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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)

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...