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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)

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...

That little tidbit of advice came in handy upon the finish of ukulele number 11, as when I strung it up, expecting just as great a sound as the koa uke, there was something just a little bit off. There was a little buzz on one fret on the bottom string, and it was infuriating me that I couldn't get it out. That is the most frustrating thing about hammering frets into the fingerboard as opposed to using the fret press, which I often do because I can't find the straight metal piece that needs to be affixed into the press since ukulele fingerboards are straight (as opposed to the curved piece used for curved guitar fingerboards). Also, I haven't figured out how to change the thing even if I had been able to locate it. Hammering the metal makes for the frets to not always be uniformly pressed into the fingerboard, and the uneven fret is that is usually responsible for the string buzzing after it is strung up. Eventually we got it straightened out, but not after a little more frustration and a lot more filing of the frets.

Mockingbird on heelcap of Steve's guitar. 
I was so excited for this ukulele to turn out perfectly on first pluck of the strings because it was made for my friend Steve. He had an order in for a guitar with my dad for several years and ended up talking to me occasionally along the way. We ended up emailing back and forth more frequently as his wait time dragged on, but he never pestered me about getting higher on my dad's list which I so very appreciate, so I began to trust that he was actually interested in talking to me. I knew for sure when, after discussing a mutual affection for the novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, he sent me a collector's edition. If you didn't already know that it is my favorite book of all time, please consider that my dog's name is Harper Lee. I am definitely a winner.

Steve asked if I would do the inlay on his guitar if it ever came into production, and I am happy to say that I was able to do that, and inlaid a little mockingbird on the heelcap. That mockingbird design, that mostly just looks like a bird, but I tried anyway, is also inlaid in larger form on the headstock of his ukulele. The other neat thing is that I copied the style of guitar he was getting from my dad, which was a 00 42 with Brazilian rosewood. This was my first attempt at a 42 style body, inlaying pearl around the neck as well as the top and soundhole of the ukulele. The only difference between my ukulele and my dad's guitar is that his guitar has a slot head peghead, and the ukulele has a solid peghead. I bet you are wondering if I used Brazilian rosewood, which contrasts my belief to use local, sustainable materials, and the answer is yes. Wait, wait. Before you think I am sacrificing my beliefs for ol' Steve, let me share the little backstory of this wood. The wood I used was one 2x2 plank reclaimed from a Porsche factory, where it was slated to be made into gear shifter knobs. When the company moved, someone brought a pile of the planks to my dad's shop and he bought them. I feel like this is an acceptable source of Brazilian as it was already cut and saved from being burned. I will continue to use these planks as otherwise they are likely fated to end up sitting on a shelf for eternity since no one really wants a four-piece back. Sure turned out pretty though.

4 panel back.

Steve, who lives in Los Angeles, came to Rugby to pick up his two new instruments and while he was visiting, I took him to explore a little bit of the back country sticks of Rugby. Even though we were caught in a bit of a thunderstorm, we tripped along the trails of Grayson Highlands and I enjoyed each drenched step. Hopefully he and his three LA friends who joined us had as good a time as I did. It was truly a treat to get to visit and spend time with him and his friends Eric, Trish, and Ian.

Side note, Steve is one of the biggest supporters of my blog, so if you enjoy reading this, be sure thank him for encouraging me and pestering me to keep it up. I also thank him for becoming such a great friend and supporting me in this somewhat ridiculous endeavor of making instruments instead of working as an environmental advocate at a nonprofit somewhere. It is always such an exciting day when I meet that rare visitor who actually cares what the weird girl in the corner  of my dad's shop is sawing on over there. Steve, hope my ukulele did you proud!

All brazilian uke pictures courtesy of Steve. 


  1. Even with cell phone photos, the photography is great.

    1. Ha! You are just being nice-but I am glad they still show a little bit of the beauty of that wood!

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  3. Let me try again... It's great to hear a running commentary of the challenges of building a great instrument. So much goes into it... Nice job and I've been fascinated by your use of native woods in other instruments. How does the sound of this one made with Brazilian compare to others made with oak or maple?

    1. Thanks Geri! I really appreciate the support and interest in my instruments! Don't tell Steve, but even though the Brazilian one had a great unique sound, I have preferred the tones that came from the local woods a little bit more, even to Koa sometimes. My favorite sounding ones are the sassafras soprano, and the walnut tenor with the tooth on it. I think of all of the ones I have made, they might sound the best, though there hasn't been a huge difference in sound among all of them. My mom's maple uke sounds pretty darn good too-but I think it is a little low and produces a heavier tone-had I used a spruce top on it that probably would be the best sounding one.

  4. Message from Steve:

    Jayne--Here's the comment I tried (unsuccessfully) to post on your blog:

    Before this June I would have had a hard time saying which I expected to enjoy more, a new Henderson uke or a new installment of your blog which (as you correctly point out) I have been super impressed by since it started. If anything I said along the way encouraged your continuing to write---well, good for me.

    Bad news is that (at least for right now) it's no contest---as the uke is far more special (in many ways) than I dared hope. BTW, this doesn't mean your blog has fallen off---just that the uke is so, so fine. Hope to heck you keep up with BOTH building and writing.

    And yes, the guitar it's modeled on is wonderful, too. Particularly the heel cap.

  5. Beautiful work & I love, love the inlay.

    Did your dad tell you I offered walnut & cherry boards?
    Don't know if those particular woods are ok for ukes, maybe not. But if they are, let me know.

    Also, next time we see each other I should tell you my Alice & Harper Lee story. It's amazing Alice is going strong & still practicing law, but I think Nelle Harper is still in a nursing home. My cousin gave me an autographed copy of TKAM years ago for my birthday!

  6. Hi, Jayne! Just dropping in to let you know I've been reading your blog. I started at the oldest . . . maybe last week or so, and now I'm here. It's very enjoyable. I read a few entries every night. Reading about Doc brought back memories of a trio in the '70s. We played lots of Doc Watson and David Bromberg and Johnny Cash. Reels and jigs also.

    Speaking of "To Kill A Mockingbird", TODAY at the library I recommended it to a fellow perusaler (this IS a word in other languages!). We were in Audio Books. The library has a copy of Sissy Spacek reading it; she does an absolutely fantastic job reading that book. Sissy's voice, accent, and phrasing is well-matched for the writer's style. Highly recommended if you have a long drive. Or on the iPod. - jim s.

  7. Thanks so much for reading! (And not stopping after the first one...) I have the Sissy Spacek audible version of TKAM on my phone right now. I listen when I go running. I agree she does an amazing job telling the story. :-)