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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, 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!