All phases of building take place in this room. With the advantage of a temperature and humidity controlled building room that is isolated from the rest of the wood shop I am able to make sure that all the wood components are thoroughly dry and stable before assembly. All of the wood that I will use within the next few years are also stored here. Although the ambient humidity in this part of coastal Hawaii averages 80%, I am able to maintain a relative humidity in the building room of between 45-50%. This assures the buyer that any changes in the wood in the future would be minimal if cared for reasonably. No matter what soundboard wood I choose, I always build in a 25 foot radius into the top, creating a slight arch that adds to the strength of the top and helps to reduce distortion.
Solar powered shop in Opihikao, Hawaii
Profiling the soundboard braces in the climate-contolled build room
A life long love affair with Hawaii and the South Pacific compelled me to move to the island of Moloka'i more than twenty years ago. I was immediately captivated by the sights, the sounds, the people and the laid back atmosphere of this rural tropical paradise. After extensively exploring the South Seas I knew that Hawaii was the place I had to be. While I was continuing my career as a potter and making scrimshaw I took the opportunity of this radical change in geography and lifestyle to explore other forms of art that I had longed to do. With the abundance of tropical woods around me I decided to pursue wood carving and for a while I made sculptural and architectural pieces that wound up in many homes throughout Hawaii.
One day a local bruddah stopped by my shop with the biggest coconut I'd ever seen and in sing-song pigeon English said "Hey brah,you make me ukulele out of dis?' The huge coconut he handed to me turned out to be of the "Samoan" variety which was pretty scarce where I lived but he kept me supplied with enough of them to turn out quite a few two or three nutted "coco-leles" for quite a while. These were relatively simple instruments though some had rosettes and hand carved tuning pegs of fossil walrus ivory (from my scrimshaw stash.)
Thickness sanding koa....Hawaiian style!
MY WORK ....where it happens, how it happens and why.
Inlaying black pearl shell
Inlaying is one of my favorite aspects of building ukuleles. It gives me an opportunity to give the instrument a truly unique personality. The shell I use is all solid shell, not laminate or veneer.I am fortunate to have a good supply of Tahitian black pearl shells that I've collected during my travels in the South Pacific. After I grind the rough shell by hand I sand it to a working thickness, cut out the shapes with a jeweler's saw and rout out the recess with a rotary tool. I also use fossil walrus ivory, composite stone and abalone shell that is worked in the same way.
Many of the woods I use are found locally on the Big Island, including koa, mango, and kiawe. The materials I use in construction are of solid wood, no plywoods or veneers are used. Instrument grade koa is especially treasured with demand surpassing the dwindling supply and has become increasingly more valuable in the past few years. Every type of wood imparts it's own unique signature to the characteristics of the finished ukulele. For bindings and fretboards I use non-endangered tropical hardwoods such as cocobolo, ebony, purple heart, bocote, wenge, etc. As a woodworker, it's always exciting to cut through a new piece of wood to reveal the surprises (or heart aches) within.
I build my ukuleles in small batches of four over a ten week period. This extended time allows the various wood components to reach their natural equilibrium and for the lacquer finish to fully cure.While other builders may farm out certain processes of their work, I complete every step of the build myself from milling the rough wood to final set up. This includes fabricating my own bindings, kerfings, cutting and setting inlays, and spraying, sanding and buffing the finishes. No CNCs or milling machines are used. I take pride in the fact that every element is hand made by myself.
The Climate Controlled Room
It wasn't until I moved to the Big Island of Hawaii however that I decided to build ukuleles full time. After all, "the Big Island is where all the koa comes from" and what better homage to pay to this scarce and exotic wood than to create beautiful and wonderful sounding ukuleles from it.
The process begins in this room where all the rough cutting, shaping and sanding is done. Thankfully we get enough sun in Opihikao to keep these machines running, including air conditioner and dehumidifier. The koa I use is air dried for several years the is kept in a special drying unit that maintains a higher temperature and low humidity so that the final lumber has a moisture content of between 6 and 8 percent.
Inlaying paua abalone pearl shell rosettes
Gluing the braces on a sound board using the "Go-deck".
Customer supplied the drawing that inspired this inlay. Materials used were mastadon ivory and composition stone.
What follows here is an assortment of process pictures......in no particular order!
One of the side benders. Electric heat blankets are used to bend the sides.
The plate joining jig. The tops and backs are book matched, glued and clamped together in this fixture.
The bent sides are placed into a mold while head and tail blocks are glued into place.
The sides get curve (radius) sanded into them on a radius dish attached to a motorized potter's wheel.
Kerfings are clamped and glued into place.
Cutting kerfings on the table saw. Kerfings or linings are strip of wood that are glued to the sides allowing for greater surface area when gluing on the tops and backs.
Spending a few days making kerfings, bindings, braces and all the other necessary parts is sort of a meditation for me. While I can't really let my mind wander, it does give me a break from many of the tedious tasks of building. When I get in a "groove" and I let my mind go it can be a real creative time for me as well, as I design my future ukes in my head. I really enjoy this time in the shop, turning big bits of wood into little bits.
After the top is glued to the sides it it trimmed using a flush cut router bit.
With the neck temporarily attached for alignment purposes, the uke is set into yet another jig. While making it convenient for gluing the back on, this fixture also allows me extreme accuracy in aligning the neck to the body.5 fan bracing for 6 string uke shown.
And the back is firmly glued and clamped on
Various channels are cut into the body allowing for purflings, bindings and end grafts.
Ebony binding and purfling is installed in the channel previously cut.
An ebony end graft ready for installation.
Installing the pearl purfling is a very time consuming process. I use only solid pearl shell, paua abalone in this case, rather than the composite shell used on less expensive ukuleles. Pearl purflings can really add distinction to your ukulele.
The solar powered cutting room
The Go sticks are spring loaded to apply even pressure to the braces.
The sound board braces are further shaped until the proper amount of flexibility is achieved.
In this "wave" inlay the pattern pieces are cut and individually glued to the shell which is then cut with a jeweler's saw. The pieces of the "puzzle" are then glued together and fit into a cavity that has been routed into the head stock. It is then glued and sanded flush.
A "Rainbow" rosette in process
Checking pearl for a good fit
Bracing tops and backs in the go deck. It is critical that these steps be done in a climate controlled environment to reduce the risk of future swelling, shrinking or distortion. Notice the use of carbon fiber as a bridge patch in the top plate above. Necks and side sound port backing also receive carbon fiber support.
The work bench after a busy day of inlaying.
Although I am no longer creating scrimshaw as a stand-alone art, I do enjoy incorporating it into the inlays of some of my work. This traditional whaler's art involves etching on ivory, in my case with a #11 Exacto knife blade. As the lines and dots are engraved they are filled with pigment. This is not painted on top and there is no color left on the surface. The ivories I use today are non-endangered fossil mammoth ivory, 10,000 to 40,000 years old. Most of the examples show below were made while on the island of Moloka'i and entail between 100 and 200 hours each to complete.