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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)

Friday, May 20, 2016

Scrapes and Scratches

Can't wait to finish up this tenor uke! 
One thing about working half the time in Rubgy is that there is another part of my time spent at home in Asheville typically performing the less physically demanding aspects of my job. I do have a little sander and I do still occasionally cut myself or file my fingernails when I am doing inlay work but generally I focus on the business side rather than the actual guitar and ukulele making. The thing I like about this set up is that it leaves room to wear open toed shoes, put on a dress, primp, and paint my nails. Though sometimes the nail polish is also functional. Not in the way that I make up when my dad protests as he sees it and I tell him that it makes my fingers easier to see so I keep them out of the table saw, which he appreciates, but to camouflage black super glue and stubborn stain stuck underneath. In the case of this week it is covering a now very sensitive flat spot made by the sander. When I look at it though I don't see pain or frustration, but I do see a beautiful ukulele that I thought needed a straighter neck angle so I sat the whole thing on the sander. Just like the time I sanded almost through the top of one fingernail when I let a neck slip as I shaped its heel, I will probably think twice before sitting my ukulele on the coarse grit sander.

I get an odd pleasure from bringing home little scrapes and scratches on my body. I typically walk in my door with marks on my arms from carrying wood planks around, or a sanded fingernail or two that needs evening up with clippers, or this particular time, a thick scab on by leg from when I moved a pattern and a hefty plank of maple I hadn't noticed leaning agains it tipped in my direction and accosted my shin bone. These minor afflictions to my body serve as evidence that I have done done something useful with my time and I like that.

Of course, I hope never to procure a lasting injury any more serious than the tiny scar on my right middle finger from when it came into the line of fire of my hand powered, millimeter-wide jeweler's saw blade. I do make absolutely sure to keep my hands free from direct contact with any motorized saws. I wish I could still ask my dad to make the cuts I need on the table saw or slice me a set from a large board of walnut with the re-saw, but I am proud that I can now do it myself. I do however respect the saws and quite literally each time before I turn any of them on I take a minute to be thankful for the use of my fingers and consider what would happen if one or two got tangled up in the blade. Before I push that green button to bring the machine roaring to life I find the orange safety handle gathering dust on the shelf, as I am the only who uses it, to ensure that my hands are always far from the moving blade. I also find it important to consider where my hands will be in correlation to the blade as I push the wood through. Anyway that is just a side rant. My point is simply to respect the machinery and be careful of the big saws!

Now that I have been working on my own without feeling the need to ask my dad to help with the big saw cuts it really makes me happy to be able to be helpful to him for a change. He gives so much of his time so freely. Not just to me, but he stops what he is doing and provides his full attention any time a visitor stops in or when the phone rings, which it does almost constantly throughout the day. For some reason or another, he has agreed to make ten guitars before his festival next month. Some for payment to the bands coming to play, one for a raffle to be held on the day of the festival and some for folks traveling from far distances that, last winter when the task wasn't imminent, he agreed to finish in time for their visit to Rugby.

My dad always says that he asks me to do his inlay work because he has done it long enough that he is tired of it and I am still young and eager so he asks me. I am pretty sure, though, that his least favorite part of the job is finish work. The way we finish our guitars is to spray seven or eight layers of catalyzed varnish onto the bodies and necks and sand them flat between each coat. The work is time consuming, dusty, loud, and smelly so I can understand why he'd prefer not to have to do it. Lucky for him, on top of the inlay I feel privileged to get to cut for his instruments, I don't mind finish work and was more than happy to be asked to help get these guitars done in time. I just tied on my purple apron, strapped on my respirator mask, slipped on my ear protection and got to it. Not the most glamorous job but I do have pink filters on my mask.

So many guitars to finish, so little time! 
After finishing my own guitar that I am delivering to the Canary Islands later today, I sprayed and sanded all of the finish on three of his guitars and added layers to the ones he had sprayed. It feels really nice to feel useful and to be able to give him something after so many years of only being able to take. We also spent the majority of last week in the shop alone. Few visitors, other than Tuesdays, no gigs to go play, just time to focus on a common goal and be able to have that elusive relationship that I have wished for for years, where my presence is needed rather than tolerated. It isn't just that I want him to give me something but that I get to give too. So perhaps that is why those little nicks and scrapes are important to me. There is evidence that I hung out with my dad and we both enjoyed it.

# 36, Black walnut
I mentioned going to Spain later today. As the culmination of my time at home my husband and I are headed out to the Canary Islands to deliver the Black walnut OM-28 I just finished. I am not sure why, but the ones that go the farthest are the ones that sound the best. I wish I could keep this one to show what a local wood guitar can sound like because the wood that makes up this guitar absolutely couldn't wait to become a musical instrument. It might also have something to do with the fact that I did this one completely on my own, no checking, no trading inlay for a neck set, no direction other than my own judgement and my own decisions. I do want to share that as I (carefully) ran the neck through the table saw to cut the dovetail, never has one come out so cleanly that it fit into the body exactly how I wanted it to. Other than when I cut the dovetail for Doc's guitar, for which I had help, I have never achieved such a feat. I typically have to measure, rasp, sand, whittle, and measure some more to get the joint to fit how it is supposed to. Anyway I just wanted you to know that because it felt like a week where I saw progress, which I feel is something to stop and appreciate. Like when you practice a new skill and it is horribly difficult for the first long while and you don't see much change and it doesn't feel like anything is happening but one day you can just do it? That is what this felt like. I know it won't be a regular occurrence, but I am so thankful it happened this time.

So off we go to Spain! I will see you in a week and can't wait to tell you about our trip. My nails are painted (not just to cover up that flat spot), the ugly dark scab has finally detached itself from my shin so I am ready to wear dresses. I can't wait to get back into the shop and make more evidence that I have a job I absolutely love, but for now, vacation.

It's always good to make sure you have a good tester around.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

The General Store

Ok, so I had no idea it had been so long since I had written you a story. None at all. I thought I had missed maybe 2 or 3, but not this long. I apologize for that and will do my best to keep up better. It is a busy time when what feels like one month is actually three. Woops.

I am on a roll. My guitar body is glued together, I am halfway through securing binding onto its sides. While I pull strips of tape from the industrial dispenser, nicking my knuckles on its angry serrated edge in the process, I am planning what I need to do next. Around 11:45am, my dad walks into the shop and says, "I want some breakfast. Want to go to Sarah's?" I check the time and while I have been working for several hours, my breakfast having been consumed at breakfast time, I say yes. I stop what I am working on and go.

I used to say no thanks when my dad asked me to accompany him to get breakfast at his favorite local general store because I didn't want to eat at that odd time between breakfast and lunch. I now understand he goes for so much more than just breakfast. Fox Creek Trading Post has been in operation for generations and one of the things I love about it is that, like Rugby itself, not much has changed. The shelves lining the walls that reach all the way to the ceiling are still piled with goods, clothing, and toys. I found a doll dressed as a nun, some dusty cigar boxes on a top shelf and a sign advertising shoe polish among the dishes, aprons and canned goods lining the dining area in the back of the store. Sarah Teitelbaum runs the old store and while she isn't originally from here, which is typically comparable to sporting a scarlet A in the eyes of locals, she has made herself a spot in the history of this tiny pocket of VA. It doesn't hurt that she's "good lookin'" (my dad says) and that she treats everyone who comes through her door as though they are the most important person in the county, but she has created a gathering place where folks can congregate and hear the scuttlebutt. I love that like generations before us, we still crave that sense of community and we are still fiercely protective of it.

Cigar boxes on the shelves of Fox Creek Trading Post
I remember when I was young Vivian Osborne ran the local store. My Great Uncle Cone, a man who had one of the most wrinkled faces I had ever seen, would sit quietly by the window closest to the wood stove and smoke most of the day away. He and his cronies would gather in the back of the store every morning for coffee and then the guys with jobs would leave only to return as soon as they were finished for a game of Rook or checkers. "My dad used to love to come in here. Every day after he got the farming and drove the school bus, he would come in here and play cards with his friends," my dad told me once. I remember being somewhat frightened of the posse of old men, thinking that their dealings were secret and probably important so I best keep my distance.

Old and new.
When my dad and I walked in to Vivian's, he would ceremoniously present me with one dollar to spend in the store. While he opened his wallet he would always tell me how he had never seen a dollar at my age and then would proceed to point out all the things he could have purchased with a dime. I always wanted a scratch off lottery ticket and my dad would make a big show of saying I was too young and there was no way Vivian would sell me one. While my dad chatted with his neighbors, I would tentatively approach the counter, which obscured my view of what was hidden behind it as it rose to exactly my eye level. The scratched laminated pad sitting atop the counter advertising the tobacco products offered, yellowed with age, curled up at the edges closes to me. Vivian would wait patiently for me to make ask her for a lottery ticket. Eventually I would and she would allow me to choose which one I wanted, usually the most colorful one. I would walk away ecstatic, as though I had gotten away with something, though in hindsight, she probably had a standing arrangement with my dad. He would give me a penny to scratch with, but I never used it, opting for my fingernail instead. It was so much more satisfying, scratching that shiny later away to reveal the prize underneath.

When my dad was young Vivian's husband Van Osborne ran the store. He said it was just the same as when I was growing up, the old men sitting around playing checkers and cards, discussing things like price you could get for tobacco and how high the price for chicken feed had risen. Last night when my dad and I sat by ourselves in his shop I asked him what he remembered about the store when he was  young. He said, "When I was young you couldn't go anywhere else but the store because driving to town was reserved for special occasions. You could get whatever you needed there. People would even come in and ask for haircuts. Van would gesture to the barber chair he had sitting in the back room and he would cut their hair. Once a man named Brack Davis, probably some kin to us, walked in and pointed to his tooth. Didn't say anything, not that I heard anyway. Van gestured to the barber chair and Brack walked over and sat down. Van took a pair of pliers and yanked that tooth out! You never saw so much blood. Brack spit a few times into the coal bucket, said thank you to Van, settled up, and left. That was when that store was in the building where my old shop used to be. Another thing folks used to do was have shooting matches. They would get a circle of cardboard and draw lines facing out like spokes on a wheel and attach it to the wall with a nail. Everyone would write their names on the wheel and then someone would spin it so fast the names would blur. Then someone would shoot at the spinning wheel and whoever's name it hit got the pot. Uncle Cone told me that during wartime when there weren't any bullets to shoot and the guys still wanted to play that game, they would do it with a knife. There's a big ol' hole where the knife blade would hit the wall. It is still there in the wall of my old shop."

Sarah needed a table for her coffee pot,
my dad went home and made her one
We pass a few other little stores on the way out to Sarah's. I think the reason for that is because she not only appreciates that sense of community, she builds and nurtures it. She doesn't mind that a fellow with nothing better to do comes in every morning and sits by the counter all day buying nothing but coffee. She is happy to oblige all of our requests from breakfast at noon to a sandwich on her menu that, without prompting, she always remembers exactly how I like it. Guys come in on their lunch break and she offers them the chicken and dumplings she just made from scratch, the barbecue she smokes herself, or a fresh sandwich.

When I asked Sarah about running that store she said, "I love that this store has stood here and served this community for so many generations. Jerry, the guy who drives the school bus came in recently and told me that he bought his first suit in this store with his grandfather in 1945. The other day I found a dusty old ledger on one of the top shelves and I found where he had bought that suit for $15. Now his grandkids come in here. How many generations is that? 6? I think that is just great." It is obvious she isn't in this for profit, though I'm sure she must make some given how many folks she serves every day. She puts thought and love into her cooking and provides excellent service. Those are two things that are greatly lacking around here now that our grandmother's have passed on. Now if you own a freezer and a deep fryer, you're in business. I think most everyone can see how hard she works to serve the community before she serves herself and thats a big reason why, in the time of high mobility, we prefer to drive a bit farther to see her and her helper Judy, her daughter Allyson as well as her parents who live down the street from the store. I hope that one day I will be able to bring my kids in there and present them with some money while telling them what I could buy with the dollar my dad used to give me. It was always worth so much more than the monetary value.

The general loafers.