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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)

Tuesday, June 25, 2019


It is always so surprising to me when I go to write you a story and find out that it has been months since I have posted anything. In my mind I have been talking to you all along, which might mean I have a mental illness, but know that I am thinking of you and have all the intentions to write you a little something. It doesn't hurt to remind me if you're missing the stories. I never know who actually reads this anyway, or if I am just talking to myself. In the case of this entry, that would be alright.

This time I want to tell you a little bit about my Uncle Gerald. Before you think, wait, she has an uncle named Gerald? I understand he isn't actually my uncle by blood, but as soon as I was old enough to address him as anything, he was Uncle Gerald. I have always known him as such and that title was buttressed by my Granny's treatment of him as a son, and dad's treatment of him as a brother, and vice versa. He started out after college working as my mom's intern helping her enforce the newly enacted Clean Water Act at the Virginia Water Control Board. He would do her bidding and wade through polluted, dank coal mine runoff streams to collect water samples for her. Through her, he met my dad and has been working alongside him since. 43 years have passed since then, and I don't get paid enough to write you the whole history. I'll warn you now, I don't think I want to share any of my parent's stories in this post because, while it will be a far less entertaining entry for you, it is important to me that these stories are just mine.

On Thursday I got a call I never dreamed I'd get at this stage in either of our lives. My friend Spencer, who I consider the closest thing I have to a brother, and who Gerald treated as a surrogate son, told me Uncle Gerald had passed away. I don't want to go into the details of that day as it was extremely painful for me and I am sure all of my Rugby family so reliving won't be necessary for this story.  I use the term family because it best defines the circle of people who have come together in this tiny part of Southwest Virginia, in some of our cases due to DNA, but more likely just because we have found something beautiful and sacred here. Now I see, we have attached ourselves to each other and this community as tightly as hydrogen bonds with oxygen. I have always thought it was because of my dad, but I am sure now that is not entirely true. While my dad may be the atoms in the formula, Gerald provided the covalence.

Sitting here, I am at a bit of a loss for a specific incident or some humorous anecdote we shared that would help explain why this person is so special to so many of us. The memories that are running through my mind like a ticker tape are all banal, mundane situations that nobody would find special but me, and only in hindsight. As I grew up and would visit my dad on weekends ands school breaks, Gerald was always there but never stood directly in front of me, never demanding my attention or trying to win my affections as so many people hoping to please my dad would do. Where my dad has always been a pivotal star in the movie of my life, Gerald was always there in a supporting role. I didn't realize how perfect that term 'supporting' was until these recent events.

Every year during my dad's Christmas party which typically falls on or very near my birthday, usually as I retreated to the comfort of my room after feeling overwhelmed with the crowd, Gerald would quietly hand me a neatly wrapped gift and tell me happy birthday and Merry Christmas. I am sure my dad wanted to spend time with me on my birthday as well, but he was usually heavily surrounded by party goers so it was a rare occurrence I even saw him. (Same as Father's Day as his festival always falls on that Saturday.) Gerald's gifts to me were usually movies he liked, so if you ever wondered where my love of 90s adventure/disaster movies comes from, thank Gerald. (Men In Black, Independence Day, Jurassic Park to name a few have always held a special place in my heart, not necessarily earned simply due to their content...) My most prized bestowal was a VHS copy of the newly released weather thriller, Twister, which to this day keeps me company in my shop on more occasions than is normal for any human being. I always think of Uncle Gerald as I am cueing it up on my Amazon streaming list. I wish I had told him that.

Growing up, whether I was interested or not, my presence wanted by anyone else or not, I was always made to feel included in anything Gerald had going on. During his annual Easter Egg hunt, where he gently hinted at the location of the golden egg (finding it is a big deal) as I poked through the grass and searched under eaves, or letting me bet on a car during his NASCAR parties even though I didn't have money to buy in, or dealing me into my dad's occasional Tonk games where I was an annoyance to everyone else sitting around the table, and more recently, setting up a business account with Sherwin Williams for me so I can get half priced guitar finish, texting me throughout a trip he is on with my dad so I know he is safe and having a good time, and quietly buying my lunch or dinner at Sarah's where my dad and I would often meet him for a meal. It is no secret he loves gambling, so I will tell you this little story. About a year ago, he nonchalantly bought everyone at our table a lottery ticket, the kind I used to scratch at Vivian's store. That gesture shouldn't have mattered as much as it did, but those old feelings of excitement and the anticipation of good luck flowed in as he slid me a dime and I scratched away the top layer of the card. I anxiously waited for a proclamation of victory from my dad, Gerald, or Allison, all still diligently scratching too. When we were finished we went around the able taking stock of our winnings. Whomever won bought more tickets with their cash prizes and we continued buying and scratching more tickets until we ran out of winning tickets. He never asked for his money back. After the fun of that first time, I bought the tickets the next time and we kept playing like that the last few times I was up working and my dad and I met him for a low key dinner. Those little experiences that maybe shouldn't have mattered so much and aren't outwardly special brought me so much joy. I wish I had told him that.

Stories like mine are not the exception. Reading over people's notes posted on social media and listening to so many friends gathered for his final farewell it was evident that my memories, perhaps not exactly the same, are inherently shared.  Gerald's kindness has radiated through my life, and I think a lot of others, like a low and constant hum you can barely hear; gently reminding us that we are loved and that we matter. I know very few people who give so whole heartedly without any expectation of reciprocation. I am so appreciative of the kindness he has shown me where in the other supporting players in my life there has been far less.  I wish I had told him that.

The past few days I have asked myself and others, what are we going to do? Like a mantra, over and over again. Seriously, what [some expletives Gerald wouldn't use] are we going to do? Who will take care of me? My safety net, the one put in place by my parents when I was born and has grown as more people have come to stand behind me ready to catch me if I take a tumble is extremely important to me, but still, I think I have taken it for granted. I know as we age that net that ebbs and flows, and is meant to shrink as we take over holding that net for someone else, but with this loss, I feel my net has been significantly torn. Not just a little unraveling, I mean a giant hole has been ripped into its middle and I am not sure if it can be repaired.

I don't want to go too far into detail about the funeral other than to say I have never felt more proud of Spencer for delivering the most beautiful and perfect eulogy I am so sure Gerald would be proud of and seeing all of his friends humbly rise and walk on stage to play their Anderson instruments in a final farewell song. But I will say this, every face I saw there was someone I have known for many years. Some who have paid me little attention, and I them along the way, and some who are the closest friends I have. So many of us stood together in support of one another's personal and collective loss. Collected all together, we saw the good in each other that Gerald would have seen. To me, we all seemed a little bit nicer and happier to see each other and I am pretty sure that might be because we all aspire to be the kind human our friend was. Also, I think we all learned a hard lesson from losing someone so unexpectedly who we might not have realized was so deeply entangled with us all. Here is what I learned, so take it to heart: Don't forget to tell your people how you feel about them, it is important.

Late that evening, I sat outside the shop door, under a warm blanket of stars with my dad and several of his friends; no, correction: our friends, feeling like they truly didn't mind me being there when usually I feel like my presence might be taking something from their enjoyment of visiting with my dad. We shot some Roman candles, picked ripe full blackberries off the vine winding its way up the side of the shop wall, chatted about the events of the day. After a while, nothing was left to say so we all sat contentedly together just watching the sky. A bright shooting star raced low across the horizon. I wonder if we were all thinking it was something special and significant, or if that was just me.

Following the burial, after several days of mental and physical anxiety and discomfort, I suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of peace. I truly don't know if I have felt something so powerful in my body before and I don't really want to admit it to you, but I have to in order to make my final point. That mantra that I can't stop hearing, the 'What are we going to do? No, really. How can this be ok?' has quelled. People I don't spend much time with have come and sat down to chat so we can learn about each other, my dad's and Gerald's good friends have told me that if I ever need anything, please don't hesitate to call they would be happy to help with anything. Spencer promised to text me regular updates of my dad's trips. I asked our friend Greg to take care of my dad as I ducked into my car to drive home and he promised he would, whole heartedly knowing the size of the shoes he is attempting to fill. One of us won't be able to do it alone, but I think all of us together can. 

Today I know that we will be ok, because of all the people who are already stepping in to help repair my net.

Thursday, March 21, 2019


Someone asked me to explain how I do sunbursts, so I thought I would just go ahead and tell you all about it because maybe someone else wants to know too! I have always loved color, shading, drawing, creating something beautiful, so perhaps sunbursts were always in my future. Some of my earliest memories with crayons and colored pencil is that I figured out that you could change the shade based on how hard you pressed. I found could add depth and movement to the thick black lines of Cinderella's dress printed on the page of my coloring book if I faded the lines into ruffles. Looking over at the other kids struggling to stay inside the lines with their fat markers I had a feeling maybe drawing was something I could be good at. So think that is the first thing necessary for a good sunburst: the ability to see and appreciate colors and how they work together, and to shade them out evenly.

As I started this post, out of curiosity, I asked my dad how he started doing sunbursts, not having anyone to teach him. I expected him to say that he rubbed stain on like Lloyd Loar did for Gibson, but his response was, "You know, I did my first sunburst with a torch." ...Um, what? Some days he just says or does things you aren't quite expecting and you're left bewildered. Like once, Nick and I were making a bourbon cake and I had bought Old Crow bourbon because it was on the bottom shelf at the liquor store and I figured that was the baking stuff. My dad walked into the kitchen and says, "Old Crow, that was your Uncle Max's favorite bourbon." He then walked over to the counter, took a shot of the bourbon and walked back out of the kitchen. Or another time I was sending a set of wood through the thickness sander, and he said, "Well, that will probably turn out really nice. Or it'll blow up." And then he promptly walked away leaving me standing next to the sander wondering if I would benefit from a helmet. They come out of nowhere, so as I said, I wasn't expecting, "Oh I took a blowtorch to it."

So of course, I imagined my dad burning up his newly whittled mandolin and, of course, ending up putting on a beautiful burst with it. Normal people can't do what he does, I don't think. He said had seen a cabinet maker use the technique on plywood cabinets, making them look darker and thereby fancier than what they are and thought perhaps he could use it for shading. He said it actually worked beautifully color wise until he noticed the back seam of the mandolin separating due to the heat, and then realized that ivoroid, the binding we use, is extremely flammable so bringing a flame near a bound mandolin would likely send it up in smoke. He told me he rubbed on stain like Lloyd Loar after that. He also said he used to make his own stain by scavenging walnuts from Granny's fields and boiling their hulls. Apparently it makes a perfectly colored brown stain.

If you are rubbing your stain for your sunburst, it is suggested to do the lighter color first and work toward the darker color, but if you are spraying the dark stain comes first. So I will explain how I do it, but this in no way means it is 'the way' to do it. I am sure other folks have better, smarter methods. As I say in my inlay classes, I am showing you my techniques because it is what works for me, but as we have learned with the blow torch, there are no wrong answers (or are there in that case?) so whatever works best for you is what you should do.

The very first step to a good sunburst is to make sure you've sanded out all of the scratches in the wood. Seriously, all of them. If there are minuscule scratches left in the wood when you spray water based stain, the stain highlights them like the Vegas strip.  That part takes almost forever. I like to check for them in small quadrants within a surface and only focus on sanding each area before I move on to the next one so I am sure to clear every scratch left from heavier sandpaper. I do that until I can't find any more, then I wet the wood to raise the grain, let it dry and sand it again. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Hm. I wonder why my shoulders hurt? I bet it's all that yoga. Anyway...

When all is sanded to my liking, I do a three part stain with the spray gun, first with stained water then with stained finish. I begin with the darkest color. I add enough stain to a couple of tablespoons of water and adjust the gun to spray the width of spray I prefer. After the gun is adjusted to my liking, not too heavy-it will bounce off of the binding and cause excess stain to ruin the color distribution, too little and you'll be sitting there for ten years, I start going over the edges. When the outside of the burst is dark enough, I will add a second color if that is what I am going for. Sometimes I add some reddish stain, such as with the Nick Lucas I did yesterday, sometimes I won't, like the light burst I just did on the paw print guitar. Then I go over the entire surface with the lighter, yellow color. When that has dried, I do the same thing with a finish coat. I prefer doing the water stain first because I think it adds a lot more depth to the burst and I can increase shading that way, but using the finish after the water based stain adds more opaque color around the outer edge. I spray the entire burst with the golden center color. Finally I spray a clear coat over the finished burst for good measure. After that has dried I scrape the binding and clean up the edges/purfling. That's it! Except for yesterday.

Starting out with some water based stain.

Started out fun....
I have never felt so defeated and bad at my job than I did yesterday. Usually bursts are one of my favorite things, though they are stressful and difficult to do, I typically enjoy the challenge and had expected to get this one done in a couple of hours tops so I was hoping I could get to finish work before the end of the day. I figured I would get done early so the guitar would have more time to dry before I sanded and buffed out the finish. But nope.

First off, I got started only to find my favorite stain, medium brown, was empty even though every time I come up to work in his shop, I ask my dad what materials are running low so I can be sure to bring or order them before I get to the middle of nowhere Rugby and we are out. Since there were three bottles sitting there he didn't think to tell me to order more, but as I went to fill my spray gun, each bottle had about half a drop in them and a scant amount in the other brown hues I use. I guess had I been resourceful I would have gone outside and scavenged for some walnuts...But I hadn't heard that story yet so luckily my friend Spencer had some that he sent to the shop just as I was trying to eek the last minidrop from our last bottle.

Less fun...
The water based spray worked pretty well, but when I had finished, thinking 'maybe just one more little touch right over here', the gun spat an extra uninvited blob or two of brown stain right in the middle of the finished guitar. That happened a few times which means I either didn't have the air adjusted just right, or it was in the mood to be an a******. Either way, it happened again and again, and the only way to fix said blobs is to sand them out. But how can you sand that out without also sanding the other stain you want to still remain on the guitar you ask? Practice and messing and maybe just sanding the whole thing off if you must because the more you tweak it the harder it becomes to correct it without visible consequences. After adjusting the gun, sanding, adjusting, testing, adjusting, sanding, and a little more testing, I finally got the burst how I wanted it only to have the same thing happen with the finish coat.

When I sprayed the bottom end of the Nick Lucas (where my short arms can't quite reach) I ended up with a big black overspray all over the finally beautiful top. So more sanding, spraying, adjusting, tweaking, spraying. At one point the messing got so intense that I ended up sanding the entire burst off the back and starting fresh. I had to bring in the big guns, 220 sand paper, to get everything off. As a warning, that water based stain really gets in there but I simply couldn't leave it so dark. I believe that even though bursts are wonderful they should enhance rather than cover the instrument because the beautiful flamed maple (or spruce, or whatever is being used) deserves to shine through.

As badly as I wanted to just stop, put everything down, and go inside and lay down with the lights off I had to keep going until it was finished, correctly. Mostly because I didn't want this task to beat me, but also because I didn't want the rumors that my dad does my work to be true. He knew I was having trouble with the job and I know that when he came home from his gig and saw a half done disaster he would take pity on me and probably work on it for me and I would wake up to a pristine work of beauty hanging in the spray room. As much as I appreciate Santa Wayne, I want to be able to fix problems myself, figure it out, take that blow torch to a beautiful curly piece of maple and find out it might not be the best idea for myself. (Pretty sure I already know that one but I hear torching purple heart makes it crazy purple and I definitely considered it when I was finishing that purple heart ukulele...just saying.)

Even though I hated not being able to do well on the first try, maybe messing up is what makes life interesting. One of my favorite teachers said once about a less than stellar kayaking trip we were on that we should really appreciate these things that are going wrong because we won't remember the trips that go well, but we will be telling stories about this trip for years so we might as well enjoy the ride. As usual, he was right and I often think about Ol' Guessepe making the literal worst pizza I have ever had at a random restaurant on Deer Key, Florida. Despite the difficulty, last night I was able to go to sleep happy that I had dealt with the issues myself, corrected my mistakes, no matter how long it took (I started spraying the burst at 1pm, finally hung it to dry at 8:30pm) and even though I might have stumbled a bit getting there, I made something beautiful that someone else will get to enjoy and love for years to come.

Monday, December 24, 2018

A Christmas Story

Shirleen waited. Her brother, Max, was supposed to be home to help her find a Christmas tree, but he was out somewhere with his cousin, Stanley. They were always getting into some sort of shenanigans together, and today was no exception, only it was time to get a tree! Absentmindedly she picked up her quilt square then sat it back down. She had been attempting to make her stitches as clean and concise as her mother's all afternoon. While quite skilled herself with a needle and thread, she never quite emulated those perfect stitches neatly dotting the edge of her mother's squares. Nobody could, really; her mom was unbeatable when it came to weaving needle and thread among the lattice of fabric. She removed her metal thimble, sat the brightly colored pieces down again and got up to get a closer look out the living room window, the one facing the road. Finally! There he was, slowly making his way up the gravel drive, just about to reach the closest edge of Mom's garden to his left. Christmas tree time! She ran to bundle into her mittens and boots before meeting her brother outside.

Their dad, Walter, used to accompany their trips out to the pine thicket, a little patch of earth down past Granny Ollie's house inhabited by stubby, scrawny pines haphazardly relaxing about the plot. These days the two siblings were strong enough to wield the hacksaw themselves, so they trudged through the woods alone. The trees were never the right size or shape, not like the tall stately triangular ones Shirleen would see when flipping through the glossy pages of her mother's magazines; the ones currently infront of her were squat little things, preferring to rest casually in a jumbled ball a few feet high rather than stand at attention proudly holding their cone heads high for a star to perch upon. The pines in the thicket were green, though, and as far as she and Max were concerned, that was enough to constitute a Christmas tree. So they chose one they could drag home and began sawing. Back and forth, back and forth, until the little trunk gave way and the pine unceremoniously rolled onto its side, submitting to be dragged home.

While the tree rested against the wall of the living room, Walter nailed two boards to the bottom of the cut tree, forming an X with the boards and stood the tree on its new base. Shirleen's mom set a bowl of popped corn kernels between them. They threaded their needles with a long strand of shiny black thread. They carefully strung the fluffy white puffs onto the thread until they had strands long enough to envelop the tree. Shirleen gingerly opened the box of glass ornaments her family had spent several Christmases saving up to buy and carefully hung them among the popcorn and pieces of silver tinsel woven among the branches. The glossy red bells were always her favorite, glinting in the light as she moved about the tree. While her dad had the nails and hammer, handy he nailed a set of their warm winter stockings to the mantle, ready to receive oranges and peppermint candy. Shirleen could hardly wait for the Christmas celebration!

Finally, after a week of being as good as Shirleen was able, Christmas Eve arrived. Every year it was a big to-do, and as evening fell, her house began to fill with family. Grandpa Orren and Granny Ollie came in, followed by Aunt Wanda towing Shirleen and Max's three cousins, Don, Imogene and Stanley. Her cousin Imogene was only three days younger than she, so Imogene felt more like a sister than a cousin. Max and Stanley were also very close in age, so they were always getting into some sort of shenanigans. Immediately they ran off to play together, leaving Shirleen and Imogene to ponder the options of what might be arriving inside Santa's Christmas bag this year. Suspiciously, as every year, Aunt Wanda had an excuse ready for why Uncle Frank wasn't joining in on the festivities.

After a while, Shirleen heard a scuffle outside. She and Imogene ran to the window to look. Nothing. She heard it again, this time on the side of the house! Everyone sat gathered in the living room, the only heated room in their house, listening intently above the hissing of the burning coal in the stove. They heard the window upstairs scrape open, and footsteps creaking the floorboards in the room upstairs. Filled with excitement and anticipation, Shirleen and Imogene squealed, knowing that Santa was finally here!

A red clad arm swung open the door hiding the stairs that lead to the second story of the house. A heavily padded, white bearded Santa Claus, who Shirleen suspected was actually her skinny Uncle Frank hidden in a suit stuffed tightly with pillows in the front and back, came blundering down the final few stairs. His big red bag, odd shapes bulging into its sides, rested on his shoulder. "Ho ho ho!" he yelled. "Merry Christmas!" Santa ceremoniously plunked down his gift bag, preparing to hand out gifts to the little group of children now swarming him. He rummaged around, jangling the items inside as his hands rested on each, drawing out the big reveal until he pulled out a prized toy and handed it to its recipient. Each child received one or two toys and a handful of hard candies. Shirleen couldn't wait to unwrap the cellophane wound tightly around the shiny purple and red candies she coveted from catalogue pages all year long. Uncle Frank, erh, Santa, pulled out a beautiful new doll, curls carved around her porcelain face, blue eyes blinking and handed it to Shirleen. She couldn't believe her luck! Max received a Radio Flyer wagon which he had been hoping for because he loved to go fast and had told her he had plans to make it go even faster as soon as the weather warmed up enough.

The toys and been delivered, the children excitedly played with their new loot. Along with the beautiful doll that she decided to name Elizabeth Anne, Shirleen was gifted a brand new coloring book and a beautiful pair of sun glasses. She could hardly wait to use both, so she donned her new pair of glasses, marveling at the new world she saw from their lenses. She and Imogene set up to color while the adults visited. Shirleen chose an image of a cow since she knew first hand what a cow should look like. Most of the pictures in the book were of things she had never seen in real life but finally, something she was positive she could do beautifully since she could make this cow look just like the brown cow out back who gave her family milk every day. She picked up her crayon, working hard to stay in the lines, only coloring the spaces that were supposed to be brown, no slips across the thick black lines on the paper. After what felt like an eternity of concentrating she was finally finished. She laid down her crayon and removed her sun glasses. As she studied her handiwork, a feeling of horror washed over her as she realized the colored lenses of the sun glasses had made her crayon look brown, when in fact it was purple! She couldn't believe she had colored a cow purple! What would Imogene think? Her parents were sure to think she was crazy. She vowed right then and there only to wear her beautiful new sunglasses outside and only when it was sunny.

Just then there was a kerfluffle over by the stove. Shirleen looked up to see Santa smoking! Not a cigarette or a pipe, no, no, his backside was about to go up in flames! The room filled with the smell of burning polyester and was accompanied by thick dark smoke as everyone rushed to help put out Uncle Frank and his pillows. Due to all of that padding he must not have realized how close he was standing to the hot coals in the stove and had caught his beautiful red suit on fire! After Santa was successfully patted out, he announced that he needed to go deliver more toys and turned toward the stairway to the second floor. The last thing Shirleen saw was his singed backside as he sheepishly retreated the way he had come.

After the excitement of the evening, it seemed Shirleen could never fall asleep, but eventually she dozed off. Christmas morning, she woke to the smells of her mom starting on Christmas dinner. Her dad lit a fire in the stove and the family gathered to find what had arrived in their stockings overnight. In each was a bright, round, juicy orange and a few striped sticks of peppermint candy. Oranges were a delicacy, only arriving on Christmas every year, so Shirleen tried to save hers until she couldn't stand to wait any longer. Stowing the candy safely in her pocket for later, she busied herself helping with Christmas dinner.

Walter walked out to the meat house and pulled a ham he had cured earlier in the year down from the rafter. He brought it inside and began carving away the thick salt covering while Shirleen began sifting flour for biscuits and her mom stewed the pinto beans in a large pot. Cornbread was also made, with corn they had dried in the fall and the kernels were ground into meal on a stone out in the granary. With the ham sliced, biscuits and cornbread baked, beans piled high into a bowl and potato salad whipped and topped with slices of boiled egg, the family pulled their chairs tight under the round oak table and Christmas dinner was served.


I hope you enjoyed my Christmas story, as it is actually my Aunt Shirleen's. I asked her to tell me what her Christmases were like when she was growing up and while my dad added some delightful details, many of which I'll add in future stores, all of this was before his time. I wanted to share this one as though I had been there because I wish so hard I could have been. Just to experience the love and family in that room on Christmas Eve.

Shirleen told me that while she understood her family had less than perhaps one living in a big city or those families with parents who had factory jobs rather than ones such as theirs who ran a farm, she never felt like she didn't have enough. I think that is the biggest theme of her story. This family I get to be part of may not have had a lot in the way of physical things, and my dad's Grandpa Orren and Granny Ollie helped pay for many of the kid's toys, they do the best they can to show how grandly they care for their children.

I know my parents do so much for me and I obviously appreciate that immensely, but I know the reason for that is because they saw their parents do it for them. I adore the attention paid to the traditions celebrated and that Uncle Frank came up a ladder and crawled in through the window every year. My dad told me that he didn't know it was Frank until Shirleen, 12 years his senior, told him when he maybe was 8 or 9. The stove incident was before his time but he said he heard about it for years after. He said he got a little suspicious when he saw Uncle Frank out the front window with a pedal car under his arm, a present for which my dad had exclusively asked Santa.

Another reason I wanted to ask Shirleen for her memories is because she's the closest thread I have tying me to my Granny. Someone recently told me that when someone close to you dies, their voice gradually fades from your memory. That might be, but I can so easily conjure my Granny's laugh like she was there chuckling right next to me. But that's because Shirleen has the exact same laugh. Sometimes I find myself making the same little chuckle and am so proud my Granny is still here with us. Anyway, I used my story as an excuse to go out to Shirleen's house and make her drag out all of her family pictures and show me her dolls, many of which she still has nestled in a trunk in the basement, and the old ornaments that used to adorn the Henderson Christmas tree. I have them now and can't wait to mingle them with the old ornaments I got from my mom that hung on her parent's tree.

I hope you all are having the best and happiest of holidays. Be sure to take a minute and be thankful for your family; it doesn't matter how much physical stuff comes with them on Christmas. Keep your traditions close and continue those traditions for your kids if you can. It never hurts to take just a few minutes to be thankful for those who have come before you.

What traditions do you celebrate because your parents did?

My grandpa Walt with Max and Shirleen.

Shirleen's dolls. 

Grandpa Walter

Monday, December 10, 2018


The last week of October I flew up to Woodstock, NY. I had reluctantly agreed to participate in an invitational guitar show put on by a fellow named Baker Rorick. The type of situation I have never participated in and have had little desire to do so because I have never been especially keen on pushing my work on people, selling myself when I would rather just sit in my corner, do my work, and have people come to me if they want something I make. This year the appeal was that Baker was featuring women luthiers, and was hoping to gather as many as possible for the event. I reluctantly agreed knowing I'd have the opportunity to meet and be inspired by other builders in a similar position as mine, see how I measure up against the big wig builders, and visit with folks who wouldn't normally get to see and play my instruments outside of following my Facebook page. Soliciting work aside, what I learned over the course of those four days ended up being infinitely more valuable than I ever anticipated.

The best kind of sandwich is a Mac Sandwich.
You may recall that in a previous post I mentioned that some of my dad's cronies aren't the most welcoming of folks in his shop; they aren't unfriendly, they simply overlook me because I am not Wayne Henderson and why bother conversing with a girl when she answers your questions, better to ask Wayne and listen intently when he repeats her verbatim answer that you previously ignored. Wait, I am getting away from my point, which is, while those guys are there, I also have made some truly great friends from of some of my dad's shop visitors. Two of my absolute favorite's, Mac and Mac, decided to drive up to the show and agreed to bring all of my instruments with them, so I was able to fly up, cutting my travel time in half. Another new friend, Alex, drove three hours round trip to pick me up from the airport and then hosted me at his house, that happened to be a few miles from the show, and brought me necessary provisions (wine) throughout the day. The guys all took turns accompanying me at my table when they weren't checking out the other builders, and just standing by me showing their unwavering support. I hope they know I much appreciate their friendship, kindness and acceptance because having that support when it is not always especially strong in the shop means the world to me.

Lugging bulky guitar cases into the wood paneled Bearfield Theater that was already brimming with people when we arrived, I really wasn't sure what to expect. The main theater room was absolutely packed with tables displaying all manner of instruments. We found my booth up on the black painted stage where you had to maneuver some rickety stairs up from the main floor to access it. "Dang, people are going to break an ankle at best if they try to come up here to see me.." I thought as I dragged my instrument cases behind the stage curtains; my table happened to abut the wings, which turned out to be a blessing as the folks wanting to play my instruments were able to get a better shot at hearing, stepping back in the curtains, rather than trying to play out in the melee of the main area.

Me and Kenji.
When we went to set up, a little Asian fellow quietly sat in the chair accompanying my table. I knew I was sharing a table since I only had a couple of instruments to display, so that must be my table mate. He spoke very little English, and after learning he was Japanese, I was pretty excited that my eighth grade exchange student friend Marii taught me some  my Japanese, but what I remember is about as advanced as the first day of nursery school (meaning I can count to 10 and say hello and thank you). I couldn't explain, after seeing his alarmed, pale face as we maneuvered the guitar cases around his beautiful maple guitar already set up on the table that I was taking great care not to disturb his beautiful work. After I was settled and some gesturing, I learned his name was Kenji Sugita. Over the course of the weekend we were able to get by the language barrier a bit; I shared my vegetable lo mein and pinot grigio that Alex snuck in for me, and he brought me coffee and treats when he took a break in the exhibitor rest area in the basement. Turns out, if you don't speak the same language,  just give food.

Ready to greet festivalgoers! 

Of all of the exhibitors stuffed into that room, most were extremely welcoming, friendly, and made a point to come say hello and check out my instruments, as I did theirs. Many of us follow each other on Instagram so I knew a lot of people from their posts on social media. Finally meeting my friend Rachel Rosencrantz in person, after we met via a joint interview with a women's guitar magazine several years ago. And when I saw Isaac Jang heading my way I was ecstatic he offered a huge hug as though we were old friends who hadn't caught up in a while. I truly enjoyed meeting everyone; Heidi the extremely friendly ukulele builder a couple of tables down from mine from Prince Edward Island; Meredith who runs a guitar school and regaled me with tales and pictures of her adorable dog, Pickles; Howard a great builder and dare I say even snappier dresser from England; Grit Laskin the legendary inlay artist; Chuck Erickson, aka the Duke of Pearl, who supplies all of my abalone sheets for inlays...to name a very select few characters. It was truly inspiring to be in the company of these folks, and to be welcomed into their club and know that they considered my work on par with theirs was the most amazing feeling.

Rachel Rosencrantz, Heidi Litke, myself

With Linda Manzer, Cathy Fink, and Heidi Litke

Isaac Jang and Kenji
The only folks who weren't especially welcoming were the couple sitting directly to the right of mine and Kenji's table. I don't think they even introduced themselves so I don't recall their names, Mike maybe. But the interesting, even baffling interaction came as I was bringing in my instruments and trying not to upset my neighbor's guitar. They told me that I should be thankful that Baker decided to seat me, a first timer they had never heard of, up on the stage with these really famous builders. I should be thankful to Kenji especially, because he is so well known, people will come to see him so those folks might look at my work since it is next to his. I thought it an interesting comment, as up until then, I had thought that perhaps I was seated there because my instruments were of similar quality to theirs, that people would want to see them in person simply because they were my instruments with my name on them.  Interestingly, I think I had about the same number of visitors, perhaps more, who came specifically to see my work. I noticed the couple giving the side eye a few times as I spoke with people who told me that they drove to the show for the sole purpose to meet me in person and get to play one of my instruments. I think the main thing I learned from those few negative interactions like that one was that my work is my work, and it speaks for itself, nobody can take that away from me, no matter the comments they make about it.

Avril Smith visited me!
One of the highlights of my Saturday was a visit from my friend George's guitar teacher, Avril Smith.  I knew she was a powerhouse guitar player from George as well as being the current guitar player for probably my favorite band of all time, Della Mae, but I learned she is an exceptionally awesome person as well.  I was also thrilled that Celia Boyd, Della Mae's lead singer stopped by my booth for a chat and to check out my guitars. I admire Celia's exceptional talent but also I feel a kindred spirit in that she isn't afraid to speak her mind when faced with folks who might not see things the same way. I appreciate that she tactfully and thoughtfully stands up for herself when faced with (mostly) men essentially telling her to 'shut up and sing'. Where I try to peacefully and thoughtfully encourage environmental consciousness in my work, she uses her much larger platform to speak for environmental issues, kindness, and equality across the board. I am always inspired by her voice, on and off the stage.

Celia checking out #50
Me and Alex, ready for the show!
Later that evening, Celia invited us to Della Mae's show but I wasn't sure I could attend due to a promise to attend a Halloween viewing of Rocky Horror Picture Show, for which I had specially packed a corset and a top hat with a silver skull hand attached. The movie ended up being farther away from Woodstock than we had anticipated so Alex and I decided on swinging by the Playhouse to check out Della Mae instead. Because I was super bummed about Rocky Horror, I decided to still go out in the least weird parts of my outfit because it was Halloween weekend and we had planned to meet some of Alex's friends after the show. In the end I decided my corset and glittery top hat could wait at home (mostly because my hairdo didn't support the hat well enough to stay on). When we rolled into the venue where Della Mae was set to start any minute, I realized this was not the bar scene I had envisioned, and was in fact a prim seated show filled to the gills with fancy adults milling quietly about during intermission, so I thanked whatever internal voice told me to leave my ridiculous get up back at the house, though I still sported some serious red lipstick and big black shoes... Luckily Baker met us at the door and walked us backstage where we greeted the band and watched them warm up. I literally could hardly contain my excitement as the Dellas took the stage, then Alex and I spent the evening hovering in the wings watching their incredible set. I sang along to every song, practically giddy pretending that I was a just few feet further onto the stage than I actually was.

Della Mae killing it obviously. Baker and I danced our shoes off in the wings! 

Talented awesome girls, and me.
While my dad's shop has many options to come in contact with well meaning men, strong, awesome, supportive women to look up to in that area are few and far between. A couple of ladies I have been fortunate to make friends with via my dad are the incredibly talented Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer. I have gotten to know them through visits to my dad's shop, parties, and a few ukulele lessons. Cathy especially has been extremely helpful in championing for me, not as my dad's daughter, but as my own person. I know that may seem odd to specify, but so many people want to support me simply because of my last name that it is extremely exciting when someone sees me and my work for something special in it's own right. For example, one of my dad's friends who was at the Woodstock show introduced me to someone as, "My best friend Wayne Henderson's daughter." I didn't even get a name in that instance. Marcy and Cathy believe in my ability enough that they encouraged me to do this show, offered to demonstrate my work on stage, and often introduce me to their many fancy friends, such as Grit Laskin. Cathy also isn't afraid to push me toward getting out on my own and meeting more people without the shadow of my famous dad to dull my own luster. After an intense day of talking to people, when I wanted nothing more in the world than to go back to Alex's house and hide under the covers, they pulled strings so I could be Kathy Wingert's plus one and join them all for a tribute dinner in town for Linda Manzer. I didn't want to disappoint them, so I went. As usual, Cathy was right and I was glad I had joined in. Turns out my date was pretty awesome too.

At the dinner that evening, I sat at a table with Grit Laskin and his wife, Cathy, Marcy, and Happy Traum, who I knew from running the stage where my dad and I do my little building workshop at Merlefest. Next to us sat Dick Boak, Michael Gurian and John Sebastian. The tables were too crowded to together for Happy to get over to introduce us, so I just turned and introduced myself to John. Turns out he's a big deal...I didn't know that. I asked the only thing I really knew about all three of them, knowing Michael sold his guitar supply company last year and Dick Boak just moved on from Martin. "So...How's retirement?" They all said it agreed with them, allowed for trips to come do things like this, etc. There was a nice camaraderie between the three guys that kept me feeling at ease and that I was welcome to visit with them. I ended up making a few laps around the party before the presentation where my good friend Paul, owner of Dream Guitars, introduced me to more amazingly talented musicians and builders.

When it came time for the award ceremony, where Linda was to be honored with the Traditions Award, we all gravitated back to our seats. I especially appreciated Dick's introduction of Linda when he presented her with her award. He spoke so highly and kindly of her that I was filled with hope that perhaps even the big wigs in this business saw women, if she had enough talent and worked hard enough, as equals and contenders. Perhaps one day I would be able to pass on as much inspiration as she. During her acceptance speech, Linda invited all of the women luthiers in attendance to join her on stage. I proudly stood when sh called my name and was immediately enveloped between these talented, smart women strong enough to be paving their own path in life despite what may be expected of them otherwise.

All the lady luthiers.

As I listened to her speech after sitting back down at our table, Linda said one thing that really stuck with me. She said that when she was young, she would try and try to reach the top of her big brother's tree house, a club of Boys Only, where she was taunted and ridiculed by him and his friends as she climbed and strained to reach the top of the ladder to join them. One thing she realized, is that if she didn't give up, didn't listen to their taunts, and actually made it to door of the house, the boys welcomed her when she reached the top. She said she understood their taunts weren't necessarily because they didn't want her, but simply a hurdle on the way to earn their acceptance. While that treatment is not really fair, I appreciated that perhaps when my dad's friends treat me differently or as though they don't want me, it might not mean they don't think I am good enough, but are just making sure I am strong enough to make it to that top rung. I have noticed that the longer I stay around, the more instruments I string up, the more tunes I learn to pick, they look at me a little more seriously. They listen to my answers and feedback instead of asking the same thing to my dad when he's available. I whispered to Cathy after we sat back down at the table, "So maybe Linda is right, maybe all those guys at the shop don't mind that I am here." Dick Boak leaned over my shoulder and said, "Trust me, we want you here. We are happy that you're here."

Marcy Marxer gearing up to demo my ukulele!

Richard Hoover of Santa Cruz guitars.

Meredith, Maegan, Jamie and Rachel
This is Alex's dog Addie, Harper's white counterpart. I love her so I had to show you.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018


My dad has traveled pretty much everywhere. Along with traveling this country to play music, he and my mom played for several ambassador tours with the Virginia Department of Tourism in the early 80s, including one of Asia where they met and entertained the Princess of Indonesia. Along with those, my dad has taken several spins around the globe with the Masters of the Steel String Guitar among countless other trips to share his music with other cultures. I think one of the reasons he is so tolerant of so many types of people when he comes from a tiny spot in Virginia where intolerance of anything other than what is known runs rampant is due to that opportunity to travel to so many different places in the world and see how other folks live. 

As it is well established, I do not have the talent for anyone to willingly listen to my play an instrument, so I don't think I'll be invited on any of those ambassador tours, but I have an itch to see everything, experience new places and see what there is to see so I have figured out my own way to get around and see the world through my job. My mom has always encouraged me to do pretty much anything I am interested in, be it sports, rock climbing, law school, flying across the country at sixteen to attend track camp. My dad however has been a bit more reserved to encourage only things he is familiar with and knows are safe. The rock climbing got a hard veto from him. Surprisingly, the underage flying across the country was a go.

Any time I say, "Hey Daddy, I think I want to go [insert whatever place]" he either says, "Oh, I've been there, do [this thing] at [that place]." He then proceeds gives me a list of things he liked and didn't like about that place or a story of how he and John Cephas got into mischief while on a break from their tour ensues. More rarely he says incredulously, "Huh, I've never been there." When I told him I had a guitar order from Amsterdam and planned to go he said, "Oh, Amsterdam is really fun. Take a boat ride!" I cannot imagine my dad thoroughly enjoying anything other than playing his guitar so when he says to do something that isn't playing his guitar I listen.

It has been a difficult summer and some health issues, if I can call a pregnancy and subsequent miscarriage 'issues', threatened our trip but I had booked the flight and started to make the guitar when I first found out so we were going regardless. While I was fighting a heavy dose of stress, all of the hormones and emotions, exhaustion, and nausea, my dad selflessly sprayed finish for me and helped me with the worst of the dusty and most physical jobs. At 11 weeks it ended up my precautions and his extra work weren't necessary, so I worked to finish the guitar as quickly as I was able to get back on my feet. It is ok though, don't feel sad for me and Nick or our family. I'm trying not to feel too sad or sorry, so you shouldn't be either. Knowing how many other women have gone through the exact same experience (with the exception of having to find someone to step in as finish sprayer and research safety of working as a luthier while pregnant) has really helped me feel less alone and sad so that is why I decided to share. As my dad tells me when I have a hiccup in building a guitar, those bad things are always going to happen no matter how hard we try to prevent them, just keep going and learn from them and hopefully next time it'll go right. The time he exploded the side of my guitar when unscrewing it from a clamp comes to mind. Of course, he's right. I couldn't have prevented the outcome, but I can control how I deal with the pieces of the blow up. A trip to Amsterdam to deliver something I successfully made was a welcome opportunity for us to glue back the pieces of our loss.

Even though I say this about pretty much all of them, the guitar I made for my new Dutch friend Frank is one of my all time favorites. The neck is large but somehow still fit in my tiny hand anyway, and it willingly let me play the few tunes I know, singing out proudly without buzzing or reluctance. I do feel like they all have souls and personalities and this one is just a little extra. Perhaps somehow it knew I needed it to come easily, without protest, but in any event this one is special and it is kind of a bummer it now lives so far away.

You may not know this about me, but I love being part of a good surprise. Frank from Amsterdan approached me several years ago about making a guitar for him as well as one for his dad, also named Frank. When I emailed them this spring about starting their instruments it took a while to figure out to whom I was conversing, but after that was finally straightened out, it was decided that a trip to Amsterdam was in order. As is the curse of a long wait, the dad Frank was still in the market for a guitar, but the younger Frank had had three kids since he placed his order so his priorities had changed. Frank Sr. ordered the guitar, but told me that he was planning to give it to his son so unbeknownst to Frank Jr, I made the guitar to his specs rather than his dad's. To help keep up the surprise, I am lucky they are both named Frank so when I inscribed the underside of the top and shared a picture there were no questions!

I honestly can't say enough nice things about Delta's treatment of me when I fly. I have never had a problem bringing instruments onboard their flights, and attendants have always helped me rather than hindered me in doing so. This time was no different. They found space in their closet for my guitar and we had a nice uneventful flight across the Atlantic. Frank Sr. met us upon arrival.

One of the happiest feelings is knowing someone loves what I have made for them. I feel like one of the surest ways that has been displayed to me is when they ask to be put back on the list for another instrument during that first encounter. I had a feeling he might regret planning to give this guitar to his son as it is one of the most beautiful and best sounding I have made, but love for one's offspring is something I have yet to fully understand so perhaps I'm wrong in that. Even though he was still excited to give this guitar to his son, I don't think I was totally wrong in my hunch as he only opened the case and looked it over, didn't play it yet, before deciding he wanted for one for himself.

After finishing the coffee and tea we ordered at the airport café, Frank drove us from Shiphol airport into the heart of Amsterdam to our Airbnb. He drove off with his new guitar, and we were left to negotiate the traditional extremely steep and narrow canal house stairs of the apartment building. I seriously can't get over how steep these stairs were. They were surprisingly easy to negotiate without luggage, but hoisting our bulky bags up the uneven red carpeted steps was no easy task. I have literally no idea, with the amount people drink and do drugs in Amsterdam, how we didn't see more people limping from sprained ankles or sporting casts from falling down those stairs.

To ward off jet lag, we spent the first day exploring Amsterdam. We learned quickly to look both ways multiple times before attempting to cross the narrow streets lining the canals as more cyclists than I had ever seen in one place whizzed past without caution. The beautiful canals reflecting the house boats tied along their edges and the brightly colored row houses squeezed closely together were quite a sight. We strolled through the busy Dam Square, one of the few open spaces, filled edge to edge with small black cobbles worn shiny with age. As the afternoon sun burned bright accompanied by a swift breeze, we took a quick ferry trip over the IJ river from Central Station to the A'dam Tower where we met Thomas, the owner of our Airbnb. He was kind enough to take some time to give us a tour of the tower and provide a private look around Gibson's new studio where fancy Dutch artists come to record and play Gibson instruments to help promote the brand. The space was beautiful and I enjoyed seeing all of the colorful electrics lined up. A new Nick Lucas was hanging on the wall, but I've heard Gibson is quick to sue, and though I don't think I have infringed on any of their copyrighted material, I was reluctant to mention that I had made a few reminiscent of that body style in case anyone important was listening.

View from A'Dam Tower 

Dam Square

The following day we met Frank Jr. at the Van Gogh museum. It was fortunate we had planned to visit the museum around noon that day even before we learned he worked there! After exploring the museum and studying the incredible pieces Van Gough and other Dutch masters have created, we walked with Frank outside through Museum Square to a little Dutch café for lunch. While everyone we had met thus far was more than happy to speak (very good, proper) English, he ordered his lunch in Dutch when it was his turn. When I asked him what he ordered he replied that he chose the traditional Dutch lunch of old cheese and plain brown bread with a little bit of mustard. When he saw my face he laughed and assured me it was his favorite lunch, but I felt something must have gotten lost in translation. Turns out, old cheese is incredible aged gouda and the bread is freshly baked, and the little pop of mustard that comes on the side makes a perfectly delicious meal. While I absolutely loved jumping face first into the cultural dishes primarily featuring cheese, fries, and bread, I can't tell you how badly my body craved kale upon our return home. For example, one of the traditional Dutch snacks is called Bitterballen. I described it to my dad as deep fried gravy balls which would probably be his favorite thing. While they were pretty dang good, I could only handle a couple of them before my stomach said no thanks. Side note: We traveled to Brussels, Belgium after our adventures in Amsterdam and I easily found waffles, chocolate, and beer, but there wasn't a single endive salad or Brussels sprout to be found anywhere! I was not pleased.

View from the canal
The next few days were filled with exploring the beautiful and vibrant city. We took that canal boat trip my dad suggested, and thoroughly enjoyed the information we gleaned from our guide Gabi and Captain Hans as well as the view from the canals. While the Red Light District wasn't really something Nick and I were interested in, we took a stroll through the cramped alleys and took in the red lights glowing, the women peeking from their curtained booths and smelled the marijuana wafting from the clubs. The no embarrassment, devil may care attitude was fun and refreshing, but the gaggles of tourists cramping the extremely narrow cobbled streets felt claustrophobic so we spent the majority of our time in the outer rings of the canals where our Airbnb was located, simply enjoying the culture of the residents of the quaint neighborhood of the Jordaan.
Spoils from the Farmer's market

Before we left for Belgium I had agreed to meet a client of George Gruhn's who understandably wasn't comfortable shipping his priceless Lloyd Loar L-5 across the Atlantic Ocean for George to consign. Knowing how much I hate to ship instruments, I was happy to help them both out and bring the instrument home with me to ease their minds. Joram invited Nick and me to lunch at his beautiful apartment near central station. He and his husband Tony provided a significant spread of traditional Dutch dishes (more old cheese, mustard, and even pickled herring....) to send us off. Seeing the famous historical paintings and fixtures of Amsterdam was amazing, but as is always my favorite part of travel, and guitar building generally, is the people I am fortunate enough to meet along the way. I loved learning about Joram and Tony, their backgrounds, how they met, their hobbies and interests, the stories of the instruments they have collected (Joram has been a member of prestigious mandolin symphonies throughout his life) and how they came to land in Amsterdam as they both had high power jobs in New York City when they met twenty years ago. Lunch, where I even ate that pickled herring, was delicious but the stories they shared with me fed my soul as much as the old cheese and fresh bread fueled my body.

Growing up I would always look forward to the trinket my dad would bring home for me from one of his trips. He always sent a postcard to my Granny and would bring her a commemorative thimble representing the place he had traveled. She saved the postcards, they are still sitting in a over stuffed rotating photo holder sitting in the living room that crinkles as you rotate the postcards resting in their cracked plastic sleeves. Before she died she displayed every one of the thimbles on the wall. Now only a few remain, but the rest sit safely in a storage bin under the guest room bed. Some may think these practices are a hoarder's dream, but to me these little trinkets represent love in a tangible form. As I said, we are a family of traditions. Nick has little patience for souvenirs, and I typically blanch at a legitimate tourist trap, but everywhere I go I always take a few minutes to stop in the tackiest store I can find and pick up a post card and see if they have any thimbles.

boat ride!

Apparently Napoleon taxed houses by width, so this one is only 1 meter wide...

The Grand Place in Brussels

Mannequin Pis