When deciding on the multitude of options for a custom creation, it's okay to think outside of the box. Really, anything is possible!
Of course, perhaps the biggest choice one gets to make is that of Tone woods for the Back and Side sets. Often, when thinking Ukuleles, the species of Koa is the first to come to mind. Please give me a moment to educate those that have only just heard the word lately. When Portuguese instrument makers arrived in Hawaii on the ship 'Ravenscrag' in the mid 1800's, and the ukulele quickly gained it's place in history, the cutting of the Koa forests was in full swing. It's only natural that similar small bodied ( concert size) Koa instruments instantly became the standard. When the Queen started playing one, the whole of Hawaii fell in step. Koa is indeed the backbone of the ukulele tradition, both as back and side sets, and also for the top. Many thousands of all Koa ukes have been built. They tend to give a quick and vibrant attack, and an equal sustain... that is, they seem to suit the active strumming that gave the ukulele it's name; the "jumping flea". You can easily imagine the locals getting an earful of happy, energetic music as the immigrants came ashore one sunny day, playing quick, melodic rhythms. It was love at first sight and took hold almost immediately. Nowadays, there is tremendous pressure on the Koa industry, as cattle, sheep, deer and goats prohibit the growth of any and all young trees within their reach. It's not that Koa isn't still growing in Hawaii, it's that it gets eaten as quickly as it sprouts. Add to that the international appetite for the tree, and you will find that it is of the rarest of non endangered species. Furniture makers want it, picture framers covet it, and the big instrument factories buy every square foot they can get their hands on. Even the tiny scraps are coveted by wooden pen makers! Often, a 1mm. thick veneer is all that you get on an instrument! To be lucky enough to have an opportunity to buy Instrument grade wood ( 2-3% of total harvest) is a real treat... I would beg, borrow, and plead for the chance myself, and I live in the heart of Koa country! It just isn't available, at less than top dollar, if at all. That being said, it's a very beautiful, medium weight, and reasonably sonic wood. In my wood pile I have enough high grade Koa for the next 30 ukes or so. If you know anyone selling some great samples, Please tell me! But many other species are considered to be better, if, like some, pure sound is your greatest concern. Many believe that Maple has some of the best musical qualities for back and side sets. Most every stringed instrument in the orchestra features Maple, from the bass to the cello, and always for the Stradivarius and nearly every violin. Curly, Flamed, or Tiger Maple denotes very nice 'figure', which is both very strong and attractive. Maple is still plentiful, and comes in a few varieties like European, Soft, Hard, and Quilted, Western and Eastern, Big Leaf, etc.. Each is known for it's best qualities, and an entire book could be written on the subject for the wood lover and connoisseur . The trouble with Maple, in many people's opinion, is that it is light colored. Many are pre- disposed to think that a guitar like instrument should have a dark body with a light colored top. For one hundred and fifty years or more, Brazilian Rosewood ( for back and sides) and Spruce tops set the standard. Almost universally, this combination was thought to be the best or only way to go. Scientific tests refute this notion, but the prejudice will no doubt remain in the hearts of the majority.
In general, it is commonly accepted that a softer top creates the music better than a harder variety, and that harder wood in the back and sides is more preferable. This seems to be true, because a softer top will flex easily, and the back and sides contribute relatively little to the sonic output. In practice, the Master Luthier makes all the difference; he controls the output regardless of the input. Many of the Masters have demonstrated this, making superb instruments out of trashy wood! Of the commonly available hardwood back sets, Australian Blackwood is another Acacia, like Koa, that gets a lot of good press. Being hard, beautifully grained, and not yet endangered make it a viable choice. Other alternatives are Wenge, which is almost black, and Padauk, which starts out almost Orange when freshly sanded, and fades over time. They both are available down at my local lumberyard, along with several other exotic species. A quick tour on line under Luthier's tonewoods will bring up several other varieties like Myrtle, Bloodwood, Grenadillo, and an emerging variety from Hawaii, Keave ( yesterday's fire wood!), to name just a few. Talk about International pressure on limited resources! Many species now are very closely monitored by the SITES Treaty to help eliminate the deforestation of rare trees and their habitats. Brazilian Rosewood was the bench mark for guitar backs in years gone by... now it is extraordinarily rare. Indian Rosewood will soon follow suit. Cocobolo is quickly going that way also, as are several species. With 7 billion people to make houses, furniture, and instruments for... it's getting very difficult for a tree loving Luthier to sleep well at night. Sorry.
Perhaps I have gotten off subject. Maybe here is my opening to say that my archtops use up more wood than flat tops, so not all pre cut wood can work for me. It is often sliced thin for maximum yield, and I need a 3/4 inch thick piece for my Tenors, and thicker for the bigger sizes. And that makes it much more difficult for an archtop builder like myself. Moving on, my list of tonewoods for the top plates would include Port Orford Cedar, one of my favorites. I was blessed to get a large pile of leftover cut offs from Oprah Winfrey's deck up in Ulupalakua many years back, that made my first 60 tops. She has no idea that she gave me such a great present, but I surely appreciate it. They are simply 2x6 and 2x8 cutoffs trimmed off of her front lanai during deck construction... they don't have her signature on them, and should never be a bargaining tool for sales purposes. I am just being grateful. This 'Cedar' ( actually a member of the Cyprus Family) has the distinction of being the very best transmitter of sound, and I just love it! Smells great too... Spruce is an excellent choice for tops... I get mine from Alaska, where a very conscientious man salvages long dead remnants and sinker logs, and avoids fresh cutting anything living. I give him all of my business. There is Sitka Spruce, Englemann Spruce, European Spruce, Bear Claw , Red ( from West Virginia) , and several other varieties. Then there is Cyprus, which is favorable for many Classical guitars, Flamencos, and can be an excellent choice.
Beyond Woods, here are some simpler options... Instrument Size- Baritone has a 19 inch scale length ( the distance from nut to saddle, not the entire length), Tenor, 17 inch, Concert has a 15 inch scale length Baritone is like a guitar, the four higher pitched strings. Tenor is the most commonly marketable, and Concert is still playable by anyone with any but the thickest of fingers. Tenor and Concert are tuned GCEA with middle C as the lowest tone available (except if you choose a "low G" string, as many do), and Baritones are tuned DGBE, (an easy transition for guitar players), and the lowest note is that D... they go up higher from there. Body Style- A Full Body Design , or a Cutaway Body design are available. A cutaway gives easier access to the high notes if you have the talent to use them, or hope to... and full body is much easier for me to bend successfully. Most of my Ukuleles have had 24 frets to be ready for anything, or any one! Unless you really don't want that many... 18 or 20 would probably do just fine.
The coolest,and maybe most user appreciated option is a side sound port. It is simply an opening in the side facing upwards, that lets you get an earful of your own music.Before this little trick, the audience got the best of it. Now, you can too. Tests seem to confirm that there is no loss in quality, projection, or any real setbacks to this technique, and the players love it. It's not too hard to incorporate, so does not significantly contribute to higher costs.
Sound Holes often come up when Hawaiians see my archtops... I can't tell you how many times a local boy has asked me "What is that, Bra? Some Kine Violin? Hey, nice stand, man, nice stand!" Made me laugh the first 50 times. F- Holes kinda go with the violin making techniques that archtops are based on... they let me control the output much more than a round or oval hole and serve several purposes at once. Master Archtop builders like Robert Bennedetto ( who wrote the book on making archtop guitars, literally), find them superior, and that works for me. By placing them wider, the bass tones are enhanced; more closely, and the trebles are uplifted. How the 'eyes' are cut from the body of the F (the round parts high and low) make a difference, the size of the eyes do also. Simply having F-holes will weaken the top enough to enhance the sound, whereas a round hole simply cannot enable any of those fine tuning possibilities. There is a lot going on here! I also like 'alternative soundholes', such as the "four on each side" that you can see on P.O.P.P., the Baritone uke. They have a modern look, and the truth is that getting confused for a violin can have it's drawbacks - silly questions being one... I try to stay away from palm trees, dolphins, and other commonly seen as 'cheesy' soundholes, but I am sure many options still exist.
Bridges are another feature that gives options. A fixed bridge that has no adjustment is standard fare. It sets the 'action' ( how high the strings are off of the frets), and also houses the electric pickup. They can be made of any very tough, homogenous material. I tend to use Corian, a plastic counter top material by DuPont, which comes in about 100 colors. I like the black best. I also like to carve toes and ankles on them, just for fun. They are called "bridge feet" after all. An adjustable bridge would be able to rise a small degree, being up on tiny thumb wheels. This makes it much more difficult to make. It changes the building from two piece precision and a pickup to three piece and a pickup. Now we're at an 8-10 hour bridge instead of a 6-8 hr. one. But being capable to alter the action has great benefits, without a repair guy to pay. Inside the bridge is an electric pickup, which sends signals to an amplifier when you plug it in. All of my customs have one, and I choose the Industry's Leader... FISHMAN Electronics, universally recognized and very well respected, for my creations.
The Tailpiece is a work of art and an excellent place to make a statement. In that little 3 inch by 2 inch very busy area, there is still a lot of room for carving, inlay, initials, bas relief, or the simplicity of the wood's outstanding grain pattern.
And that goes double for the headstock, the focal point of any instrument. On the violin family, it is the scroll that everyone inspects first. If the scroll is lacking, it simply would not do! Fortunately, guitars are much less standardized so that there is plenty of room for individuality. Some folks demand the best of tuning machines, so that can be a determining factor for the headstock design. A slotted headstock design will need a certain type of tuners, while any other could bring more options. Some want very lightweight tuners to keep the uke from feeling 'top heavy'. Others might want to enjoy very good 'sustain', and know that extra weight in the head will help attain that, so maybe sealed gear tuners might be a better choice. Open backed tuners have less weight, but tend to get dirty and rust more than sealed gears, while unusual high tech tuners like Pegheads ( made of aircraft aluminum with helical gears hiding inside, and in the shape of old fashioned wooden pegs) can be a way to go. Often, the color or material that the tuners will be made of sets the tone for the rest of the instrument. Mixing Gold and 'Brushed Nickel' is frowned upon...
Then, there is the headstock itself. Do you like the look and less weight of the slotted design? They are pretty cool, but they are labor intensive! And speaking of which, do you want all kinds of inlay, or carving? Inlay is tough enough (wooden Marquetry is easier to cut than Pearl), but it gets to be a whole lot of work to make a 2-d bas relief of, lets say, Plumeria flowers as you saw in "Evalina""Evalina"... now that was a labor of Patience! For headstock outlines, I have my own design, then Slotted, then wedge shaped traditional, and then I am open to anything that suits the client. Headstock outline really is important! Inlay is available. Maybe your initials, or my Logo with or without a moon behind the raven; or a unique design that isn't too complicated. That Inlay stuff can take up lots of time, let me warn you! Some day, I may have CNC, computer aided inlay available, but not yet in my shop... I would have to sub contract that out. Still, I am set up for, and enjoy doing inlay. Inlay can be done on the headstock, tailpiece, and/ or the fretboard.
There is also the matter of the Fretboard. Not only can you decide what the nut width and string spacing will be, if you'd like ( I have my own preferences, of course), but you can choose a wood or woods, inlay, marquetry, and number of frets.
A Truss Rod is a device that hides under the fretboard that has the ability to fight deformation, if the neck should ever start to bend. There are one way truss rods, that assume that the strings will deform the neck, pulling it upwards, and two way rods, that can fight the bend either way. Sometimes, the neck wood has hidden forces released as the neck gets shaped... apply tension, and the neck back bows. It doesn't happen often, yet, it happened to me. Another way to fight deformation is to put graphite carbon stringers under the fretboard by routing a channel, and epoxying them in. These are super strong, lightweight, and do a great job, I am told. I hesitated to 'weaken' the neck by making the pocket, in the past, but am almost convinced that by filling it with graphite, more is gained than lost. It's a good layer of insurance. Truss rods and graphite stringers are optional... the rods add weight, the stringers subtract a little.
To round out the other options available, there is the choice of extra edging on the rails where the top and sides meet. This would be known as binding and purfling. Sometimes the 'guitar' is bound only on the top, sometimes top and back. There is wood binding that must be milled, bent and applied into a routed channel, or plastic binding that gets gently heated and then glued in. Often, for maximum impact, the binding, which is vertical, gets purfling to accent it further, which looks like thin strips below or to the inside (if on the top plate) of the binding to set it off, as they say. Often you would see, maybe, pearloid binding with black- white- black purfling on a tricked out model... Let it be known that I personally, was mentored by a Japanese man who, after 35 years of doing repairs, claimed that almost all binding shrank over time and would need repair. He also gave me the very sage advice that " Sometimes, Less Is More." And I too believe that! When you have outstanding woods finely joined, they speak for themselves in simplicity and clarity.
Finally, The Instrument is Built Around A Particular Set Of Strings! The tension at which a set of strings will pull on a Top Plate is a determining factor for the Luthier that cannot be underestimated... literally. The top will simply implode, over time. You see it often in older or very nice guitars meant to give exceptional output. First, there is a dip just up from the bridge, and a rise to both sides of the soundhole. Then cracks and a Bang! and it could be the scrap pile for that one! We builders tend to attempt to make the model that is the loudest, cleanest, lightest possible, but the flip side of that is longevity loss. A top shelf Classical used by the best of players will get a new set of braces every other year, as a minimum. That's just the way it is. When a kid takes his uncle's acoustic guitar and hot rods it with some steel strings, or puts the next size heavier set of strings on it... the guitar is simply not strong enough. Bang! Off goes the Head! Or the bridge, or a brace inside. You are warned! If you know what strings you like to play, and hope that the manufacturer will stay in business for a while, tell the Luthier. He will research the tensions involved, and build accordingly. Similarly, switching to a much softer string will create action problems, and require a good repair man to re-set the bridge, or make adjustments. Possibly, this could also result in poor performance issues, as the top is not being 'driven' to the extent that it was designed to be. Within reasonably similar, tension-ed sets of tenor ukulele strings... many pull at about 45 lbs. total pull- (simply consult the packaging...) the easiest way to change the sound of your uke is to change the strings! And, strings do get old, within weeks/ months... try a fresh set soon. Much bettah. And, the better you sound, the more you play!