Building the Perfect Beast
1: WoodIn the beginning, there is wood, originating everywhere from India to Alaska and purchased from brokers who buy wood from cutters specifically geared to the guitar market. Collings uses dozens of wood varieties, from mahogany and East Indian rosewood to the significantly rarer Brazilian rosewood and red spruce. Once the wood arrives, it's separated and stacked so air can circulate around the pieces in a carefully climate-controlled room. Each piece is then put through a kiln of wood where it is heated and cooled until it reaches an ideal 6% moisture content a point that makes it stable and less susceptible to shrinking or swelling later. Each guitar back comes from a "set" of two pieces cut from the same tree. Former boatbuilder Bruce VanWart will literally hold those sets to his ear and tap, looking for a specific resonance and discarding wood too soft or too stiff. Then the pieces for the tops and backs are glued together, sanded, and shaved to tune it. "We keep a log of every mandolin we've made that documents how thick the back was and what the specific density of the wood was," explains McCreary. "We can track back later when we've heard the finished mandolin. Every piece of wood is still different, but it gives us a road map. That's why our guitars and mandolins are different than some of the larger manufacturers. A company making 50,000 guitars a year can't gauge the thickness of every top."
2: Body RoomWhen the guitar hits the body room, it has a joined top and a joined back. Additionally, the guitar's sides have been profiled tapered, sanded, and bent using a heat method that renders the wood malleable. In the body room, the two sides are joined, making the outside shape of the guitar, "the hoops." The hoops are then lined with kerfing, providing extra surface with which to glue the top and the back onto. Meanwhile, using a cutter with a rotating drill bit, the top is rosetted, providing trenches for the decorative patterns around the sound hole. In a separate work space, the top and backs are braced using small wood strips vacuum-glued to give both top and back support. "Strings give off tension," says McCreary. "180 pounds of steel-string pressure pulls up on the guitar top. The bracing is essential for strength." After the braces are adjusted by hand, the tops and backs are then glued to the sides. After the binding is applied, voilà, a neckless guitar.
3: FinishThe neckless body heads into the finish room, where it gets its first base-coats of polyurethane and lacquer. Before the final sand and buff, the body goes back to the body room for the neck to be set. As subtle as the difference might seem, if the neck had been applied before the finish it would sit off the top by a wholly unacceptable 5,000th of an inch.
4: NecksEarlier in the process, "neck blanks" are sawed from huge chunks of raw Honduran mahogany. (Automated 3-D cutters are used for cutting fretboards, bridges, braces, and binding strips.) They're then shaped and sanded to the point where they're ready to meet the guitars that have returned from the finish room. Although each neck slides into a precut and bolted socket in the guitar base itself, it has to be at just the right altitude as the top, so that when the bridge is affixed later it plays correctly. And perhaps most importantly, the body-room luthiers must simulate string tension to see how much the neck is going to give. Each neck is calibrated to within a thousandth of an inch.
5: Setup RoomIn the setup room the fretboard gets attached, the bridge is glued down, and the frets are rounded and smoothed. For the strings, a nut and saddle fashioned from bone (the nut at the top, the saddle at the bridge end) are affixed. Finally, the tuners are attached, and strings are strung. After letting the guitar sit overnight, technicians check the string tension and neck relief. If it passes inspection, it goes for a final buff and is thus deemed ready to ship.
Collings Guitars gives a free factory tour every Friday at 3:30pm. See www.collingsguitars.com for more information.