About me

My photo
I began this blog in order to share my experiences learning instrument building from my dad, but along with those stories I look forward to sharing my memories of growing up with two busy, musically inclined parents as well as my current experiences stepping out on my own as a female luthier promoting environmental sustainability in her instruments while working to alter gender stereotypes in a male dominated field. If you'd like to use quotes from this blog for interviews or in your own work, please contact me first! (email is henderson.elizabethj@gmail.com)

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Moonshiners

I don't care much for Father's Day because in the past it has served as a harsh reminder of the little time I am able to spend with just my dad. Growing up, I shared that weekend with thousands of people heading to Grayson Highland State Park for the annual Wayne Henderson Music Festival, and many of those linger at his shop before and after that Saturday. Every Father's day I can remember, my dad's attention was always averted, always leaving me to wait for my time until he wasn't busy with guests. Which was never. Since having the extreme privilege of working with him, the chances I will spend a few minutes to get to know him have grown significantly.

A couple of days ago my dad and I drove the mile and a half down winding Rugby Road to my Granny's house to prepare it for a few visitors coming in for the festival weekend. To be honest, I mainly went to pick the wild spearmint that grows in random patches behind the house, but figured if my dad wanted to leave the shop long enough to accompany me that would be nice. The foliage surrounding the house has become thick and green, all of those smells that cause my dopamine receptors to burst to life is in full swing now that it is almost full on summer. I always miss my Granny when I visit her house, but this time that pull to see her there was stronger, more tangible. She felt so close, like she was just around the corner, just out of reach. Any minute though she would be there to offer me a salted cucumber spear straight from her garden.

While Daddy and I waited for the water heater to fill, we walked out to the porch and sat down on the rickety furniture I have known my entire life. Rocking on the porch swing, my dad asked me, "It sure is quiet here, isn't it?" We reveled in the peace, just listening to the birds and crickets chirp happily, accompanied by a polite babble of the branch that tumbles down the hill alongside the house. I wondered what my Granny would think about the trees so heavy with fat green leaves that they blocked her view of the road, so she couldn't see who was coming by . My dad told me that my Grandpa Walt would clear the trees on the bank every year, so usually you could see out past the road.


"It was so clear over there that I found a shot up silver dollar on that hill once that blew over from Lauren and Leah's property." My dad said. "..What?" I asked. To clarify, my dad explained that Jess Hall (who had the property before Lauren's parents) and the local moonshiner and fellow neighbor Hunter Henderson would get drunk and shoot at coins from the top of the neighboring hill, he said. I asked why on earth they would shoot their money if there was little to go around and he explained that when those guys got drunk they were sure they were millionaires. Hunter, oftentimes found sitting tipsy outside the corner store, claimed to be worth half a million dollars. My dad absolutely didn't believe it, but after hearing more about him, there's a good chance he was telling the truth.

Hunter Henderson (distant relation but a local hero to my dad) was the a moonshiner who had property up the holler directly across from my Great Granny Ollie's house. It turns out he had the biggest still in operation in Virginia when it was discovered and busted in 1955. He and his partner Farmer Spencer figured out a way to take electricity from an abandoned house in that holler and used it to power their operation. Given the amount of electricity necessary to power a still, they likely bribed a meter reader. Most folks building stills would power them with coke, a type of coal that has been heated without the presence of oxygen. Unfortunately though, coke would produce smoke making those stills easier to spot by authorities.

Farmer also had several coke operated stills on his land. He didn't want anyone to get too close to them so he developed some interesting methods to keep folks out. In order to discourage hunters from hunting near his still, he built a machine resembling a windmill that would produce a low groan every time the wind blew. He began a rumor that he had seen and heard an odd sounding animal up in the woods. Any hunters that stumbled upon the sound as a gust of wind kicked up, they took off running, and spread the word to their friends. Farmer also built other parts of the still, using ingenuity to develop the highest quality equipment for brewing their shine. His craftiness helped to build Hunter's still to a significant operation. He and Hunter must have been an original version of Walter and Jesse.

After supplying everyone nearby who wanted to partake in the white lightning, the operation expanded to neighboring counties, then nearby states. Hunter had a truck fitted with a false bottom onto which which he loaded six cows. Those same six cows, standing over gallons of moonshine, made the trip to his brother's place in Maryland and back each week. From there who knows how far the moonshine reached. Another method of concealing the alcohol was a logging truck stacked to the brim with a hollowed out pile of logs. A local police officer who pulled up next to the truck at a stoplight noticed that the springs of the truck bore little weight. That operation was finished.

One day a mixup with the bribed meter reader caused the electric company to send a substitute to check the old house up the holler using more power than every other house in the county combined. He tipped off the police to the goings on, and just like that men from the FBI, and every officer working in Grayson County and several in North Carolina were hidden in laurel thickets surrounding the massive still. While they watched, thee officers counted ten gallons of moonshine per minute was being produced. When the officers raided the still, all the men, maybe 10 or 12, scattered into the woods. One old man, caught by the straps of his overalls, dragged an officer through a briar patch before he succumbed to arrest, each coming out on the other side a bit worse for the wear. When everyone was rounded up and hauled off, the still was destroyed with dynamite, and the rest hacked with axes. The pieces were left on the property and are likely still there. My dad remembers the windows of his house shaking from the blasts.

The cool summer breeze brushed my skin as I sat back on the bench on Granny's porch listening to my dad talk about Hunter Henderson. His memory is astounding and so were the characters of his childhood. I am extremely thankful that I have this time with him to learn about my roots and spend a few of my precious minutes just drinking it in. It doesn't burn like moonshine would, but still it leaves me with that warm, calm feeling *I'm told* accompanies a sip of shine. This is my Father's Day.

I want to take a little bit of space down here, if you're still reading, to thank you for doing so, and to invite and encourage you to come hang out with me at Grayson Highlands next Saturday (always the third Saturday in June, rain or shine) to hear some amazing music. There will be the annual guitar competition where one extremely talented musician wins a brand new Henderson guitar, my amazing friend Jane Kramer will be performing, as will Ricky Skaggs, the Gibson Brothers and quite a few more. I also want to quickly thank Feedspot for featuring this blog in their list of Top 20 Apprentice Blogs to Follow. It is an incredible honor to be recognized and I appreciate everyone reading so much!

The most magical place.



Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Kanikapila

This winter has really been unpleasant here in North Carolina. Not that much snow, which I feel makes it pretty and sparkly at least, but dreary, wet, and cold. The kind of cold that seeps into your bones and stays there unless you do something drastic like heartily scrub the bathtub or stand at your workbench sanding two or three guitars while practicing a tap dance. The chance to fly away to Hawaii in February to teach an inlay class truly couldn't have come soon enough. I was a bit anxious as I had only interacted with Paul's friend Edmond via email, but since getting to know my friend Paul and teaching at his house last year went so well, I figured it was probably ok. I mean, how many serial killers are into an obscure hobby along the lines of ukulele building and offer to pick you up at the airport and let you stay in their guest cottage halfway up the side of a volcano in Hawaii...right?

As we stood with other weary passengers, watching bulky luggage trundle its way around the baggage claim carousel, a tall man in a flannel shirt and jeans walks up to me. "Jayne?" he exclaims. Surprised I look up, thinking, who on earth would recognize me in this airport so far from anyone I know? Though, when leading paddling trips in Alaska, once I boarded the participant's bus to pass out safety waivers and a couple I had worked at a summer camp with in Asheville were seated in the back row so I guess it is possible someone would know me in Hawaii, too. "I'm Edmond," the man tells me, shaking my hand. How he chose me and Nick from a throng of tired, disheveled travelers I have no idea. It's not like I was the only one sitting there with a ukulele. While he explained that he had seen a picture of me from when I taught Paul's class, I just thought, wow he has a really thick accent, I wonder where he's from. Later, when I asked, he answered that he was born on Maui. Confused but equally exhausted from the long day of travel, I just nodded and followed him to the parking lot.

Due to weather in Atlanta we weren't able to fly out on Wednesday as we had planned, so we missed our exploring/settle in day that I had worked in to account for jetlag and settling in. No matter, after arriving Thursday, we ended up finding time to do some sight seeing around the class time anyway.

On one of the days I was teaching my class, Nick had planned to bike to the top of the volcano that shaped Maui, a 10,000+ foot mountain of steep incline named Haleakala, if the weather cooperated with such an endeavor. He stuffed his own bike parts and helmet into his carry on bag and reserved a bike at a shop at the base of the mountain. When we awoke Friday morning, light clouds dotted the bright blue sky, so while we didn't get our day to rest from travel, we still got up early and set about our respective adventures. As I set about preparing for a couple days of inlay class, off he hurried to the cycle shop in town to procure his bicycle.

Back in Edmond's cozy, cluttered shop, I sat organizing my materials and counting out my saw blades, I watched each of the participants shuffle in and choose a workspace. Something I love about humanity is that everyone has a story to share. I find it important to consider that each person I encounter has a history; I love wondering where they've been, what they like to do, where they were born, who their family is. Having two days to hang out with eight students,  I looked forward to getting to know them. I suppose that is a main reason why I am so reluctant to allow a third party to sell my instruments for me. Even though there's that rare time I don't enjoy dealing with a difficult client, usually getting to know the people who ask me to make something for them is the best part of my job.

The first guy to arrive and plunk his stuff down on the wooden workbench was Keith. He looked like the quintessential stickler grandfather; blue tracksuit swishing as he set up his station, tight haircut, prepared to jump in and help if necessary. The type of guy who acts like he runs a tight ship, but really, I bet those grandkids could get away with anything if they tried it. He immediately offered to help me prep for the class, cutting out inlay patterns and organizing the squares of paper in neat rows. David, Edmond's neighbor and close friend who took my class the previous year and was a significant catalyst for getting this class going, perched on a stool by a workbench at the back of the room. Another fellow slowly walks in and sits at a third table set up in the room. Judging by this neon colored t-shirt and his laid back movements, he looks as though not much phases him or causes significant concern. He told me his name was Randy. At that same table, a little guy who introduced himself as Ed, sits next to his friend Russell. Ed is obviously somewhat older than Russell, and judging by Russell's Patagonia fleece and tailored outfit and Ed's more relaxed button down and jeans, I wondered how they became friends as they didn't look to have had similar professions, but they bantered as though they knew each other very well. At my table, Rico was the only Hawaiian sitting among myself, Eli, and Carson. He mentioned the current wave conditions and how great the surfing has been lately. He didn't resemble the typical surfer dude I am familiar with but that lead me to believe that the salt water must soak into your blood if you are born here and most everyone must find a love in spending time with the ocean. With everyone seated and ready, we began the class.


Randy had to take one for the team on this one. He looked like that (or worse) in every. single. picture.

As the first day wound down, exactly at 3:00pm, Edmond puts down his jeweler's saw, mid pull, and walks over to the refrigerator. "Cocktail time!" he declares, and proceeds to mix a deep purple shaded Andre (sparkling wine popular with poor college students) with some red grape wine, who's label says exactly and only that, into an antique juice glass. While the rest of us finished up our projects, Ed snuck out of the room and returned a while later with a tray of beef teriyaki that he had just prepared on a brick grill in the yard. He told me that the teriyaki sauce was his wife's family recipe, and most everyone keeps their own recipe typically handed down for generations. Thoughts of my Granny's potato salad and my Aunt's biscuits jumped to my mind.

After everyone had enjoyed their beef satay, Ed shuffled back outside to cook more, each of us eventually trailing out to join him into the yard as we completed our respective projects. I don't think anyone besides Edmond was brave enough to partake in his special cocktail, but the rest of us grabbed a beer from the cooler resting by the smoking grill and took a seat at the picnic tables set up on Edmond's patio. Ed picked up his ukulele and began to play. Eventually his friends joined him in singing a few Hawaiian songs intermingling them with quick jokes and peels of laughter. I was told that impromptu get-togethers such as these are a regular occurrence in Hawaii, the music and feeling of which is often called Kanikapila.



After climbing 10,023 feet.
If you're wondering, as the afternoon turned to dinnertime, Nick accomplished his goal to ride to the top of Haleakala. When I first mentioned to Edmond that Nick wanted to go to the top, he suggested a shuttle that drove to the top and allowed participants coast back down. It took several efforts to get the correct intent across. "I get tired just thinking about driving up there in a car!" Keith proclaimed. While we were waiting to hear from Nick, Ed asked, "Have you heard the legend of Maui?" While there are many legends regarding a young boy named Maui and his exploits, Ed told me this one: Maui was the youngest of five children who lived on the island many many years ago. At that time, the people of Maui had trouble growing crops because the sun didn't stay long enough in the sky, causing the plants to wither and die, providing little food. Maui walked to the top of Haleakala and lassoed the sun. He pulled it closer to the land so the sun shone longer and brighter over the island, reaching all the way to the valley floors. The extra sunlight allowed for all the crops to grow in abundance and the people of Maui prospered.

That evening I asked Edmond about growing up on Maui, just a few miles down the road from where he now lives with this incredibly kind wife, Edwina. He told me how he spent his childhood a few miles down the road in the nearby town of Paia. His family was not wealthy, but, like my own family getting along in Appalachia, he didn't feel the effects as strongly as those in bigger cities. His mother would sew curtains and undershirts from empty rice sacks, the family ate what they grew or traded. The outdoors was Edmond's playground, his video game, his movie, his adventure. He would leave his house early in the morning and spend his day in the woods jumping into the eddies swirling in the mountain fed creeks that tumbled down the volcano's slopes, scavenging papayas, macadamia nuts, and citrus fruits for lunch, drinking water from the tributaries and playing with his friends until sundown. At 14, he got a job working on the nearest pineapple plantation. The work was arduous, requiring long hours of laboring under an unforgiving sun. The pineapple bushes were sharp, so in order to pull pineapples from the protective grasp of their spiny leaves, workers were given heavy denim sleeves to pin to their sweat drenched cotton t-shirts. I fell asleep that night thinking about my own family working in tobacco farms, playing corn cob baseball, wearing shirts made of left over grain sacks. They were worlds apart, but on a basic level, their upbringing was so similar.

The next morning Edmond and David took me and Nick to the local farmer's market. The produce was absolutely incredible-I did not recognize many of the fruits and vegetables being offered by vendors lining the street. At one booth selling breads and pastries, we chose a few turmeric and scallion filled scones for breakfast to accompany freshly squeezed orange juice and  picked up a couple of brightly colored Japanese noodle dishes from an eager Japanese couple. While they had an extremely limited English vocabulary, they were incredibly kind and seemed to be excited to share their traditional meals with us, explaining each of the ingredients in our two choices.





David is holding a lilikoi. It was not my favorite thing I've ever eaten.
The food in Hawaii is such an exciting mix of Asian and Spanish flavors. Later that day, when we broke for lunch, I noticed several of the guys placing various bowls and tupperware on the table. Keith brought his wife's family recipe of Portuguese soup, Rico brought Spam musubi (which, I learned on my last visit, is an amazingly delicious concoction of teriyaki glazed spam sandwiched between a layer of rice tightly wrapped in nori.) Given my typical diet of clean, fresh produce and maybe the occasional cut of local meat, you'd think that something as awful sounding as musubi would be the opposite of what I would willingly consume, but for some reason I cannot get enough of that stuff. I paid for it later though, because due to the sodium content in that Spam my lips were chapped for days.

Musubi. Might be my favorite thing I've ever eaten...
As we again gathered around the picnic tables on the patio having lunch, I asked some of the guys about their experiences growing up here. They each brought me a morsel of information and I ingested it all as eagerly as I did my Japanese noodles. Turns out Edmond's accent, though thicker than those I hear from most of the Hawaiian people I have encountered, is a product of speaking Pidgin. A pidgin is defined as a simplified, stripped down version of a language enabling several groups of people to communicate and create a somewhat common language. Historically, Hawaii was a leading contender for producing pineapples and sugar cane. Given the large number of immigrants arriving to the islands, the plantations set up camps for workers based on race. There were Japanese camps, Portuguese camps, Puerto Rican camps and Filipino. The Philippines and Japan are nearby neighbors (sort of), so having immigrants from those countries made sense but when I asked about people coming from Puerto Rico and Portugal, the answer was that they already had large sugar cane operations in place at the time, so many people were sent to Hawaii since they already knew the trade. Ed and Russell grew up on the same sugar plantation, Russell in the Japanese camp, "Camp 13" and Ed in the Portuguese. Most families kept to their respective camps, speaking their native language among each other and not mingling with other nationalities, but oftentimes food or music would bring them together. Everyone would bring bento boxes for lunch, the bottom filled with rice, and the top filled with the respective food of their ancestors. When the lunch break was announced, workers would sit together, spoon samples of each other's main dishes over their bowl of rice. "The kids didn't care, we all hung out together!" Ed said. That intermingling of children, music, and food is how pidgin English was born.

Learning from these guys was nothing short of extraordinary to me. While I was somewhat right upon first glance, Keith had worked as a high ranking police officer for many years, but also held a position in purchasing at the pineapple plantation for some time. I felt honored learning legends, music, and history from Ed, who served as a music teacher until his retirement, and can play pretty much any song imaginable on the ukulele. He even strummed and belted out Carolina in the Morning for me while Edmond held the afternoon cocktail hour.  Randy, while an electrician by trade, does incredibly intricate pin striping on old restored cars and motorcycles. I could see his artistry in his inlay work, but nothing could prepare me for the incredibly beautiful pen and ink drawings he does. My favorite one depicts women working in the pineapple factory, lined up stuffing pineapples into cans.

Pineapple Packers. 

Randy's uncle's truck was the first one on Lanai, the neighboring island where only native Hawaiians live.
As Nick and I headed off to explore the Big Island, I left filled with a deep appreciation for the folks who make these islands so special. I feel a little bit bad for charging them for a class to teach them my skill since, for free, they gave me so much more than I could ever give to them. Learning the stories of these past generations just getting by using the land, doing the best they could with what they had available, sharing their music and food with the next generations. Interesting that standing on the side of a volcano on a tropical island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean suddenly didn't seem so far from home.


Back woods Maui. Many houses don't have electricity here.

Edmond's aunt's house.

Island road. (Oprah's house is nearby. I bet she has electricity.)

Koa babies!!
Waterfall on the road to Hana



African Tulip on the road to Hana

Big Island landscape

Hike to the ocean.

Big Island hike near Pahoa, we saw no people but lots of sea turtles.

Volcanic rock

View from the Kapoho tidepools. Sunrise.

Drive up the west coast of the Big Island

My favorite hike: Pololu valley

Just a bit steep. 



Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Pocket Knife

When I was writing my last blog, I asked my dad what his first important tool was, but I guess I already knew the answer. When he was young he would watch his grandfather using big sharp hand planes and bulky machines when making furniture and coffins but what really appealed to my dad was watching Grandpa Orren whittle the dowels with which the furniture was held together. He would sit on a rickety chair in the corner of his workshop holding a stick of wood between his knees and, just with his pocket knife, deftly shave off slices until it was shaped like a perfect cylinder. The quiet, lengthy process fascinated little Wayne. From then on he couldn't wait until he was old enough to get his hands on his own pocket knife. 


My dad's first pocket knife was one he found in the trash, one Grandpa Orren had discarded after breaking off one of its folding blades and sharpening the others so many times they resembled shiny flat toothpicks. When he pulled the knife from the trash it had one working blade and a hefty maroon handle. The worn Remington logo stamped into the steel of the blade was still slightly visible. The hinge squeaked as he pulled the knife blade in and out of its handle casing but he was thrilled to have his very own knife. 


There is a small building behind my Granny's house. It sits on a slight bank, the open end faces the higher, graveled driveway and the lower closed end faces the branch. Inside the shed, when my Granny still lived there, were blocks of coal stacked into a pile, wood of all shapes and sizes, ones my dad had whittled off when making a guitar, scraps of building materials, and stacks of splintered firewood. To me, that woodshed was stock full of possibilities. I couldn't wait to dig around and find something magical. In Rugby everything is magical if you want it to be, you just have to imagine it. I only had books and two TV channels, around there making your own fun was a necessity. Before me, that woodshed housed my dad's imagination as well. With his new (to him) pocket knife he would choose the perfect stick and whittle for hours on end, eventually perfecting chains from a solid piece of pine, forming a perfect sphere rolling inside a four sided rectangular walnut box. When he was older and his skills as sharp as his blade, he even whittled tiny guitars from leftover scraps from a full size instrument, complete with correctly scalloped X braces and tuners that turned. Apparently doing that is about as difficult as just making a full size one, so that practice was short lived.


Something that is difficult for me to imagine, especially with the current political climate, is that my dad took his knife to school with him. While other kids hid comic books in the crack of their math workbook, my dad whittled under his desk. One thing that made him popular with the other kids in school was that he would help preserve his peer's pencils. Like everything else in Rugby, a store-bought item was to be cherished, reused when possible, and kept safe.  Most families could only afford to buy one pencil at the beginning of the school year and students were expected to keep theirs as long as possible. Sharpening a pencil in the sharpener attached to the wall of the schoolroom ground away so much wood the pencils would be shaved to a nub in no time, not to mention the longer point the sharpener made broke easily requiring further attention by the sharpener. My dad would shave a lower angle into the sides of kid's pencils to preserve them longer and make a better point than the sharpener did. He also helped ward against theft by carving everyone's name into the side of their pencil. 


I'm not sure I can remember a time when there wasn't a little Old Timer or Case knife in my dad's pocket. When I would ask for change for a candy from Osborne's store, or to scratch off a lottery ticket, he would dutifully reach into his pocket and hold its contents for me to choose from. I always had to sift through his shiny, claw-shaped guitar picks and a pocket knife to get to the coins I was after. His pockets are ones that are actually used, holding the contents of his day, whereas mine are typically bare except when they occasionally house a Burt's Bees lip balm that almost always ends up melted in the dryer. 


When we would take walks in the woods behind Granny's house, stepping around cow pies as we wound our way along a cow path, Daddy would find things to show me or make for me. Sometimes he would make me a whistle from a maple sapling. He would choose a branch about the diameter of an index finger, and with his knife, cut it at an angle from the tree, then whittle a small notch into the bark. Just a few inches lower, he would run the knife edge all the way around the stick. If the stick was struck with the butt of the knife all the way around just so, the woody layer of bark would slide off of the stick. Once the top of the  stick was exposed, my dad would carve a deeper notch where his original notch had been, whittle a flat edge from the notch to the angled top of the stick, then replace the ring of bark to cover his alterations. Forcing air through the top of the stick, over the flattened sapwood and out through the notch would create quite the screech which obviously filled five year old me with glee. The whistles he made would sound high or low depending on how big around and long they were. I liked the pencil sized ones as they had a high strong pitch when I blew into the end. Aside from being able to cut errant threads, plastic tag holders and open packages with ease, the best thing about having a dad who always had a knife in his pocket is that there was always a possibility he would make me something magical no matter where we were or what resources were available. Actually, that might just be my dad.


Another thing made with Wayne's pocket knife that fascinated me growing up was the hooey stick. It is a simple toy, using a small straight branch or pencil, with notches whittled out of the sides and a little propeller nailed into the end. Running a pencil or similarly shaped stick across the notches would cause the propeller to spin. That in itself is really cool, but when my dad would say Hooey! magically the propeller would reverse in it's rotation and spin the other way. I would stand mesmerized, especially when the Hooey stick would listen to me and reverse when I called out it's name. The wonder and excitement that others show for the Hooey stick is my dad's favorite part, I am sure. He can't get enough when people stand perplexed when that little propeller listens to them. While I now know there is a bit of a secret to go along with its magic, I will leave that behind the curtain for now and just sit here with those warm memories of watching the Hooey stick go. 


Maybe I am not as skilled with a knife as my dad, but I am learning. I can make an ok Hooey stick, perhaps a bit more obstinate than my dad's and only listening some of the time when I request it to reverse, but maybe like guitar building, it is in my blood, and it just took a little longer for it to come to fruition than it did for my dad. I prefer my little gold plane for shaping a neck where he prefers his knife, but I am coming to appreciate the slow diligence required for wielding the tiny tool, it just comes less naturally to me. The magic I created with those cast aside pieces of wood in Granny's shed were more...let's say imagination based, since nobody ever gave me a knife willingly after an ill fated brownie recovery mission where I stabbed one into my thumb requiring hours and hours of tendon and nerve reconstruction surgery, a multitude of stitches, not to mention the months of rehab and three permanent scars. Even though my dad was able to tangibly create his magic and I simply imagined mine, the cycle is spinning, the magic of Rugby still flowing. My pocket knife has pink polka dots though. 




Monday, February 26, 2018

Tools

One day, a couple of years ago, I was working in my dad's shop and spied something shiny. As with most things that sparkle, it called to me like his dad's newly awarded, "electric sex" leg lamp called to Ralphie. I zeroed in on the polished metal, scrubbed so thoroughly I could see my face in the bronze cap. This small gold violin plane, when tested, fit perfectly in my hand, effortlessly shaved curls from the edges of my guitar rims snugly wedged into their form. When I asked my dad where this glorious tool had come from he said, "Oh my friend Jerry Tinney in California sent it. I don't remember who made it but I think he said it was made in the US. You can ask him if you want, his card is on a set of wood in the pile over there." (....k thanks I'll get right on that. Digging through the exorbitant stack of backs and sides sent by hopeful clients is definitely an excellent use of my time..) My dad seems to have an uncanny sense of where things are in his overly cluttered, hoarder's paradise of a shop. The card was right where he said it would be, taped to a dusty set of wood wedged in with all the others hoping to be sanded and bent into a Henderson guitar. I called Jerry and told him how much I enjoyed using the plane and wanted to know where I could get one for myself. He told me it was made by a company called Lie-Nielsen, and they make all of their tools in Maine. A few days later, before I was able to order one for myself, a box arrived from Jerry. Inside, enveloped in a roll of packing paper was my very own, even shinier, violin plane.

Since that first rake across those guitar rims, I have found reason to purchase several more tools from Lie-Nielsen, enjoying each as much as that first little plane. The care that is obviously put into each tool they have sent me is obviously not a fluke, so I felt connected to this company, feeling like the people who make these tools understand that when you put your soul into something you make, great joy comes to the people who use it.


If you have read this blog in its entirety you should remember reading about my cousin, Lauren. She and her sister Leah are two of my closest, most important family members, as I think more of them as siblings than whatever amount of removed cousin we actually are. Our summers spent together in Rugby are absolutely among my most cherished memories. So, when Lauren asked me if I wanted to visit her while she was working through a pharmacy school rotation in Portland, Maine this past January, I wasn't so much concerned with blizzards, or freezing temperatures, or winter flight delays. My only question was, "If I come up there, would you be willing to drive me 45 minutes north to a little down named Warren so I can visit this tool company that makes my favorite things for my job?." She agreed, so I booked my flight.


As I knew, heading to Maine in January is a bit of gamble. What if, like when I lived in Vermont, the air freezes my nose hairs upon inhalation? What if it was so dry inside that the skin of my hands would crack, then burn when I applied lotion? Given that the temperatures in North Carolina weren't too far off, and those things were already happing here, and Delta traded me a first class ticket in exchange for some credit card points, I figured I couldn't really lose. I packed my Sorel boots, my fattest down jacket, and a fuzzy hat and off I went to the land of the great white north. Turned out while I was there the weather was kind, only hurting a little bit when the wind whipped against my skin. Surprisingly similar, if not warmer, than Asheville's January.


Old streets. Portland, ME

Lauren and her fiancé Drew went to great effort to share with me the ultimate Maine experience. We went to their favorite fish market, picking oysters from several nearby bays and rivers, we (Drew) boiled lobsters and steamed fresh mussels. We walked the worn cobblestoned streets of Portland, we hiked the snowy trails winding among city neighborhoods, and slid along frozen sidewalks to pick up snacks and rent movies from a nearby, real life DVD rental place. It doubles, or triples if you will, as an ice cream parlor and the local post office.


The air was full of flurries the last full day I was in town. Lauren and I set off to find Warren, and Lie-Nielsen Toolworks. Google suggested we take the freeway at least half of the way there, but we decided to drive up Interstate 1 for the majority of the ride, figuring we were in no rush, and we could see more of Maine's small towns. We drove over lattice girder-braced, one lane bridges, likely built by a handful of locals a few generations past, past Cape Cod type houses painted bright, happy colors, and through town centers offering small quaint shops. One of my all time favorite things to do when I am visiting new places is sit on the rim, quiet and invisible while I watch people simply go about their business. Not the fake, touristy type of a show that you're supposed to see when you visit somewhere, but peek behind the storefront facade and see what is really back there, no matter how simple or 'ugly' it may seem. As we wound our way north, each coastal town we passed was brimming with people just getting by, stopping at their little cheap diner before work to gossip with friends, buying groceries at the one store that offers fresh produce, rushing to make it to work on time or drop off their kids at school. Perhaps it is odd, but show me how people really live in a real town, as mundane as it may seem, I think it is where the beauty in humanity truly lies.



We took a walk outside and found a frozen ocean. We weren't cold at all.
Here's the frozen ocean.


Fish market!! 


I got to be in charge of mussels night. I made two sauces. 
When we pulled up to the red roofed building housing Lie-Nielsen Toolworks, a light snow was falling, but the salted roads were still clear so we decided to go in and ask if we could get a tour. We walked into the wood paneled show room lined with glittering planes, saws and chisels. Jared, a tall, red haired guy in plaid greeted us from behind his desk. He said he would be glad to give is a tour of the company, so off we went through the factory door.

I learned that Tom Lie-Nielsen started this company because he wanted to ensure that woodworkers were provided with the option of high end, US made tools back when there were few options available for such things. He worked for the tool company Garret Wade in the early 80s, but when they stopped making their #95 bronze edge block plane, Tom took it upon himself to try to make one of his own, similar in design to the original Stanley planes which he felt needed little adjustment to the classic, ergonomic design, but with the highest attention to quality and aesthetic. The company began as a one room operation so to speak, just making the one type of plane, but eventually expanded to hone and design many types of 'old school' planes, chisels, hand saws, and other hand tools.


Jared handed us a couple of hardhats and some protective eye ware. While Lauren's looked similar to those aerodynamic cyclist sunglasses making her look like she might set a speed record for a factory tour, in my case it meant a swath of oversized plexiglass clamped to my face to accommodate my glasses, which are necessary were I in the mood to see things. I distinctly remember my grandfather sporting the yellow-tinted version for when he drove his Lincoln Towncar twice a week to the country club. Once properly attired, we ventured with Jared into the bustling factory.


The first room we were led into was the saw making room. There was only one man in there, and he stood at his workbench painstakingly inspecting the saw blades before attaching their curly maple handles.The saw blades were being run through a clunky looking but surprisingly smooth working machines using simple belt technology to cut perfect notches into the saw blades. Jared proudly explained to us that those machines were manufactured in the 1940s and, since irreplaceable, were handled with such care they rarely needed servicing except for regular checkups. They reminded me of my dad's old heavy Black and Decker router, the first tool he bought with the $500 he was paid by the moonshiner for his #7 D45. That thing has had bits, switches and bearings replaced, but is still one of the most cherished tools in my dad's shop.

It was amazing to see the attention to detail as we wound our way through the rooms of folks working on various steps of the tool's progress. We were shuffled through the plane assembly and inspection room where we were told each plane comes with a blade hand sharpened by an employee before it is shipped out so as to ensure that each blade is able to hold an edge and demonstrate that each tool has been inspected to the fullest. As we stood watching guys run hunks of raw metal through various machines, Jared explained that while the CNC machines positioned in the center of the room shaped things perfectly, if someone were to mess up the programming, multiple products would be ruined, whereas these human led machines produce fewer mistakes since a person is at the helm of the ship allowing for adjustments if necessary after just one tool. As we were watching the progress, an apron clad man with a white beard approached us and handed Jared the base of a block plane, pointing to a tiny blemish in the metal barely the size of a pinhead. I had to squint through my plexiglass to see it. "Yep, that'll go back to be melted down and recast," Jared told us. "We would rather take the time and effort to redo something like that, even though it has nothing to do with the function of the tool rather than sell it as a second because we don't want anything less than perfect on the market, even if it is a secondary market. It came from here so we want nothing less than the most perfect tools out there with our name on them"


Sharpening.
One of my favorite things that I observed during the tour was the care that each person took on their specific job. It reminded me so much of Cane Creek Cycling Components, the company where Nick works as a purchasing manager. Lie-Nielsen, like Cane Creek, employs local folks who show up and work to do a good job, not only young. transplanted whippersnappers who want to make bike parts in Asheville or the quintessential old man woodworkers (no offense) who want a good discount. It heartens me that everyone who works here might not be the utmost expert on tool handling and woodworking. No matter their background, these folks obviously take great pride in their respective positions within the company, and choose to work there not just for the woodworking perks but because it is a great company in general.

I am extremely thankful to for having had the opportunity to visit this great company and see how the tools I find so beautiful are in fact, beautifully and thoughtfully made as well. While observing their process, I couldn't help but feel a bit of a kindred spirit. Knowing that they put as much time and effort into making something that allows me to do the same with my work is the best reason I can think of to support this awesome company. I think of my dad's friend Jerry each time I use one of my tools from Lie-Nielsen and am extremely thankful for each one I have. My job is never just about making a guitar, and Tom Lie-Nielsen's isn't just about making a block plane.


Polished and awaiting a blade before shipping.


Shaved bronze to be remelted to make more things!


All the beautiful chisels. 





Monday, January 29, 2018

New Year

First, let me tell you that I am super excited to be back from a self inflicted hiatus. Sharing with you is extremely important to me but I began to feel a bit uncomfortable knowing I had inadvertently provided countless quotes that can be used out of context for interviews and for other's projects without my knowledge of what is being used and how. In an attempt to regain a bit of control I stopped providing them. It doesn't bother me that the stories I share here are being used, but not knowing what sentence will be taken, for what purpose, and in what context has left me feeling a bit off kilter. Now that I have taken a step back, regrouped, and added a little caveat to the top of my blog I feel much better. So let's begin...again.

With a snow storm looming this evening and a high of 24 degrees forecast for tomorrow, I haven't been able to think of much more than how uncomfortably cold I am. This winter has been rough down here in the southeast, but before I get too frustrated with my situation; well insulated house, money to afford heat, down jackets, heavy Sorel boots and thick gloves, I want to remind my self of stories told by dad and Granny of Rugby winters past when temperatures were colder, for longer periods of time, and when the snow piled much higher over these quiet mountains.

When my grandfather, Walter, married my Granny around 1929, during the height of the depression, they lived on a small farm on Quillen Ridge, about a mile and a half from where I currently sit on my dad's couch. Around here the depression had less impact as nobody really had anything to begin with so the crash of the stock market didn't make a huge dent in the local poverty levels. Gardens and farms supplied food, clothes were made from feed sacks, goods and labor were often traded but there were still some costs to keeping a farm running that required money.  Because work on their little farm didn't last through the winter, Walter sought other means to supplement the family income. Since he didn't own a car, each day Walter set out walking to downtown Rugby, often wading through snow that reached his belt buckle. One of my favorite running routes around here is up Quillen Ridge road but it isn't easy. The steep gravel road twists through fenced fields holding grazing cattle, nestled among thick stands of trees before leveling off a bit to reveal a view of the rolling blue hills of North Carolina. It is beautiful but definitely a challenge walking up or down the hill.

Harper on Quilled Ridge road in the snow. 
Once arriving at the general store marking the heart of downtown Rugby, Walter hitched a ride on the back of a state owned dump truck with a few other local men. They shivered in the wind until the truck came to a halt at the end of the road. Wielding long heavy picks a la Oh Brother Where Art Thou, minus the striped outfits, the men lined up and picked out and flattened the earth, making way for more road. The men were paid ten cents per hour for their efforts and worked until their the fingers of their thin gloves were worn through. After about twelve hours working in the cold, Walter walked back up Quillen Ridge road toward home.

View from Quillen Ridge

My dad told me that eventually Granny and Walter bought the house and 100+ acres I know as Granny's house from her grandmother Lissy for $5000. He said that was so much money to them they never thought they'd be able to pay it off. Many years later Walter saved enough to buy a brand new forest green 1956 Chevrolet pick up truck and used it for another method to earn extra money for their mortgage.

The roads were still pretty rough in the 50s so the local school sought someone to pick up the kids who lived so far back in the woods the school bus couldn't drive on the steep, uneven, and narrow dirt roads. Walter made a cover for the bed of his truck and slid two sets of long seats into the back for kids to sit. Every day during the school year he drove his route, picking up kids, taking them to school, then dropping them back off home at the end of the school day. My dad said he did this every day for all the years he was in school and even after that.

One winter morning, after about a foot of snow had fallen, Walter asked my dad if he wanted to accompany him on his route. My dad had only gone with him a few times, as he lived close enough to school that he could walk but agreed that morning. Leaving the house with only low slippers and a light coat my dad joined Walter in the cab of the truck. The bed of the truck where the seats were installed wasn't heated so in the winter Walter allowed the smallest children to sit in the heated cab and the older kids sat bundled in the back. Often there would be five or six children packed in the seat next to him bouncing over the green vinyl seats as they made their way toward school. As they ascended York Ridge, where the road is particularly windy and steep, the truck wheels spun in the slick deep snow instead of propelling the truck full of children closer to school. Walter wouldn't leave the kids unattended so he sent my dad in his little slippers to the nearest neighbor he knew who had a tractor. My dad slipped and trudged about a mile up the ridge to fetch Gail Cox and his two cylinder John Deere tractor that made a funny noise. Despite the cold, my dad was thrilled to hitch a ride on the three point hitch on the back of the tractor, the wind ripping through his thin jacket and burning his red cheeks. Once pulled free of the troublesome spot in the road Walter drove the remainder of his route to the school.

So while I work to keep my instruments hydrated and my hands warm, I find it important to take a few minutes to think of and be thankful for the sacrifices my grandfather made for his family every day. His ingenuity in building the first camper my dad had ever heard tell of, his commitment to providing for his family and community no matter the weather is inspiring. I hope you're staying warm too, but just in case, here are a few pictures of my current builds to distract you from the freezing temperatures outside.


Walnut 000 rims 
Pieces


Fingerboard before the pearl
42 and 45 style tenor ukes in progress

Perhaps my favorite set of koa ever. Thanks to my friend Paul from Kauai! 
Two tenor ukuleles waiting to dry enough to be buffed out and strung up!