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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)

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.


  1. Great stories! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Beautiful! Congratulations!
    Having known your dad from PSGW for many years, I especially appreciated what you said about him being more comfortable telling stories than with regular conversation - aka small talk. It was great to see him at Wintergrass this weekend, and to pick a few tunes with the Cabin 9 crowd. As usual, in the hubbub he didn't say more than a few words, but he didn't have to. His many instruments in the room were plenty eloquent enough!
    Can't wait to see what you produce in your new shop!

  3. I met Wayne a couple of years ago in Galax at Leon´s farm, and he let me play his guitar. What a joy to meet him. I plan to attend the PSGW this year. Is Wayne going to PSGW this year and if so, which week? Thanks

  4. Well EJ....I'm glad you got around to storying us again. Stories are what real Life is about, We all have em....some just better than others. I have Friends in Asheville and hope to see your shop one of these days for a visit. Careful Now....don't get stuck to another Guitar......Russ

  5. Nice stories! Best of luck to you in your new home and shop!

  6. Wishing you the best in the new shop! If I had seen this coming down the pike, I would have set those Martin fretmarker templates I gave you into a shadowbox to hang on the wall. Knock 'em dead, kid! ;)

  7. I'd like to enter my name in as one of your official "loafers". Glad to see a post again and I was on the verge of being choked up when I read about the fret files. Let me know when I might come by for a visit. -Nate