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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, March 26, 2017


A while ago I got an email from a fellow named Paul. The title of the email was 'Aloha'. In the note he told me he was a surgeon-turned-ukulele-builder in Hawaii and had recently heard a story in NPR about me and my dad. He said the reason the story struck his attention is because he has distant relatives from the Rugby area and thought it interesting a guitar builder lives there in that tiny place. He decided to email after checking out my ukuleles and enjoying the inlay work I do. The thing I remember most about that first email is that he told me that he had recently retired from being the sole surgeon in his hospital so he took up ukulele building now that it is economically acceptable to lose a finger.

After chatting for many months, trading sets of koa for Red spruce, and learning about each others build process, he asked if I would be interested in coming to Hawaii to teach him and several other small builders my inlay techniques. At first I was thinking that has to be some sort of trick question, right? I get to go to Hawaii. To show people how to do my favorite thing. In February, arguably the worst month of the year. (Sorry Valentine's day and Nick's birthday, you don't redeem that dreary cold month in my book.) After it was confirmed he was not joking, we set up the dates and I booked a flight for myself and for Nick. (Because of the birthday.)

I love airports. To me they signify a gateway to possibility, adventure, and unknown. Everyone is going somewhere, has a purpose, and a reason for being there. I have spent countless hours in these expansive bustling buildings, usually alone, but never feeling lonely. My favorite pastime is observing the folks whizzing around me, wondering where they live, where they are going and who they are going to meet at the opposite gate. I will often make up backstories based on clues gleaned from their luggage, attire, and demeanor. Once I saw a woman carrying a shiny gold trophy through the terminal. It stood several feet high when she sat it on the floor. She didn't look particularly athletic, wearing dress pants with footwear inappropriate for comfortable travel and that was the only thing she had with her-no other luggage or sports bags so I didn't suspect she won an athletic event. I like to imagine it was awarded for an adult spelling bee and she won for an awesome word, perhaps something along the likes of 'callipygian'. (Feel free to look that one up.)

The flights, Asheville to Lihue, Kauai, via Atlanta and Los Angeles, weren't bad. Not too long, no excessive turbulence, and only one obnoxious seat mate who was overly excited about the cruise he was going on to Mexico with his Corvette club. Nick took the brunt of that one as I busied myself with being super interested in watching Jack Black drive his Waggoneer away from monsters of his own creating in Goosebumps. It was amazing. (It had to be.)

Orange juice from the yard!! 
Paul greeted us at the airport with leis and a hugs. He and his wife Syd were two of the most thoughtful hosts I have ever encountered. They planned meals for each day of our visit, along with fresh squeezed orange juice from trees in their yard, provided ideas for things to do during the days I wasn't teaching, and sent us off each morning in their silver Tacoma with a hand drawn map to points of interest and a huge bag of snacks. My main takeaway from that is that I know they are excellent parents and that they miss their daughter who now lives in Wisconsin. (I know, what!?) The first day we went on a hike, Paul insisted on providing our lunch and stopped into a market at the foot of the hill from his house. "What is that?" I asked, as he handed us little bundles wrapped in saranwrap, noting it was a mound of rice wrapped in nori with a meat-ish looking slab in the middle. I love sushi rolls, but I had never seen any as big as a sandwich. He told me it was called musubi and he would tell me what it was after I had eaten it. Hm. Something tells me he and my dad would be best friends...
View at Paul's house
Orange tree!!

Breakfast-pineapple, Portuguese sausage, french toast, and tiny but super sweet bananas
Sunset dinner on the beach.

After a sunny hike along sea cliffs ending at Shipwreck beach, that musubi tasted amazing. Kind of like a salty pork sandwich sushi roll. When we got back to his house that night I told Paul I really liked the musubi and asked what it was. "It's Spam!!" Then he cackled, like literally cackled, for a full minute. Nick got musubi every day after that stating it is perfect hiking food.

Tuesday morning I attended a rehearsal for Paul's ukulele club. It was pretty much like the ones I have attended in North Carolina, except they all strummed traditional Hawaiian tunes instead of The Beatles and Over the Rainbow. Trying to follow along was difficult because to me all the Hawaiian words sounded the same, just slightly different variations of a vowel. The woman sitting next to me sang the songs as we all strummed our ukuleles. Perhaps in her sixties, she looked wise and thoughtful and kind. She wore a smart boater hat with a black ribbon perched on her head. Paul told me she is never without a hat. Her voice was rich and low and commanded attention. Those vowels sounded so beautiful coming from her. During several songs, Rose, one of the club members, did a hula dance. That was mesmerizing as well. Her relaxed flowing movements matched the music so well that they and the notes didn't seem like two separate things but a perfectly wrapped package presented with a long satin ribbon tied to it, each element just a bit lacking without the other.

Paul didn't seem phased that I had never taught an inlay class before. But standing before nine adults, all older than me and all having experience in woodworking and instrument building, I wondered if I could actually teach them anything. I thought back to my dad's advice, "Just go tell them what you do and how you do it. That's all you can do. You don't have to tell them about anything you don't know." He said that to me on the phone as I was hyperventilating outside the hotel before my talk at the Fretboard Summit in San Diego. Like now, I was going to go speak to a group of people who all had more experience than I did and were all older than I am. But I did what he said and it went just fine. (More on that trip later) The situation I was facing now seemed somehow different than that experience though. I have such a strong passion for inlay and know that I can do it well that I felt much more comfortable in this little cramped shop on Kauai than I did sitting in that chilly room in San Diego. I know that the inlay I do is sound and that I have gleaned enough experiences along the way to be able to show people my process.

Don't get me wrong, I have taught people things before. I have a minor in Outdoor Leadership from my undergraduate alma mater, which essentially means if you want to go do something outside, I can show you how to not die. Through that program and some amazing teachers I learned outdoor skills, and then learned how to teach other people to set safe anchors for rock climbing, how to belay, how to guide a canoe, how to kayak, how to tie useful knots, how to read tides and how to dress appropriately for an outdoor activity. I remember once when I was the Teacher's Assistant for one of the outdoor PE classes and was questioning my ability, my favorite teacher and mentor Tommy Holden asked me, "Ok, so if I weren't here or something happened to me, could you get everyone back to the van safely? How would you do that?" I thought about it, formed a plan in my mind and knew that I could. It might not be pretty, but I knew it was a possible task for my skill set. I kept that thought with me for all of my TA and trip leading duties, as I guided tourists in kayaks across Fritz Cove in Juneau, AK, and when I taught elementary school kids environmental education in Vermont.

Teaching the inlay class I thought how would Tommy show these people this skill? I thought back to one of the very first lessons he taught my freshman year climbing class. Sitting in a circle on the blue spongy floor of the gymnastics gym (which happened to be in the same room as the climbing wall) he showed us how to tie a bowline knot with a little narrative about a bunny and a tree. The bunny (aka the rope end) comes out of his hole (a loop in the rope), looks all around his tree the rope) and then dives back in his hole. And you have a bowline. To teach my students how to make a turn with the saw blade, I told them the saw had to march in place. I know the task is different, but the goal is the same and visual narratives seem to help drive home concepts. I thought of Tommy's bowline lesson and all the ones following that one, and thought, 'Alright, I can teach this like Tommy does." I knew he would make sure everyone felt like they were successful, praise their effort before offering a helpful critique, and always be clear and positive when presenting information. So I did that. And everyone had fun and everyone cut out an amazing design, all slightly different from the inlay I showed them. They all brought their own ideas and personality to the project which made me feel successful too. I had the best time those two days, and feel as though I made lasting friendships as well as showing people a skill and making them feel as though they can do something they couldn't before. I doubt I made as strong an impression on my students as my teacher Tommy did on my life, but if they get a tenth of the confidence and knowledge he bestowed upon me, I am grateful.

My class!  

Two of my awesome students brought me a lei! 

What we mad

Paul sent me home with a tan (ok a sunburn), a fascination for feral roosters, a taste for Spam, a 100 year old plank of a kona coffee tree, and most importantly confidence that I am proficient enough at what I do that I can show other people how to do it. Nick asked if he could help make the kona coffee ukulele. I was surprised he wanted to learn, but am so excited that I get to teach him how to make a ukulele. We have been working on it each weekend I am home and he is doing an excellent job. We successfully made it through a week of canoeing in Florida together, which Tommy calls divorce boats, so I bet we can make it through building a ukulele together too.

A shop in Kalaheo that only uses koa...

Shave ice is serious in Hawaii. That wasn't the large.

Hiking to a waterfall! 

My rooster friend Monty. On top of an 800ft waterfall. He left once he saw I didn't have food for him.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Setting Up Shop

The past few months for me have consisted of a whirlwind of travel, building a house, making instruments in order to purchase said house, moving, and setting up a shop of my own in the basement. Turns out executing such tasks leaves little time for writing you stories, but I have so many saved up and I can't wait to tell you so get excited. I will begin with building a house and a shop because that has usurped the majority of my time and energy since August. 

Watching the progress of the house was somewhat surreal. I couldn't believe it was my space, or perhaps just didn't want to believe it until it was actually ours. Actively searching since last March, finding a house with shop space in Asheville was proving difficult, and having to obtain the permits to build one into an older house even more frustrating. The more I learned about the process and what would have to be done, the more I felt like one of those dogs running through an agility course, though not a lithe Border Collie, but perhaps a pudgy, aging dachshund that can't quite jump high enough to make it through the hoop or all the way up the see-saw. When it seemed just about hopeless, my dad called one muggy June evening and told me he had spoken with a guy who came into the shop who just happened to be building houses in one of my favorite neighborhoods in Asheville. He has been after my dad for a guitar for a while so in exchange for one, he said he would happily work with me to build a house that had everything I needed, without having to beat out a myriad of other people making higher and higher offers as we had previously been doing. (Sitting in my lovely, finished house now, I am still wondering if I am dreaming.)

After several months of picking paint colors, floors, tiles and countertops the house was about ready to move into. Each time I visited the house, I would walk down to the basement to see the shop space. Unlike the rest of the house, which would have a new element each time, the shop was always the same. Just a cement room with double doors out the back and two big bright windows on the adjacent walls. It didn't matter, it was my space and unlike any of the other options I had looked at, I would be starting out with a suitable number of electrical outlets (36!) and almost excessive lighting. 

On my birthday, the day before we closed on the house, I took my usual tour, walking upstairs, admiring the backsplash I chose in the kitchen, then walking down to the shop. When I opened the door, instead of an empty cement room, I found beautiful sturdy cabinets and a built in counter, a work bench and several machines standing at attention against the walls. While always wishing for one, I have never gotten a surprise gift on my birthday and I was a bit overwhelmed with how excited seeing a bunch of shop tools made me. My dad's friend Chris and his builder Chuck had spent the previous day building it out for me totally unbeknownst to me.

Standing in my new shop on my birthday.
 It turns out setting up a shop isn't the easiest thing to do. The small number of tools I do have, I placed in the same drawers my dad has his in so I can feel a little more at home. Every time I reach for a tool, I have to think, oh wait, I don't have those clamps, or I don't have enough of those clamps. They are three hours away in their drawer at my dad's shop. Then I have to go take a trip Home Depot and see if I can find something similar enough to my dad's to work. Now I know I am pretty dang lucky to have my dad, his friend Don, Chuck and Chris, and everyone else who wants me to succeed standing behind me in my corner helping me get everything set up. My dad didn't have that when he first started building his guitars.

The building that served as my dad's first shop sits on a little flat spot across the drive from my Granny's house. During my summers staying at her house, other than picking raspberries from the prickly briars that climbed along the outside walls of the shop, I have no memories that prominently feature that building. By that time my dad had moved production of his guitars to what I refer to as the 'old shop', the building next to the Rugby Rescue Squad that he rented from Vivian Osborne for $25/month. Since I didn't know much about that first building at Granny's, I called my dad and asked. 

My favorite conversations with Wayne Henderson are ones where he tells me a story. I feel like most other conversations are a notch less comfortable for him, but when he is telling me about our family, his experiences building instruments, or that time he pulled a prank on his substitute, Jimmy, he happily chatters on until I remind him that brace he glued down earlier is probably dry by now.

He told me he built that building himself, with his dad serving as his only knowledgeable reference and helper. "I bought some lumber from a saw mill up on White Top. It cost me $75. I believe that was the first time I had ever written a check," he told me. He said at that time there weren't any building codes or anything so he just built a 16x20" room in the same manner as one would construct a barn, a task which everyone in the area had experience, and installed a bunch of shelves along the walls. He told me he had a few tools gathered, and his dad had given him some spool clamps which he set on the shelves. "Even with those shelves I soon found out that a 16x20" room was not quite big enough." 

When the moonshiner paid him for his seventh guitar, the D-45 that now sports a bullet hole, my dad  took the $500 and bought a Shopsmith, a Black & Decker trimmer that we now refer to as 'the router', a bunch of clamps, and some other small tools.  That router is still in production, though I worry perhaps it shouldn't be as the cord has been repeatedly mended with electrical tape, but still occasionally shoots sparks across the shop floor as it scoots along the edge of a guitar back. I understand his reluctance to retire it though as I have repeatedly tried and failed to find a suitable replacement from the selection of new and fancy power tools currently offered at hardware stores. I also know the clamps to which he is referring, as I use them often, even rifling through the drawer to be sure I use those specific ones. I prefer them immensely to the newer ones intermixed in that drawer and missed them very much as I was gluing braces to a ukulele top in my own shop. I had to take my daily trip to the Home Depot for some similar ones, but again, they don't quite measure up. Most of the tasks the Shopsmith was responsible for have been replaced with other tools, but it still sits retiring proudly in the corner enjoying a bit less use in its old age.

I haven't had many visitors to my shop yet, but I look forward to getting some as, while it can be a bit irksome having people standing in the way, it is equally fun to have people stop by and show interest in what you're doing. My dad told me about some of his first loafers. A typical fixture was his Uncle Cone. I was very young when Uncle Cone died, but I have a vague recollection of an extremely wrinkled man who would sit statue-like by the wood stove at Osborne's store when we stopped in to get the occasional scratch-off lottery ticket. My dad would always say in a voice loud enough for Cone to hear, so I knew he didn't mean it, "Now stay away from him, he's crazy." My dad said Uncle Cone would come to his shop periodically trying to convince my dad to drive him to the hospital because he would "take drinking spells that would almost kill him" so he had to go detox at the hospital. He would quit drinking for a couple of weeks then retox again. Apparently his drinking habits had upset the rest of his family members and my dad was the only one who would agree to drive him down to Independence. 

One day though Uncle Cone was out of luck. A man named John, whom my dad had met while working at George Gruhn's shop in Nashville came walking up the driveway. He had been in the market for a D-45 and my dad had told John that he knew Red Smiley's D-45 was for sale for $4000 in Roanoke. "I think he was scared to drive across the creek or something, because I didn't hear him drive up or see a car, he just came walking up the driveway holding that guitar," my dad said. "Uncle Cone was sitting by the door still drunk. He looked right at that guy like he knew him and said, 'Lord I wouldn'ta thoughta you for $5.' I don't know what John thought of that but he probably thought we were all crazy. I told Uncle Cone I couldn't drive him to the hospital that day, I had to look at Red Smiley's D-45." 

I asked if there were any other exciting stories to come out of that first shop and he told me one more. He said I couldn't print it, but I am going to tell you about it anyway because I laughed until my eyes were streaming tears. Here is what he said: "Well, Uncle Cone's son, my cousin Dick, was over with my good friend Ronnie Testerman. Ronnie was sitting cocked back in a chair and had a cigarette lighter out playing with it. Next thing I know there was a blue flame come up higher than his head and almost set the place on fire. I think what he was trying to do was cover up a fart by using that lighter like a match, but instead it plain blew up. I have heard of people doing that, but had never seen it with my own eyes. I swear that's what happened. I honestly thought it was going to burn my shop down." If you know my dad, fart jokes are just about his favorite thing, only second to seeing a prewar D-45 in person. 

My dad in his first shop circa 1972. Photo credit: David Lewis

I haven't had too much excitement in my shop yet, aside from getting a guitar stuck on my arm for about twenty minutes and worrying I would have to go to the hospital with a guitar stuck on my arm, but that is a story for another time. Each day I have to figure out a new problem, or how to make a form, or clamp work without the help of my dad and all of the tools hanging at the ready in his shop. I am thankful I have so many folks who believe in my ability enough to be willing to help me make an awesome space to build my instruments. 

I noticed the other day that my dad had a new set of fret files hanging on the hook where the familiar red, yellow, and orange handled ones have been stored for years. These new ones all have the same colored handles, and I don't like the feel of them as much as the original ones. When I commented on that, he said, "Yeah, I don't much like them either, but I am trying to get used to them so you can take the old ones." Seeing as he still uses a router that spits sparks while perfectly cutting the groove for binding, I know that there is a greater honor in being gifted the fret files we know and love rather than just getting the new ones. While I am so thankful to have a space that is mine, new and unfamiliar now, it is that much more important to me that he will always be there in my fret files, clamps, patterns, and forms. 

Here's to new adventures.