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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, November 14, 2013

Double Fun Day!

DeeDee keeping watch from her peghead.
Yesterday was an exciting day in the shop for me! I drank out of a coconut (I will explain that later), played several rounds of You Are My Sunshine and Cripple Creek with my dad, oh, and strung up two instruments! That is a first for me, having two projects finish up on the same day. It was interesting to string one up, then move right on to the next one. I felt a bit as though I hadn't provided my little ukulele baby with enough attention, however, since it is going to be living with me indefinitely, I figured it would be alright if I went ahead and concentrated on a new guitar for a while.

I have named my new White ash guitar DeeDee. The new owner asked me to inlay the likeness of his wife's favorite goat (DeeDee) into the back of the peghead. Even though the inlay sort of resembles a cartoon of a goat, I promise that is really what she looks like in the photographs that were sent over. What do you think, does she look like a goat to you?

I always get so excited about hearing new guitars, but this one I was especially eager to hear because I have never heard an ash guitar before. I must admit that it sounds surprisingly lovely, with waves of energy bursting from the soundhole. To me, it sounds strong, confident, and playful. Now I know, describing the way I hear something is kind of ridiculous since, as I learned in perception class at NC State, we all take in external stimuli differently, so what I hear is never going to equal what you hear. You'll just have to take a visit to the shop and see for yourself! Before Thanksgiving would be best as it will be headed home after that.

I love that each instrument I build (or my dad builds, or Martin, etc.) has a personality all its own that you can pick out from the first strum of the strings. The sound I hear in my ukulele is very different than the peppy ash guitar. To me it sounds mellow and laid back, just how I would picture someone relaxing in a hammock on a beach in Hawaii. Instead of being built from Hawaiian koa however, I chose a beautiful set of blistered maple that I stained dark to bring out the bubbles within the grain. I sanded the pieces that make up the body quite thin, similar to the thickness of the top and back of the 1920s Martin ukulele my dad has that sounds incredible. I figured maple would likely be the strongest material to withstand such thin pieces, and I have always enjoyed the sound of maple instruments, so now here we are!

The bridge needs a little bit if explanation. I want to practice what I preach, and stay away from unsustainable/illegal materials when possible, so to tell you the bridge of my ukulele is made from ivory might cause a look of skepticism to cross your face. Let me set the record straight. My dad met a woman at the Puget Sound Guitar Workshop one of the many summers he has been teaching there. She sent him a carved African statue made from an elephant tusk. We aren't sure exactly how old the statue is, but when my dad's friend hosted a Peruvian exchange student, the student's father, who had been working in East Africa, presented her with the statue as a gift. It was brought into the US well before the ban on ivory and has never been sold or bartered.

To be delicate, the sculpture did not exactly boast the cutest face you'd ever seen carved into something.  According to my dad's friend, her grandson was scared of it, so she put it away in a closet after it sat, displayed in her living room, for several decades. Her children had no interest in inheriting the artifact, so she sent it along to my dad, hoping he would be able to use it to make nuts and saddles for guitars. She hoped for something good to come of the statue for which a majestic elephant had sacrificed one of its tusks many many years ago. After the statue glared at us from a shelf  behind the bandsaw for several months, my dad finally decided to make use of it. He offered to give me a piece to make an old-timey pyramid bridge for my ukulele. I think these bridges are one of the most beautiful, elegant pieces that can be added to a guitar and figured a little one for a ukulele would look extra neat. "You reckon an African spirit is going to come haunt us if we cut this thing up?" He asked. I was not sure, and am still a little concerned that I might have a cursed ukulele on my hands, but I think it is worth the risk. The gift of this sculpture has brought joy and happiness to me, as now I have a beautiful ukulele that sounds and looks way too good for who it is for. ;-)


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Corn Cobs and Baseball

It is interesting to think about how I sought entertainment as a kid versus how a kid today keeps busy, and even more interesting to listen to the stories of how my dad used to. Coming from a place with no video games or TV, not too many kids his own age to play with, and only a pocket knife and farm animals in the general vicinity I know from experience that it was probably difficult to find things to do in Rugby. My dad was definitely more inventive than I was. In honor of the Red Sox winning the World Series, I am going to write a little bit about one of my dad's childhood pastimes because he seems to get such pleasure from telling shop visitors about it.

By the time I came around, my Granny's farm had shrunk to include only low maintenance animals; a few chickens and grazing cows to keep the field grass from growing up, and for a short time, the hateful turkey/my dad's bestie, Smedley. When my dad was young, the farm had, accompanying the chickens, milk cows and beef cows, horses, mules, sheep, ducks, and a pen full of pigs.

As I may have mentioned before, when my dad was young, there weren't many folks around Rugby who were my dad's age, and just like how I used to run around with my cousins, Lauren and Leah, my dad would run around with his cousin, (Lauren and Leah's uncle) Tex. A lot of times they would take over hog lot and take nibbled corn cobs from the trough with which they would play a game aptly dubbed corn cob baseball.

The object of the game was to hit the cob out of the hog lot and that feat would procure a run. The difficulty of the game was to actually hit the cob. The bat was usually a plank of wood about two inches in width, into which my dad would whittle a handle. Most of the cobs sent its way would shatter upon being struck, but every now and again the batter could hit the cob directly on its end and send it flying. Since there was no catcher or umpire, the cousins figured out a method to cut down on a lot of arguments that tended to arise regarding balls and strikes. They hung an empty paper fertilizer bag on the fence behind the batter, and if the cob hit the bag, which made a 'big racket' the batter was issued a strike, and if it didn't he was awarded a ball.

According to my dad, he had an advantage on Tex. Since he had the home team advantage and was able to have access to the hog lot and the corn cobs every day, he would practice for hours throwing a curve ball...er cob. He said he got it just right so Tex was sure it was headed right toward his head, but at the last second it would curve and hit the fertilizer bag. "That really burt Tex up," my dad said laughing, clearly proud of his skill.

The way he describes his game, it sounds like such a fun way to keep entertained on a little farm in the middle of nowhere. I mainly piled together sticks and other bits of kindling that I found in the woodshed and pretended it was a town or something.

This year I watched some of the World Series with my dad. It started out that he was watching it and I was just there, pinning recipes on Pinterest or something, but I became curious when he would get excited about something that happened on the screen. He explained plays to me, and when 'ol' Beardy' did something good, and I actually began to appreciate the game a little bit. The way he explained the baseball games to me was similar to the way I heard him talk about his corn cob game. He was so excited about it and I felt lucky to share that time with him, enjoying vicariously something he has loved for his whole life, almost as much as he loves guitars. I even watched the last couple games of the Series at home in Asheville, something I would never normally do, just because I felt like it was still something I was doing with my dad, and even though he wasn't physically there, it felt like he was.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013


When I feel like a guitar is finished, it is never really finished. I guess the feeling of it being 'done' happens when the finish is buffed out and shiny, the neck is glued in, and the tuners are wound tight with strings. It is rarely the case that you're done after all of that.

Stringing up an acoustic instrument takes so much longer than I ever think it should. Before you can string a guitar, for example, a shiny Koa 0-42, holes must be drilled through the freshly glued on bridge so that bridge pins can snugly fit into the body of the guitar. I will tell you that holes drilled into an almost finished, shiny, clean guitar is just my least favorite activity. I can definitely feel my blood pressure increase with each turn of the drill bit as it digs deeper into my guitar top. Next, I have to drive little files into those holes to make slots for the strings so they don't bund or cause buzzing under the guitar top. The stressful crux of that operation is keeping the tiny serrated daggers in the slots within bridge holes and keeping them from sneakily popping out and gauging a hole in the top of the beautiful guitar. Lots of times I use one of Herb's bridge removal tools, a piece of cardboard with a bridge shaped hole cut out of it, to keep from hitting the top if I were to slip with the file. Thanks for that invention, Herb. 

After the strings are tuned up on the instrument, it has to make the right sounds. If I cut the slots wrong into the fingerboard, that won't be the case. So far, that hasn't happened to one of my instruments, as I am severely meticulous when it comes to making fingerboards, due to this exact reason, but I always check every note anyway. After making sure each note is correct on the fingerboard, it is time to check for buzzing. In order to reduce the chance of the strings buzzing, all of the frets must be even so that the strings hit at the right spot on the fingerboard rather than hitting a high fret closer to the soundhole. Now that we have a fret press rather than having to hammer each fret into the fingerboard slot, the job of filing the frets even with each other is significantly easier. When I would hammer the metal, it would never end up even across the fingerboard, leaving little humps on each fret to be filed down. Even though it is a bit simpler, I still look at the arced piece of metal onto which a strip of sand paper is affixed with disdain as it is never a fun task to scrub it across the fingerboard of a finished guitar.

The thing about all the extra work that comes with finishing a guitar or a ukulele is that I feel even more attached to this thing that I have made, a lot of times feeling as though it is a living being I am adopting out, hopefully to a loving home. And I worry with each one that it won't go to as loving a home as I would wish. That is typically not the case at all, as most folks who order a custom instrument know how to care for and love what I have painstakingly made. This time was no exception. I can tell just as the case is first opened when someone really understands what I want for one of my guitars, and I think my latest 0-42 is going to be a very happy guitar. It's new owner Roger's face lit up almost as much as Ralphie's did when he received his Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two Hundred Shot Range Model Air Rifle. Hopefully Roger doesn't put his eye out with his new guitar though. I am usually so sad to see all of my hard work head out the door, but this time I was so happy to experience how glad it's new owner was to have it, and I know it will be well loved and have a great life.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013


Have you ever wondered why guitars have binding on them? I have, because, you know, I am a luthier, and I spent the better part of today adding pearl around the top of a Koa 0-42. I assume the reason for the traditional ivoroid wrapped around a guitar body is there because it protects the instrument from damage to the sides, and it also covers up any issues that may make a perfect fit of the top and back impossible. I am less sure about the ornamentation such as herringbone or abalone that winds around the top next to the binding other than the increased fanciness it provides.

I was thinking it might be interesting to read about how I go about adding binding and purfling on my guitars. If that doesn't sound interesting to you, go ahead and skip this post. I will try to write something more witty and entertaining for you next time. For folks interested in the construction of a guitar, this is a pretty interesting, albeit difficult, process that isn't always appreciated since it is not the most glamorous task in the guitar shop. (Just wait till I get to finish work.)

My dad has a silver, clunky router that looks like it was manufactured in 1978, maybe earlier, sitting in the top trough attached to one of the carpeted benches that snugly clamps guitar bodies ready for work. This router is special and is only used for the sole job of routing around guitar bodies to make space for binding and purfling. It has black electric tape wound around the orange cord where it emerges from the machine because it has twisted into frays from overuse. I worry every time I use it because I am pretty sure that this time will be it's last trip around a guitar, but it makes it every time, wheezing and overheated as it might be.

In order to get perfect binding on a guitar, you first have to cut the perfect groove. As badly as I hate adjusting, and testing, then adjusting again, that is what it takes. After several short runs on a test block of maple or spruce that I find behind the bandsaw, I finally get the right depth for the binding. Then, I route the space for the purfling, adjusting the router to cut less from the sides and more from the top.

After the groove is cut, it is time to glue on the binding and purfling. I prefer to use wood binding usually, so in those cases I use wood glue to attach the pieces, but this Koa 0-42 I am currently working on calls for ivoroid binding, so Duco cement is the best adhesive for that material. Along with the binding this guitar also requires that I add abalone around the top. In order to do that I have to fit a strip of three black and white stained maple lines on either side of a strip of teflon that is later removed and replaced with abalone. The most frustrating thing ever about the teensie tiny lines is that one of the black lines is thicker than the other, but not very much so it is just about impossible to figure out which is which. And it is important because the thicker line always sits next to the abalone. It is not always evident which line is thicker so I spend a significant amount of time checking and rechecking the lines before I glue them to the body. Just about every guitar that requires me to glue on these lines fills me with anxiety until I scrape down the binding flush with the guitar top and see for sure that I passed the test.

Can you tell which line is thicker?

With 42 and 45 style guitars, the purfling also runs around the neck and into the soundhole rosette. Now, I just want to tell you that this task took me all day today so I now understand the reason my dad typically prefers not to make guitars with such ornamentation. After measuring and routing the space, the dreaded tiny black and white lines must be perfectly joined together with a 45 degree mitre joint. So, on top of making sure the lines are siting the right way, each one must fit perfectly together. That is eight, count them, eight dreaded tiny lines that must line up around the neck and flow around the body. This work reminded me of a tedious surgical procedure, you know, minus the stress of potentially killing someone. After the lines are glued in, the teflon is removed and abalone must also be perfectly joined together. While struggling to match the lines, I asked my dad, "Is anyone seriously going to look this close?" "Yep." He answered.

The first work I ever did on guitars was putting the abalone in the space around the body when I was visiting during breaks from school. I remember enjoying that, but I never had to do the difficult mitre bits. I would snap the thin abalone strips into the space between the black and white lines with a satisfying click. I remember when my dad let me put the inlay into the guitar he was making for Eric Clapton, and while I knew it wasn't the most difficult job, it was still so great to be offered the position. I am glad I was provided that opportunity, because the feeling I had doing that, my dad trusting me to do satisfactory work, has been something I constantly strive for now in my current work as a luthier. And I have to do all the jobs these days.

Look what I did today! 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013


Cooking is one of my favorite pastimes. I am not entirely sure from where that interest stems, but I would like to think my Granny had something to do with it. I remember marveling at the outcome of requests for snacks such as pickles or french fries. I would expect, of course, for her to pull out a jar filled with limp, artificially colored pickles, the likes of which I see in the grocery store. But that was never the case. She gathered cucumbers from her garden, made her own brine with what she had, and they were always the most delicious pickles I had ever had. Usually a bit different each time. A lot of times I would simply request cucumbers sliced into spears with a sprinkling of salt on top. I think that was just about my favorite snack. And the fries never came from an Oreida bag. She would take a potato from the potato bin sitting below the window in the kitchen overlooking the back porch. She would then cut and fry the starch in a cast iron pan. I am not sure if I appreciated her hard work at the time as much as I do now, but I am sure I never loved or appreciated anything she made more than the apples.

Granny's apple tree
Every fall, Granny would gather apples that fell from her apple tree, which is still growing between the old cellar house and my dad's very first shop. She would then peel them. Have you ever seen someone who really knows what they are doing peel an apple? I have forever been amazed at this practice, and a few days ago while I was hacking the peel from some apples I was using to my one of my favorite fall brunch items (apple upside down biscuit cake), my thoughts returned to her and how she could peel an apple so perfectly without ever breaking the peel. Her small silver paring knife would glint in the light as she slowly and expertly peeled the apple, starting from the stem, and trimmed the peel in a beautiful spiral until it fell to the table in a single piece. Thinking back on it now, I can so clearly see her wrinkled hands, the back of the knife pressed hard into her thumb as she guided it slowly around the apple. The way she did that reminds me so much of how my dad carves on a mahogany guitar neck. I wonder if she enjoyed doing that as much as I know my dad enjoys whittling.

After she peeled the apples, she would slice them and spread them over a rack above the stove to dry. I remember looking at that rack, wires woven together to make quarter inch squares, and imagining it was something magical. It would always excite me when I walked into her house and saw the rack, sometimes filled with apples already, sometimes not. Either way, I knew something great was in the works. I tend to remember that production each year fall rolls around. My dad just said Granny would growl at him any time he would sneak a slice from the rack before they had dried. I always remember her looking the other way when I did it...

Apples still grow on the apple tree at my Granny's house.

Because I love fall food and apples are a huge part of that, here is my recipe for apple upside down biscuit cake:

Apple topping:
3 tbs unsalted butter
1/2 C brown sugar
2 or 3 peeled granny smith apples (But really, any apples you have will do. I have made this with the red and yellow colored apples from the tree that grows outside my dad's house, and it was delicious.)
A pinch or two of fresh grated nutmeg

Biscuit cake:
1 C flour
1/4 C granulated sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp fresh grated nutmeg
5 tbs unsalted butter
1/2 C buttermilk

Fist, see if you can peel an apple without breaking the peel. Apparently it is good luck if you can do it. My Granny was pretty lucky :-)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees

In a cast iron skillet, melt the butter over medium heat and add brown sugar and a few grates of nutmeg. Stir to mix until sugar is incorporated, then remove from the heat. Add apples. If you'd like, you can simply arrange the apples in an aesthetically pleasing manner and leave it at that. I prefer to mix the apples in with the brown sugar mixture, then just make sure the bottom of the pan is covered with apples. I have tried this both ways, it is good no matter what. Set the pan aside.

In a medium bowl whist together all dry ingredients, then add butter and using your hands work the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles course meal. Add the buttermilk and mix just until incorporated. Pour the biscuit dough over the apples. It is not necessary to completely cover the apples, but try to spread the mixture evenly over the apples, spreading the dough out to about one inch from the sides of the pan.

Bake the cake in the oven for 25-30 minutes, or until golden brown and firm to the touch. Let the cake cool a bit before inverting it onto a plate or cookie sheet. Replace any apples that stick to the skillet.

I hope you enjoy this lovely fall treat! It is great for dessert or breakfast/brunch. If you try it, let me know how it turns out! (And if you were able to peel an apple in one piece.)

Monday, September 9, 2013

(I'm Still) Buzzing Just Like Neon

Harper and I were walking down our little road earlier this morning and among the light morning haze I felt a breeze. It was the breeze of impending fall. You know, when everything still looks like summer, save for a few overachieving trees dropping their leaves when everything else around them is still green, but there is that undercurrent of moving air that carries with it the slightest tinge of chill. I know it's coming, and while I do enjoy fall, I also know it is just a precursor to the most dreaded (by me) of all seasons.

I used to enjoy winter very much, but then my body started to dislike it, contracting a syndrome called Raynaud's, which basically just means that when there is a possibility of it being a bit chilly outside (or inside or anywhere) my body thinks that I have wandered deep into the backcountry on top of some extremely high altitude mountain that would require the aid of sherpas and therefore solely focuses on keeping only my vital organs warm, lots of times leaving my fingers, feet, and toes to fend for themselves without any blood at all. So, if you notice that I wear a lot of down vests and UGG boots in weather that seems not to require such drastic puffy clothing, the reason is that my body can't tell the difference between what the temperature actually is and what it would if I were hanging out on the top Everest. So...my point is that while I enjoy fall, and all of the festivities that fall within those colorful months, I am not too keen on the impending wintertime. Let's focus on fall then.

Even though I am not in school anymore, I still get that feeling that fall is the time to start new projects with enthusiasm and join a lot of groups and fill up my calendar with social obligations and sign up for trail races so I can relive all of the autumns that I ran cross country. I didn't particularly enjoy the cross country season since I was far more successful at track an field, but still for nostalgia's sake, I go on longer runs and falltime is the very best running weather, most often with a soundtrack packed full of songs written and performed by John Mayer.

I like to feel nostalgic about music. Does that ever happen to you? When a CD by an artist that you just love comes out and you listen to it repeatedly until you get kind of tired of it, and then when you listen to songs from that album months from then, you remember how it felt to listen to them when you first purchased the album? No? Maybe that is just me...Well, to me, fall sounds like John Mayer. I have preferred to listen to his music above most anyone else's for about twelve years now. And it seems like many of his records have come out in the fall. So, now when I listen to 'Something's Missing', or 'Back to You', or 'Neon', I think of the year that I most often listened to those tracks, with my earbuds stuffed in my ears, providing for me a soundtrack on my way to sociology class. This fall, Paradise Valley is providing such a great musical background to my life. My dad, who has quietly and patiently listened to just about every John Mayer album on repeat in the shop even says this new album is good. (That's really saying something since when I have asked for a visit/personal concert with John Mayer for Christmas just about every year for the past 10 years always says, "That's just about the closest thing to nothing you can get!")

I have always imagined what I would say to John Mayer, were I ever to meet him, but I never thought I would actually get to say those things. And, I mean, if we are being honest, I still haven't said those things to him even though I had the chance last Wednesday evening at approximately 7:47pm. It is times like these that I am so thankful that my dad is as successful in the guitar business as he is. I don't always love it since it requires me to constantly share his attention with the world, but just right now, that is ok. Otherwise I would not have met Christie Carter, one of the owners of Carter Vintage Instruments, who is kind of amazing if you don't know, and so is her shop filled with great old Martins and Gibsons, and the occasional Henderson guitar. I feel a kindred type relationship with her because there aren't many ladies in the guitar business, so it is a breath of fresh air to get to chat with her instead of the typical shop full of middle aged retired men. I mean, no offense to those guys, but a lot of times it is painfully obvious that I have nothing in common with them except that they really like guitars and I make them. Anyway, Christie managed to get me a few backstage passes to John Mayer's concert in Charlotte, and I just about couldn't handle the excitement as the day slowly approached.

I had a feeling the conversation I would have with John would go similarly to a disastrous one I had with a professor as NC State once. He was one of my very favorite professors, and I enjoyed his classes very much. I always like to set myself apart from the mass of students taking the same class as me, so I would occasionally visit during office hours and say hello before or after class. Well, on a very chilly (for Raleigh) late fall morning I headed to campus, and on my way I grabbed my bottle of Pellegrino out of my car because I love Pellegrino almost as much as I love John Mayer's music and was hoping to drink it on the walk to school. On the way, I noticed that, after being in my car all night, my bottle was frozen. Boo. After class, I noticed that my professor also had a little bottle of Pellegrino as he stood outside of our classroom. "Hi Dr. Kallat! I love Pellegrino. Mine's frozen." I proclaimed with no offer of the backstory that statement required.  Suffice it to say, an awkward silence ensued as my embarrassed friend dragged me from the scene.

This is what I feared would happen when I spoke to John Mayer because, while I don't typically get very star struck when meeting very talented musicians, I did after all ask for a visit with him for Christmas and I had imagined all sorts of things to say to him in the decade that I have enjoyed his music more than anyone else's music. I just hoped to get out that I liked his guitars and that I made them and that he was awesome. It was not as disastrous as my Pellegrino mishap, but I wish we had had more time to chat about guitars since that might be something that would set me a little bit apart from the image of the deranged fan that I actually am. I forgot to tell him how much I love his little Martin 0 45 that he has been playing a lot lately. He said he had heard of my dad's guitars, and I did remember to tell him that I also made guitars and that I preferred to use sustainable wood. To that, he replied that he thought that all guitar wood is sustainable because the wood is preserved forever into an instrument. I started to respond but he stopped me and said, "Just agree with me." And I said, "Ok. Since you are John Mayer I will agree with you." Then we snapped a picture commemorating that moment and I now have another great memory to add to my John Mayer soundtrack of fall.

I can't even help being that excited. Natalie did a better job of not looking insane...Oh well.

Thursday, August 15, 2013


It is currently 1:13 on Sunday morning. I figured I would start this blog post while listening to the competition results of the Galax Fiddlers Convention. The voice crackling over the air waves reminds me of so many August nights that I spent running between jam sessions barefoot looking for some debauchery amid twangs of guitars and banjos. (Side note: my dad just won second place in the guitar competition.)

When I was younger, I used to love going to fiddler's conventions with my dad. Most of the time I would stay up way past any normal hour for bedtime, and eventually fall asleep in a friend's camper listening to the folks huddled in tight circles playing bluegrass tune after bluegrass tune.

Heading to conventions like Galax, I always had a family of friends that I rarely saw outside of such gatherings. After my dad pulled into a parking spot at each festival, I would race to find my friend Liza, and while I had no idea where she lived, or what she did in her real life, we would continue on seamlessly where the last festival left off, talking and playing and finding things to do while our parents played music together.

I was obviously pretty into Aaron... (Photo credit: Cheryl Davis
One particularly special family was a huge part of my festival family. Gary and Cheryl Davis are two of the kindest, most thoughtful people I know, and one summer, while at Galax, my dad allowed me to spend several days with them. To me it felt like a year, and every second was the greatest second of my life. Gary and Cheryl have two sons, Brandon and Aaron, both of whom were twice my age at the time of my visit; I was six and Aaron was 12 and Brandon was 14. Even though there was a pretty significant age gap between us, they always let me join in playing with them and shared their Duck Hung Nintendo game with me. Cheryl took me everywhere with her and made me feel so special to be included in their lives. I will always cherish that time with them, and the Galax Fiddlers Convention set into motion the opportunity for me to get to know them, and other great folks, while my dad was busy being stopped every few steps to chat with fans and friends.

Me with Cheryl Davis (Photo credit: Cheryl Davis)
Galax this year :-)

I learned very early on not to hope for any meaningful time with my dad while he was at these events as every one is the same. I would ask if we could go somewhere, typically places along the lines of the sno cone booth or the funnel cake maker (he calls them Funeral Cakes), and he would always oblige, but we would rarely make it before I grew bored of listening to him chat with each new person he encountered. Now, I haven't been to Galax in several years, and this year something really strange happened. I got to hang out with my dad little bit. I announced to whoever was listening at the time that I wanted to go watch the bluegrass band competition, and my dad offered to accompany me. We made our way to the stage, and made it in record time. I figured we would just stand, or go sit in the bleachers because the area in front of the stage was filled with camp chairs and folding nylon recliners. To my surprise, he said, "Oh, just go pick out some good chairs that nobody is sitting in. If the owners come by, they will tell us." So we did. And only got kicked out once. With each band, my dad would say, "They are gonna win something." Or, "Hm, maybe their sound wasn't set up quite right. Good job anyway though." It is great to hear how encouraging he is of his peers and up and coming musicians. I love that about him.

Me and my dad in our stolen camp chairs. 
I had a great time meeting new Galax friends and felt so happy to see the new generation of kids running around barefoot, and learning to love this type of music. There are some incredibly talented people who all convene at this one big festival, and I am so lucky I get to call them my friends.

New generation of Galax goers. 

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Inlay day!

It is no secret that I love inlay day. But like all of the skills I have acquired while learning how to build guitars, my first few attempts weren't ideal.

I remember when I was young and wanted to spend time with my dad, I would think of objects to ask him to help me make. Even if it was a somewhat ridiculous request, he was always able to figure out how to do it. He did most of the work,  but then attributed a lot of it to me when we were done. These projects included such things as small wood boxes, jewelry, a roll top bread box that "we" made for my aunt and uncle, a cribbage board, cutting boards, a mortar and pestle. When I was in middle school, we made a chess board for my mom; my dad cut the pieces on the table saw and let me arrange them on the board. I got to help pick the wood, curly maple for the white spaces and deep red cherry for the dark spaces. I carefully arranged them, and glued them to the maple base, taking care to checker them accordingly. We then added a dainty black line, typically used for guitar purfling, around the edges and used an S-shaped router bit to carve a fancy edge around the board.

Most of my tasks during these projects were menial; sanding, arranging, and then sanding some more. I remember  once I asked to make a box with a little E inlaid on the top. My dad handed me the jeweler's saw and let me to go town. After an hour or so and several broken pieces of pearl, I cut out something kind of resembling an E. At the time, my dad failed to mention that there was a little machine that would cut a pretty little space for my E to fit into the wood, so I went at the box top with a pocket knife. Miraculously, with no flesh cut or blood spilled, I managed to dig out an unfortunate little hole for my sad little E. I still have that box sitting in my room at my dad's house. I look at it sometimes and think of how much I have learned since then. It is encouraging that through the guitar skills I have acquired, I also have been provided with limitless possibilities of the things I can make. One or two Christmases ago, Nick wanted to make a present for his parents. When we decided to make wooden spatulas, I took on the role my dad typically filled, and then Nick sanded. It was nice to be able to do something together, and I was proud to have shared the same knowledge that was previously passed to me.

Speaking of acquiring new skills, I just finished cutting an inlay for the fingerboard of one of my dad's guitars. The super neat thing about it is that half of the inlay was already done! Charlie, a jeweler who lives in Independence and periodically brings us delicious Thai food wanted to contribute some of his skill to his guitar. I have mentioned him in a previous post, as he is also a very talented engraver who visits the shop every now and again to help my dad hone his engraving skills. Anyway, the filigree-type inlay he did was beautiful, I just hope my abalone accents compliment his skillful work. So far I have only dabbled in the art of inlaying metal, trying it on a cutting board and one fingerboard, but his work, as well as the new tool and sheet of silver he brought gifted me, has inspired me to keep experimenting! The only downside to this method is how long it takes to hand file the inlaid pearl and super glue instead of just putting it on the sander because of the delicate nature of the metal inlay. When I finally finish filing this thing, I will be sure to update this post with a picture!

Phone picture from the inlays I cut (not yet inlaid) while sitting on my deck in Asheville. 

My first attempt at metal inlay on a recent wedding present.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Roscoe Plummer

I have to attribute the delay of this weeks entry to one Chio Garza. She and her (super awesome) fiance Chris came to visit me and Nick earlier this week, thus distracting me from writing you a story. Chio has been my friend for ... I don't think I even want to admit how many years, suffice it to say we met in sixth grade. She came with me to Rugby once and I remember being extra jealous because even my cousin Lauren thought she was cooler than me. But, she is, so in hindsight, that is ok.

Anyway, speaking of visitors to Rugby, I want to tell you about one that I never had the pleasure of meeting. People always come to my dad's house without much warning, and rarely with any type of invitation. I always find it a little bit rude, especially because it is my and my aunt Shirleen's job to clean up after they go, but my dad just kind of lets it happen and is fine with it either way. I have never understood this level of hospitality, but it seems that it has been engrained in him since he was young.

One recent afternoon I was sitting with my dad and Shirleen on my dad's porch. We were reminiscing about my Granny's Sunday dinners, and my dad mentioned that when he was young, he would always have to sprint to the dinner table when Roscoe Plummer was at the table, for fear of missing the opportunity to grab some lunch before Roscoe cleaned them out.

"Roscoe Plummer? Who is that?" I asked him. He told me that Roscoe lived a "few hollers over" but his only brother refused to let him stay with him in his house if he didn't contribute monetarily, so he would meander from family to family of the community of Rugby, exchanging room and board for meager work. My dad and Shirleen spoke of him kindly, they obviously enjoyed his visits to their house. Apparently, Granny and my grandfather Walter would let Roscoe stay for several days at a time and housing and feeding him while he worked on a project.

My dad said that typically Roscoe was not the most reliable farm hand, often working days on a task, such as mending a fence, that would take my uncle or grandfather a day or so to complete. Even though he wasn't the strongest worker, my Granny still cooked all the food they had, and Roscoe was obviously not shy to claim his share of the reward, if not a little bit more than that.

After a little bit of research, I found that Roscoe served in World War I and, according to my dad, "wasn't quite right in the head" so he was unable to keep a job or support a family. He did receive a small disability check from the government, but not enough to do too much with. I suspect that Roscoe suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, and did the best he could to serve his community despite his affliction. My dad said Roscoe would often bring a small piece of candy or a toy for him when he arrived at my grandparent's house, for which my dad was always ecstatic. He said that even though Roscoe ate most of my dad's share of food at the dinner table, he would still look forward to the next visit. Roscoe had an old pistol like the cowboys had, that of course my dad coveted, and would regale him with stories and excitement that my dad hadn't yet imagined.

Hearing about this gentle vagabond and how the community not just tolerated him, but appeased and supported him warms my heart. I love that even though my family didn't have much to give, they still provided all that they could. My dad carries this trait with him, donating infinite amounts of his time and work, as well as his home, to visitors every day. I admire him so much for that, because not everyone is kind enough to give so wholeheartedly to this world.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Tappin' that Ash

I worry a little bit that when I get better at building instruments, I will have less to tell you about. The stressful, albeit entertaining, disasters, the elation over actually doing something well...Eh, you're right, I will probably never get that good to not have any stories. How lucky for us all!

This past week, I have been finishing up a ukulele as well as working on a 000 guitar and neither have provided all that much stress. My dad was off teaching a workshop and left me in charge of things while he was gone, and the last time he did that, I forgot to glue the bridge plate onto the top of my guitar before I glued it onto the guitar body. I then spent the entire night worrying about how to remedy that instead of sleeping. After several hours of pondering how to go about righting that kind of serious oversight, Herb walks in the shop and goes, "Well haven't you ever paid any attention to what I do here?! About 90% of my time is spent removing and putting in bridge plates. Of course you don't have to take the whole top off!" So, now I know, and all the fretting (hehe, guitar joke) was for nothing because it turns out I could (fairly) easily glue the bridge plate into the top without significant hassle.

Simple curly maple rosette and purfling, rosewood binding 

This 000's top has a bridge plate, and small braces around the soundhole, and I even remembered to sign it and make sure the kerfing was fitted perfectly around the back braces before the body was glued together. After I tightened that last clamp though I was pretty sure I had to be forgetting something. I had to have, right? As far as I can tell, everything is in order. Odd to do something right once in a while, and boring as now I have nothing to tell you about, other than obnoxiously hinting that I am awesome and super good at guitar building now... Just wait till my dad sees it and finds some significant step forgotten...Until then though, I have decided that I am awesome.

Speaking of awesome things, I will say that this new ukulele that I just finished is pretty neat. The wood is White ash, again provided by the amazing Dean from Electric Hardwoods. He sent me home with this beautiful piece of ash (haha) that he and his employees had been using as a coat rack. After I sawed pieces for sides and glued together a back and a top, everyone in the shop enjoyed making ash jokes. After listening to the surprisingly strong residual ring produced when he tapped on the surface, Harrol exclaimed, "Wow! What a great sound that comes from tapping that ash!" Similar jokes ensued just about all day, but the fact remained that, aside from the eye catching grain, it was a promising piece of wood that would also produce a great tone.

Another neat thing about this ukulele is that I had free reign to make it however I saw fit, using any materials of my choosing. The ukulele is going to be featured as part of an exhibit promoting the history of instrument building at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History along with instruments made by several other local luthiers. Well known folks like my dad and Audrey Hash are among the lutheirs chosen to display instruments for the exhibit, so I am pretty lucky they decided to include me as well. The only downside is that when they came to take pictures I was still wearing Tiffany blue colored nail polish since I was fresh back from Asheville. (I try to cover the guitar stain, black superglue, and saw marks on my nails while I am in Asheville among regular folks so as not to appear homeless or scare anyone.) I think it was difficult for the exhibit designers to conceal those, so my picture looks kind of like I am napping rather than working. I really was doing something, probably really important. Here is a link to the museum's webpage, there you can find information about the exhibit and other neat goings on at the museum. They also have a facebook page, so once you are done liking my page, go like theirs too!

Photo (and borrowed ukulele) courtesy of Mac Sumner
The ash really does sound great now that it has been bent and carved into a ukulele, and of that I am very proud. I have not heard of anyone else, at least not around here, using such a wood to make a guitar or ukulele, and it is so exciting for me to be able to find new and different materials that are local and sustainable so I can help open people's minds about acceptable types of tonewood. This one is a doozy and I think if you heard it, you would want an ash instrument too! All the cool kids have one.

Decided to try metal inlay for the soundhole rosette. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Ukulele favorites

The last two ukuleles I built might be my all time favorites. For now anyway. Even though I say that after pretty much every build, these are a little more important because of who they were built for. Usually the super extra special ones are reserved for my family members, like my mom's curly maple ukulele, cousin Matt's Koa cutaway guitar, or Leah's ukulele; my very first one. But the interesting thing about numbers eleven and twelve is that neither was for someone I have known for any significant amount of time, and even though they were not for my super close friends or family members, I was excited to put a little extra love in there anyway.

Of course, I met both Steve and Lucas through my dad, but unlike most folks who filter through the shop who are solely focused on obtaining a Wayne Henderson instrument, they both stopped long enough to talk to me too. Lucas and his grandparents have become frequent visitors to Rugby and I now consider them good friends to my dad, so it was super flattering that they always include me too. Lucas is the most positive, extraverted person I know, and I definitely had trouble believing he was 16 when I met him. Not just because he laid on a pretty heavy slather of flirting, but because he was completely devoid of that cape of insecurity and brooding most teenage boys shroud themselves with. It was Lucas who introduced me to Zac Brown, got my dad to play on stage with him, and of course the most important thing, somehow convinced John Mayer to write me a little note (with a heart!!) on his Born and Raised CD cover saying that I had built a great guitar. (I might have wet myself a tiny bit when I read that, but that is beside the point.) Also, because I assume we are all friends here, I will also unnecessarily share that I had already bought that CD twice because I pre-ordered it on Amazon but it didn't come fast enough so I bought another copy at Target the morning it came out...Now I have three, so if you missed buying this album, let me know because I might have an extra...Aaaanyway....

For Lucas, I knew I had to make something worthy of such a great guy, and that was the challenge of this build. The ukulele I ended up constructing was made from Hawaiian koa wood, as it is traditional, but also the most beautiful wood I know of; I figured it would be difficult to make a uke that would not get lost among his flashy personality, so the fanciest wood was used. I also added pearl inlay around the top and soundhole, and designed and cut a pattern of curly cues for the fingerboard. I was pretty proud to have worked on this ukulele completely alone; my dad did not even test it after I strung it up to make sure I had set the strings up right. When I work on an instrument, sometimes it seems that everything falls into place just as it should, and like this time, the ukulele played perfectly the first time I strung it up. Maybe that is something that happens normally for other folks, I know it does most always with my dad, but I like to remember what he always says when I mess something up, "Well, you always gotta learn how to fix stuff. That is more important than getting it right."

I apologize for the quality of these pictures-forgot my camera at home and had to use my telephone...

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Goat Man

There is a fellow named Frank who lives nearby. He likes to stop in the shop periodically to check on his guitar order and remind my dad that he is still patiently waiting by offering him fresh eggs, mason jars of honey, and goat's milk feta cheese from his farm. Frank is a goat farmer. Aside from the occasional bit of straw stuck to his boot or the shoulder of his fleece, you would have trouble telling Frank that is a goat farmer, as he is very knowledgeable about many things, most of them having nothing at all to do with goats.

When he first ordered a guitar from me, I didn't quite know what to make of him, but I gladly accepted the goat's milk feta and honey. He is obviously very smart and I was a little curious as to how this fellow, who prefers Arc'Teryx to Carhart, came to be a goat farmer in the rural North Carolina mountains in the first place. Turns out, he hasn't been a goat farmer for that long, as several years ago he was the president of the Chicago Transit Authority, he was besties with then Mayor of Chicago, Richard Daly, and his wife ran many political campaigns, even working with Hilary Clinton. Frank was even nice enough to ask Hilary to sign the picture of her shaking hands with my dad when he received a National Heritage Award and we all tromped up to Washington to rub elbows with the political elite. In all honesty, I was too short at the time to reach any elbows of note so I mostly just hung around the food table.

Anyway, this post is being written to tell you about the guitar I made for Frank. The neat thing about him, other than leaving a high-powered political position in Chicago in order to become a goat farmer in the mountains, is that he was very interested in having an instrument that I would enjoy building, and encouraged the use of sustainable materials and whatever else I might want to do. His guitar is the third of mine that has been constructed with oak, and I ended up using a beautifully curly piece that I got from my new friend Dean, who lives up in Haysi, VA. If you missed that post about Electric Hardwoods, go read it. You will learn about Dean.

The only downside to that set of wood is that it smelled a little....how do I put this delicately? Like turkey poop. How do I know what that smells like? Well, it just happens to be my dog harper's favorite poop to roll in, not that she is particularly picky, but she seems especially proud of herself when she trots over to me covered in streaks of the smelliest feces you can imagine. That's how I know. My dad and Herb speculate that the wood was reclaimed from the side of an outhouse or something, but from wherever it came, the stench in it's wake was pretty rough. Especially when it was sprayed with water, which happens during several steps in the guitar making process. I hoped fervently that the six or seven layers of catalyzed varnish I would eventually spray on it would quell the odor. Several folks pointed out that it was a fitting smell for a goat farmer as it didn't stray far from what feta cheese smells like. Frank claimed not to notice the smell much, so that was lucky. The smell did diminish as I worked down the wood and sealed its pores with wood filler and varnish, so crisis averted. Mostly.

It is always exciting to be asked to do new things; different sizes of guitars I have never done before, or an ambitious inlay, or a new type of wood. This guitar was just about the opposite of that 12 fred D I was working on alongside it, but it provided just as many new skills as the bigger guitar. Frank asked me for a left handed 00 guitar. I loved the small size (no dropping!), and was excited to learn the differences between making a left handed and right handed guitar. Turns out, there isn't much, except for the two bottom braces on the top of the guitar were opposite sides, and obviously the strings and the bridge were opposite as well. It ended up being easier than my dad predicted for me to remember and carry out such tasks, maybe because I am left handed and it made more sense to me, or perhaps because I am still so new at the building process that I haven't adopted a specific muscle memory for the craft. Either way, it was really fun. Bring on some more exciting builds like this one!

Tree headstock inlay. 

Frank testing her out! Also, Frank's niece Gretchen made the pickguard when she visited from Vermont! 

Showing off the back wood.

He asked for an acorn to be inlaid on the heel cap so everyone will know it is made of oak! 

Lovely match to the sides. Koa binding and end piece.

Koa rosette and binding. 

I can play just as many chords on this thing as a regular! Maybe I am ambidextrous. Or should be playing left handed... 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Hello again friends!

Hello again! After a bit of a break, I am back to tell you some more stories of the shop life here in Rugby. It has been such a busy spring, I have barely had time to brush my hair. (Well, let's face it, I still probably wouldn't do that even if I did have the time...) But thank you so much for being patient and still wanting to read what I have to say! I figured I should get back to it when one of my dad's friends asked if I was still updating my blog or her computer might be broken because she has not received an update notification recently. Woopsie. On the upside, I have gotten a lot of work done, finishing two new guitars and also two ukuleles. It is too bad I wasn't able to tell you immediately how much I enjoyed working on each of those instruments, and watching them come to life, but I will tell you a little bit now, starting with guitar #11:

Guitar number eleven is one of the very few dreadnaught sized guitars I think I will ever build. It is a sloped shoulder 12 fret style, and for goodness sake, did it want to jump on the floor any chance it got. My hands are not large enough to handle such a wide body and there were several times that I thought I had ruined weeks of hard work after it slipped from my fingers when I attempted to slide it into an empty slot in the shelf that holds unfinished guitar bodies. Once, I completely lost grip on the thing and it tumbled full forcedly into a basket of pointy clamps that sits on the floor next to the shelf. My dad's no-nonsense friend Don was there to witness that slip and in his typical gruff tone, said, "Well you've done it now, I guarantee you busted a whole in the side of that thing." After much scrutiny of every inch of that guitar body, I could not find so much as a ding in the surface. I suppose that is another great attribute to using oak. It sure is durable.

Even though it was too big for my little hands to deal with a lot of the time, I do love so much how this guitar turned out. I attempted my first sunburst top, which turned out to be a lot more difficult than I imagined it would be. My dad has always said I would probably be really good at spraying sunbursts because most of the art I made growing up included heavily shaded abstract images. I even used to change the gradient within the black lines of a coloring book page with a crayon or colored pencil.

Turns out, this is a kind of different skill set.  The spray gun that usually houses finish is filled instead with black stain, with a couple of drops of brown just for a little bit of depth I guess. Then you have to attempt to evenly spray a gradient into the top of the guitar, which, if you think about it is kind of like spray painting a pristine, clean white wall. Maybe Banksy would excel at such things, but I was definitely not super excited to go spraying black stain all over the top of my beautiful guitar body. Needless to say, there was little room for error and if you look closely, you can tell I am not an expert at this type of work just yet. My dad said that is good though because the old Martins aren't perfect either, and that is the look we are going for anyway. So I guess I will go ahead and mark this attempt as a success.

This guitar turned out so much more beautiful than I would have imagined. The deep colors of the shaded top paired with the saturated color the oak was stained was surprising. The wood that Mark, the owner sent for me to use was, if we are being honest, not the prettiest pearl in the bunch...I even asked him if he would mind if I used a different set of oak that I bought from the lumber yard in Asheville. It boasted big bold light colored stripes set in the darker wood that looked like those marking a Bengal tiger. Luckily I sanded that set a little too thin for such a large guitar and ended up using his wood after all. (Don't worry, my set will be used for a smaller body guitar or a ukulele) When I circled on the first few dips of stain, the wood transformed into the most figured, beautiful piece I had ever seen. My dad was equally amazed at the transformation, as no one saw that coming. The finished product ended up being significantly more exciting and fun than I anticipated, the dropping episodes aside.

I am so honored to have been asked to build a guitar for the fellow who ordered this instrument. He really knows what he is talking about when it comes to quality and sound, and when he came to pick up his finished guitar last week, he seemed pleased with the outcome. Sometimes it feels like I am sending something equivalent to a child or a beloved puppy off to an adopted family, hoping so hard that my baby guitar will be well cared for and loved as it should be in its new environment. It is always such a relief to know for certain that they will be, and in this case I am certain.

Wood straight out of the box from Seattle

Note: The light in the spray room makes the guitar look a lot more red than it really is,.

My dad testing her out.

I apologize for the quality of these last few pictures-I might have left my camera in Asheville and had to use my phone...