Margaret McLeod Leef Published

Asheville Luthier Honors Family Trade With Environmental Focus

A middle age woman smiles as she stands at a table with a book in front of her. She wears a black shirt, and there are sketches under the book on the table. She looks to be in a workshop.
Elizabeth ‘Jayne’ Henderson in her workshop in Asheville, North Carolina. Jayne was taught the art of luthiery by her father, famed guitar builder and musician, Wayne Henderson. Jayne is a successful guitar maker in her own right.
Janie Witte

This story originally aired in the Jan. 28, 2024 episode of Inside Appalachia.

On a recent afternoon in Rugby, Virginia, Wayne Henderson is in his workshop alongside his daughter, Jayne Henderson. Wayne checks out a guitar Jayne recently built. 

“Let me look at it and play on it a little,” Wayne tells Jayne. He plays a few cords. “Very nice sound and tone.”

Coming from Wayne, this is high praise. Wayne has made guitars for everyone from Vince Gill to Eric Clapton. He charges about $5,000 for a new handmade guitar, but they can fetch much more on eBay and other secondary markets. 

He taught his daughter, Jayne, to build guitars, though it was not something she learned growing up. Jayne said back then, she was not interested in hanging around her dad’s shop. There were too many other people vying for his attention. It wasn’t uncommon for fans to hang around.

I wanted to be special. I wanted to feel like he was my dad and not Wayne Henderson, this is the guy that everybody just reveres and thinks is just the coolest,” Jayne said. “I was like, I don’t want anything to do with this because I don’t want to have to stand in line for my dad’s attention.”

So Jayne followed her own path. She attended college and earned a master’s degree in environmental law and policy. However, she soon realized her nonprofit salary was insufficient to pay off her student loans. So she asked her dad for help.

“She said she had this loan, student loan going on, I guess like all kids that go to school do,” Wayne said. “And she said, ‘I’d love to pay this loan.’ And said, ‘I see what your guitars bring. Would you make me one that I could sell on eBay?’” 

But Wayne had another idea.

“I told her, ‘What you need to do is make it yourself.’ I told her, ‘I’ll help you. I’ll give you my best wood. It’ll be one of my guitars, which means it’s got to be done exactly right. And I’ll probably make you do stuff over,’” Wayne said. 

Jayne was reluctant at first.

“When I started that first guitar, I thought it’d be terrible. I’m like, ‘Fine, I’ll do it.’ Because, you know, they sell for a lot of money on eBay, and I gotta pay back these law school loans,” Jayne said. “And what happened was I just, I loved it so much, and I got to stand next to him instead of in line to be the next groupie or whatever. I got to stand there with him, and he showed me how to do things.” 

Working side-by-side with her dad, Jayne began to develop a common interest with Wayne. “It was the relationship that I got that I never really got to have growing up,” she said.

Turns out, Jayne had a knack for building guitars. That first guitar sold for $25,000, putting a hefty dent in the loans. It wasn’t long before Jayne was hooked. Within about six months, she quit her environmental nonprofit job to build instruments full-time. But Jayne didn’t leave her environmental convictions far behind.

Typically, guitars are made from imported woods like Brazilian rosewood and mahogany. They’re not always environmentally sustainable. But Jayne makes hers from locally sourced and reclaimed wood. She also makes ukuleles from smaller scraps of wood that might otherwise be discarded. 

My passion lies more in preserving the natural world. I want to do that. I get to use this platform to push the things that I like,” Jayne said.

Jayne gets wood from a few different sources. One is just around the corner from her home studio in Asheville, North Carolina. It’s called Scrounger’s Paradise, a 50,000-square-foot wholesale wood shop filled with stacks of flooring, decking, tile and furniture. 

A middle age woman stands next to a balding man. There are stacked pieces of wood behind them.
Jayne Henderson inside Scrounger’s Paradise in Asheville, North Carolina, with owner Mark Olivari. Mark keeps tabs on the wood Jayne might like and shows her when she visits.

Credit: Janie Witte

On a recent visit to Scrounger’s Paradise, Jayne greets owner Mark Olivari as she walks inside, past the stacks of cut and planed wood that come from all over the world. Mark keeps tabs on wood that he thinks Jayne might want. He directs Jayne to a stack of wood in the back corner of the warehouse. 

“Is that beautiful or what? That’s original chestnut before the blight came into North Carolina,” Mark said.

Jayne likes the wood. She said it reminds her of white oak. Jayne taps the wood to see if it has a good tonal quality. 

“It doesn’t ring quite like Brazilian rosewood, but the density is really similar,” Jayne said. “This stuff has more of a bell-like [sound].”

Choosing the right wood is just one part of Jayne’s process. After visiting Scrounger’s Paradise, Jayne returns to her home workshop, where she uses a jeweler’s saw to carve an abalone shell to make a pearly decorative inlay on a guitar neck. Jayne is known for her custom inlay. It is one part of how she meticulously designs each instrument for the individual who will play it. 

A close up of a hand holding a knight on top of paper. There are prints on the paper of guitars.
An abalone shell sits on Jayne’s work bench with a photo book of her work. Jayne often reaches for her pink polka-dotted pocket knife when carving wood for a guitar.

Credit: Janie Witte

“I like getting to know people. I like to hear their stories — where they’ve walked, what they’ve done. I love that. So I really try and focus on the person, the human that is asking you for something,” Jayne said.

Each guitar takes a little over a month to build. Jayne said making guitars has become more than her livelihood. 

I don’t do this because I want to make a guitar. I do this because I can’t not do it. And because it brings me so much joy to use my hands, and this is the way with which I can do it. But I love that I get to do something that makes somebody really happy,” Jayne said.

It has been fourteen years since Jayne built the first guitar with her dad. She no longer needs Wayne to oversee her work, but she often does her finishing work in his workshop in Rugby, Virginia, where she spent weekends growing up.

A close up of hands. The hands hold a tool that is shaving wood off a plank.
Jayne Henderson begins work on a guitar neck.

Credit: Janie Witte

“My stamp in my guitars has ‘EJ Henderson,’ where my Dad’s says ‘WC Henderson.’ They both say ‘Rugby, Virginia’ on them, and I never changed that,” Jayne said. “No matter where I move, it’ll always say that because my heart’s here, and my dad’s here.”

Wayne is proud of Jayne’s work and appreciates it all the more as a luthier. 

I’ve just always had that interest, you know, in guitar making. And you can imagine your youngin doing it, too. There can’t be nothing much more exciting or better than that,” Wayne said.

Sometimes, when Jayne visits, Wayne coaxes her to play music together. Though, Jayne said she’s not the musician, her dad is.

Back in Wayne’s studio in Rugby, the father-daughter duo tune their instruments and play “Freight Train,” a song written by North Carolina musician, Elizabeth Cotton. Wayne plays a guitar Jayne made for the songwriter and guitarist Doc Watson, another North Carolina musician who was also a close family friend of the Hendersons. Doc died a week before the guitar was finished. 

“This is a guitar she made for Doc. It’s made out of white oak,” Wayne said. The white oak is the first sustainable wood Jayne used to build a guitar. According to Wayne, Doc said using environmentally sustainable wood for his guitar was just fine.

Jayne plays one of her dad’s favorite instruments — a ukulele she made for him as a birthday gift. The ukulele has special meaning for Jayne. 

“The present was, ‘Look what you did for me,’” she said. “You know, ‘See what you showed me, that I can make something really special and that’s just ‘cause of you.’”

As “Freight Train” ends, the chords linger briefly in the shop. Each strum tells a tale of family legacy, sustainability and heartfelt dedication to luthiery and to each other.

An older man sits on a bench next to a middle age woman. They both smile for the camera. The man is in a black t-shirt and jeans, and he holds a guitar. The woman is in a blue vest and long sleeved shirt, jeans, and sneakers.
Wayne Henderson and his daughter Jayne Henderson outside of Wayne’s shop in Rugby, Virginia.

Credit: Margaret Leef/West Virginia Public Broadcasting


This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.

The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts and culture.