View Full Version : Famous UK Luthier Considers Ukes?

03-15-2009, 02:28 AM
A bandmate of mine works with a very well known UK acoustic guitar maker. My friend is responsible for the marketing side of the business. He mentioned that they have a brainstorming meeting coming up... so I naturally suggested that he should put forward the idea of a ukulele line!

He likes the idea in principle and has asked me to sound out the community regarding pricing etc to see if the idea will fly.

The builder specialises in quality, handbuilt instruments made from exceptional grade tonewoods. He and his small team make acoustic guitars for many very well known players.

The instruments would either be individual bespoke ukes or limited edition, short run handmade "production" models. Attention to detail on this guy's stuff is amazing and his guitars are a joy to play (and they get great reviews in guitar mags).

So, for a top quality, handmade uke, using stunning woods from a superb, big name guitar maker ... What kind of prices would the market suggest?

Apologies for the awkward phrasing of the question. This is still at the early "idea" stage, and as a cheapie owner I have no knowledge of the quality end of the market.

Thanks for any help.

03-15-2009, 02:47 AM
It is not possible to talk about "ukuleles" as though they are all the same. Sopranos and concerts are very much alike, but tenors are quite different to make. A guitar maker stands a much better chance of making a decent tenor than he does a soprano. I don't doubt that this maker's materials and workmanship are "top drawer", but getting a soprano to sound right is notoriously tricky. I've played some beautifully made sops that sounded very dead.

It makes sense to branch out into the growing ukulele market. For one thing it may mean you can use up off-cuts of wood which might otherwise be too small for guitar making. The amount of work involved in making a uke may well be less than a guitar, but the price people are prepared to pay for a uke will be a LOT less than for a guitar built to a similar standard.

I look forward to seeing some examples of this makers work.


03-15-2009, 04:28 AM
Thanks for that.

I really hope he'll go for it. His guitars don't just look the part (and they are absolutely stunning) but they sound and play great as well. Loud, full, sweet... I don't reckon he'd be satisfied with anything less than those same qualities in a uke.

The only question, sadly but realistically, is whether it would be commercially worthwhile.

He did design a range of guitars that are mass produced in a PacRim facility for a company whose brand they bear. Affordable and good quality, but I suggested the ukes with a vision of him doing them in-house as bespoke, high end instruments rather than just another mass-produced line.

We'll see.

03-15-2009, 05:45 AM
The market for custom-made and luthier-made ukuleles in general is smaller than guitar, but to do this now is prime-time. The ukulele surge is really just beginning in terms of total numbers.

Ask any luthier and they will tell you that the amount of time to build a ukulele is actually about the same as building a guitar, but, ukuleles are a little harder to build due to the smaller sizes. It takes much more care to build a uke and the thin soundboard is rather unforgiving.

Bracing needs to be much lighter and the body and neck should be well balanced, so keeping everything light is a requirement. Most guitar-builders don't concern themselves with that as much as a ukulele builder.

In regard to price-range, lots of builders remain close-lipped about what they are willing to accept for one of their ukes. The asking price is typically flexible on "stock" items, but not always. The upper strata of builders, like Dave Talsma, are building to order most of the time or have maybe one or two ukes available for sale.

Is it worth getting into the market? Well, there are several "famous" luthiers that do not work in that trade full-time... yet. I have a feeling that situation will soon change. The more automated they become, the more efficient and more likely they are to become a commercial success. Guitar builders like Bob Taylor have discovered that automation adds profitability to their shop. Still, much is done by hand, even in big production factories. The real difference is in taking time versus rushing through the job for the sake of numbers.

Tell your friend to look at the guitar makers that are now going into ukulele building... Larrivee is back in the race, Collings, Martin, Fender (going mass-market with production numbers), and compare all of the guitar makers. Don't compare with Kamaka, KoAloha, or other specialists.

That should give him some insights.

03-16-2009, 12:29 AM
Thanks very much. That is a very helpful post indeed.

Collings do ukes? Wow, their mandos are excellent. Wonder what the ukes are like... They do use a lot of CNC and stuff, so I imagine their production would be pretty efficient.

That's certainly given us some directions to explore.

03-16-2009, 01:14 AM
These references to automation and CNC machines raises an interesting question. How do you define a "hand made" instrument? Once upon a time, luthiers used mostly hand tools, and excercised their skill and judgement to make each and every instrument individual. They would assess each piece of wood to determine its suitability, and might vary the thickness and even the shape in subtle ways to provide the necessary strength, and to produce the best sound and volume. Does anyone still do that?

It seems to me that many high class makers are now making guitars and ukes using so many sophisticated machines, jigs, molds, templates, and bought-in parts, using standardised batches of wood, that they are not all THAT different from a mass produced product. I accept that high end makers have better control of quality, at all stages of production and finishing, and will set-up the instrument properly, but in essence it is just a smaller and better mass production facility.

ALL ukes are hand assembled, but is that the same as being hand MADE?


03-16-2009, 04:40 AM
IMO there is a distinction between hand-finished, hand-assembled and hand-made.

Hand made would be something like Jade or Eastman mandolins - made in China, but by luthiers with hand tools. Collings stuff, while excellent, isn't (IMO) hand-made.

I don't necessarily see any quality advantage to hand-carved over CNC stuff. CNC aids consistent results and accuracy, but then eagle-eye QC is required to keep an eye on the parts that are produced. The one clear advantage with genuine hand-crafting is that the luthier is hands-on at every stage and will be more acutely aware of each instrument - including problems.

Harold O.
03-16-2009, 05:51 AM
Regarding hand made vs machine, there is a large philosophical/pragmatic argument to be had. And I will refrain from jumping in. Perhaps another thread...

In producing ukuleles in the UK, I think your buddy would do well to contact Pete Howlett. BUT:

1 - Pete may not have any inclination whatsoever to talk with the guys.
2 - The guys may not want to talk to Pete.
3 - Pete may be happy to work as a consultant.
4 - Having the resources of a larger shop and skilled workforce might help Pete expand while getting the guitar guys a new product for a growing market.

I do not know Pete beyond his UU posts and website. Nor do I know your guitar guy. They may already know of each other. But there is ground previously covered that could save both some trouble and time.

Moore Bettah Ukuleles
03-16-2009, 06:27 AM
Forgive me guitar builders, but building ukuleles is less forgiving than building guitars. The smaller the instrument is, the more exacting you need to be to extract a vibrant tone from it.
As far as financial considerations go, there's a quote I once read that goes:
"Behind every successful ukulele builder is a spouse who has a job with benefits!"