David Collins

David Collins
Collins Luthiery, Stringed Instrument Repair & Restoration, 726 Brooks St. (Old West Side Dairy Building), Ann Arbor, Michigan

Tottered on: 2 May 2006
Temperature: 58 F
Ceiling: rainy
Ground: soggy
Wind: calm


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TT with HD: David Collins


DC: It's been a while since I've been on a teeter totter.

HD: Yeah, I think that's true for most people.

DC: The one's they've got at the playgrounds around here just don't quite qualify, the little kids' ones that are mounted on a spring ...

HD: ... on a spring? No, I don't really count them. I consider myself to have a total teeter totter monopoly.

DC: You do. Although I may be tempted to erect one in my own backyard pretty soon.

HD: Well, you don't need to do that, you know. And it's not just that I'm trying to keep the competition away, but you're welcome to come back and bring your daughter, and you're welcome to teeter totter here whenever you like.

DC: Alright.

HD: So. Welcome to the teeter totter.

DC: Thank you!

HD: Now, you are a luthier /loot-ee-er/?

DC: A luthier /looth-ee-er/.

HD: With the theta-pronunciation, the T-H?

DC: Luthier /looth-ee-er/. The OED really hasn't done too much work on that word. There's still debates on the function and derivations from that word.

HD: It's the same stem as 'lute', though, right?

DC: Yes.

HD: Online somewhere, one of the dictionary sites, I found an audio file lets that you listen to how the word is pronounced? I don't remember which site it was, but it sounded to me like they were saying it with the plain T, not the T-H sound.

DC: Luthier /loot-ee-er/? Yeah, that's just as valid.

HD: And the name of a place where a luthier works is a luthiery /looth-ee-air-y/?

DC: That's the debatable part. That's where Webster's and OED haven't come in. As close as I can estimate, the place where a luthier works is a luthiery, I-E-R-Y and the actual trade of the luthier is lutherie, spelled L-U-T-H-E-R-I-E. There are dozens of different businesses that use the two different spellings, and of course in this trade there's people who hotly debate it. I just like the aesthetics of my spelling, the I-E-R-Y, a little better.

HD: So you moved your operation down here from Lansing, you were working out of Elderly?

DC: At Elderly Instruments, yup.

HD: And you basically decided to open up your own shop down here in Ann Arbor [www.collinsluthiery.com]. Was that a function of assessing the market down here and doing an analysis, or did you just decide you wanted to live and work down here?

DC: There was no formal analysis, really. My wife has worked down here for about six years, so this is where we've lived. I've been commuting to Lansing. Meanwhile, watching close to half of my customers, maybe more, come from Ann Arbor, or southeast Michigan in general, driving up to Lansing to have their work done. It just got absurd having people like Dick Siegel and Connie Huber and Chris Buhalis, those are all people who live within three blocks of my shop now, driving up to Elderly's to have me work on their guitars, when I live right down the street from them.

HD: So your shop is right in your dwelling?

DC: No, it's one block over. It's in the Old West Side Dairy Building. It's an old brick building, kind of set in the middle of the block there. David Orlin, a bow maker, is in there. Dave Sutherland, a harpsichord builder. And there's some goldsmiths upstairs. And there's a Center for the Childbearing Year.

HD: So it's kind of like an artisan community!

DC: Yeah, it is. An interesting little collective. I live one-block away, which is convenient.

HD: That is convenient.

DC: It's much better than driving 70 miles each way to Elderly's in Lansing.

HD: Yeah. On a day like today, which is just the shittiest day for teeter tottering imaginable, I would imagine that a day like today just wreaks total havoc with the stuff your working with humidity-wise?

DC: It can. The shop is, I wouldn't say it's precisely climate-controlled, but I keep everything within reason. Humidifiers, de-humidifiers and whatnot.

HD: Is it forced-air heat in there?

DC: Yeah. It's terrible for wood, but you just have to keep the humidifiers driving whenever the heat is running.

HD: So basically, if need be, you could build a guitar from scratch?

DC: Yes.

HD: There's variations in what people mean by 'from scratch'. For example, my wife's sister built us a cedar chest as a wedding gift from scratch, and she went out into the woods, picked out the cedar trees, and cut them down and started from there. That's pretty extreme. I assume there's a place to buy wood other than Lowe's if you want to build a guitar?

DC: Yup. Most of them are specialty dealers. And although I've never cut down the trees, to build a guitar, because most of them come from South America or up in Alaska or Europe, I built a few hundred guitars, acoustics, and that was from raw boards like this [Ed. note: 'this' points to the teeter totter board] from the mill, re-sawing, thicknessing, bending, all that. So essentially from scratch.

HD: Do you keep track of those guitars that you built?

DC: No. I never really built guitars under my own name. I worked for a few different companies. One of them was all prototypes, research and development, for a new style of guitar for a company based out in Wisconsin, and then the Galloup Guitars up in Big Rapids. But no, I never kept track of them. I still have an order list around somewhere that had guitars for a couple of celebrities that I should have kept track of. I know one was going to Vince Gill and one was someone in Ricky Scaggs band and a guitarist for Dwight Yoakam, neither of whose names I remember. I'm not a big country music guy. But probably would have been worth saving for a resume to say I've built guitars for those people.

HD: So would it just be for the resume or is that actually something that you sort of enjoy yourself, personally: the idea that, Wow, I built this guitar for this big-name person, or Wow, I'm working on this guitar owned by this big-name person?

DC: Not really. I don't know what but it's never really struck any kind of chord with me as fascinating me that much.

HD: So then is it more like a particular instrument that you fantasize about working on, say a brand or are there actual individual guitars out there in the world where you think: Ah, that one, that's the one; I'd like to redo the frets on that?

DC: Yeah, but that's ...

HD: Like for example?

DC: Pre-war Martin guitars. Lloyd Loar mandolins. You know, there's some classics that are just sort of eternal. The old 30's Gibson flattops have always fascinated me. That's what I've spent more time studying than just about anything. But there's not a particular guitar that I fantasize about per se. But most of what I enjoy really is repair and restoration as opposed to building.

HD: Well, I have a guitar and I did something to it a while back, and I'd like to know how bad of an idea this was. The strings were buzzing and, I have a decent confidence level working on my bicycle, and I noticed that there's this hex nut inside the, I'm not even sure what it's called, but it's the hole ...

DC: ... the sound hole?

HD: Okay, inside the sound hole. And I thought, That's there for something! What if I just take one of my bicycle allen keys and see if it'll turn.

DC: Right.

HD: So I turned it in the direction that I theorized would make the angle of the neck more relaxed. And lo and behold it seemed to work. The strings stopped buzzing. But then I reflected on that, and I thought maybe I could have just totally wrecked in for the long term.

DC: Something like that, you're not doing anything permanent. That's just a temporary adjustment, just adjusting the straightness of the neck. And no, there's nothing that you could have really damaged doing that, unless you tightened it so hard that you snapped the truss rod. But no, there's no permanent effects.

HD: I started worrying as I was playing that I might wind up with two pieces, one in each hand.

DC: No, that's a pretty safe adjustment.

HD: That's good to know. There's a local musician, one of the more successful ones, Jim Roll, ...

DC: ... yeah ...

HD: ... he has a song called Blue Guitar. It's about a guitar that is literally the color blue, I think, as opposed to like a sad guitar. And there's another local musician, Annie Palmer, who I've seen play a blue guitar when she was performing. I'm wondering, is this a local Ann Arbor fascination with blue guitars that you're aware of?

DC: No, there's little pockets of people with a blue guitar fetish around the world. Scott Chinery, one of the biggest collectors in the world, actually commissioned a whole line of blue guitars. Very incredible instruments, made by Monteleone and just a number of excellent builders. Archtops, all Jazz guitars. There's, I believe, a book out about those blue guitars. The closest I came to a blue guitar, and not one of my prouder moments, but if you're familiar with Larry, the Cable Guy, I did a guitar for him about eight or nine years ago, that is the Confederate flag on the face of it with "Git 'er done" inlaid on the fingerboard. I've talked to people who've seen it on the video. I've never seen any of his videos myself.

HD: So you made that guitar?

DC: No, it was a cheap import. I just did the paint job and the pearl inlay on it.

HD: So speaking of paint jobs, these blue guitars, it's more than just like a can of spray paint, right? It's some special stain or something?

DC: There's a number of different ways. Like Paul Reed Smith, their blue guitars are stained with an aniline dye into the wood when you still want a translucent blue with the woodgrain visible. Or you could use Krylon out of the can if you like, you know! It might not work that gracefully.

HD: Could you really??!!

DC: Well, you could. I've seen people do it. Not something I would do on a 50's Fender Strat, but ...

HD: ... the idea of going to a hardware store and buying a can of spray paint and painting your guitar, well ...

DC: ... yeah, I've seen it done. Not always fine work.

HD: So did you vote today, yet?

DC: I didn't. Unfortunately, I still have not changed my address on my driver's licensee or my voter registration since we moved, so ...

HD: Oh well. it's just the Library Board and Proposal A.

DC: That's the thing. I don't know if I would have voted today anyway, because I don't know anything about it. I didn't take the time to do any of the research on the candidates. I don't know anything about them, and it would be just voting blind off of names and signs in people's yards.

HD: Yup, I think that's the way a lot of people feel about this one. Anything else on your mind that you really want to talk about?

DC: Not particularly. I've got guitars and projects on my mind.

HD: Do you have stuff glued up waiting to dry?

DC: Yeah, there's a few jobs in the drying process and others just waiting on various bits and pieces, backordered parts and things like that.

HD: Alright, listen, I'll let you get back to it.