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Bill Henderson


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Karen Boyle
Guitar-maker Henderson sometimes uses his dentist’s tools for the finishing touches.

Bib affixed, chair reclined, the patient waits anxiously as dentist Bill Henderson opens a blue packet. Inside, like fine silver flatware, the freshly sterilized tools gleam, their squiggly end-wires instilling dread of the noise they’re about to make.

Later, at home, Henderson will use another set of these very same tools to help craft something that will emit far more pleasant sounds: a classical guitar, his 53rd.

The interim director of Dentistry and Oral Surgery, a division of Otolaryngology, is also an accomplished musical instrument maker. For years he studied the construction of cellos and violins. In 1994 he became a luthier, or member of a prestigious guild of string-instrument makers, and started to build classical guitars. In modern form, guitars date back only 150 years and are the most evolving instrument acoustically. “With them,” Henderson says, “I can experiment with design, woods and tone and make a contribution.”

Primarily made from plantation-grown East Indian rosewood or pre-logging ban Brazilian rosewood, Henderson’s guitars are an amalgam—his word—of traditional and modern design. Bridges, pegheads, binding, rosettes and other details are made from assorted woods, like koa, lacewood, maple and Tazmanian blackwood. Each guitar takes about 90 hours to make.

He begins by forming the thin back and sides between heated two-part molds. Then he fashions the neck from Spanish cedar and fretboard from African ebony. Next comes the most tedious but pivotal task, the soundboard, where vibrations emanate. Atop the spruce or cedar soundboard he affixes the bridge, which supports the nylon strings. Rosettes around the soundhole incorporate Henderson’s signature marsh-grass motif. Finally, after securing all parts, he affixes strings, adjusts the acoustic response by scraping the soundboard, and applies the finish.

Oddly enough, though Henderson claims to have a good ear for music, he’s not a player. “I lean heavily on feedback from my guitarists to guide my building,” he says. His guitars, which sell for $4,300 and up, are played by professionals, teachers and students at university conservatories all over the country.

The infinite patience required for such work belies Henderson’s adventurous spirit. In 1984, he sold his California dental practice, built a sailboat and cruised the Caribbean with his wife and daughter. Three years later, the family settled on the Eastern Shore, where Henderson resumed practicing dentistry and crafted furniture and cabinets in his spare time.

The same precision Henderson brings to the dentist’s chair—shaping and fitting fillings, crowns and bridges—follows him to his workshop at home. “Work or play, as long as I’m puttering with my hands, I’m happy.”

—Judy Minkove

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