View Full Version : A tale of two NUDs...

06-24-2015, 06:20 PM
This is longish, but hopefully helpful to someone. The summary is: KPK uke exceeds expectations in every way. Rubin uke did not (beware).

So, my first uke was an Ohana CK-10 -- a perfectly respectable and cheap laminate concert bought at my local brick and mortar music store. You know it doesn't end there. I started learning to play (with a big thanks to Aaron Keim and his books) and got hooked. I'm also a luthier (we make carbon fiber violins) and I have a passion for real wood. So begins the web browsing, UU searching, etc.

Which leads to two new acquisitions:

The first is a Koa Pili Koko (known as KPK hereabouts) concert. I spent the extra few bucks and ordered the deluxe with some added bling. I think I spent $220 (which included free shipping and a gig bag). The instrument came on time, very well packed and exceeded my expectations in every way. This is a very well made instrument, the set-up was spot-on for me and the sound is worlds better than the Ohana. The body is solid acacia (koa cousin) with very well selected wood. Book-matching is not perfect but pretty close. A long time ago (in a distant galaxy) I worked with a lot of native Hawaiian koa and know the wood well. The acacia is pretty much a dead ringer for the stuff (at least visually).

Out came the inspection light and mirror. I had a thorough look around the interior, which is very tidy and nicely finished. No globs of glue, no rough work or shortcuts (particularly shortcuts you can't normally see through the sound hole). Braces all nicely shaped and finished.

The fretwork on the KPK is excellent. Frets are all level, rounded and polished on the edges and the intonation is spot on up the fingerboard. The headstock and neck are all of one piece (no scarf joint) and the glue-on at the heel is only about 3/8" thick (and nearly invisible. So, it's very nearly a one-piece neck (although I have no objection to built-up necks). I'm not expert enough yet to identify the tuners (open gear) but they are well finished and have zero slop.

One thing of particular note about the sound is something I'm really attuned to. When you strum a chord you get a nice, clear blend but can still hear the individual strings -- nothing muddy about it.

All in all I think this instrument is a genuine bargain. The finish is the stylish (these days) open grain gloss, very much like the Kamakas I've looked at (and just about as well done). Again, I'm not expert enough to pass any real judgement of playability, but it certainly appears to be well set-up and is not getting in my way as I learn.

The next instrument is a different story. I needed (no, really, there's a reason) a tenor uke. So, back to the web -- and this time Ebay. I found a solid mahogany tenor -- new, from China -- for $80. It was admittedly as an experiment that I ordered the thing. After all, shipping was free (and surprisingly fast). It's a Rubin "hand-crafted" uke.

The packaging was very close to suicidal. It came in the standard angled uke box with a tad of rigid foam as a good-luck charm. I am amazed that it made it in one piece. Upon the first cursory inspection I was not unhappy. The top is nicely striped and does look like mahogany. The finish isn't bad -- perfectly acceptable in this price range. The only issue I had with it is that they obviously stain these things prior to finishing, and the stain is a bit heavy on the orange side -- but, again, acceptable.

I have a habit of picking up an instrument and tapping it to hear what the wood is doing. Again not bad, until I got in the vicinity of the bridge -- where as I tapped something was answering me. A quick inspection of the bridge revealed that it wasn't glued down all the way around. In fact, I had no trouble slipping a piece of paper under it (which I did to muffle the thing). Again the tapping, and still the answer.

So, out came the inspection light and mirror. It really is kind of sloppy in there, but not awful. My best guess was that a brace was loose aft of the bridge. So, off came the back. Not a bad job -- a hot knife all the way round and plenty of patience. Indeed there was a loose fan brace, which again I could slide some paper under, which finally shut-up the answering sound as I tapped.

Now, believe it or not this uke also comes with a piezo bar pickup under the saddle running to a pre-amp at the side bout. However, in order to keep the cables from knocking around they glued a (roughly) 1" square plastic cable block to the underside of the top of the instrument -- the worst possible placement. That thing came out and went into the garbage (I had no trouble looping and tie wrapping the cables to stay suspended).

Glue where needed, careful probing of all the braces, lining, etc. to make sure nothing else was loose and the back goes on. Now the bridge had to come off to be glued down correctly. That was revealing. In an effort to be clever they masked an area prior to finishing where the bridge goes, but only about one-third the total size of the bridge foot in the center. After sticking it down with some goo that was unidentifiable they have no clean-to do because there's no squeeze out to deal with. Clever, right? The problem is that the whole bridge tips forward under tension, lifting the back edge up off the top plate. So, clean off all the goop and finish where needed and glue down the bridge properly.

The last bit of nonsense was the bridge saddle, which was some sort of molded plastic and didn't fit the slot particularly well. Lacking any bone (or suitable synthetic) around I cut a new saddle from ebony, fitted it properly and proceeded to set the thing up.

All the various buzzes gone now, the thing really sounds pretty good. I'm not a great player as yet, but I do have a trained ear. The original strings, of course, hit the garbage can as well and a set of Titaniums (D'Addario) went on. I don't think I love the strings on it, so I've ordered some others to try.

Can I recommend a Rubin? I'm troubled by this. It is so very close to being a perfectly playable solid wood instrument -- but only close. The molded plastic nut, cable block stuck to the top plate and bridge gluing method are enough to sink it -- and only part of that is easily correctable. Then there's the question of quality control -- which appears to be pretty limited. On the plus side was the quick and free shipping, and a very responsive seller. I've no doubt he would have refunded the full purchase price is I'd pressed him. I tried to explain how cheap and easy it would be to take what they have and make it sort-of real, but he apologized for his English and said he didn't understand. Well intentioned fellow with a marginal product.

So: KPK, big thumbs up. Rubin, not so much.

06-24-2015, 10:17 PM
Congrats to the KPK!

My current tenor is from the same factory, and (for all practical purposes) is a KPK, just re-branded by a local seller. It's also the acacia model, and like you, I was (and am) very impressed with the quality. Sound, playability, finish, and overall feel are great. Interestingly, the one issue is the same as you described also: the bookmatching isn't perfect, but almost. Nothing that one would notice by just looking at it with a non-critical eye. I also have a mahogany soprano from the same manufacturer, and it's just as superb and well-done.

Shame about the Rubin, but I guess for $80 after shipping it's always a gamble with any instrument. Sounds like you managed to fix it up, though! Good to know that they're responsive and don't ignore feedback, always a plus (I actually always had good experiences with the customer support of Chinese sellers, though in a different product field, not ukuleles; better than their reputation).

06-24-2015, 11:42 PM
I too am a very happy KPK concert owner. Wondering about the "solid mahogany" on that Rubin.

06-25-2015, 02:23 AM
Yeah, paying $80 for a brand-new solid wood ukulele will probably wind up in disappointment. An "experiment" as you say. Glad the KPK worked out for you, though!

06-25-2015, 07:23 AM
I can't say enough good things about my tenor KPK. It is lovely - in looks and sound. I want to get a concert and I want the grains and wood to be just a wonderful as on my tenor. Maybe.... someday.....

06-25-2015, 01:40 PM
Congrats on the KPK. Congrats on fixing the Rubin. You have piqued my interest in KPK ukuleles. I'd love something to please me more than my Ohana that I really love.