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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.


  1. Great post! Glad you made it to the Islands. Back when closer to your age, I did the Big Island 3x @ 21 days each, staying rural. You could definitely call it home for six months a year. I nearly did. Lots of artisans.

    You had the Portuguese sausage, but did you try the pork chops? Hawaii is known for their hogs; Manago Hotel in Captain Cook is reputed to have the best. Aloha!

  2. This was wonderful! Also, you're so cute :) I like Wayne's advice; I'll be using that.

  3. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I love your descriptive writing, you made me feel like I was there.

  4. WOW!!! What a great story and pictures. You could teach a class on how to write a travel journal. Thanks for sharing this. I am attending the PSGW this year and looking to see you dad again.