled environment is essential to accomplishing that. They even use a guitar body as their hygrometer – what better way to determine a change in humidity in a guitar factory? Regulating climate and air flow is no small challenge in a facility this large, and the Collings crew leaves nothing to chance.

At any given time, there are roughly 350 “instruments” somewhere in the Collings pipeline between order and ship, and 30 or so new ones are introduced each week. About 150 of them don’t even have bodies yet – but they do have production cards, and that means they exist, even if it’s only in the abstract. The production cards, says Collings, “tell that story” of that particular instrument – or the one it will become. “Every guitar is made one at a time,” he explains. “The guitar starts off going to a specific place and has a buyer. It’s made specifically for that buyer or store. Everybody [in the shop] reads that card and knows their part in that guitar.” No two cards are exactly alike: “Even if it’s standard,” he says, “it’s not repeated.”

This approach is what allows a company of its size to produce instruments with such a personal touch. It’s not a system, however, built for efficiency. Collings knows his model is unique. The cost of the intense labor versus the other costs “doesn’t add up like other shops,” he says. “As fast as we make parts, we make guitars really slow.”

The personal approach also helps keep the hungry young crew motivated because they are not working on a random instrument, but on Mr. So and So’s MF5 Deluxe V. And while all the builders really need to know how to do everyone else’s job, they are often relegated to the same tasks repeatedly: sanding, perhaps, or, in the case of a guy named Michael Precise, making mandolin tailpieces.

McCreary realizes that you need a “thick skin” to work for Collings. “We don’t let much stuff slide – let’s put it that way,” he says. A lot of the guys in the shop come from the famed Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery in Phoenix, Ariz., so their pedigrees are solid. But they still need to have the right attitude. “Some guys,” McCreary says, “think they know more than they know.” It takes more than talented hands – it also takes dedication and a willingness to learn how to do things the Collings way.

“Five bad people in a shop can kill it,” Collings explains. “One or two would be bad. I don’t see one in the shop today.”

Collings now offers seven series of guitars and two series of mandolins. The Dreadnoughts and Orchestra Model (OM) series, as well as the 12-fret 00s and 000s, are based on golden-era Martins from the 1930s and ‘40s. The C, CJ (Collings Jumbo) and SJ (Small Jumbo) series use classic Gibsons for inspiration. The C is based on the round-shouldered 00 of the 1930s, the CJ is reminiscent of the late-‘30s Advanced Jumbo and the SJ is loosely based on the 16-inch J-185 of the 1950s. The Collings Baby, with its tiny 12 ½” lower bout and short 24 ⅛” scale length, is still a favorite among Collings connoisseurs in search of the ultimate travel guitar. All of Collings’ flattops can be ordered with mahogany, maple, koa, Indian rosewood or Brazilian rosewood sides and backs. The tops can be made of cedar or Sitka, European, Engelmann or Adirondack spruce.

Collings mandolins come in either A or F style and feature spruce tops and maple backs and sides. There are a number of cosmetic options available, and players can choose between a lacquer or varnish finish. Collings also makes a very limited number of archtop guitars. These are available in 16-, 17- and 18-inch sizes. Bill Collings does most of the work on archtops himself: “When the weekend comes, when nobody’s around, I sneak in to work on archtops.” (Collings, incidentally, has no interest in musician-endorsed signature models. Despite a client roster that includes the likes of Lovett, Pete Townshend, Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon, Collings calls artist models a “cheap shot.”)

Not one to rest on his laurels, Collings has a new line in mind: electric guitars. To some, that’s heresy, but to Collings it’s a supreme challenge. In Collings words, the electric venture is about “crazy guys trying to make it better than it was.” To McCreary, it makes sense that Collings would pursue the idea.

“I think the inspiration for the electrics came from people asking about ‘electric’ acoustic guitars,” McCreary says. “In other words, acoustic guitars made to be played plugged in. Since that’s not really what we do, he decided to make a good ‘acoustic’ electric guitar. He’s always been one for a challenge and has always liked carving tops, such as the archtops he’s made for the last 25 years or so and the mandolins. I guess, in some ways, this is just an extension of that. Of course, electric pickups and wiring harnesses, etc., are a whole new ball game.” Prototypes include both solid and semi-hollow bodies with single and double cutaways.

If the enthusiasm Collings’ acoustic instruments stir in dealers and musicians is any indication, the electric endeavor has great potential. Pat Skrovan, who opened Quincy’s Guitars in Austin in 2004, says the folks at Collings are “like family.” “Nobody does fit and finish like they do,” he says. “They’re sticklers for detail.” As for Collings the man, Skrovan says “he’s incredible” though he’s also “a bit loony.” “That’s what keeps his genius going,” Skrovan posits, “keeps his edge, which is a lot sharper than most people’s.” Skrovan certainly appreciates fine instruments. He only carries five makers in his comfortable, living-room-style shop, which he describes as an “art gallery for guitars.” “This is art,” he says of his collection, “and I try to let people see it as art.” Skrovan is a fan of what he calls “Bill’s signature sound: fundamental, but usable.”

Noted Austin picker Rich Brotherton relishes the “huge sonic palette” of his Collings, a short-scale OM3 made of Brazilian rosewood and Adirondack spruce labeled “OM3B+++ASS.” “Fingerpick it, and it sounds like the warmest, most balanced small-body guitar you ever heard,” says Brotherton, a session vet and longtime lead guitarist for singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen. “Flatpick jazz on it, and it has a beautiful woody honk like an archtop. It’s truly my best guitar, and I have a bunch.”

Ask Collings why he’s been so successful, how the quality of his work remains so high, and his answer is simple: “We never got greedy.” Even today, the idea of a true cash profit is “like a dream” to him, choosing to reinvest it in his company in order to advance his humble goal of total perfection. On the other hand, Collings is actually starting to think about pesky little issues like succession – who’ll take the reins when he’s through – an issue that reminds him that his company is “like a real business.”

If it were up to Collings, he wouldn’t need to worry about any of those types of concerns. He is fixated on building handmade instruments that have the feel and soul of a handmade product, but made with the precision of a machine. Or, in Collings’ words, “a guitar that looks like it was made by a machine… if a machine could do it.”

Collings doesn’t think this kind of attention to detail is excessive because, as he says, “I like good stuff too. When people do passionate things, when they really care, and then you buy it – that’s one of the best things in life.”

“Everyone is fiercely proud of what we do,” says McCreary. That level of commitment flows from the top down. To Collings, if someone drops and breaks a brand new mandolin, well, it happens. But he simply won’t tolerate someone not caring enough about what they do.

“We have to give our lives to it,” Collings says, with little exaggeration. “It’s emotion, it’s crying.” That level of zeal explains why Collings and McCreary would go so far as to pull up weather data from Van Nuys, Calif., in order to ascertain the cause of a customer’s problem – 10 straight days of single-digit humidity was the culprit – and in order to prevent similar problems in the future. It explains why folks are still wiping down instruments in the inspection room even as the UPS truck idles out front.

Collings owners are simply lucky that the man decided to make instruments. “He’s a very complex person,” McCreary says, of his old friend. “I don’t think anyone in the United States has a better grasp of what makes these things tick.” Collings, however, doesn’t quite get the “mad genius” tab that everyone seems to lay on him. “I can see only one thing,” he explains, “but I see it really good.”

“I can make anything I want,” Collings says, matter-of-factly. He’s hardly bragging. That’s just the way it is.