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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)

Monday, December 7, 2015


There are so many things in my life for which I am incredibly thankful. One of those things is that my dad has bestowed upon me the knowledge and ability to make beautiful hand crafted guitars that people want so badly they are willing to wait several years for me to make them one. I can't believe that is the case, and because of that each instrument is as unique of each person ordering one. My most recent projects were no different, however, there was a bit of a setback that required me to remember how thankful I am for my dad. Even though he caused it.

A week or so ago I finished two guitars, both 000-18s, in record time. I worked on my own, made no mistakes I had to go back and fix, and didn't feel the need to ask my dad for help or review after completing difficult elements.  Not even when fitting the dovetail joint on the neck into the guitar body which is usually a challenge for me as there is no cheating that angle, no option of covering it with an artistic flourish. All in all, the guitars took 14 days, though had my dad not 'helped' they likely would have taken 12 days.

Seven coats of finish had been sprayed on each guitar body and each neck, everything had been buffed out and sported a glossy sheen. All that left to be done before stringing the guitar was frets, which in hindsight, I should have pressed into the fingerboards before I started the finishing process. The reason I didn't was because I wanted to be sure the fingerboard was at the perfect angle after all was said and done so I waited until I was ready to glue in the neck.

My dad and I work on different schedules. I get out to the shop and start working by about 7:30 am, and work until 6 or 7 in the evening. My dad comes in around noon, and works until 3 am. I walked into the shop that morning, bright eyed and bushy tailed, ready to get on the task of fretting the fingerboard. If I finished that by noon, I knew would likely get these two guitars strung up that evening. I walked over to the table where I had left the necks the night before and stood staring at the table for a few minutes. Have you ever had that feeling where you know what you are supposed to be seeing, but the view just doesn't measure up? Like the first time you see a picture of a Platypus. Something's not quite right. Sitting on the granite table was my shiny neck, cut lengthwise down the entire neck, my peghead veneer clamped to an unfinished neck blank.
Sometimes I think of my dad like Santa because occasionally, when I am having a particularly tough time with something, I will give up for the night and go to bed. When I head back out to the shop in the morning the element that had caused me stress will be sitting there finished. This is what I assumed had happened the night before, only this time I was surprised with coal instead of a present. There was a note. It read, "Sorry about your neck. I was trying to be helpful and put in your frets. The fret squeezer pushed into the truss rod [groove]." I read through it a couple of times while I processed this information and though it made me sad that I had a pretty serious setback on my hands, I was mainly concerned that my dad probably felt really bad about breaking my neck. I knew it had to have been my fault if the groove cracked inward like that. After digging the truss rod out of the old neck it turns out the groove was deeper than where the rod sat which surely caused the neck to crack when pressure from the fret squeezer was applied. Sometimes weird things just happen. One thing I have learned from my dad is that there is not much use to get mad, just start a new one. We had a new neck made in record time and I only ended up losing a day or so anyway. The two guitars turned out sounding clean and bright and looked beautiful. It always warms my heart to see my clients love what I make for them and these two guitars did not disappoint.

Vintage lettering like my dad's #52.

White oak back and sides, Carpathian spruce top

Me and Jim
Me and Emory
Finally, I want to take a little side bar and share how thankful I am for all of the teachers I have had in my life. Well, most anyway. The best part is that they have done so much more than teach me their respective subjects, they have taught me lessons of life in general and, indirectly, how to successfully operate a small business. I remember thinking in math class in high school, as I sat in those small salmon colored desks with the table attached for right handed people thinking, "I am never going to need this information right here, let's get to art class." But every time I fit a neck, cut fret grooves, or glue and shave braces I think of my high school math teachers Laura Roarke and Beth Derringer. They championed for me to succeed in math even though I despised most of it and for their unwavering encouragement I am so thankful. I guess my point with this last thought is that while you might not be able to see it while you're in it, be thankful for the people who teach you things, even if they break your guitar neck and make you start over. There's always a positive lesson in there somewhere.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

No Dancing, Pt 1

Do you like to dance? I do, sometimes. Every now and again the mood strikes me and I just gotta dance. The right song pops up on my ipod when I am alone in the shop and after I secure the piece of binding I am currently gluing to a guitar body I will go to town, simply enjoying the music and expressing my happiness. Happiness that I am here, doing a job I love, and that I am getting to make something neat that someone will cherish when it is finished. Then my dad walks in and I pretend I was just taking an innocent walk around the workbench I never use...Where was that tape we use for holding binding as it dries? I thought I had seen a new roll sitting on this corner over here...

When I was young, I read everything. Anything I could see that had a word on it was fair game. I would sound the words out in my head and proudly announce them to anyone near enough to listen. One of the first signs I distinctly recall reading was hanging in the Rugby Rescue Squad building. When the community would have a gathering, they would drive all of the emergency vehicles out of their garage bays and set up rows of tables in their place. The ladies cooked all day and brought trays of food: chicken and dumplings, barbecued pork, bowls piled with green beans and collard greens plucked from their gardens that morning and simmered in pork fat all day. Banana pudding, strawberry layer cakes, peach pies with flaky buttery crusts. A murphy bed style stage covered in brown astroturf-type carpeting was pulled down and microphones set upon it. My dad and other local musicians played music during the festivities. Hanging just to the right of the stage was a handwritten sign, always hanging slightly askew, that proclaimed "No Dancing". 

I remember asking my dad why no one was permitted to dance along with the music, as I was pretty much an expert flat-footer at the age of 6 and couldn't wait to show off my amazing moves. Most especially the one I had just learned where I would bend my knee and hold my foot out behind me and frantically twirl it in a circle in hopes the rotations were in time to the beat. When you're six years old and dancing in front of a crowd of adults, that's the money move right there. After some research, YouTube has just informed me that the move is called the Haywheeler. I have attached a simplified version I found if you want to practice it yourself. Make sure to move knee-height valuables and check the whereabouts of your kids and pets first. 

My dad told me that dancing wasn't allowed because the local religious leaders said dancing was a sin and that it was an expression of the devil. I remember thinking that seemed a bit farfetched to me as I enjoyed dancing to express happiness and it didn't seem to hurt anyone, but I was petrified to upset anyone or get in trouble, so abided by the rule. I found subtle ways to dance around the injunction a bit though (see what I did there?), bouncing on the seat of my aluminum folding chair while my dad played his guitar from the stage, and always adding extra pep to my steps as I circled around the cake walk. 

I feel like the Dixie Chicks said it best, because Some days you gotta dance/Live it up when you get the chance/'Cause when the world doesn't make no sense/And you're feeling just a little too tense/Gotta loosen up those chains and dance!

Next time I will tell you about how a prominent member of the community, Kate Tucker, defied the No Dancing rule, and got the last laugh. 

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!

I have sort of an odd confession: I really, really like tin foil. I don't use it that often because I read somewhere that using aluminum with food products can give you Alzheimers, but on those occasions I feel it is necessary, I excitedly pull out the box. I always try to keep the sheet as smooth as possible when pulling it from the roll. I carefully slice it along the box's serrated edge, ideally without snagging the sheet and causing a wrinkle. I think there is something incredibly clean and fresh about a newly unrolled piece of tin foil that I simply can't get over. Maybe though, my love for new tin foil stems from memories of my youth. Staying with Granny, I was rarely allowed to pull a fresh length of foil from the roll and rather I was asked to take the crumpled piece waiting primly on the oak buffet to be reused.

My Granny saved everything for reuse. And, really, I mean everything. Aluminum can tops, wrapping paper, pickle jars, and the pickle juice...and always tin foil. I remember trying to press the wrinkles out of the foil with my fingers, and after what felt like hours of work, it still never flattened to the consistency of that fresh piece. She would also cut up my dad's glue stained jeans and make pot holders from them, make shirts from cloth feed bags, and quilts from old shirts and threadbare pillowcases.

While I begrudged reusing such products, especially the tin foil, I am thankful to Granny for showing me to better appreciate the seemingly insignificant items we apathetically consume each day. Actions such as hers help in turn to reduce waste which I have now learned, after paying a lot of money for an environmental law and policy degree, is exceptionally important to the health of our environment. I am also thankful that her example has taught me that just because we may have a new roll of tin foil, it is not necessary to use it if you have a perfectly good piece that still does the job.

The other day someone brought me a Red spruce top that was too small for large body guitars, and after sanding it down, I saw that its color wasn't perfectly uniform across the surface. Some folks might see these characteristics as flaws, but I don't. This top is special in its own right, and because a three hundred year old tree was cut to produce this set of wood, I feel that it deserves to be appreciated and used. The grain within the wood is tight and the board is stiff, which my dad taught me are ideal characteristics for a top that will produce great sound.

I decided that a perfect use for this set of top wood would be for a Nick Lucas guitar because its significant sunburst will cover the color differences on the edges of the top. I have paired the top with an incredibly flamed set of maple back and sides, who's curl will be amplified by the stain that will be sprayed on it. I can't wait to finish this instrument, and just wanted to tell you how special the wood in it is to me. I like to think my Granny would be proud that I appreciate and use every set of wood I have and am able to see potential and beauty in something that perhaps not everyone would.

 Don't overlook something just because it isn't perfect. Sometimes you can still make something amazing with it.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Granny's Garden

As summer is winding down here in the North Carolina mountains I can't help but think of the vast harvest of my Granny's garden. When I was young, as my dad pulled the car down into her drive, I would typically see my Granny bent over, tending to a vine filled with vegetables. That memory brings the nostalgia flooding in. Picking late summer tomatoes, finding the perfect squash, and pulling the dry husk from a cob crowded with golden corn kernels is only a snippet of what I remember from those times spent in the patch of tilled earth lining the long drive in front of her house.

I wish I had appreciated it more then, and had known better than take it for granted, but Granny worked for all of the food she provided for me. When I requested a snack at her house I wasn't offered a shiny, crinkly bag of chips as I would have preferred, but instead I ate crisp leaves of lettuce resting in a bit of vinegar, bumpy cucumbers sliced into spears that she sprinkled with salt, and juicy tomatoes to accompany buttery biscuits. I would give almost anything to be able to sit on the porch right now with a plate of salted cucumbers and look up to see my Granny in her garden.

Granny Ollie
My dad told me a story once about Granny Ollie (Granny's mom) in her garden. He said she had patience that most everyone else lacked and was able to keep moles out of her garden when most neighbors were not able to do so. Catching moles digging in the garden is a feat as if you walk within ten feet of them they will feel the vibrations of the ground and will immediately stop digging and will hide. No mole was going to outsmart Granny Ollie though. She would stand out in the garden and wait until one dug nearby. Once she used this practice in my Granny's garden. She was likely in her seventies, perhaps even early eighties, at the time she came to help with the moles but she still stood as motionless as ever, with the Henderson family's 16 gauge single barrel shotgun poised for action. After standing silently for several hours, BANG! off went the shotgun, shooting a cloud of dust about ten feet high, completely engulfing Granny Ollie. When the dust cleared, there was a foot wide hole in the soil directly between her feet that contained what was left of the mole. She gathered the pieces to show the other moles they had better watch out. Sometimes I don't understand my family, as it seems their main concern is eliminating the pest rather than considering they might hit something important. Like that time my dad saw a mouse jump into the grill of his car and his reaction was to shoot at his car with ratshot. "I got him though!" was his response when I asked him to repeat the part where he shot a gun toward his own car.

If I had to guess, my dad's three favorite things to eat are watermelon, biscuits and gravy, and a ripe tomato minutes from being picked from the vine. When he was growing up he said his favorite time was late summer when the tomatoes were still abundant and the pumpkins were ready for picking. Granny would roast the pumpkin, scoop out the inside, and whip it to the consistency of mashed potatoes. She would serve the pumpkin with freshly baked biscuits and sliced tomatoes. My dad said that was one of his favorite meals. Growing up I don't recall there being a day in summer and early fall when a bowl of sliced tomatoes didn't rest in the center of the round oak dinner table, covered with a scrap of cloth between mealtimes.

It isn't just the memories of delicious food from Granny's garden that I am thankful for. Through that garden I was taught to appreciate the importance of where my food comes from and the hard work that is put behind cultivating it. Granny would hand me a bunch green beans and I would sit on the porch swing snapping the ends from each bean and dropping them into a bowl of cool water to be boiled for Sunday dinner. She taught me to pull the dry husks from golden cobs of corn, taking extra care to remove all the silk from between the kernels. I learned to step carefully over seedlings and that spreading ash from the wood stove over potatoes would keep bugs from eating them. I like to think because I was shown that there is such work behind our food, spending an hour making my own pasta or making pie crust for a lattice pie is invigorating rather than something too time consuming to try. And cutting a tedious design from pieces of pearl will yield far more satisfaction when I am finished than the difficulty it took to cut it.

Thursday, August 20, 2015


The things I have to do for work. Last week I used the excuse that I had two ukulele orders from folks who lived in Alaska to fly up and visit one of my all time favorite places. Of course I needed a helper to carry on one of the ukuleles so I enlisted my husband Nick to fill that job. We drove to Charlotte, reluctantly subjected my beloved instruments to the x-ray machine and TSA scrutiny, stuffed them into the overhead bin and were off to Alaska.

Not super happy about the rain.
Our first stop was Juneau, the great town in which I had worked and lived for two summers during undergrad. First as a kayak guide, then for a glacier guiding company. The trip got off to a bit of a rocky start (foresight pun, get ready), as while Nick and I were hiking along the west edge of the Mendenhall Glacier to check out the amazing ice caves, I slipped on the steep, rain soaked bedrock (see what I did there?) and somehow managed to rip a nickel sized hole in my palm and several small but deep cuts in my pinky finger. We chose to walk the two miles back to the car since I didn't have anything besides my other hand to hold my new bloody skin flap shut and I knew the hike would become more dangerous and steep as we advanced toward the edge of the glacier. I hiked out feeling sad and dejected. Seeing the incredibly blue ice caves was one of the most awesome and rewarding things I did while I was living in Juneau.

We had high hopes for a more exciting and fun second day, but the rain was relentless, and continued throughout our stay. That second morning Nick wanted to go for a run, so I took him to a flat marshy trail by the airport that runs along the float plane runway (a little lake type thing with docks placed every few feet) then opens into marshland along the Mendenhall river, where the runoff from the glacier makes its way to the ocean. I decided I wasn't in the mood to run, so I meandered down a smaller trail that wound to a point out by the river. The salmon were spawning and it is always exciting, and a bit sad, to watch them fighting their way up the stream. This time of year salmon carcasses line the shore and make for a serious stench.

In the distance toward the water I saw what I thought to be a person in a large coat (I didn't have my glasses on) scanning the marshy grassland, then bending down as if to clip a dog to a leash or something, then standing up and looking around again as if they were a lighthouse having to shed light across the entire area. As I walked along my little path I noticed the person kept doing this, and, while a little confused I didn't pay them much mind. I figured I would see what they were doing as my path lead back up to the larger trail. It looked as though it would intersect with theirs in a hundred feet or so. I then realized that it wasn't a person doing toe-touches in the middle of the marsh, but rather it was a black bear searching for salmon to eat. Eff. I didn't want to continue along my little path since it took me right by the bear, so I turned and swiftly walked (calmly, kind of) through the grass toward the closet spot on the big trail where more folks were exercising. The problem with this plan, I quickly discovered, was that the ground was getting mushier and the grass was getting higher and higher. At first the fronds brushed my waist, and many were knocked down no doubt by bears walking through, but now the grass stood as high as my chest, with my XtraTuf boots splashing through foot-deep puddles, the bottom of which I couldn't see. I thought, which is worse: hanging out by a bear or getting stuck in some kind of Alaskan quicksand in grass so deep no one could see me as I was consumed by the bushes? I managed to power through my panic and scrambled up the bank, trying to calm my racing heartbeat. A fresh blister rubbed into the back of my heel because I hadn't packed enough tall socks, I decided it was time to go sit in the car to wait there for Nick to finish his run.

The third day in Juneau I was able to deliver my Brazilian rosewood ukulele with Alaskan star inlay to its owner. While still impeded by a day of heavy rain, I didn't hurt myself or offend any wildlife so I considered it a good day. Joel met us at Northstar Trekking, the glacier guiding company I used to work for and for whom he is now in charge of helicopter safety. It was neat to show Nick where I worked, and hang out with some of the folks I knew from seven years ago. One bittersweet thing in particular. Mike, one of the helicopter mechanics that I remembered from my time at Northstar was working in the hangar and his awesome dog Pilot sat overseeing the mechanic work. After hanging out with Pilot a while, I was struck by a memory. On one of my last days working that summer, Mike got a new puppy and brought him in to work a couple of those days. I remember playing with him every time I saw his adorable face and even took a picture one day before getting back to work. So now I have that picture along with this one I took with 7 year old Pilot.

Aside from the nostalgia, I am also grateful that I got to know Joel a bit, as he is kind of a badass and even more importantly, just a really great guy. He has an infectious positive energy and obvious love for his job which always makes me happy to see. He let us check out the Northstar helicopters, sharing bits of behind the scenes information, letting us in on some fancy lingo, and eagerly snapping pictures of us pretending to be pilots.

Being that Joel is a helicopter pilot, and an awesome guy, he flew down to help fight the fires currently raging in Idaho. Given the dangerous circumstances of such an endeavor that worries me but I so admire his dedication to his job and appreciate his service. His ukulele, which he named Aurora (couldn't have picked a better one myself), made the trip with him, hopefully providing a little bit of stress relief and happiness to these busy days.

As I have said many times, watching someone open the case and see the instrument I have made for them is one of my all time favorite parts of the job and this time was a great one. It makes my heart swell to see that I have made someone happy with my work, and that their expectations have been exceeded in ways they didn't realize they could be. Now, I know this won't always be the case, but on those times when it is, I want to reiterate how truly honored I am to have been able to play a tiny part in my client's lives.

On our final day in Juneau the clouds eventually gave up and parted enough for us to get to go for a helicopter ride and glacier trek on the Mendenhall. I was so excited to be able to get that close range view I had planned for our first day. Finally, Nick could see why I love this place so much; the majesty of the mountains, the intensity of the landscape, the unparalleled beauty of a glacier ice.

After downing our last two Alaskan Ambers since we didn't have any room in our checked bag, we hopped on a plane heading for Anchorage to deliver the second ukulele. My friend Randy met us at the airport and took us straight to a pizza and beer establishment called Moose's Tooth. He knows me pretty well I guess. I have known Randy just about as many years as I have been alive, and I remember being baffled when he up and moved to Alaska after living in North Carolina his whole life. Turns out his wife Rebecca, whom he had recently married, had worked in Anchorage previously and had just been offered her old job so off they went. I am so glad Randy found such a great partner. While we hung out at their house, my favorite thing was watching how well they complemented each other. They are so supportive of one another's interests and it just makes me glad to know Randy is truly happy living in the Great White North.

Photo courtesy Randy Pasley
The ukulele I made for Rebecca mirrors the guitar my dad made for her some years ago, and both have an eight point star quilt square on the peghead. I think it is fitting that the star symbolizes deep family bonds for Rebecca. It was a great honor for me to see how the ukulele I built would fit into their family. To me instruments are just as important as living beings, providing their versions of happiness and love just as their dog Ola Belle does for them, or my dog Harper does for me. Rebecca and Randy both took turns playing the new uke, plucking their individual styles out on the strings. I even strummed along with Randy's rendition of Freight Train. (As we all know, that's my jams)

The next morning while our hosts headed to work, Nick and I decided to explore the nearby town of Whittier, Alaska. Because we misjudged the amount of time it would take for us to drive through the timed single-lane tunnel to Whittier, through which the train also passed, we ended up just making it to Portage pass. We hiked to the Portage glacier since we missed out on hiking to the Mendenhall while in Juneau. The weather turned out to be incredible, warm and sunny, and the hike was one of the more beautiful things I have seen.

All in all it was an incredible trip. While I left Alaska minus two ukuleles and several layers of skin in multiple spots on my body, I gained so much more. With us on our trip home, we brought tons of pictures, new friendships, the coolest pair of hand-knitted socks you could ever imagine, 35 pounds of salmon, 24 Alaskan beers, 4 tasting glasses, a glow in the dark pint glass, and exceptional, lasting memories.

Sunday, August 2, 2015


Pretty much every day I am thankful that I get to make things and people like those things enough to buy them so I can pay for things. It doesn't feel like a job really, just a super fun way to pass the time. Then there are those rare days when everything goes wrong I would rather pull my teeth out with the fret nippers that try to right those wrongs. Times like, when I spray seven coats of finish on a ukulele then somehow manage to knock a little hole down to the wood in the side of the neck. Superglue and respray time. Or when I take extra precautions to make sure there is enough room for the bushings that surround the tuners because I know the pressure can crack the finish on the headstock, only to watch a crack begin to run slowly but surely down the peghead. Respray, resand, rebuff time! Then to have the exact thing happen again (on multiple tuners) even though I had taken even more precautions after taking the time to repair the little cracks. Where are those fret nippers.

The most important lesson my dad has taught me in my luthier journey is to be patient. There is no such thing as perfection, but keep working and redoing things until it is as close as it can be. Mistakes happen, and things don't always go how you expect them to on the first try and that is ok, just fix it. No one exercises such patience like Wayne Henderson though. While I try to emulate his calm, 'we will just fix it' attitude when things like this happen, I tend to fall a bit short, at least for a few minutes before I collect myself and make a new plan. I am a type A planner, you see, and when my plans break and my contingencies have been exhausted as well, I tend to freak out, or at any rate, have to take an extra beta blocker. 

This week has tried my patience time and again but I am quite proud to say that I only took several minutes to decide on a new plan and dealt with each situation as it came, mostly because I had no other choice. My dad has been teaching a guitar class this week and hasn't been working in the shop so I have had to fix my own problems without the 'we will fix it' safety net usually set in place for me. The reason I had such and unusually tight schedule is because these particular instruments are heading to their new homes in Juneau and Anchorage, Alaska. I typically set a tentative timeline for finishing instruments once I begin them, but in this case the timeline was set by Alaska Airlines so things had to be completed on a certain date. 

If you don't know this about me, Juneau, Alaska is just about my very favorite place on this planet. (Maybe only slightly second to Haw Orchard Mountain in Grayson Highlands State Park.) One summer in undergrad, as part of my Outdoor Leadership minor I was working toward at NC State, I decided to apply for a plethora of outdoor jobs sprinkled all over the country and was then hired by a kayak guiding company based in Juneau. That summer and the summer following when I returned to work for a glacier guiding company were truly the best I have ever had. I grew as a person, learned my limits, and met some of the best people I could imagine. I am so excited to head back there next week and show Nick where I used to work and play. The time couldn't come any quicker though, now that my ukuleles are (finally) ready to go to their new homes. Hm, maybe my dad's rule of practicing patience will prove to be helpful in many aspects of life.

Stars of the Alaska flag on 12th fret
A year and a half or so ago I received a request for a ukulele from a fellow who's signature included at the bottom of his message said he was from Alaska. That piqued my interes for obvious reasons, and it turns out he is in charge of the helicopter safety for the very well respected glacier guiding company I used to work for. We missed each other by several years so he had no idea my connection to Juneau when he randomly came upon my work via my website. That is one of my favorite parts of my job, I never know when I will meet someone incredible, or have an opportunity to make something for someone with a shared interest. A few weeks ago I finally I set about making a ukulele that paid tribute to our mutual love of southeast Alaska. The time has finally come that I am able to deliver it, so Nick and I are flying up a week from today to do just that. Hopefully we will get to take a little walk on the Mendenhall glacier while we are at it. 

For good measure, I made another ukulele for some old friends whom I have known just about my whole life, but now live in Anchorage. I figure Nick and I might as well visit there while we are at it. I made a copy of my friend's OM-18 that my dad made for her several years ago, complete with the eight point quilt square on the headstock. I worked a trade on this ukulele, as I have been paid in fresh caught Alaskan salmon and halibut for the past couple of years. While this ukulele sounds great, I think perhaps I have come out on the winning end of that deal. 

Before you go, I want to share a little something with you. Below is an excerpt from an email I sent to my friends and family the week in May that I began working in Juneau that first summer. I was searching my email for 'Alaska Air' to send my itinerary to some friends, and this one popped up as a potential match for my search. While it has nothing to do with guitars or ukuleles, I hope you enjoy a little snippet of my time there, so you can more fully appreciate my excitement upon returning to the great white north next week. 

I started my job on Friday. The weather was chilly but not too cloudy. I had about 5 minutes to learn how to drive a trailer and be a tour guide. Saturday was my fist official day of work.That day I shadowed a seasoned guide leading a group then she had me lead the second group. The cove we paddle to amazingly beautiful, with a fantastic view of the Menedenhall Glacier in the distance. The water is definitely freezing since it is primarily runoff from the glacier, but the sun really warms up the air

As I lead my first group of tourists across the water, I attempted to rattle off some Alaska trivia. Unfortunately the only information I have retained so far are the strange random bits since I had about the time one spends picking out paper towels at the grocery store to learn the tidbits from a sheet of paper the company provided. So, now these people are aware that the whole of Alaska can hold 420 Rhode Islands...And Douglas Island (the smaller island running parallel to Juneau proper that we set off from each day) is named after the Bishop of Salisbury. 
Kayak guiding
I have met some interesting people so far.  The hairdresser of the US Olympic synchronized swimming team called one of her swimmers and handed me the phone, positive I would enjoy speaking to an Olympian (though the swimmer and I were equally confused but it was fun). Another rather ornery older man was removing his spray skirt and his trousers accompanied it. I am fairly certain I did not get a tip from him. I did however get a generous tip likely due to pity from the folks who watched as my $150 sunglasses tumbled down my back and into the 37 degree water, so that is good. Note to self: purchase floaty things for sunglasses with tip money. 

Yesterday the esteemed raft guides were not available to drive the chase boat, an unnecessary piece of equipment that is mostly there for the client's peace of mind, so I had to do that. Driving a motorboat around was a new experience. I learn I don't enjoy boats with motors very much. The Life of Pi, the book I had borrowed from the library downtown and what was enjoying while waiting for someone to overturn so I could race the chase boat gallantly over to them and pluck them from the water, dropped into the unpleasant mixture of gasoline and water that permanently sloshes in a vestibule next to the steering column of this ghastly vehicle. I am quite sure the library will not accept a book returned sopping with gasoline, therefore I will have to purchase it but won't be able to finish it without getting high on fumes. I have decided that, while more labor intensive, kayaking is significantly more enjoyable to chase boating.

Anyway, all little blips aside I am enjoying the new adventure here in Juneau. The weather has been amazing so far-it is beautiful and sunny at the moment. I hope it stays like this for a while but I won't get too comfy just in case it takes a turn for the rainy and cold. Perhaps then I will find a more pressing need for the rubber boots I was ordered to purchase immediately upon touching down in Juneau. Looking forward to more excitement as my adventure here continues!

Fritz Cove, my office as a kayak guide. We would paddle from the beach one the left of the picture to the islands and river on the ride side of the picture. The river is murky colored because it is 37 degree glacier runoff which is filled with silt. 

Ice caves at the Mendenhall glacier. Representing a Henderson Festival shirt. And my sunglasses that toppled overboard...

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Giant Firecracker

Under a quickly fading clouded sky, Nick and I filed up a thin dirt path, winding through a field completely alight with fireflies. We decided on a whim, after an afternoon of fun snacks and great company, that we wanted to further celebrate our Independence Day by seeing the best fireworks display in the area. We figured there was no better spot to do such a thing than from the south terrace of the Biltmore Estate. From there it is possible to take in incredible mountain views for miles, with downtown Asheville in the foreground. We ascended to the house along a section of one of my favorite running trails and walked up the large stone steps separating the house from the Italian garden. From our perch on the huge stone terrace we saw colorful bursts of sparks beginning to fill the sky. Still, as we watched a magnificent show from the most beautiful spot I could imagine, I found myself wondering what we would be experiencing had Nick and I had decided to drive up to Rugby and take in the show my dad and our neighbor Andy had concocted. If only just to be sure they didn't blow themselves (or anything else) up in the process.

Nick waits for the fireworks to start at the Biltmore Estate
See, when my dad was a young boy growing up surrounded by mountains and farmland, guitars weren't his only area of interest. He would use his pocket knife to whittle his own toys and his imagination to improve on the occasional store bought toy. One particular instance was when he acquired a pack of fire crackers. You know the ones, they come in a big red pack all strung together and Kevin McAllister threw a bunch in a bucket to scare Marv away from his kitchen door.

My dad figured if he could see how those fire crackers were constructed he could make a large explosive device that would be bigger and better than the generic store bought ones. He carefully opened the red tissue and removed the powder from within several firecrackers. He then wrapped the powder together into one mass as large as a grown man's index finger. Unfortunately, after about twenty attempts, none of his homemade mini-bombs made more than a fizzling noise. He speculated that the wrapping was not as tight as the original packaging had been, and worked to improve his design. He stuck with his project late into the night. He and my uncle Max were the only people still awake in the house; Granny and my grandfather Walter had retired to their room upstairs hours earlier.

"That is never going to work." Max exclaimed. My dad persisted, unruffled. He wrapped the paper tighter than he had on the others and admired his handiwork. Max, expecting the same fizzle to occur, took the giant firecracker from my dad's hands and nonchalantly lit it with the butt of his cigarette.  He threw it into the coal bucket that sat next to the tall thin stove on which Granny used to heat water in a heavy cast iron kettle. I remember that stove and bucket well. I would marvel at the black chunks of coal stacked in it, just waiting to be fed into the mouth of the stove, its coiled handle dangling like a nose off the front.

BANG! The firecracker went off that time. "You never heard such a noise!" my dad told me. "Whats going on down there?" My grandfather drawled, still half asleep. My dad said he blamed it on Max, answering, "Oh nothing. Max lit my firecracker and threw it in the floor." I asked what the consequences had been for such antics and my dad told me that they didn't even come downstairs. "I guess they were used to my shenanigans, I was always doing crazy things like that." (Remember when I wrote about the time he sat in the rafters of the barn to ensnare chickens as they strutted by or when he hid a metal sign under a thin layer of snow and watched the dogs (and my Granny) slip on it?)

I am glad the fireworks display Wayne and Andy put on last night in downtown Rugby turned out to be simply a good show; nothing that would require my grandfather to get out of bed for. The horses next door, however, might have decided to leave town. I hope you all had a safe and happy 4th of July full of family, friends, good food, and safe fireworks.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Spring Updates

Spring has officially sprung in the Appalachian mountains, and I have thrown from my shoulders what feels like a heavy blanket of weariness, thickening as the cold winter months wore on. Harper and I have been thoroughly enjoying our runs again. Everything looks new and fresh. I always take a little time to marvel in appreciation at the saturation of colors now donning the landscape around me; how green the grass is, how beautiful and alive the mountains are again. Having been so busy with all of the marveling, I want to apologize for the lack of posts. Over the past few weeks I finished four instruments, made a trip to Nashville, and then rewarded myself (and Nick and Harper) by taking a quick but relaxing trip to the beach. New spring energy is just my favorite!

The coolest thing about my job I think is the fact that with each instrument I make, I also have the opportunity to meet an awesome person to go with it. These past four instruments have included with them some amazing folks. I like to think that with each build, I lose and instrument but gain a friend. This batch was no exception. EmiSunshine and her awesome parents came to pick up her ukulele. When someone comes to get an instrument from me or my dad I think the instrument is the smallest part. I like the experience of getting to know someone and showing them around in my life a little bit. I think that is why I hate shipping guitars so much, not necessarily due to the potential for damage to the instrument, but more due to missing out on that connection with my clients. Instead of just coming to get her uke and leaving, Emi, her parents, my dad and I ended up taking a drive up to the park, visiting the wild ponies, and taking rides around the block in my dad's old Thunderbird. It was a nice visit, and so fun to get to know them a bit better. More about that in a minute.

Next, a customer, Tim, drove with his wife Mary and dog Theo up to Rugby from Raleigh to pick up his walnut 000. My favorite part of making instruments is when I get to see someone's reaction when they open the case. (Check out the video of Emi's on her facebook page) With the exception of Emi, it is usually quiet, but being able to feel the excitement and happiness radiating from the person just makes me happier than I am able to describe. Tim's reaction was no exception and I had no doubt this guitar would be heading to a good home. We had a lovely afternoon sitting on the porch enjoying some wine and cheese while Harper and Theo lounged under the cherry tree.

I also enjoy that people want to give me things from their lives aside from money for the instrument I made them. Tim brought me a new knife, a beautiful Case with blades of damascus steel-a knife my dad is pretty jealous of, which is kind of awesome. (He hasn't had much to say about my favorite pink polka dotted Case knife, though I have caught him using it a few times.) Tim also brought me a turkey call he made, which is so neat. I had told him that turkeys live up on my mountain in Asheville and he thought I might want to try to make friends with them. He was right, as I had been scratching a knife across a plate to try to talk to the turkey roosting in a tree about eye level from our deck. Nick stood watching, probably questioning his decision to marry me. Now that I have my turkey call, I can retire the plate. The other day a big Tom was strutting around the yard nearby so I ran inside and grabbed my turkey call and ran back out to call to him. He puffed up at my answering screech a couple of times but didn't seem overly interested in me. I also am not sure if I should find it endearing or concerning that none of my neighbors thought it odd that I was skulking around stalking turkeys...

Several weeks ago, Nick and I drove to Nashville so we could watch EmiSunshine play the ukulele I made her at the Grand Ole Opry. Of course, while that was my official excuse for going, I made sure to stop at my favorite restaurant, Silo, and as usual it did not disappoint. Go if you are in the area, they make some great farm to table deliciousness. What also didn't disappoint was the Opry visit. I felt fancy since I knew the first person we encountered backstage. It was George Gruhn walking down the hall.  I got to have a nice visit waiting for Emi to go on, George, Nick, and I sat in an empty dressing room and talked about business and guitars for a while. We then visited with Emi and her family before they went on stage.

One thing I'd like to address is what I see when I am around Emi and her band, which is also her family, most by blood. I have noticed that some folks have suggested via her facebook page that she is a 'cash cow' for her family, and I have also been asked several times if her situation is along the lines of a pageant child. Now, I know that I am no one of consequence, but from what I know of this family I want to say with absolute certainty that EmiSunshine absolutely loves what she is doing, and is incredibly talented at it, and that is why she does it. Not only that, but my favorite thing I saw at the Opry was how obvious it was that her parents were there solely to support her and what she loves to do.

I remember noticing it when they first came to my dad's house in the winter and we were all just hanging out. There is such palpable love there that it makes me a little sad knowing that not everyone gets to experience such strong love and support from their parents. Talking to Emi's dad Randall backstage, I told him that I was so glad this is a family affair. He has such a strong connection with his daughter and I am incredibly happy for them because I didn't get that opportunity with my dad when I was little. I think a lot of that shows through at her shows, but I know I am lucky to be able to have such a close view. Even if you don't see it as much from the nosebleed section, you don't have to. It's there.

On our way out of town, Nick and I stopped by Carter Vintage Guitars to see what Christie had hanging on her walls. She showed us some amazing rare Martins and Gibsons before I walked over to peruse the ukuleles hanging in the middle of the main show room. I was so excited to see a 1940s Martin tenor ukulele, that I didn't even notice that one I had built was hanging right next to it. I feel honored that my work was included in her incredible inventory. I am even more proud that it sold a week after it arrived, and went to someone who can't wait to play it and love it as I hope for all of my instruments.

Tomorrow I head back to Rugby for some hard work before my dad's festival on June 20. I am working on #28 guitar and ukulele, a match pair that just happen to have the same serial number. I put the ukulele body together while I was home in Asheville, so hopefully that will give me enough of a head start to be able to finish these up in a few weeks. I hope to see you all there! Along with visiting with yours truly, there will be some absolutely amazing artists playing, EmiSunshine included! If you want more information, visit www.waynehenderson.org.  

Photo Credit: Alisha Hamilton
Dressing room #1
View from backstage
George Gruhn

Thursday, April 30, 2015

E.C. Ball

View from the top of Quillen Ridge.
Springtime is one of my favorite seasons, everything looks new and full of hope. The trees are dotted with bright green buds that always bring an image of Bob Ross grinning into his paint palette declaring, "Let's put some happy little leaves on those happy trees!" And when I am in Rugby, spring is my favorite time to run up Quillen Ridge. The first mile and a half of the gravel road, popping out a short ways from the Rugby sign, is a bit of a climb, but after that the harsh grade gives way to rolling hills with peeks of incredible views.  The road winds between the trees, providing glimpses of sparsely habited property.  Harper and I trot past several old houses that were abandoned long ago; one tired tattered house in particular brings thoughts of my heritage, and the incredible folks who have lived in this tiny corner of the world.

My dad talks a lot about E.C. Ball. He was a musician who played guitar in a band called the Rugby Gully Jumpers with my grandfather, sang gospel songs with his wife Orna, drove the school bus, and lived up the holler on Quillen Ridge in Rugby, VA. I never gave him significant thought until I really started to listen to the stories my dad tells.

EC Ball's home today.
The first and most important thing you need to know about E.C. is that he had a 1949 Martin D-28. No one else in the community could afford anything of that caliber and my dad wanted nothing more than to make a guitar just like it so that he could have one too. E.C. was incredibly proud and protective of his guitar and no matter how many times my dad asked, he was never allowed to remove the strings and peek inside to see how it was made. E.C. would sometimes let him play the guitar, only sitting on a box in the middle of the Rugby store, with anything that had the potential to scratch moved away so the guitar had no chance of getting dinged.  He was allowed to play the guitar for a few minutes, and E.C. would only occasionally teach him a new lick. "He was kind of crotchety, and not a very patient teacher, so I learned my own style just like he learned his own style from listening to records of Riley Tuckett of the Skillet Lickers,"  my dad told me.

I asked what E.C.'s job was,  curious if he was just a musician or if he did something else for income as well. My dad told me that he was the bus driver for his high school. My dad never took the bus so he didn't have anything much to add about that aspect of the job, but he said the bus drivers would drive in the mornings then stay near the school all day, walking down the hill to the store to loaf a while, then walking back up the hill to play horse shoes at the school, then driving the kids back home in the afternoon. My dad told me, "I was really good at horseshoes, they would let me play with them sometimes, but I would whoop them." He said the old men took their game of horseshoes very seriously and would never let kids play with them so the fact that my dad was invited to play was a big deal.

Like my dad and I, E.C. also enjoyed working with his hands. The agriculture teacher at the high school was also assigned to be the shop teacher, but he never stepped foot in the shop and never taught the kids anything therefore the shop was left empty most of the time. Of course the exception being for the occasional curious student, one of whom shoved a broom handle into the jointer to see what would happen and now lives without a pointer finger. The local men would dabble in woodworking in the unoccupied shop, and E.C. would be a regular visitor, making small furniture, gun racks (one of which he made for my dad), and little accents to hang on his home. I knew which house was his because of the two diamond shaped decorations adorning each side of the door of his now dilapidated house. While the current state of the house brought some sadness, I felt special that I knew E.C. made those in my dad's high school wood shop.

EC, his fingerboard and my dad's first inlay job.
E.C. was also interested in guitar work. Every time I walk down the hall to the kitchen in my dad's house, I pass a display of EC Ball's fingerboard from that old Martin. (My dad has the rest of the guitar in his collection, but the fingerboard was removed at some point and he was able to get it back from the repair shop where it was taken off.) I have always looked at the display with apathy, but now I appreciate the significance. E.C. redid the inlay on his guitar himself, sanding down mother-of-pearl buttons from his wife's church coat and filing them to the shape of those typically found in prewar 45-style Martins and inlaying them in place of the typical 28-style inlay markers. I also noticed a little ECB inlaid in the space between the 18th and 19th frets. "I did that," my dad told me, "it was a huge deal that he trusted me enough to finally be allowed to take the strings off and inlay that for him."

Since I enjoy inlay work, I like to think of E.C. as a bit of kindred spirit in that respect. He had a preacher friend who saved and saved and eventually was able to buy himself a brand new D-28. He asked E.C. to custom inlay the fingerboard to match the '49 Martin, and E.C. happily accepted. Halfway through the job, he accidentally inlayed one of the large pearl pieces between the wrong two frets. In a panic, E.C. took the guitar to my dad's shop and asked if there was anything to do to fix it; was there anything to fill the hole in the fingerboard that wouldn't be noticed. My dad said, "No, I don't think there is anything in the world that would hide a mistake like that, but leave it here. I will look at it and see if I can get it fixed by tomorrow morning." The fingerboard had binding on it, so my dad simply removed the ebony from between the frets and replaced the whole piece, covering the seams with the binding on the sides and the frets above and below the piece. He then put the inlay in the correct spot. "I've never seen a grouchy old man as happy as he was then," my dad said when E.C. came in and saw the repair job my dad did. He looked at it a while, then asked if my dad wouldn't mind just going ahead and doing the rest of the inlay job. I keep that little anecdote in my back pocket just in case I ever need to do a similar repair.

There's so much more about E.C. and Orna Ball that I haven't touched on and even more that I don't even know, but these are the memories and stories I want to tell.  I'm sure I could scare up a follow-up post in the future. The songs and biography you can probably find online somewhere; acestry.com will tell you that E.C's wife Orna and my Granny were first cousins. The stories I like to know are ones of mundane daily experiences. I love that in this tiny place that is so insignificant in the grand scheme of the world, there have lived so many talented, incredible people to share their immense gifts. I am so proud to be part of and inspired by this community and I don't take one step up Quillen Ridge for granted.

E.C.'s house today, featuring the diamond shaped decorations he made himself.

Detail of E.C.'s home decorations.

Downtown Rugby featuring the old store my dad played E.C.'s Martin.
Check out this video of one of EC's original songs! 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Working From Home

There's a magnetic type of energy that seems to surround my dad's shop, attracting swarms of curious visitors each week. They bring treats for my dad, ask questions about production, and always want to help with some aspect of guitar building. While I typically enjoy the excitement that visitors tend to bring, it is nice just to have some time to have the shop to myself to focus solely on my work. Most of you know that my dad works until well past midnight every day, so when I am there I make sure to get up early enough in the morning to have several hours to work on my own. I always take time to enjoy the silence before the storm, as I like to think of it. I like that it is quiet, unless I am the one making noise, I feel productive and am not stopping production to chat, or move pie and a barrel of cheezy poofs from my workspace.

Working at my house in Asheville is somewhat similar to the silent shop mornings. The only visitors I get are Harper coming to remind me she is bored, maybe a bee wandering up from the woods beyond my deck to see what is happening, or an occasional neighbor. I have been home for the past few weeks and have been cutting pearl, putting together ukuleles, and inlaying fingerboards. Oh and writing blogs :-)

Last week, on my deck, I shaped braces, shaved kerfing, and fitted the top and back onto a soprano ukulele. I am really excited about this particular ukulele because I am making it for a good friend. When it is possible, I like to take time to get to know someone I make an instrument for, at least little bit, because I think that makes the instrument more of a collaboration, and less something I just make. I have found that the best partnerships are when I am given artistic license to make what I know the person will love, adding little touches for them, but keeping the artistry for myself. This mutual trust is sometimes difficult to achieve, so when it happens, as in this case, it is a truly positive and exciting experience.

Signed uderside of soprano top for my friend Kyler.

The koa for this ukulele is a piece left over from my #16 guitar. I am so glad I was able to use it because that piece of wood is more special than most, with curls radiating out like sun rays through the grain. I am a firm believer in wasting as little materials as possible, this incredible wood especially, and sopranos allow for that more willingly than larger instruments which I enjoy.

Kyler's initials, inlaid in the
headstock of his ukulele.
While I miss working with my dad, and having his vast guitar knowledge and building expertise just feet away, it has been great to get to work on my instruments on my own time, then go for a run with Harper at the Biltmore Estate every day. Once we run past the lines of people on Segways winding their way down the paths surrounding the winery, we are generally alone to enjoy the scenery and history of the property. The only thing missing is a visitor or two to perk up a lonely afternoon. Will you come visit me in Asheville when (someday) I have my very own shop here? I sure hope you will.