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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, 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...