Thursday, April 8, 2010

Wayne Henderson Shop Tour

I called Wayne back in March and asked if he accepts visitors to his shop, and he said that he does. I wasn't aware at the time, just how busy his shop can be with visitors, or how generous Wayne can be with his time.

It's been a while since I read Allen's book. I apologize in advance if I inadvertently repeat things that he wrote. My little blog post might not mean a lot, to those already familiar with Wayne. I'm mainly writing this so that I can capture the experience that I had, while it is still fresh in my memory.

The area around Wayne Henderson's home and shop is beautiful country. The roads famously (or infamously) wind around, so that you seemingly have to go all over the place in order to get anywhere.

It seems to me that this is kind of like Wayne himself. He seems delighted to have whatever comes his way, get in there, and be a part of the long as it has to do with the things he appreciates.

Here's Tucker Road, looking away from Wayne's place.

Wayne's house.

The shop.

When I showed up, I met Harrol. He told me that Wayne was busy doing his taxes but would be in soon. So I had a look around.

The first thing that captured my attention was this gorgeous dred.

This is the only Henderson that I saw being worked on during my visit, #488. This is how it looked when I arrived. It looked to me like the neck had just been fitted, hence the straightedge.

The spray booth.

In the corner by the spray booth was a shelf of completed boxes. The guitar body in the middle, on the top shelf, is a cherry guitar. Wayne said later that he would be happy to build more cherry guitars, ... if more people asked him to do so.

Whoa, look at that gorgeous wood. If Wayne has a "secret," it is that he has had a direct line on this primo stuff, for a good long while.

As you can see Wayne is approaching #500. Wayne says that it is going to be another one that he keeps for himself. A fancy dred.

When Wayne came in, we shook hands and I pointed at my guitar case, and he seemed eager to check it out. I brought along the first acoustic guitar I built, completed last year, and was hoping to get some pointers and feedback on it. Wayne seemed to genuinely think it was a decent effort.

He played several tunes on it, but I was worried about my battery running out, so I didn't capture any of the other tunes, or his comments. It turns out I had enough camera memory and battery life to have filmed hours and hours worth. Sometimes I wish I just didn't know what I now know.

I also brought along pictures of my #2 and #3 guitars that I'm currently building, mostly pictures of the bracing. I wanted to see if Wayne thought they looked ok. He said that they did. But he stopped when he saw an in-progress pic of my #1 guitar. It was one of two times when Wayne showed emotion that day..."You glued the top on first!?" "Um, yeah," I said.

"You can get the kerfed lining cleaner if you glue the back on first, but I guess it doesn't mattter."

Wayne and Harrol immediately began working on stuff, and I didn't want to be in the way, so I mostly just observed, and asked questions when it seemed like they weren't too occupied with something.

Harrol was working on a '58 D-28 he recently picked up. He was planning to put a new bridge on it, and was also performing a neckset on it. Harrol glued the bridge on while I was there. He asked Wayne if he could maybe get a little supervision in using the hide glue to glue the bridge down with. "It's easy," said Wayne, "just do it quick." I was learning that you really have to see Wayne do it.

Here it is once it got clamped up.

Harrol thought maybe the finish had been oversprayed, and I wondered that too. But Wayne assured us that the finish was original. The checking was all usual and common, and the smoothness on the bass side of the lower bout came about from somebody resting their arm there.

Another thing Harrol was working on was a new neck for an old Harmony guitar he picked up. He carved the neck and did a lovely job. I neglected to get a picture of that... and I really wish I would've, because I'd be pleased if I can get the neck I'm working on now to look half as nice as his.

Wayne started working on a bridge for the #488 dred. And that's about when the phone started to ring. And ring. And ring. Wayne's phone rings all day long. As I watched Wayne navigate himself around the shop, phone in hand, while working on different aspects of the bridge and saddle for #488, I was reminded of those curvy roads around Rugby and Mouth of Wilson.

So I occupied myself by looking around while Wayne and Harrol worked on stuff, and Wayne talked on the phone.

Here's Wayne's side bender. I mostly took these particular pics because I'd like to make my own, like this one. I know it's common, but take it easy on me--I hadn't seen one up close before.

The machine has different attachments.

I wonder how many dreds were born from this thing?

I like this little work area Wayne has got. The body gets clamped in, and binding and setup work, etc, get done here.

Here's the trimmer Wayne uses to rout binding channels.

Detail of the roller bearing and bit.

Some templates.

The shop building isn't that big. Very little space goes unused.

A pile of spreaders.

Here's where all that amazing inlay work happens.

Decades worth of saw marks.

Wayne likes to whittle. Look at the scale compared to the pen.

Back and top templates.

Wayne working on the saddle some more. He worked on that thing for about 3 hours (in-between phone calls).

The glue pot has its own little platform to the side of the squeezer. Wayne says that he likes to use hide glue on tops: bracing, bridges, gluing top to rim, etc.

I couldn't help but notice that this nice set of Two Cherry Chisels didn't look to me like it had got much use. Maybe I'm wrong. But it looked like the Stanley had gotten more wear.

Those are soundholes stacked up on either side of that window. How many holes does it take to fill the Albert Hall?

A dozen or so rough necks as well as some other stuff...

...and more down below...

I spy a fiddle, a cheap source for steam, a Christmas card...

Some labels.

This is the ribbon Wayne uses to reinforce the sides.

And here's a detail of it inside #488.

Cardboard and foil, cheap and effective.

This is the squeezer, a device that Don Wilson built for Wayne. I didn't see a radiused dish in Wayne's shop. This is what he uses to glue the top and back to the rim.

You can see the radiused boards that get used as cauls.

A pile of molds.

An inexpensive humidifier. That brown collar on the Vick's vaporizer top used to be a white piece of styrofoam. There were a couple of these in the shop. Wayne said the inside of it smelled like a dead rat. I tried not to get too close.

With the bridge and saddle completed, and the '58 bridge clamped, Wayne and Harrol started discussing the finish on #488.

Harrol did some body prep while Wayne sanded the neck.

Wayne says that he's carved every neck on every guitar he's ever made with a pocket knife, and that it is his "therapy."

Here's a detail of the inlay on the headstock of #488.

I asked Harrol what cool tools were noteworthy, or perhaps even unique to Wayne. He mentioned the soundhole and purfling cutter.

And here is the rosette and soundhole on #488.

Wayne's work is quite clean. You can just tell Wayne is real proud of this. I was starting to learn how to read Wayne. Wayne is a passionate person, but he's also very low-key.

It was around this time, I halfway joked that they could give me a job to do, if they liked. And it looked like for about a second, I was going to do some pore filling. (Wayne uses Behlen's Pore-O-Pac). But then, the phone rang about a half more dozen times, another 40 minutes or so went by, and the plan was forgotten, while Wayne and Harrol discussed dinner. Wayne would go out and pick something up. I wanted to go too, so that I could treat them. I'm glad I did. Because, as I could have predicted, Wayne wasn't planning to just go get dinner. He was going to drive all over the place in pursuit of various errands.

It was a cool chance to finally get to ask him some probing questions.

In the car I asked him about shaping bracing. I was wondering about how he knows when to stop, and if he could explain it to me how I can know. At some point the bracing is going to be at its optimum point where it is structurally sound, but able to vibrate quite well. Wayne said he didn't know how to explain this to me. It's something I might get a sense for, after building a lot. He said the best thing I could do is to get the dimensions of guitars that I like, and to copy those. I told him that I had been doing that, from measurements made by John Arnold. "Then you'll be ok," he said.

I asked him if he'd ever played an electric. He said that when he holds something like a Telecaster, it feels like a different instrument than a guitar, to him. He also went on to tell me about visiting the Fender factory. He was amazed (in what seemed like both good and bad ways) at how automated it was.

I asked Wayne if he had ever built a guitar different than a Martin. He said that he builds in style and construction like the ones that he likes. They've all been like Martins, with the exception of just a few Nick Lucas-like guitars.

I asked him if there are what he considers to be secrets to building great guitars. He said, "there are no secrets or magic formulas. It's all about good craftsmanship." He said that the wood doesn't matter. You'll never have a good guitar if you don't build well.

I asked him about where he gets his Brazilian rosewood, like on #488. The back and sides on that, to me, looked nicer than the wood on Harrol's '58! Wayne told me about going to Brazil with Don and picking out pieces from a pile that was as big as a barn. (Um...didn't he just get done telling me that the wood doesn't matter?)

I also told him about a conversation I recently had with a guy that once owned a hardwood processing plant, and that provided maple to Steinway. This guy had told me that he would never use old non-kiln-dried lumber, or SPF. Wayne said, "that guy's crazy. Some people just know too much for their own good," Wayne said. Wayne told me that he once cut a tree down and used the wood for a guitar 3 months later. I told Wayne about some SPF pieces that looked clean to me. He said that stuff is fine, as long as you select good pieces, with nice straight grain, and let it dry properly.

He said that he has never had a brace fail on a guitar.

Then Wayne asked me something. He wondered if I enjoyed going to Elderly. "Absolutely, I do." Then we talked about the varieties of guitars available in a shop like that. This was the second instance that Wayne showed real emotion that day. He said, "Collings is my favorite!"

There's a bunch of other questions I asked him, too. We rode around for an hour and a half. He went to Helen's house and let the dog out. We went to the post office and the bank. We went to town and back. And to do that in southwest Virginia, it almost feels like you're riding on a roller coaster.

I asked him about titebond versus hide glue. He says he can't hear a difference, but some say they can. He has no problem using titebond for everything on a guitar. He doesn't think creep is a problem with titebond. Creep can be a problem with hide glue, as well, if it's too thick.

I asked him about flatsawn versus quartersawn, because I noticed the neck on #488 wasn't quartersawn. "It doesn't matter," was his answer. Structurally, quartersawn is technically better, but a flatsawn neck has been proven to work. Plus, he liked the way the grain on #488 looked when turned that way.

I also asked him if he feels he has achieved, or gotten close, to the target sound he imagines in his head. He said that he hasn't yet. But he also went on to say that he recently saw #3 (built in 1966) come back to his shop, and that it was a whole lot better than he remembered it.

Riding around in the car, I was realizing that we weren't going to make it to dinner before it was even time for me to go. And besides, the restaurant appeared to be closed down anyway. So Wayne took me back to the shop.

There's a lot of stuff I didn't get to see, before I left. I didn't get to look at #400. Harrol also mentioned earlier that Wayne could show me how he cuts a dovetail with a tablesaw, but it never happened. There's probably a youtube video of that somewhere, anyway.

I had a great time at the shop. The time went too fast. Wayne is a man of many paradoxes. He appears to keep to himself, but enjoys having a shop where there are always lots of visitors. He does amazingly clean work in what appears to be a messy place. At first, he doesn't seem to be all that warm, but he's actually the friendliest and most helpful guy you are likely to ever meet. He's a passionate person that is very reserved. He'll say something about Collings being his favorite, but then prefer to always play something else. And he'll tell you that the wood doesn't matter so much, as he proceeds to use the best woods available on earth.

I said goodbye to Wayne, wondering if I had thoroughly annoyed him in the car with my newbie builder interrogation. But he then said, "when you get bored with that state park tonight, come back down here and we'll visit some more." Not only had Wayne enjoyed it, he was apparently only just getting started.

I wished I would have. I opted to try to be a good husband instead.


4/14/2010 UPDATE

Jay Lichty was nice enough to send me the following explanations and pictures which demonstrate Wayne's technique for cutting the neck dovetail tenon using a table saw.

"The trick is to use a finish saw blade. The blade on that saw is a 7-1/4" plywood cutting blade with very little curf. You surely would not want to try this with a big tooth 10" blade. That would be dangerous." "We nailed some small nails, 3 penny or smaller into the blocks and then snipped them off leaving about a heavy 16th of an inch sticking out...then sharpened that with a file. The blocks are then pressed by hand into the neck blank." "...the first cut is a 15 degree cut. You can see the jig in the photo. Wayne made that on the spot. There are two identical pieces one for each side."

"For this cut the saw is set on 2.5 degrees."

Here also is a shot of the neck block, showing the criss cross of the cuts at the bottom of the block.


  1. Excellent !!! Thanks for sharing.....As former owner of #212, and mentioned in the book on page 10....I appreciate "Wayne's World" !
    Terry Barnes

  2. Wayne is absolutely the friendliest person I ever met, for someone with the reputation and far-reaching fame he has, he is just another guy with a passion for something.

  3. I did get to play #400. Wayne was in York a year or two back. A very sweet guitar. Also, one heck of a nice guy.

  4. Martin -- Thanks for a great vicarious "visit" with Wayne. I wish I could have made the trip, but I'm glad you got so much time there and got to know him. He's a great guy and that comes through in your coverage. Tanks again -- Bill Cory

  5. Thanks for that. I read it all!

  6. Thanks Martin! I look forward to visiting Wayne's shop this summer. I am not a luthier, but a woodworker. I have read "the book" as well, but am a big lover of old-time music and many of it's artists, past and present. It will be great to find you on Facebook and, hopefully, have a few conversations there as well as visit you some day. Keep up the good work! John Reed