EVERY FEBRUARY, PETE CLOSES his tailor shop and heads to Greece. Every year he says, “I’ve got to get you my bouzouki, Jim. It needs your attention.” The strings buzz at its 8th fret and up from worn frets. But he never actually gives me his instrument. Until this year.
He opens the case and again explains what he wants, repeating those three magic words every luthier wants to hear, “Whatever you think is best.” Doesn’t he know my favorite Oscar Wilde quote? Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.
“Pete, what about this big crack on top?” Pete had never noticed a clean 6″ crack through its white spruce top. It gets worse. A second top rack. The 12″ separation among its sfendamos side ribs plus a 6″ opening further toward the back. A casualty of a major συμπόσιον; someone must have gotten pretty well knocked on their head with Pete’s bouzouki!
Big jobs are nothing but a collection of small jobs. But after all that gluing and sanding, it’s clear Pete’s bouzouki will want its top refinished. Lacking a spray booth and years of experience, I turn to a name luthiers have trusted for decades. Behlen. I ordered their spray lacquer, prepared the top, and before you know it, I have Pete’s bouzouki on its way to looking like it came out of the Borgada Spa!
A few holes in my knowledge base are quickly plugged. Phillip Pritchard, Mohawk Finishing Products Technical Service Representative, has just returned my call. With his gentle North Carolina accent, he seems respectful even of the nitrocellulose lacquer of which we speak. Phillip’s insights into scuffing, sanding, buffing, polishing, the “Cut & Rub”, are so comprehensive, we link to his reply email.
American Toolbox has restored several instrument, notably Hugh’s Collings mandolin & Santa Cruz guitar, several Guild guitars, a few others. Pete’s bouzouki has been more complicated. Not as hard as Steve Field’s Joh. Bapt. Schweitzer 1813 violin, but major enough. Thanks, Behlen! You made me look like a pro!
Special thanks to Jayne Henderson for her advice and guidance.
DRIVING HOME FROM A WINTER visit in Tempe Arizona takes me tantalizingly close to a famed luthier’s workshop. A few phone calls later, favors cashed, promises promised, I’m invited. The Holy Grail of both amateur and professional luthiers across the globe, an unscripted view of life in the shop of one of America’s greatest guitar builders.
When I drop in, Wayne is staining the neck of his latest acoustic, a little later, the body. This particular customer had plenty of time to find beautiful walnut sides and back Wayne would eventually build into a guitar. Typical wait time is ten years.
The visit was memorable. Organized clutter. Not a tape measure to be seen (I was assured they were occasionally consulted). A 23/1000″ saw blade just for cutting fingerboard fret slots. Many tools and jigs have one purpose only. Except the pocket knife. Wayne is a hand’s-on builder, and that blade is used for just about anything. Poking, prying, cutting, slicing, whittling, trimming.
You never know who will stop into the shop. This afternoon brought EmiSunshine, fresh off the Grand Ole Opry stage. She had us aflutter with her skills, the pictured ukulele built by Jayne Henderson. Jayne could not have a better teacher.
Wayne has had an interesting career. Retired after thirty-two years with USPS. Plus the year of accumulated sick time. An easy postal route that left him with plenty of time to build guitars, which he has been building his whole life. After the first one was sold at about 16 years of age, he’s had a continuous backlog. Don’t even ask how long. Methuselah himself is pressing his luck.
He covered all the bases, sticking with USPS and a performance career even though he could easily have gone over to full time guitar building years ago. And he covers all the bases in every guitar he builds, known for their volume, tone, and resonance. A strong, balanced sound is nothing you can fake.
What is Wayne holding up? He admires a sandstone sample I brought back from Anasazi Stone, comparing it’s layers to the pictured walnut end piece on the guitar he just built. Ahh, nature repeating itself.
A young child sat beneath the work bench. She heard her dad humming, heard the scrape of a rasp across wood freshly released from clamps. Smells of maple and walnut and rosewood and glue. Shavings danced in the air, shimmering through beams of sun, dropping into her hideout like snow into a tree fort. When people hear Wayne’s daughter is now a successful luthier, they might picture it all started like this . . .
. . . it is not what happened. The real story? More “21st century” involving exorbitant college debt, an environmental law degree, a way out of debt learning a skill her father could teach her. In time, learning something about herself. She liked working with wood, creating the instrument. Hearing it sing at completion, having people find her efforts had value. Enough value to pay college bills. Enough for everything . . .
Watching Jayne work, it’s quickly apparent there is no “shadow” across her. She’s working side by side with her dad, famous luthier Wayne Henderson. If Jayne gets stuck, or has a question, sure is nice to have dad there to consult! And maybe someone to point out the hard way will make a better instrument?
Jayne specializes in exactly what I want, a smaller guitar (with a short scale, please). She uses premium materials. Her teacher, the finest in America. The shop, perfectly situated for consult with peers or to borrow a tool. The wait time, two years, manageable – everybody gets in line. Just like her dad, she makes every single component of the instrument herself, except the strings and tuners (are they next?).
“It sounds like a Henderson” – Doc Watson, December 14 2011
Yep, I could visit Acoustic Vibe and walk out with a Custom Shop Martin 000 or a beautiful Collings OM3 Short Scale. Would the sound or the price or the guitar be any different? I’d have a high-end guitar like a lot of other people. Or I could order an EJ Henderson and have something special. Love and patience and jokes and banter and memories; years of combined knowledge and skills, all rolled up in an inanimate object that . . . lives. Hey, if I can’t take delivery, after waiting two years, there is no pressure to buy. There’s a line. The next person will be offered the instrument. Am I trying to talk myself into placing an order?
EmiSunshine plays Jayne’s personal ukulele . . .
Note from AmericanToolbox: We began reading Jayne’s blog, The Luthier’s Apprentice, after her ATB entry was written and edited down to what you see here. We recommend her blog, which reads more like a history/diary. Start with the oldest. Read a few entries every night.