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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)

Sunday, January 31, 2016


Last week my fingers hurt. For several days, the pads on my thumbs, index, and middle fingers ached where I had pushed abalone pieces through a tiny table saw, then rubbed the side of each piece on 120 grit sandpaper in order to fit them into channels in the top, back, and sides of a guitar. After a while of fitting, breaking, and gluing the pieces I started to think nobody needs a 45 style guitar. I mean really.

A few months ago I agreed to help my dad with a copy of a Martin D-45 so I could learn how to do the extra pearl work involved in order to make them myself. The way Martin describes their models is with a number following the size (D for dreadnought, 0, 00, 000) corresponding roughly to the amount of ornamentation involved in each model. For example, a 17 has no binding, 18 has simple wood lines next to the binding, 28 has wooden herringbone purfling next to the binding. A 41 style guitar has abalone shell set into a channel winding around the top and in a ring around the sound hole of a guitar. A 42 has that same abalone as a 41 as well as a line surrounding the fingerboard where it overlaps on the top of the guitar. A 45 style guitar has the 42 style top as well as abalone around the back, sides, along the end piece, and where the neck joins the body. And in this case, my dad added two stripes along the backstripe as well. If you want to read more about my experience with binding, you can here

My tiny table saw.
To make this guitar a bit more special than his typical 45, my dad asked me to use real pieces of abalone, not Abalam, the long sheets of veneer layered together which are much easier to work with and also easier to come by. So for hours I sat at the tiny table saw and ran countless abalone pieces through, slicing off pieces a couple of millimeters wide. I made use of the 120 grit sticky-back sandpaper I bought a while back and stuck a piece on a stool next to me. I scrubbed the pieces across the paper, sanding the bottom edge off of each piece so it would more easily fit into the channel I had created by removing the teflon strip that was initially glued next to the binding.

The sides were the most challenging channels to fit abalone into as, if you haven't done the math, the abalone strips are solid and straight, while the side of a guitar is a curved surface. I broke the pieces every eighth inch or so, and then glued the broken piece into place with superglue, then repeated the breaking and gluing as I wound around the guitar. Along with perfect mitre joints where the pearl meets an edge, there are also special joints where the end piece meets the sides. Each piece of abalone is filed into a point then notched into the abalone running along the side. Doesn't sound all that difficult, eh? Well you're wrong. It took a while to make sure the angles of my notches and the pieces they fit into matched exactly to there was no space between the joints.

Look close, I am kind of proud of those joints.

Now, while I was feeling sorry for the state of my fingers, I asked my dad what he remembered about making his first 45 style guitar. It is his number 7, the one he was so proud of and eventually sold to moonshiners for $500 and now has a bullet hole in its back. He told me that he looked at a songbook he borrowed from one of my uncle Max's  coworkers featuring photographs of Red Smiley and Don Reno and Red's D-45.

The fellow who lent my dad the songbook was named Jim Poe. He bought the first 42 my dad made, his #5 guitar, for $50. At that time my dad hadn't seen a 42 or 45 in person, but his cousin claimed the pearl was surrounded on both sides with gold. Thinking back, my dad said he must have thought that because the lacquer had stained the light colored wood pieces that line the abalone making it appear gold with time. In any event, my dad ordered 1 mm thick brass strips from a wood supply company to glue next to the abalone. When it arrived in the mail he realized it was way too thick. He held a grinder between his knees and attempted to grind the brass down to the right thickness, significantly burning his fingers in the process. That guitar it still around, with brass lines flanking its abalone.

At the Galax fiddler's convention shortly after my dad finished that guitar he was able to see a real D-45. He saw George Gruhn walking through the park with it slung over his shoulder and my dad chased him down to look at it. "I thought it was gold around the abalone!" My dad exclaimed. "No, I think that's wo-od." George answered in his signature lilt. Now that he saw one in person, he felt more equipped to make a D-45 of his own.

During a trip to Ray's Hardware in Jefferson, NC my dad discovered a box full of abalone shells. Ray had been trying to sell them for ashtrays, but no one seemed especially interested in them. He sold several to my dad for almost nothing. Daddy then cut the shells into smaller pieces with a hacksaw, then used a file to shape the pieces into flat squares. From there he filed them to the shapes he desired. He then used his pocket knife to whittle the channel for the lines and pearl to fit into the guitar. He glued one set of wooden lines, then glued the pearl in and filed it to fit, then glued the second set of lines. Now we glue everything at once, making space for the pearl with a strip of teflon. He cut his initials out of the extra abalone and whittled a space for it into the headstock veneer. He told me that if you look closely you can see where the pieces are broken because he didn't have a jeweler's saw, or any way to cut the spaces from the middle of a design so everything was cut and pieced together. I looked though, I honestly can't see breaks in that D....

You can more easily see the notches in the abalone of #7.

There's a reason that people flock to Wayne Henderson as being a master at what he does and it has nothing to do with how generous, kind, or patient he is. Those things are just perks. I think what is really incredible is what he was (and still is) able to do with what he has, because for most everyone, there is no way they could figure out how to make a D-45 with completely raw materials and a pocket knife. Especially not one that looks so similar to the factory constructed Martin, and one that sounds, to this day, better than most guitars I have ever heard. No matter how painful or difficult the task, or the number of pieces of abalone I run through the tiny table saw, I will always appreciate that my dad didn't have anyone standing behind him to fix it if he messed up. His experience will always be more difficult than whatever it is I am complaining about. I guess he didn't know it then, but his hard work made it possible for me to realize my day isn't really so bad.

My daddy with his #7 guitar, circa 1967.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

No Dancing, Pt. 2

The dilapidated barn next door to my dad's house slumps into the earth, the ground in front of it scarred deep by tire tracks of semi trucks and littered with the limp carcasses of Douglas fir trees. The paint hanging from its walls is dingy and chipped, the silo is rusted, and it is used for nothing. Occasionally it houses insecticide to deter pests from interfering in the growth of the rows and rows of Christmas trees planted within the surrounding fields. I remember when it wasn't like that.

When my dad first moved into this house, Kate Tucker's house, I marveled at the proud white barn accented with red trim that had once accompanied this farmhouse. The large barn was used to milk dairy cows, its rows of gleaming stanchions spanning the length of the vast cement floor. At that time in my life, everything looked like a gymnastics apparatus, holding potential in each curve and crook to flip and tumble upon. I don't remember much from Jurassic Park 2, but I do remember a young girl lithely knocking out a bloodthirsty dinosaur by flipping around a pole hanging from the roof of a barn. "Don't you mess with any of that stuff, it is for cows," my dad would always warn after I implored him to explore the old barn with me. So, the dairy cow harness gymnastics stayed safely in my imagination and no bones or equipment was ever broken. Walking up the creaky stairs in the corner, I found myself standing in a hay loft, the chestnut floor still littered with golden straw. The huge square window once used for transferring hay to and from the ground now simply stood open, allowing the warm summer breeze to waft through.

Kate Tucker, the original owner of my dad's house and that barn, might have been the coolest lady who ever lived in Rugby. She and her husband Breece built this house in 1939 and lived here tending their dairy farm until their deaths. They were well respected and probably the wealthiest folks in the county. They worked hard, they were involved in the community, helping their neighbors when they could, and would often donate a significant portion of their money. In a time when women's roles were strictly defined, Kate defied those roles. She almost always wore pants when such a thing was almost unheard of in Rugby, she served as the postmaster for the Rugby post office for a time, and joined her husband in running their dairy farm.

But one day Kate Tucker messed up. She and her husband did not attended church services weekly as most everyone else in Rugby did. They went occasionally though, which seemed to appease most of the community members who took such things very seriously. (Probably everybody except the moonshiners.) While welcoming them when they attended, the church on the corner cast a skeptical eye towards the Tuckers, perhaps expecting they would only sporadically adhere to other church practices as well. A while back I told you that the Rugby Rescue Squad doesn't allow dancing during their gatherings and benefits and the reason is that some church leaders believe dancing is an expression of evil and leads to evil acts. Well, Kate Tucker did not heed that warning.

In that hay loft of the big and bright barn, Kate decided to have a party. She invited her friends who could play music to bring their instruments, and invited anyone who wanted to join her to come. Friends flocked from near and far, kind of along the lines of a Wayne Henderson patented post-festival party. And everyone danced. They danced into the wee hours of the evening.

When the church caught wind that Kate had hosted a barn dance, she was excommunicated from their services. Just for dancing.

Here's the part of the story where suppressing acts of love, kindness and happiness doesn't win in the end. Kate never mentioned it, but she also didn't forget how the church on the corner excluded her for holding a barn dance. Because she had no children, when she passed away, everyone in the community was interested to see where her wealth would be distributed. She bequeathed $300,000 each to three local churches, and only $10,000 to her ex church, specifically to keep up the cemetery in which she was laid next to her husband. Here's another reason I think we would have gotten along: she also loved her three large dogs enough to leave $10,000 to their continued care following her death.

I have quite a few more stories about Kate which I look forward to sharing with you. I used to worry that she haunted this old house, and when my dad would go out to his shop, when it was in a little building about a mile away, I would cower in my room, listening for sounds of a ghost. Now when I am alone here in this house, I am proud to imagine that she is here with me, watching over her house and reminding me to be a strong woman. That it is important to stand up for my beliefs, even if they might not be shared by everyone around me. Be kind, inclusive, and supportive of others.

In closing to this post, I want to apologize (as usual) for the lag time in my posts. If you read this and want to read more, please let me know that! I never know if anyone actually reads what I write so I tend to focus on other tasks (like guitar building) that I am more consistently reminded need my attention. Also, do you enjoy these old stories or would you prefer to know more about the my daily tasks as a luthier? In any event, thank you so much for reading and supporting my work. I hope you had the most amazing holiday season and wish all of you the very best for 2016!