Artist on the ridge: François Vadeboncoeur
Forgive the pun, but when it comes to making guitars and other stringed instruments, FranÃ§ois Vadeboncoeur plays it by ear. The Wheat Ridge man is a luthier, a term for someone who builds or repairs stringed instruments by hand. While some may not have heard the term, Vadeboncoeur said that there are “a number” of luthiers in Colorado and the United States. A few schools also teach the craft, he said.
âWatching someone take an instrument and play itâ is the most rewarding moment for Vadeboncoeur. âAnd each of the guitars is unique because they are handcrafted. Not like a Martin or a Gibson, âtwo of the leading brand-produced mass-produced guitars.
Some luthiers take a scientific approach to instrument making, said Vadeboncoeur. âI’ve always been more of the type to put things together and see how it sounds like a guy,â he noted. Vadeboncoeur has been making âside-by-sideâ instruments for around 30 years. Health issues that began in 2017 sidelined him until he could complete an additional 6 to 12 months of training and rehabilitation to regain full use of his hands. Vadeboncoeur has 28 instruments at various stages of construction requiring its attention.
Vadeboncoeur, 70, was born in Michigan and raised in California. He started working with wood and learned to play the guitar as a teenager. He and his family moved to Colorado in the 1980s and then back to California. At the end of the 1990s, Vadeboncoeur met a man in a hardwood store who introduced him to violin making. Vadeboncoeur did his apprenticeship in his workshop to learn the trade while working full time in construction. âWood was definitely a hobby,â said Vadeboncoeur. âI was not there to make money. If I made 50 cents an hour, I was lucky.
Vadeboncoeur’s first instruments were traveling guitars. The smaller versions of regular guitars are easier to take to places like the beach, he said. Vadeboncoeur estimates to have made between 30 and 35 guitars and a dozen dulcimers. Dulcimers look like small violins, played with special hammers hitting the strings. “I made one for a wedding present to my wife”, remembers Vadeboncoeur. âHis father was quite impressed. Vadeboncoeur estimated that it takes around 250 hours to make a guitar and 150 hours for other instruments.
Violin makers use many different types of wood. âI probably used 10,000 pounds. of wood, of all kinds, âsaid Vadeboncoeur. âBrazilian rosewood is the best, but it’s quite expensive. I like walnut because it gives a mellow sound and it’s not too expensive. But there’s ebony, mahogany for the necks, for the tables, you want something like spruce or cedar.
Different woods are also used for their different properties. âYou want the backs and sides to resonate and reflect the sound,â Vadeboncoeur explained. “The top should vibrate well and the fingerboard and easel should be of dense wood so as not to wear out.”
Vadeboncoeur sold some of its handmade instruments at a store in Golden before it closed during the coronavirus pandemic. “I’ve never sold a lot of them, that’s not why I made them,” said Vadeboncoeur. âBut they can get a really good price. A classical guitar made by a friend sold for about $ 6,000 online. This is quite typical for an instrument made by hand by a well-known guitar maker.
Vadeboncoeur and his wife moved to Wheat Ridge when he retired in 2016. âWe came to Colorado for my grandnephew’s christening and thought we would like to come back,â he said . âWe didn’t want to live downtown like before and my sister-in-law lived down the street. We thought it was a nice place and a nice house. Their house has a piano harp partially buried in the front yard vegetable garden. Piano harps connect the tuning pins to the strings and must withstand tremendous strain. The harps are therefore made of cast iron and weigh around 100 pounds, Vadeboncoeur said. âI found a broken piano and it wasn’t too difficult to carry it around and take out the harp,â he said.
Recently, Vadeboncoeur donated most of his personal collection of musical instruments to Eric Trujillo, luthier and teacher at Westminster. Trujillo works with the Latino Cultural Arts Center Music Program, a group that repairs and supplies musical instruments to school children. âI must have collected all kinds of instruments, mainly from my 10 brothers and sisters,â explains Vadeboncoeur. âWe all took music lessons, so there were violins, trumpets, guitars. It is gratifying to see children buying a guitar and learning to play it.
Vadeboncoeur said he and Steef Sealy, a member of local band Better Than Biscuits, made a guitar that Sealy played in the band’s performances. âI gave one of my first guitars to a guy in the Seattle area, he’s a professional musician there,â added Vadeboncoeur. âIt was just to publicize my name and brand. I think he still uses it, based on some photos he posted online and he mentioned my name.
Apart from these two, Vadeboncoeur is not aware of any of his instruments having been played by high level guitarists or other musicians. Flattering recognition came when two of his former Californian apprentices called him separately, both wanting to know how to start a guitar store. âIt’s good when people are looking for you for that kind of information,â said Vadeboncoeur.