“I’ve always loved the sound of vintage guitars. I’ve always tried to make new guitars that sound old.” -Dana Bourgeois, 2013.
Bourgeois Guitars, Aged-Tone and Torrefaction.
While the last decade has yielded some notable additions to the guitar world, much of the architecture behind the construction of the acoustic guitar has been established for hundreds if not thousands of years. Seasoned luthiers, like Dana Bourgeois of Bourgeois Guitars in Lewiston, Maine, hold true to many of the traditional aspects behind the proper building of the acoustic instrument and seek only to build an amazing guitar while staying sincere as possible to the settled culture. The body shape, the location of the strings, the fretboard, the neck, even the framework – Much has developed over time, but guitars dating back nearly 4,000 years resemble many produced today.
An idea that has crossed many hobbies, occupations, elaborate landscapes or even an amazing dining experience is the appreciation of a well-aged element. A fine wine, a deep canyon, an accomplished veteran, a classic convertible or, in this case, a vintage guitar. Artists and parishioners alike can appreciate an instruments voice and presence that have been brought upon by the combination of age and adventure. While a guitars story alone can persuade a collector to acquire the rarest of instruments, the player will likely appreciate the guitar that has aged well tonally and perhaps aesthetically over time. Established guitar players are often looking for the next, best thing, but it’s no secret that getting ones hands on a high end, mint condition, vintage guitar is a dream come true for so many musicians. A successful entrepreneur is able to identify a demand in the market, create a product or path to a product and fill that demand. What Dana Bourgeois decided to take on was creating an instrument that was the best of both worlds; A guitar that was able to be “brand new,” but play out of the box with a classic, vintage sound. This age-old fantasy would become much more pragmatic with the introduction of torrefied wood.
What is torrefied wood?
The most basic definition of torrefied wood is wood that has been temperature treated. The idea behind the process of curing wood using heat is not a new notion by any means. One of the most notable uses of heat treated lumber was in Viking ships. One valuable return of the torrefaction process is a final product that’s nearly water tight. Being more impervious to the physical elements has its clear advantages both in ship building and instrument making. During the torrefaction process, as it’s been explained to me, the actual cellular structure of the wood is altered as the water, along with a list of other volatile elements (including pitches, sugars, oils, etc.), is removed from the lumber and the cells change from an open to a closed state. The tuned process used by luthiers, however, does not simply remove all these elements, it leaves behind a mineral residue which acts as both a barrier and adhesive. This yield is much lighter than the products removed and the result is a much less hefty, much more protected piece of wood. While heat curing wood has dated back thousands of years, it was believed to have developed commercially much more recently in Finland in an effort to produce a product intended for siding, decking or outdoor furniture. The idea of using it in a musical instrument was yet to be explored.
Finding that vintage sound.
Dana found samples of torrefied wood from a Canadian vendor in his search for aged-tone. After hearing and seeing the miraculous change of the torrefaction process he bought all the samples they’d sell him. The baked wood had made some leaps and bounds that made it much more revolutionary than what had been expected. The wood not only looked aged, but a huge part of the aging process had been bypassed. In a guitars lifespan, even with proper care, it can be exposed to varying temperatures, humidities and other environmental conditions. As a guitar releases and takes on moisture, the wood will expand and contract, repeatedly. Not only does this make keeping the guitar in tune an arduous task, it also takes quite a toll on all the wooden components of the guitar, inside and out. Cracks will form over time, and while they may add character to an artist’s favorite instrument, they are simply a new route for the elements to invade your guitars gut.
This new torrefied wood was amazing in theory, but needed more than a simple installation to fulfill its aspiration of mimicking the long sought after sound of a vintage guitar. Like it is for any master luthier, this was familiar territory for Dana Bourgeois and his team of builders. Individually matching each top to each set of back and sides was not much of a challenge for this experienced group, and so was born the Aged-Tone Series from Bourgeois Guitars.
While each guitar may contain its own individual appointments, each aged-tone is coated with Dana’s very own aged-tone finish. Years in the making, this new finish is lighter yet more durable than the finish they use for models prior. The Bourgeois website explains, “Dana recently developed a light but durable finish to complement Aged Tone tops. The Aged Tone finish, combines the sound and look of a well-preserved older finish with the durability of a modern catalyzed finish. The Aged Tone finish began as an effort to replicate the sonic and aesthetic qualities of older nitro. Nitrocellulose never fully cures. It starts out thick and soft and becomes considerably thinner and harder over time. As it cures, weight and mass diminish, molecules become rearranged, damping recedes and this transformation contributes significantly to what we recognize as ‘vintage’ sound. After several years of experimentation we found a finish in the cyanoacrylic family that’s hard enough to exhibit minimum damping, offers reasonable protection compared to other thinly applied finishes, and has much in common with the sound and look of older nitro. Like our varnish finish, it’s application is both labor and skill intensive; we’re entirely convinced, though, that the results are worth the added effort.”
Does it truly sound like a vintage guitar?
As with any question of this nature, opinions will definitely vary from one listener to another, but while the label may be arguable, the fact that there is a dramatic difference between a standard tone wood and a matching torrefied top is not up for debate. Reviews most common for this new aged tone series are it’s incredible clarity and response. By matching each guitar individually to the back, sides and bracing, Dana is able to not only create the balance we’re all familiar with from his entire line of guitars, but he also achieves an incredible response from the guitar.
Asking Dana himself about his Aged Tone Series during its introduction to the guitar world is all some should need to believe in the process.“Aged Tone tops may be the most significant technological advance I’ve seen in decades, but these new guitars are about more than just the tops,” reports Dana Bourgeois. “A treated Adirondack top is, after all, just another tonewood; the thing that matters is what you do with it. To get the vibe I was looking for, I ended up modifying my approach to voicing and developed an entirely new finish. The combined result isn’t a substitute for a great vintage guitar, nor will it make people stop playing new guitars with untreated tops. It’s entirely new, yet partially old, totally different and overwhelmingly musical. I can’t wait to hear what different players do with these guitars!”
Though we will have a listen down below to a couple models of Bourgeois, both with the Aged-Tone features and without for comparison purposes, let us first take a look at the following picture. While I can’t confirm the origin of either top, I can tell you that both of these are listed as nearly identical guitars with the only significant difference being that the guitar on the right has the torrefied top. These two guitars could very well have come from the same cut of wood as these results are fairly consistent with the torrefaction process. On the left is the Bourgeois D-Vintage Adirondack Spruce over Indian Rosewood (#8435) and on the right is the Bourgeois D-Vintage Deluxe Aged-Tone Adirondack Spruce over Indian Rosewood (#8415). Both guitars feature the “natural” finish of the Adirondack tonewood but, as you can tell, the disparity is vivid.
This beautiful guitar below is the Bourgeois Aged Tone Vintage D. This guitar of course features the AT Adirondack Spruce on top, but wrapping around the back and sides is a remarkable Indian Rosewood. The close-up view of the top of this guitar really let us see how beautifully the torrefaction process brings out the natural grains of this Spruce top. To match the aesthetic Dana chose a vintage-style rosette and wonderfully paired Herringbone purfling around the outside. Just across the Ivoroid binding starts this fascinating Indian Rosewood. Finishing touches include the Mahogany neck, ebony fingerboard and bridge and Waverly gold tuners. A few more images of this striking guitar, and a brief demonstration by Heartbreaker Guitars, a proud Bourgeois dealer.
This next and final guitar I’ll be sharing today is the Bourgeois OMC Aged Tone Soloist. Like it’s cousin above, the face of this guitar has an aged appearance due to the torrefied Adirondack Spruce. This mint condition, pre-owned Bourgeois has a standard mahogany neck, but with an alluring satin finish, an ebony fingerboard and bridge, cutaway for fantastic playability, black line purfling and Waverly tuners featuring ebony buttons. My favorite feature of this guitar, however, is the absolutely captivating Brazilian Rosewood on the back and sides. The images below as well as the demonstration by Mike of Heartbreaker Guitars can give you an idea of just how wonderful this guitar looks and sounds, but I’d encourage all to take a look and listen in person as these instruments are definitely not given due process online.