Below... is a newspaper article about how Joe became Woody the luthier while living in Alaska.
…Becoming a Home-Shop Luthier
(from a newspaper article “Strings and Threads” written by Bill Lohmann
of the Richmond Times Dispatch, January 2018)
Joe and Cherie Lenzi typically say goodbye after breakfast and head to work. They usually meet for lunch and dinner. Sometimes they return to work in the evening.
They put in long days, but they don’t mind a bit. In fact, they absolutely love it.
Because, to them, it’s not work at all. It’s retirement.
Joe, 70, builds guitars and other string instruments, while Cherie, 66, make quilts. Though they go their separate ways after breakfast, they are rarely more than a few feet apart. Cherie works in an airy room filed with natural light on the second floor of an addition that Joe built on their Bon Air home almost 20 years ago, while Joe works in his luthiery shop beneath her. He can hear her sewing machines humming overhead, and she can hear his sanding and sawing and country music coming from below. Occasionally, she can even hear him through the floor singing, troubadour style, as if someone could hear.
“Honestly,” he said with a smile of his singing, “ I feel a lot better at the end of the day if I’ve spent some time during the day playing guitar and singing.”
The Lenzis have found a sweet spot in retirement, finding fulfillment and satisfaction while staying busy with their respective pursuits. Studies have long shown that retirees who stay busy and have a strong sense of purpose tend to be happier, while taking part in engaging activities can boost mental health and fill the void of retirement.
Joe has recently been teaching guitar-building at Lifelong Learning Institute in Chesterfield, a nonprofit organization that offers educational, fitness and social enrichment opportunities for adults 50 and older. He is a perfect example of a volunteer sharing his passion with others who are interested or curious, said Rachel Ramirez, LLI’s executive director.
“Retirement can be a lonely time, or and unstructured time, where some can get lost. We are happy to be an organization that helps retirees find their place in this amazing season of life!”
The Lenzis did not pick up their pastimes from thin air. Joe has been building instruments since he was in his 20s, and though Cherie has been quilting for the past year, she has sewn for many years. It was their artistic inclinations that led to their meeting in the 1970s in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Cherie ran an art and frame shop, while Joe worked a few blocks away, building and repairing instruments in the back of a music store. Alaska was teeming with young people in those days, beckoned by the promise of jobs related to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and by the spirit of frontier adventure. That’s how Joe and Cherie got there.
Joe grew up in Richmond and played football at Benedictine High and later at Virginia Tech __in the same defensive backfield as former Tech Coach Frank Beamer __before Joe suffered a neck injury and concussion in a spring game and decided to walk away from football while he still could. In 1975, after earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees (in business management), he landed a job with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration aboard a research ship stationed in Norfolk. Within a few weeks, the ship was re-commissioned to assist a team of University of Alaska (UA) biologists in establishing a baseline environmental study in the Bering Sea prior to oil exploration on the sea floor.
While on two-week leave from the ship in July, Joe was invited to visit one of those UA biologists in Fairbanks. So, after camping in Denali National Park for a few days, he continued on the Alaska railroad to Fairbanks. A week of hearing stories about Fairbanks winters convinced Joe that he ought to stay and see one for himself. As he says now, “That changed everything.”
He was offered free rent of a cabin owned by one of his new Alaskan friends, but it turned out that part of the arrangement was that he had to finish building the cabin. The unfinished cabin was 20 miles from Fairbanks, and a mile from the nearest road. There was no electricity or running water, so he had to bring in all supplies by sled in the snow, which actually proved easier than hauling things in on his back in warmer weather. With a chainsaw, he had half of the cabin built and insulated by mid-September that first year, which was good since Fairbanks snow generally starts flying in September. It took two more summers to complete the cabin.
“I lived in that cabin summer and winter, and I learned the value of a good wood stove and a good pair of boots,” Joe said, noting that, in winter, he would sleep for no longer than a few hours at a time, in order to keep the fire going in the stove.
In spring of 1976, he landed a job working on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, a seasonal gig of long hours and good pay that called upon his willingness to work and his strong back more than his business management degree.
During the winter, Fairbanks is not only cold but dark, with less than four hours of daylight each day for much of December and January. Construction-related jobs aren’t readily available in the winter, so “you’ve got to do something with all that time,” he said. He started looking into building guitars, an idea that came from his father __ a home builder by trade who also built furniture and almost anything else and passed along the trait of working with his hands to his son. Joe furthered his knowledge by reading books about the luthiery craft, and after a stint on the pipeline, he took a hiatus and traveled to Vermont for a six-week, live-in workshop at the American School of Luthiery where he built his first guitar. After returning to Fairbanks, he rented space in the back of a local music store and set up a shop to build and repair guitars and other string instruments.
Along the way, he and Cherie met at the Howling Dog Saloon, which was a favorite gathering place for young people, particularly on Friday night when the ritual among cabin-dwellers was to come into town, get a shower at the university gym, a supply of fresh water at a local spring and then head to the Howling Dog, which was conveniently located just down the road from the spring.
“She was crafty, I was crafty, and we hit it off.” Joe said.
Cherie had come to Fairbanks from Reno, Nev., arriving in Fairbanks on a motorcycle, coincidentally in July, 1975.
“It was an adventure,” she said.
She also chose to stay in Fairbanks and wound up working at a frame shop that she eventually acquired. She became interested in making stained-glass which, she realizes now, might have foreshadowed her interest in quilting, which is “like a soft form of stained-glass when you think about putting the colored pieces together.”
Joe and Cherie loved their time in Fairbanks, but, as Joe said, “Fairbanks looked better at age 25 than it did at 35,” so in 1986 they packed up their dog and their belongings in a Toyota pickup and drove from Fairbanks to Richmond, by way of Nevada. In Richmond, they joined the workaday world and raised two children. After returning to school and earning a mechanical engineering degree, Joe began an engineering career at a local engineering consulting firm. Cherie earned a nursing degree at VCU and worked as a registered nurse at St. Mary’s hospital, ultimately as clinical lead in a cardiac-care unit.
However, both remained loyal to their crafty pastimes. Joe headed to his shop on weekends to work on guitars, while Cherie sewed in her spare time. Retirement and an empty nest have allowed a full-time return to their creative endeavors.
Cherie has added several specialty sewing machines to the arsenal in her sunny sewing room, as she has devoted herself to quilting and embroidery since retiring in September. She was drawn to quilting because it seemed interesting. “The projects are endless,” she said.
“I hope to get to the point of having so many quilts that I can just hang them on the walls,” said Cherie, who often takes off afternoons to swim and stay in shape.
She has no intentions to sell her quilts.
“For gifts,” she said. “For fun.”
Joe got a head start on retirement in 2015, and immersed himself in the world of making musical instruments: he speaks of resonant frequency, neck angle, frets, and the nuanced advantages of the various kinds of wood he uses, such as rosewood, walnut, mahogany, spruce and ebony. Ever the engineer, Joe is fascinated with how technology enables luthiers to build instruments with greater precision. To that end, his son, Mark, 25, who Joe describes as “a full-fledged member of the electronic generation,” built a computer-controlled router system to cut guitar inlays and fret slots for his dad’s shop.
Above all, Joe said that it’s “woodcraft” that intrigues him most about guitar making and keeps him energized about his work.
Joe stressed that he has no illusions about the instruments he makes. He has a “home shop” reliant on hand tools, not a high-tech factory with many layers of automated quality control. That’s not my ambition. At Woody Strings it’s just hand and eye quality control. That suits Joe just fine. He finds the work relaxing. It’s just what he does. He’s sold a few instruments since retiring, but as he put it, “I’m just not into selling. I’m into building.”
“I’ve had a hell of a good time building instruments,” he said. “It’s been like my other life.”
He calls his business Woody Strings __ it actually started as “Wood and Strings” in Alaska, but morphed into Woody Strings__ which has led many who don’t really know him to assume his name is Woody. It’s not, of course, but he’ll answer to it.