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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.


  1. Elle, THAT is one excellent article. I learned a lot, plus I like the way you tell the story and the obvious respect you have for your Dad's skill, patience and determination. Keep these blogs coming. I always look forward to them, and they're the foundation of what could later be a book.

  2. thanks I always enjoy reading your stories.

  3. Thanks for sharing...great story and good writing to boot!

  4. Very well written indeed, and thanks for all the photos of #7.

  5. Very nice. It's near the top of my bucket list to come see you all and spend time in the shop. I mean, now that I've danced in the Nutcracker an' all! :-)


    Roger Reynolds

  6. In response to your inquiry if people read your postings....I do, and I hope you continue to write. whatever other talents you may have, you possess a talent for writing and sharing ideas in clear language, made more enjoyable by the personal experiences you talk about.

    I met your dad for the first time recently at the Richmond Folk Festival, not knowing who he was. To make a long story short, I was asking some very basic questions about guitar repair, and was really pleased to hear the sincere answers to a neophyte's questions offered with details and patience and generosity. I have since then begun to build a guitar (from a kit, at your dad's suggestion), and have discovered a new world.

    I like reading your posts because when you write, you describe much more than luthier's techniques. you offer a glimpse into the life of a really fascinating man who has skill and talent enough for 3 men, and who at the same time has maintained his humanity, and his affinity for people. He is the kind of guy who people just want to be around. I have known some talented folks who were hard to be around because they let their talents color their ideas about how they stood with others. From my brief meeting with your dad, it was clear that he was not that way. I would have stood and listened to his dialogues with other people all day, but I was distracted by all the good music that surrounded that event, and had to run off and hear the Harris Brothers for the first time. That is another story though. Keep writing, Please and thank you.