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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Holyoak

What a Surprise! (Part II)

In my last entry, I featured one of my students from Chicago who got into guitar-making. When I saw the process of making a hand-made guitar from scratch, I was enthralled. I teared up knowing that something I had taught Jeff in junior high school had sparked his interest in pursuing a new hobby. Actually, "hobby" is NOT the right way to describe it because it requires a tremendous amount of skill,not to mention patience.

What I didn't previously explain was that at age 15 Jeff was diagnosed with a crippling arthritic condition called ankylosing spondyliti. It's a hereditary juvenile disease that started in his spine and was effecting his hands and feet at well. In addition, his home life was difficult. He grew up with a mentally ill mother and the constant commotion at home caused his academics to suffer. Therefore, he was placed in "slower learning" classes from the 4th to 8th grades and was a victim of bullying. However, when I became his music teacher in 7th and 8th grades, I saw him as a very bright young man with a desire to learn.

When his high school teacher introduced him to the great literary works of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Keats and other famous writers, he found yet another passion. His thirst for learning was tenacious as he studied astronomy, photography, indepth study of music and composers, accounting, programming, poetry and literary classics just to mention a few.

After high school and attempted college, he worked at an insurance company in Chicago for 20 years as an accounting clerk and programmer. Then, feeling that something was missing in his life, he joined Holy Covenant, a non-denominational Christian church and became a Christian. At that time he also joined a religious order affiliated with his church which ministered to helping mentally handicapped adults with their daily needs which followed St. Jude's motto: "Hope for the Hopeless". His service to the mentally challenged adults changed his life, gave him purpose and a new confidence he had never felt before. In addition, he worked at St. Mary's Square Living Center which housed disabled adults but eventually had to give that up as it was physically too difficult due to the worsening of his arthritis.

From Jeff: "That year long experience of helping minister and teach developmentally disabled adults was the most moving, profound and spiritually fulfilling experience of my life. At first, I was scared seeing those men and woman in the condition they were in. I would like to say that I helped them, but I think they actually helped me more. For the first time, I experienced God's unconditional love in it's most direct form through the souls we ministered to there."

When he had a "deep feeling to create tangible objects," he took a class in guitar building class at the Vermont Instrument School of Luthiery and made his first guitar. His desire was to "contribute to the musical world and become part of it rather than just a listener." He set up a workshop in his home and for the next 4 years built guitars on his own. It took him one year to make just one guitar and when you see the process you will be astonished. That was when he made the guitar I now own.

From Jeff: "Here are pictures of my first solo guitar which I named Kathleen after my 7th and 8th grade music teacher. She was so kind to me and her love and passion for classical music really showed and it inspired me. When she introduced us to the classical guitar, that's when my love for guitars started. My father bought me my first guitar when I was 13. I was so intrigued by all the different sounds I could create with it."

These are the steps and direct quotes from Jeff as he explained the entire process. It's pretty amazing that he was able to learn how to create such beautiful handmade classical guitars!

Jeff said:

"I handmade this concert classical guitar using Englemann Spruce for the soundboard and Indian Rosewood for the sides and back.

The guitar has been finished using the ancient technique of French Polish by hand using shellac dissolved in alcohol and applied to the bare wood surface using a cotton ball dosed in the shellac alcohol mixture and rubbing it onto the guitar's wood surface.

The high sheen is produced by building the layers one on top of the other over many repeats of application over a week's time. Shellac is a resin secreted by the female lac bug on trees in the forests of India and Thailand. "

Pictures that show the making of Kathleen:

1) Jointing the 2 halves of the guitar top:

2) Reducing the thickness of the top with a planer and then smoothing the top with a scraping tool:

3) Gluing the harmonic bars and braces of the top

4) Carving the harmonic bars and fan struts:

5) Gluing the neck with carved heal to the top:

6) Gluing the end block to the top:

7) Bending the sides using heat:

8) Gluing the linings to the sides:

9) Gluing the sides to the top, neck and end block:

10) Gluing the back to the sides, neck and end block:

11) Channels for theperfling have been routed:

12) After carving out the channel and gluing the end purfling to the end of the guitar

13) The purfling has been glued to the top sides and back:

14) Gluing the ebony fingerboard to the neck:

Back view of finished guitar:

After making a total of 4 guitars, Jeff's arthritis became too painful to continue his work. I am truly astounded at the quality of his workmanship, the time and effort it took to learn such a difficult craft and feel so proud to own a guitar that he made which I consider a treasure.

I applaud Jeff for all he has accomplished in his life despite so many challenges. It is my hope as you read this, you'll be inspired by his efforts as I continue to be. Like the familiar saying, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going!"

Since we reconnected in 2007, he has remained a very dear friend and we email each other often. We continue to discuss great artists and musicians, politics, gardening and his love for raising roses, religion and share life-changing experiences.

In 2014, he joined a choir and taught himself a music notation software program so he could help his choir director with rehearsals. Is there anything that Jeff can't do? I know I can always count on him as a friend and say in all sincerity, I am a better person because of him. We need more Jeffs in this world!

I greatly appreciate this quote: “A friend is someone who understands your past, believes in your future, and accepts you just the way you are.”

– Unknown

“Friendship is the hardest thing in the world to explain. It's not something you learn in school. But if you haven't learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven't learned anything.”

Muhammad Ali

My student, Jeff
2007: Jeff enjoying a smoothie. Mt. Charleston in the background

In closing, Jeff says: "Now at age 61, I am enjoying my life in Nevada and love the Spring Mountain Range and the stars at night. "

Cumulus clouds over Mount Charleston, Nevada.
Shadow Mountain, Nevada.
A Nevada sunset.
A. starry night.

NOTE: If you would like to send a note of appreciation to Jeff, please send it to my email and I will forward it to him. (

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