by David S. Wallens
Since 1985, Paul Reed Smith Guitars has blended fine materials and old-world craftsmanship to turn out some of the most beautiful instruments to grace this planet’s surface. Their workshop isn’t hidden away in some guarded, mountain bunker, however, as once a year they throw open the doors and put down the welcome mat. Welcome to Experience PRS, their annual open house.
Core factory tour
PRS Guitar’s Core line is built at their home plant in Stevensville, Maryland, just across the Bay Bridge from Annapolis. Once the wood is dried, cut and graded, it is allowed to climatize inside the factory.
Pretty maple for your body?
Birth of a fretboard.
Bookended top woods are marked and prepared for cutting. The water is used to show how the grain will eventually pop.
It’s starting to look like a guitar: top and back woods have been joined and everything is roughed into shape. The ones marked with the PG are destined to become Paul’s Guitar. As its maker explains, it’s essentially the production version of Paul Reed Smith’s own Private Stock guitar.
Here’s the four general steps that the body will take, from the roughest forming to the final CNC cutting (watch video).
Then there’s the sanding--lots and lots of sanding.
The steps a neck goes through, from the 12 quarter rough cut (a piece of wood that's 12/4 inches thick-as in 12-fourths or 3-1/2 inches) to final forming. Since the neck needs to relax each time wood is removed, the process takes four or five days.
Then the neck is set, a process that takes more time that you’d think. Neck too tight? Excess wood is removed with one stroke of sandpaper at a time.
Time to start applying some color. Once the neck is taped off, the body is stained.
And then the bodies are sanded, cleared and buffed. And buffed.
If any imperfections are noted, it's sent back for more buffing. To help the buffer spot the problems, a grease pencil is used.
They're starting to look like guitars. Buffed, ready bodies await electronics.
PRS manufactures their Core pickups in-house, just a few yards away from where they'll be installed.
The electronics are also assembled in-house.
The electronics and strings can finally be adjusted. Each guitar is then taken for a test drive before a final inspection. Then the guitars are boxed and sent to the shipping department.
The big news at this year's [Ed. 2013] Experience was PRS's new, lower-priced S2 line: "Made in Maryland," the tagline says. Where the Core guitars start at around $2500, the S2 Series models start at $1179. So, what exactly is the difference?
As PRS President Jack Higginbotham explained, the company had to re-imagine a way to build a quality, U.S.-built guitar: less waste and less cutting. The S2 line is on the same floor as the Core line; in fact, the S2 line is right next to the Private Stock department. Less part numbers helps, too. He figures the company has something near 270,000 possible SKUs in their Core model line. For the S2 program, that number is closer to 60 or 70.
The S2 line is built around the neck. The final pattern mimics that found on the Core models, but it goes through the process quicker. How so? First, the neck starts with a thinner piece of wood: 6 quarter vs. 12 quarter. (In non-woodworking terms, that means inch-and-a-half stock vs. 3-inch stock.) The thinner starting stock means less wood has to be removed. As a result, the neck doesn’t need so much time to stabilize between each major cut. Less time means money saved.
Each piece of wood is cut with a scarf joint. To form the headstock, the piece removed is then flipped around and glued to the neck. As Higginbotham notes, glue is stronger than wood. In fact, this joint has been tested to 1200 pounds of pressure. Another piece is removed from this piece of wood to form the neck's heel.
On the Core guitars, the frets are installed after the fretboard is applied to the neck. With the S2 guitars, the frets are installed first. As PRS explains, this is a quicker process. Does it hurt the quality? No, they insist. In fact, it also reduces the chance of waste.
The body is also cut in the PRS factory. The S2 Custom features mahogany backwood topped with bookmatched (The piece of maple is split and then opened like a book, creating a near-mirror image) figured maple. That back wood is up to Core standards. The S2 Mira and S2 Starla both feature all-mahogany bodies. Higginbotham, who started in the company’s wood shop nearly 30 years ago, said the quality of figure found in S2 Custom’s maple tops is similar to that used for their old CE models.
The body still has that familiar PRS shape, but the manufacturing process helps save time--and remember, time is money. First, the less radical curve produces less waste. That simpler shape also takes less time to cut and sand. Figure it takes 45 to 75 minutes to sand a Core body; an S2 requires 15 to 20 minutes. (The S2 guitars are also not sanded as finely as the Core instruments.) The neck fitting and double-action truss rod are the same as the Core guitars, however.
The finished used on the S2 guitars is designed to be a bit forgiving during the sanding process. Higginbotham likened it to the finish used by the company in the ’90s.
Finally, the electronics. To save time, though, the pickups are first attached to the pick guard so everything can be installed at once. The pickups come from the same Korean supplier used for the SE models; the cable jack comes from the Core model line.
And how do they play? Like a PRS. Beautiful tone, comfortable neck. The bevelled body feels a little like a Strat, in fact. Despite the simpler body shape than the Core PRS models, the new ones fit the body nicely.
In real life, I'm the editorial director for two sports car magazines. While cars are a big part of my life, my other passion has always been music. Two years ago a friend made a seemingly innocent comment: You should start playing some music? My reply: Dude, I'm 40. Now I have a room full of guitars and every Wednesday you can find me taking my lesson.