Shop Talk

The Story of the 1608

At the beginning of 2012,
Gordy Bischoff was
commissioned by Bushmills
Whiskey and Bon Iver to
build what would become
the most challenging,
unique, and amazing guitar
that Gordy has built to
date. Here, then, is the
story in his own words.



Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) called with 2 questions. The first: “Was it possible to build a guitar out of a whiskey barrel?” The second: “Was I interested?” I said I thought it was possible and I was definitely interested. Support for the project came from Bushmills Irish Whiskey.


The request from Bushmills was that Justin and I collaborate on the project. I initially suggested a baritone guitar based on my AcoustielectricTM series which incorporates both electric pickups and an acoustic pickup system. Justin’s input was helping come up with a redesigned body shape, selecting pickups and suggesting that we keep the wood as raw as possible (this turned out to be a key feature).


I had to guess at how many barrels it would take to get enough usable pieces. I settled on 6 barrels to make 4 guitars. Bushmills uses barrels originally made and used in Kentucky for bourbon that are shipped to Bushmills in Ireland to be used as whiskey barrels. These were shipped to me to build the guitars.


Each barrel had to be disassembled , inspected for potential useable pieces, cleaned of all charring, stacked for drying in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room. The wood’s moisture level was monitored. Finally, another thorough inspection of each piece of wood was done to check for structural integrity and cracking.


Each piece was again inspected and then organized by size. The edges were trimmed square, then re-sawn into strips.


Retraining the wood was one of the biggest challenges (no one takes bent wood and flattens it to build flat things ). I spent 2 months of testing to find the right technique to flatten and stabilize the wood.


Making the body was relatively straight forward once the new molds and jigs were made to accommodate the new uniquely shaped body. The internal structuring was based on my existing AcoustelectricTM model. This structure supports both the electric and acoustic pickup systems.


With the wood finally stabilized and retrained, I could begin the process of putting together the panels for the tops and the backs. There wound up being a very limited number of useful pieces of wood for the project, so at this point I had to lay-out the available pieces and, like a puzzle, find a way to make the 4 tops and 4 backs for the guitars. In the end, 4 tops and 3 backs were made from 5 pieces each, and one back was made from 6 pieces.


Justin had wanted a raw feel to the guitar. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure what that was going to be. As I went through the early stages, it came to me that I somehow needed to incorporate the “skin,” or “essence,” of the barrel to the sides of the guitar. I devised a technique to “skin” (veneer) the outside of the barrel and apply it to the bent guitar sides.


There never seemed to be a realistic way to make a stable neck for the guitar out of the whiskey barrel wood, so I choose Hard Rock Maple for the neck with a Striped Ebony fingerboard. A very accurately-fit, bolt-on neck was used for its versatility.


Justin choose a single letter “B” to represent and signify everyone involved in the project, Bon Iver, Bushmills and Bischoff.


Because Justin wanted a raw feel and a guitar that would quickly show the aging and character marks of use, I chose to use an oil finish for both the neck and body.


To tie up all the parties evolved and to keep with the rustic look and feel, I had 2 custom-made branding irons cast to commemorate the whole project.

Bushmill's documentary on the origins and construction of the 1608. (Click Full Screen at bottom right so see full view.)

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