About me

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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)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Price is Right

While I wait for the 4th coat of finish to dry on my guitar, I figure I will tell you some more about the time I spent in Rugby growing up. I didn't always think it was a great time, as my peers went shopping, saw movies, and just hung out together and I was here, in the middle of nowhere hanging out with my Granny having to find things to do outside like make forts out of the wood meant for the stove or, as previously mentioned, gallop down the cow paths.

Every day, when my dad would go to work, I would go to Granny's house. The sound her front door makes, scraping against the carpet when it opens, is still a sound I can hear clearly when I think about it. It is a sound of welcome.

My days with Granny were typically pretty similar. First Granny would gossip with her neighbors; ladies with names like Dixie and Trixie and Lola. I was rarely interested to know who was driving the red truck that passed after dark last night but they always seemed to need to know exactly what transpired in those 1.2 seconds someone they didn't know rolled by. At 11 sharp we watched The Price is Right, playing along guessing who was going to win the Winnebago in the Showcase Showdown. Following the noon news the worst part of my day happened. It was when what my grandmother called her "Stories" came on. I adored Rod Roddy's sparkly suits and those weird long skinny microphones, and was always disappointed when Bob said to spay and neuter your pets (which you should, by the way) because that meant his hour of entertaining me was drawing to a close. But those Stories...I absolutely loathed them. I never understood why the actors always stood with their backs to one another, both facing the camera at the same time. I mean really, why would you have a serious "I murdered your stepmom because you cheated on me with her brother" type conversation without looking at each other. Thinking back on it, I suppose it was to save on filming time and getting everything in one shot as those suckers do run every day but I still. My Granny enjoyed them  so much though. I made sure she enjoyed them less by whimpering and whining and begging for them to end. (I think about that a lot these days when most of Harper's time is spent in a similar tantrum while I am working. Her Stories equal sanding and her Price is Right is chasing tennis balls.)

Harper leads the way as
we walk up to the knob. 
As soon as 3 o'clock rolled around, I would wait with bated breath for my dad's car to turn down the driveway after finishing his mail route. Before heading to his shop, he would stop and visit with me for a short while. Often times we would "wrastle" or go for a walk in the hills surrounding Granny's house. Sometimes we would walk up to the knob. I know that sounds kind of dirty, but it isn't, that's just what it's called. The knob is a bald patch of land about a half mile through the woods up a lovely, scenic path where my dad used to have to wrangle the cows back down to the barn. One of our walks up there I remember my dad carved my name in a small tree when I was maybe 5 or 6. He told me that one day that tree would be big around and I would still be able to see my initials. I couldn't wait for the day I would have big initials! Last year Harper and I were exploring the path and found that tree. She also found some animal poop to roll in as well, I am sure she would want me to tell you. Anyway, even though I know it's not the most environmentally friendly practice, it was comforting for me to find that mark I made on Granny's land just as my dad made his presence known with building a fence, or my grandfather by working in those fields or my grandmother by growing food in her gardens. I am part of the family that lived in that valley and there is verifiable evidence. For that I am forever proud. :-)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The General Loafers

Almost finished!
Tuesday is always busy at the guitar shop. The main reason for this is that Tuesday is the day the "General Loafers" come to hang out. This term is in no way negative, these 60-something gentlemen coined the term themselves. Don actually has the title General Loafer printed on his business cards.

It is pretty adorable to watch them hang out. It is like a club of seven year old boys, but you know, with guns and guitars and they have at least 50 years on those kids. First they have a session of Show & Tell. Today the spotlight was focused on a beautiful old Martin my dad recently procured from George Gruhn in Nashville. Don carefully inserted an endoscope Operation-style into the soundhole to discover that the little single O was hand signed on November 8, 1905. Next, Harrol and Herb bicker a while over the best approach to a repair job or whether one of them (jokingly, I think) scammed the other on an instrument trade. Eventually, they get to work. They all have very specific positions in the shop. Bill 'supervises' and screens calls, my dad periodically consults on Herb's repair work, while Harrol and Don work to move current guitar projects forward.

I just sat and minded my business, watching it snow an unexpected amount outside, and finished shaping the neck of my guitar. Tomorrow I will start spraying it with finish. Yay! It has been a little slow going since there have been several gaps in my productivity due to Thanksgiving and this weird need to hang out with my fiance. Yesterday I drove back up to Rugby from Asheville leaving my sweet baby girl Harper with Nick, which makes me terribly sad, but a downside to the Loafers is that they have encouraged Harper to beg so home she will stay until she forgets that bad habit. Also, I hope Harper will help fill the void I am sure my absence has left in our house. I am just so amazing, Nick is probably having serious withdrawals, what with missing my unnatural, and probably unhealthy, excitement that comes from reading cooking magazines and epicurious.com, and playing the hoola hoop game on the Wii Fit for a lot of unfortunate minutes of the day. If you aren't sure what that spectacle might look like, just imagine me standing in the center of the living room, standing on a small white rectangle hoola hooping without a hoop, and then add in some periodic lithe dives to the left or right to catch an imaginary hoop thrown to me from a Wii character on the TV screen. Anyone would miss those things, right? Yes, I think so too.
The snow today reminded me of my favorite picture of Harper Lee.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Learning to Thread a Needle

My mom, Harper, and I enjoying a
gorgeous day in Harrisonburg.
The past few of my days have been spent visiting with my mom, not working on guitars. But I figured I would write a little bit anyway. My mom has been riding horses for most of her life-and saw to it that the apple didn't fall far from the tree, as when she was pregnant, her water broke while she was riding her horse Hornpipe. I loved horses so much growing up, but haven't been riding for quite some time. Case in point: I remember in elementary school that I knew it was Thursday because I had my jodhpurs on in preparation for riding class in the afternoon. Definitely ran a couple timed miles in those bad boys too. 9:03 in 3rd grade. (My memory is odd, I think.) Anyway, heading out on an Akhal Teke named Can Do on Monday morning reminded me of spending time with my grandmother in Rugby many years ago.

The hills surrounding my grandmother's house are streaked with paths etched into the dirt from cows wandering their fenced area. It is interesting how cows make paths and only walk on those designated lines, but I used to use those paths to form a world of make believe. Many afternoons I would pretend I was riding the most amazing Arabian, or Morgan sometimes, often called Lightning or Starshine or something else equally ridiculous. I don't think I can accurately explain exactly what I was doing as I lept over logs and ducked under low-hanging branches, but just imagine Monty Python and the Holy Grail, only I wasn't clever enough to bang coconuts together as I 'galloped' down the cow paths. (I am for sure a winner if you haven't already noticed.)

A quilt hand-stitched by
my Granny circa 1930.
Another thing that I did while in my Granny's care was learn to sew. As awesome as my dad is at whittling anything he can imagine out of wood, and as my mom can draw or paint anything perfectly, Granny was just as gifted doing the same with cloth. When she passed away a few years ago I was given some quilts she pieced when she was, oh, around 16. By hand. The stitches were so perfect, as she once demonstrated to me when she taught me how to sew together quilt squares when I was about 6. Each stitch uniform and tiny. I was proud when I could get two pieces of fabric to stick somewhat evenly together much less with any uniformity. I think now that drive to work until I make something perfect is ingrained in me because of her and my parents. Because she can do it, and my dad can do it, and my mom can do it, so should I, right? Maybe...

I feel so privileged to have gotten to know my grandmother as I did, and learn this amazing skill that, once again, not everyone has the opportunity to glean. I am lucky to have the gifted parents I have, but my Granny is one in a million. Billion. I learned so many amazing things from her, just one of those being how to sew. There was only one thing I could do better than she, as my hand eye coordination improved with age and her eyesight worsened, which was to thread the needle.  She always made me feel so proud that I could do it on the first or second try and that I at least could sew marginally well. In her opinion anyway. I am sad that I don't have those quilt squares anymore, as when we were sending things to the Goodwill after her death those accidentally wound up in the 'go' pile. Maybe I will just have to start on some new ones.
Close up of my favorite of Granny's quilts. If you
look hard, you can find pieces of my dad's old shirts,
fruit, and people, among other things.

Tomorrow for Thanksgiving dinner I can't wait to have some of Granny's potato salad, a Rugby delicacy that really only my dad, my aunt Shirleen, and I actually like. I think it is because it is called potato salad, but what you expect is not quite what you get, as mustard is substituted for mayonnaise, the potatoes are completely mashed, and sugar and vinegar round out the flavor palette. Thanks so much to Shirleen for making it for me on those rare family dinner occasions. I could honestly eat a tub of it if it were presented to me. The smells and tastes of Thanksgiving always bring memories of Granny back to me, and for that I am forever grateful.

 I hope you have a great Thanksgiving as well, and I will get back to work inlaying my name into the peghead of my guitar tomorrow. I have it all cut out I promise. (Does anyone else wish they had a shorter last name? Sometimes I do, like when I have to cut it out of Mother of Pearl in letters small enough to fit on a peghead.)I guess it all just depends on how much potato salad there is....

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Inlay Phase 1 (The peghead comes later)

Scraping the binding!
This week has been pretty productive so far. I finished putting the body of my guitar together, added the binding, and finished up the fingerboard. All that's left is to fit the neck and shape it and then finish! Unfortunately those things are my least favorite tasks. Maybe I will tackle fitting the neck tomorrow.

It was a fun week of visitors in the shop as well. The typical Tuesday crowd of geezers-and Harrol-came by to help sand, do repairs, and liven the conversation. Yesterday, Caleb Smith (an awesome fella who is making really great guitars down in Waynesville-according to my dad-so that means it is true), Jimmy Edmonds, Gerald Anderson, Don Wilson, and Reggie Harris, among others, stopped by for an afternoon of picking. Their presence provided for me a nice soundtrack while I finished inlaying my fingerboard. Oh also, there was a double rainbow outside. But no one had seen the Youtube video so my comments on the spectacle only garnered confused "I think she's crazy" looks.

Inlay is one aspect of guitar making that I love to do. I think it is because I am able to do it well enough that I don't need supervision and can't mess anything up too horribly. And most importantly the tiny jeweler's saw and router that I use for these tasks likely wouldn't end with severed appendages. I also enjoy attending to the minute details of shaping a piece just right, first with the saw and then with a tiny file, and I appreciate the challenge of routing a space in which the the pearl perfectly fits. That's because I am a J (Meyer's-Brigggs anyone? Josh Kelly knows what I mean.)

For this fingerboard, I drew a tree design which had a mother of pearl trunk and I then incorporated many pieces of shiny abalone for the leaves. Cutting out the leaf shapes was surprisingly simple, as I just used small scraps that would likely have been discarded (baby steps in the sustainability department) and shaped them into my idea of stylized leaves. Inlaying them was an entirely different story. Since each leaf is it's own unique shape, keeping straight which pieces I had already traced, routed, and fitted was a challenge. But it worked out pretty well if I do say so myself. My back was singing a different tune as I stood up after 3 hours of work though. I did some yoga after, it's ok now.

Finished product!

Now, if only fitting the neck was as much fun....

Monday, November 14, 2011


Well, the past few days have seen the coming together of the body of my guitar, with just a couple small hiccups, one in the form of a bomblike explosion of one side of the guitar, sending shards of Koa all over the shop...

I was not present during this fiasco, though, so I cannot fully describe it to you. A few nights ago, I glued the back onto my guiar, and then placed it on a table rigged to clamp pressure down on the back and sides. The proper way to do this is to tighten each clamp a little at a time, so as not to have too much pressure on a single area at once. The same goes for loosening the apparatus as well....and that will come into play later.

Around 5, my dad left to play music with his longtime buddy Herb and his 'Geezer Band' as my dad endearingly calls them. Before they left though, Herb graciously braved potentially soiling his stage-signature black leather vest to help me tighten the clamps in place. I then went home to enjoy a screening Home Alone that happened to be on one of the movie channels. (But it was a tad pathetic as I caught myself quoting parts out loud to Harper...who was the only one in the room and I am pretty sure she didn't appreciate it as much as, say, my awesome cousin Lauren would have.)

Anyway, back to the explosion story, I noticed several cars had arrived in the driveway around midnight, so I called over to the shop to make sure my dad had gotten home safely and that he had a good show. I had considered walking the 45 steps over to the shop but...eh. He sounded a little strange on the phone, and didn't seem to be in the chatty mood, but I just assumed he was tired as it was pretty late.

The next morning as I was preparing to head to the grocery store, uncharacteristically early for him, my dad popped his head out of his room and said, "You might want to go look at your guitar. The side exploded last night." After my dizziness subsided from a mini rush of adrenaline, I headed to the shop to take a look at my broken guitar. But when I got over there nothing seemed amiss. I thought, perhaps he was joking, like that guy Hunter who once told me on the phone that my third guitar had shattered due to a humidity problem.

What happened was this: my dad did not carefully observe the rule of removing the pressure of the clamps little by little, and because I had clamped the guitar down so tightly, the pressure was significant when he got to the last clamp. He said it sounded like a bomb went off in the shop, and several pieces of the side found new homes among dustpiles. For 3 hours, my dad reconstructed the side, replaced kerfing (the small strips of mahogany that line the side to add support for the top and back), and reinforced the affected area. He truly is an incredible craftsman to be able to perform such a feat, and at 3am at that. In his 40some years of doing this, he has never had such an issue arise, so to fix it so flawlessly takes the work of a true genius and I am honored to watch and learn from someone like that.

Friday, November 11, 2011


Planing the back brace
I don't feel that I was terribly productive today, so naturally I chose to take a break from sanding back braces to write about it. The majority of my morning was spent attempting to inlay the tiny strips of wood that surround the soundhole. When working on my first EJ Henderson guitar, I came up with an idea of inlaying the same material that is used for the strip that intersects the two panels of the guitar back into the soundhole space. I enjoy the idea of matching, and the designs of backstrips are typically ornate and aesthetically appealing. 

I took a few minutes to ponder whether the blowtorch I clamped to the oblong pipe would remain in place or if it would instead come lose from the huge orange clamp that takes both of my hands to open and set fire to the entire shop including, I am sure, my eyebrows, clothing, appendages, etc. I decided it was probably safe enough to start bending the backstrip material as I poked at the apparatus a couple of times to no significant movement. 

The pattern I chose has a lot of small pieces sandwiched between a few solid strips of black and white wood. The problem with using this type of material is that it is difficult to keep it from breaking and scorching your fingers along the way. Needless to say, I might have broken a few, used a little profanity, and cooked a few fingers. Eventually though, I did end up getting the strip bent to perfectly fit in the space that I had cut for it the previous evening. 

Finally inlaid the soundhole! 
That was just step one. Much more profanity to come. I was so proud after fitting the large strip along with the two smaller accompanying strips into the routed space and expected the same outcome after I added glue. That turned out to be an incorrect assumption. When you add wood glue to a perfectly fitted cluster of wood, it expands, causing immense frustration and angry mumbling, the likes of Joe Pesci's character in Home Alone. 

After removing the strips, rebending new material, and scraping out all the glue from the routed space, I managed to successfully inlay the strips around the soundhole. But it took maybe 4 hours. 

This afternoon, an engraver visited the shop. Ol' Wayne looked like a kid on Christmas; perhaps like that end scene in Home Alone, if you will. He, as expected, was incredibly good at it, easily carving elegant curves into the "practice metal". Charlie, the professional engraver, told him that he was a natural.

Engraving by Charlie
I was invited to come over and engrave a J, so taking a break from shaping the brace that runs along the back of my guitar, I went over to use the engraver tool that looked to me like a mini jackhammer. Same piercing, eye-twitching noise and all. It has a cute little footpedal that runs the power though, and was thinking, I am going to dominate at this. Watch out folks. Again, incorrect assumption. My dad and Charlie made it look so simple, jackhammering pretty curls all over the place. After gauging out a few unfortunate holes, I promptly gave up and returned to my brace. Enlightening day over all, but a fellow brought 6 bottles of wine from his winery and I told him that, of course I would help him out and taste test the new batch for him. So, perhaps no more machines for me tonight...

Charlie and Wayne preparing for an engraving lesson.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Cutaway Confusion

I saw a funny thing today. My dad didn't have all the answers when it came to constructing the body of a guitar. I am making a Koa OM for my super awesome cousin, Matt, but he wants a cutaway which is a model my dad rarely makes. Removing some of the material from the body of the guitar allows for more notes to be played closer to the soundhole, providing a larger range on the fretboard, however, some might argue that the sound of the guitar could be compromised when messing with the original body style. Doc Watson requested that my dad buil him a cutaway, and so did David Holt, among several others, but they all have the larger D size body, and at the time they were constructed, my dad was bending sides by hand on a hot pipe. Now, my bracelet bending skills are pretty great, but I can't imagine they are up to par to perfectly shape damp wood around an oblong pipe with several inches of blowtorch stuck up it...

Luckily, after a while, and redrawing a few brace lines on the new OM cutaway pattern, we had things underway. A new OM cutaway form for the regular side bender was made, an insert was stuck into the OM form that holds the body in place, and patterns were correctly traced onto my Sitka Spruce top and Koa back. It was an interesting day of trial and error and not just on my part for once! It surprised me to hear my dad gripe about being outstmarted by a guitar...We (he mostly) got it in the end though.

Day 1

My dad is amazing at what he does. His job is unlike anyone else's I know. To him, constructing instruments and finding a perfect balance of aesthetics and functionality is like breathing. He just does it. It is not a job at all.

I know that I will never possess the same degree of passion for guitars as my dad does; I honestly don't know if anyone could, but I do have a passion for learning, as well as an itch to create beautiful, tangible, things. So, I have decided to take a pause from pursuing a career in environmental law, and learn from this incredible artist while I have the opportunity to do so. I think passing on such a skill is important, and while I have my own interests aside from guitar making, I feel this is a gift that should not be passed up.

I also plan to incorporate my interest and concern for the environment into my guitar making experience. I hope to use more sustainable (I said more, not totally) hardwoods such as local Maple and Walnut rather than exotic, endangered woods that are so popular among the guitar collector community. I aim to construct instruments that provide similar sound and beauty as ones boasting a back and sides constructed of Brazilian Rosewood, but with less environmental impacts. We will see how it goes.

I also want to explain a little bit about my experience, living in the shadow of someone who shares so much of his time and life with anyone who shows up at his door. I grew up mostly with my mom, but would frequently visit Rugby, and be around my dad, but rarely with my dad. His profession made it difficult to form any sort of deep relationship with him because he was always working (in a shop filled with dangerous machines that, I am sure, are any parent's nightmare). Don't get me wrong though, I love my dad so very much, and appreciate all of the experiences his choices afforded me growing up. It has shaped who I am today-extremely independent and strong-willed, and of those qualities, I am proud.

But, I want to know him better, and to do that, I have to spend my time in his world. It turns out, it is not such a bad place. The shop here is always attracting the most interesting visitors. Every day someone new arrives, and something else exciting happens. I have helped my dad make two of his guitars, and he has helped me make three. Today, I am starting my forth, and look forward to sharing that experience with you (though, I bet 'you' are just my mom, and maybe my fiance...thanks for reading guys, love you!)

So, that is the motivation behind my writing this blog. I want to record and share the goings-on around here, so others (guitar crazies like Mike Segui, who live too far away to visit as often as they might like) can vicariously experience a little of this strange world that revolves around my dad, and so I can enjoy reading it later as I know I will miss this experience as soon as it is finished, whenever that may be.