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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)

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Tying up loose strings

Yesterday I said goodbye to 6 weeks of hard work. I packed up my finished guitar with care, padding its neck and headstock with tissue paper, and stuffing 418 crumpled pages from a catalogue, ironically selling packing materials,  into a Martin guitar box to pad the case a little more in transit. And then off it went to New Mexico. I felt very sad yesterday as I walked out of the UPS store, not only because I was $147 poorer, but because with each guitar I make, I tend to associate accompanying memories of my life to each project.

While I worked on this guitar, I had to be there for a friend who's grandmother passed away, and incidentally, it happened the day before the anniversary of my own grandmother's death several years earlier, so my friend's hurt was palpable for me. I spent some time with her family, getting to know them better, even though I have actually known them my whole life, and am so thankful I got to do that as they are all amazing people. More on their incredible talents later. Also while I worked on this guitar, I spent more alone time with my dad than I ever have, being in the shop with just him working on projects together, I had some great times with some visiting New Yorkers, of all people, and took several trips to home improvement stores-and actually enjoyed them.

Another thing happened too. I experienced my first almost-heart attack. Following the completion of one my dad's very first guitars, he sat back on Granny's couch, admiring all of his hard work, then with a loud pop, it cracked up the middle. He hadn't used the correct type of glue, so when the wood contracted and expanded with the humidity, the glue did not allow for such things and he was left with a broken guitar. I can now say I understand that panicked feeling between when you know that happened and there is hope to fix it and the initial loud bang marking something gone awfully wrong.

Because my dad went to play music in Fincastle, VA one afternoon, I was left on my own to string up my guitar. I am glad I was alone when it was time to do this because I think stringing up a guitar for the first time is kind of a personal experience, waiting to see what you've actually produced after so much hard work. I strung 'er up and played a few chords (the only ones I know, and a few that might be chords but I made them up). I was so proud with how loud it was and how I was actually able to make good sounds emerge from the instrument. That means it probably sounds pretty good....

Testing her out for the first time!
Anyway, I was by myself in the shop, and having finished my project I started helping with some of my dad's. Well, I was just sanding away on a beautiful mandolin, minding my own business, when I hear a loud pop from the vicinity of my guitar. I ducked, because it really sounded like some sort of shrapnel was headed my way, and then tentatively looked over at my guiar. Were there any holes in it? What in the world made it make that horrible noise? Had all of my hard work been obliterated with one second of earsplitting cacophony?

I crept over to the bench on which it was laying (you never know if there's something else about to blow up), and started to inspect it for huge cracks, holes, perhaps the neck had broken in two. Nothing. Then I noticed that the saddle, the small ridge of bone that sits on the bridge of the guitar holding up the strings, had shattered under the string weight, producing a perfect U. Panicking, I called my dad's Head General Loafer (and great helper) Don to ask if that is a thing that happens or if I did something wrong. He said to not worry too much about it, just make a new one, that he has heard of it happening, though it is not that common. When I told my dad he was very surprised, saying that is not a typical occurrence at all.

Spencer Strickland came to play with me!
After getting all of that straightened out, shaping a new saddle that accommodates a low action on the fingerboard, who should appear in the lonely shop doorway but my best good friend Spencer Strickland! Having him stop by is always a treat and it was nice to have someone around who can actually play my guitar since I am not much of a picker. After hearing him work his magic, it was amazing to hear how loud and clear the tone was after having only been played that one time. I was satisfied with the weeks of work, some bits coming out well with little effort and others requiring a little more trial and error.

I am glad that all of these memories, among so many others, will be iced with the finishing up of an amazing sounding 0000 Maple guitar. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

April 13, 1912

Maple neck with gold Waverly tuners.
I wish right now was not the first time I have had to sit down and write you a story for the past week and a half. Trying to get this guitar finished without a hitch has proven to be a bit of a difficulty. This entire entry could be about how to spray finish, and then how one can sand through said finish, and then how to respray finish some more, and then how frustrating it is to sand that bit flat only to sand through in another nearby spot, then having to respray and rebuff that section...and so on. My dad believes that a heavy coat of finish on a guitar can hinder its sound when all is said and done, so ideally each layer you spray on a guitar should be sanded down as thin as possible without sanding through it to the wood. It is a thin line between too heavy and too thin though and achieving that balance has proven to be quite difficult. I spent most of the past few days attempting to balance on that fine line, but I ended up falling over several times in the process...Though, after all of that I managed to get the tuners on at 11:30 tonight. Yay!

Finished body. After 7 coats of finish...

Does this look electrocuted to you? 
Last Friday was my Granny's 100th birthday. I know that if she were here she wold be so proud to be 100 years old. I remember once my dad and aunts were out of town, and a family friend passed away so I came to drive Granny to their funeral. She was ninety at the time, and each person we met, the minister, everyone, she would say, "Hi, good to see you! I'm 90!" So, last week I cut some lilacs that are currently in full bloom on the bush in our yard, tied them with some of the ribbon that we use to strengthen the sides of a guitar and brought those to her grave. I like to think she would have appreciated those just as much as a fancy bouquet I plucked from a plastic bucket at a supermarket.

I also made a strawberry cake covered in pink icing that I dotted on with a pastry bag, though when I debuted it after some difficult detail work, my dad said it looked like it had been electrocuted. Anyway, I enjoyed thinking of her, and remembering her on her birthday. Hopefully next week I will be coherent enough think of a more exciting and detailed story for you. It turns out that working 12+ hours in the shop every day seems to be detrimental to my creative writing skills... I will let these pictures tell this one.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Easter Dinners

Spring is on the way!!
Easter has always been a big holiday for my dad's family. Every Easter Sunday the table would be filled with turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, biscuits, green beans, baked beans, deviled eggs, and of course, Granny's delicious potato salad. For dessert my Granny would make bird's nests. These confections consisted of green jello, cool whip, shredded coconut, and jelly beans. She would take great care to arrange all of the ingredients to resemble a bird's nest filled with colored eggs. After dinner (which happened at lunchtime), we would head outside to hunt for dyed hardboiled eggs, typically finding them stuffed in drain pipes, green ones nestled in the tree out front, and sometimes under the porch steps. We weren't exceptionally creative in our hiding spots I suppose...

My favorite part of Easter in Rugby though, was the scavenger hunt the Easter Bunny would provide in lieu of a basket filled with green plastic 'grass', chocolate bunnies, and Jelly Bellys. The first year I remember spending Easter with my dad instead of my mom, I was maybe 5 years old. I woke up to find a note instead of a chocolate bunny, which was all I wanted in the world. It told me that there would be a series of clues that would lead me to an Easter treat. I don't remember all of the notes, however, I do remember one that suggested I search for the next clue in my dad's shoe. (The Easter Bunny is quite adept at rhyming, if you didn't know.) I remember he shooed me away from him, incredulous that anything other than his foot would be occupying his brown boot. But lo! After poking around a bit, there it was, tied with a little red ribbom, tucked into the boot's tongue. I thought, wow that Easter bunny is pretty dang smooth if he managed to slip some paper in my dad's shoe without him noticing...I might not have been the most clever 5 year old in the world, but it was so fun. The search culminated at a crafts fair on White Top Mountain, where my dad was scheduled to play later in the day. Leaning against an amplifier sat a white fabric bunny with exceptionally long ears, dressed in a red and black checked dress. It had my name on it. I don't know if I have ever felt so special, the Easter Bunny left me a present in front of a hundred people! I only recently found out that that first scavenger hunt was the result of my dad having forgot it was Easter and needed to buy some time in order to find a chocolate bunny for me. Little did he know it would spark an Easter tradition.

Me, Shirleen, and Harper on Easter several years ago.
Many years afterwards, the Easter Bunny would write me cryptic notes, sending me over to the spooky barn next door, down to our cobweb-ridden basement, to search in a box full of snake skeletons, over to Granny's cellar. I should have known my dad had something do with it when snakes became involved in the game but I just enjoyed every second of it. I remember one Easter I was sent to the newly renovated attic where, in the farthest corner, sat a huge, sneering, rubber rat wearing a diamond necklace. Every time I put on that necklace, I think about that rat, and what I had to go through to get to it, and mostly how much I love my dad. Even though it began as a means to correct an oversight, the scavenger hunts are something I cherish, and a tradition I plan to continue with my children, if I ever have any that is. Unfortunately, Harper is unable to read, though I do sometimes hide her toys for her to find. She seems to enjoy that game very much.

Last weekend my aunts Shirleen and Pat, my uncle Max, and Pat's sister Lib, who I consider an aunt as well, came to have Easter dinner with me. Several people have decided to come visit my dad for Easter weekend so we figured it would be the only chance we would have to be with just our family. It is amazing how rare those opportunities are these days. Like the random nights in the shop that I have with  just my dad, I cherish family dinners just as much, though they seem to be becoming less and less frequent. I wish very much that my dad had been in town to join us for this past dinner, but to me, it was just the same as family dinners at Granny's house, only Shirleen and Pat made the birds nest desserts, taking just as much care to create them as Granny would have.