Collector’s Choice™ Signature Models and True Historics: How the Custom Shop Procures Wood and Materials
To say Gibson’s Custom Shop spares no effort or expense with regard to its reissues program is an understatement. Whether it’s a Collector’s Choice™ guitar, a Signature model, or a True Historic, authenticity is the driving force behind the replication of the instrument at-hand. To that end, the Custom Shop goes to extraordinary lengths to find and develop materials that ensure spot-on accuracy. Those efforts begin with the procurement of proper wood.
“We don’t buy wood simply according to grade,” says Edwin Wilson, who heads the Custom Shop’s Historic Program. “When we buy maple, for instance, we’re thinking about a specific guitar that we’re looking to recreate. If we’re working on a Collector’s Choice™ or Signature model, recreating up to 300 versions of that particular guitar, then we find maple tops that look precisely like the top for that guitar. With True Historic models, it’s a bit different, in that the grain orientation and the flame can have a variety of looks, among those instruments. The appearance doesn’t have to be quite as specific as it is for a Collector’s Choice or Signature model.”
One-piece mahogany backs are weighed and inspected one at a time at Gibson Custom
To procure the wood, the Custom Shop relies primarily on two vendors—one located on the East Coast, the other on the West Coast. Each month, for the past 20 years, Wilson has travelled to one vendor or the other—often spending as much as ten days examining lumber. Sometimes the lumber has already been harvested; other times, it might be a tree that’s still in the ground.
“We get all our mahogany from our West Coast vendor,” says Wilson, “as well as about 95 percent of our maple. But that doesn’t mean all the maple is harvested on the West Coast. Our vendor gets the maples from all over the country. And of course we buy rosewood and mahogany as well. The mahogany comes from Fiji—the islands in the South Pacific. It’s genuine mahogany, the same type that Gibson used in the ‘50s. Our vendor actually owns the mill in Fiji, and that’s where the mahogany is cut and processed.”
For the True Historic series, producing precise replicas extends even to the chemical composition of plastics and metals. The Custom Shop’s approach to replicating metal and plastic parts began with the reproduction of a stopbar tailpiece. In addition to implementing a 3-D scan, in order to precisely duplicate the shape, the Custom Shop had the part analyzed at a lab, in order to determine its chemical and alloy properties. This past year, the Custom Shop began applying the same meticulous process to plastic parts.
Back and top woods are stored in a sorting area, where they’ll be hand selected to match the specifications of a particular guitar
“Basically, we’re talking about the toggle switch washer, the jack plate, the pickguard, the toggle switch cap, the mounting rings and the knobs,” says Wilson. “I worked with a good friend of mine, Lou Gatanas, who’s an authority on vintage hardware. The first thing I did was get an original jack plate and a section of an original pick guard, and sent them to our lab, to determine the composition of the materials. While that was in process, I got a complete set of all the original plastic parts from Lou, so that we could do 3-D scans and document everything about those parts.”
Not surprisingly, the lab results revealed that the plastics were comprised of materials no longer in common use. Specifically, the knobs and the mounting rings were made from something called butyrate, also known as CAB. Similarly, the main component in the toggle switch cap was a polymer known as catalin, a resin also found in the knobs of antique radios. Neither material is widely used today. Undeterred, the Custom Shop managed to find a source for these items.
Some of Gibson Custom’s final assembly team put the finishing touches on each guitar and sign their initials on the warranty card
“We worked with our vendor—the company with whom we contracted to manufacture these parts—to find a source who could supply material that was of the same composition of butyrate that the original parts were,” explains Wilson. “We made sure he could get a sufficient supply, and made sure it was the correct chemical composition. The same was true for the knobs. There was never any consideration of going with a chemical composition that was different from the originals.”
Bottom line is, the integrity of the Custom Shop’s reissue program is evident in all the many facets of how classic Gibsons are replicated. Time and again, for instance, a renowned artist whose legendary Les Paul has been the subject of a Signature model has said he can hardly distinguish between the original and reproduction. “There are a lot of people out there who make reissue parts,” says Wilson, “but not many are willing to spend the time and resources Gibson does to make them historically accurate. We go to extremes.”