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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, February 27, 2013

Luthier Adventure!

I took a deep breath to suppress the feeling of motion sickness I felt as my dad, his friend and fellow luthier, Gerald, and I wound our way deep into coal country north of Abingdon, VA in search of Electric Hardwoods, the company that supplies maple for Gibson and several other larger guitar makers. Feeling a little ill, we finally pulled up to a collection of sheds, surrounded by the hugest pile of felled trees I have ever seen all rounded up in one place. We tripped over to the entrance, luckily my dad had been there and knew where it was, as there were several doors we could have chosen, and who knows, it could have ended up like a game show situation or something.

Dean greeted us at the door, complete with a huge, welcoming smile. After general introductions, we handled the most important business first. My dad had been to visit Dean a couple of weeks ago and, immediately after returning to his shop, trunk packed full of gorgeous curly maple, began making Dean a guitar from some of the most beautiful pieces Dean sent him home with that trip.

Curly maple back and sides, Appalachian spruce top, koa binding.
"Check this out!" Dean proclaimed as we walked into one of his rooms, filled with wood stacked floor-to-ceiling and a line of fans going full blast for drying it. He handed me a slab of wood the color of rust, more saturated in the sapwood, filled throughout with curly grains. He said it was sassafras wood. While Dean deals primarily in maple or spruce, when he encounters a tree he deems interesting or exciting, he will take it as well, mostly just to see how beautiful it is once he cuts it into boards. He then figures out about what to do with it. Luckily for me, he hasn't found too much so he kept adding planks to my 'To Go' pile. The sassafras was the first on that pile.

All of the wood from Dean's shop is SmartWood certified, which I think is pretty cool. The SmartWood certification, given by the Rainforest Alliance, ensures that sustainable forestry practices are set in place with each log that is harvested. Given Gibson's trouble with importing illegal materials, it is encouraging to know that they are taking extra strides to ensure their maple supply comes from well-managed forests. I also appreciate being able to make instruments from such materials, so it was really a treat to see what types of wood he had in his shop.

While we toured the buildings that made up Electric Hardwoods, I chatted with Dean's friend Tim. The neat thing I learned about Dean during my visit, is that I noticed many parallels in his and my dad's personalities. Generous and friendly, happy to entertain visitors, and LOVES beautiful wood. Tim told me that, like most folks living in the mountains full of coal in Southwest Virginia, Dean originally worked in the mines to provide for his family, but he had always loved trees and went out on his days off to look for exciting trees. He began harvesting some, and then traveled around to lumber yards purchasing, milling, and reselling the most beautiful boards. According to Tim, Dean's mom called up Gibson, many years ago now, and asked if they were in the market for some curly maple. At the time, they were and Electric Hardwoods began.

Sawdust pile...

With each room we visited, my dad chose curly maple boards for mandolin backs, spruce boards for guitar and mandolin tops as a trade for the guitar he had given Dean, and I perused the burn pile for materials for ukuleles and cutting boards. It gives me great pleasure to use scraps to make something useful and beautiful, so I stocked up while I had the chance. The company sets out the pieces of wood not suitable for an instrument in a pile on the side of the road. According to the employees, it disappears quickly; neighbors take it for fire wood, or what ever they want, really. Tim and Jesse, another employee, helped me load the back of Tim's truck full of the prettiest pieces in case anyone came along to snag them to stuff into their wood stoves.  Also, the sawdust produced by the mill is directed into a grey trailer, similar to those ominous looking classroom-buildings sometimes used by schools when they are renovating or have overcrowding issues.  Locals are invited to take as much sawdust as they want for their horse stalls, or other farm uses. It is endearing to see how much this little company provides for their community, where many organizations would use such opportunities to turn a profit.

The atmosphere within Dean's operation is so warm and friendly. All of the employees, of which there are maybe ten, seem to enjoy their job, and were all willing to step in and find more wood we might be interested in, clambering back in the stacks to present the best ones. Several young boys would dart around the outskirts of our wheeling and dealing, staying out of our way while still getting their work done. I was thinking that a couple of those guys looked a little bit young to not be getting an education, but Tim explained to me that Dean lets several neighbor boys come help after school. It is always exciting to me to meet someone so kind and generous with his time and efforts. We truly had a great time visiting his shop. I presume Gerald's car however, might have held a different sentiment, as we stuffed it's whole back end full of boards and then insisted it drive us back to civilization (which was a quite a ways down the curvy road if we are being honest).

My new pals Tim and Dean! (Side note, check out where Dean made my dad sign his guitar with a Sharpie)

Most of the crew: Josh, Jesse, Chris, Heath, and Dean. (And they said I wouldn't remember their names)

Finally, if you are even still reading, I am excited to report that I have the body of a ukulele together with the sassafras Dean sent home with me. I think it is the best wood I have ever worked with, as it smells delicious, in my opinion anyway; my dad complains that it makes the whole shop smell. I am pretty sure I wold prefer that sweet, herbal tea smell over catalyzed varnish any day. Check back tomorrow, I will add a picture. It is currently snowing and I don't want to skid out to the shop and take a picture for you just now. Sorry.

Monday, February 18, 2013


I feel like I am really running low on interesting things to tell you. As far as shop news, it is pretty much business as usual, no one has set anything on fire or exploded any guitar parts lately...

Oh! One neat thing, I strung up my first slot head guitar today! For the past month or so, I have been working on a guitar based on a Martin 0-17 for a fellow who lives in Arizona. Since the weather has been just perfect lately for constructing an instrument that will live in extra low humidity, I figured I might as well go ahead and do that. When I say perfect, I mean freezing cold, windy and grey. Just thought I would clear that up.  It has been a fun build as I really love small guitars, and learning to make a slot head peghead has been exciting. My dad poked around the cluttered shelves in his shop, pulling out various jigs and small machines that we eventually strapped to the peghead in order to cut even, clean slots. I was also excited to find another use for my amazing router that I am so oddly proud of.

Carving the grooves under the slots for the strings to pass through was less exciting and more nerve-wracking. It is difficult to carve two things exactly alike, and having those two things situated directly next to each other to make comparing easy was less fun than running my router against the foolproof jig. After quite some time of whittling, filing with a round file, and sanding I eventually got them straight enough to satisfy my somewhat compulsive urge for symmetry. Then came the next step of attempting to sand and finish the inside of the narrow slots.

Another fun discovery I made while working on my slot head headstock is that I am pretty good at finishing them. It turns out that having tiny fingers does come in handy for one thing ever, and that one thing is sanding the inside of slots more thoroughly than someone with regular sized fingers. So that is exciting to know.

Every guitar I make I feel an attachment to, but since this one provided a new challenge and excitement of a different body shape and fret scale I feel it is a little bit more special. (I think I say that about each one as I learn something with every project I take on, but still, this one is awesome.) It amazes me how strong and powerful that tiny guitar sounds. Everyone around here seems to think you need a huge, bassy D-size guitar to make a strong presence in a jam session or on stage, but I think if I saw someone playing this guitar (or another similar one, not tooting my own horn..much) I would not be able to take my eyes off of it. Kind of like in John Mayer's video for Shadow Days. Not my favorite song, but I could stare at that guitar all day. Maybe I will just make me one now that I have thee slothead down :-) Though extra work, I enjoy the challenge of cutting, shaping, and finishing this classic headstock design.

Just strung her up!