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View Full Version : How long does it take to a full Koa wood instrument to open up?



Lillo
08-20-2016, 07:44 AM
Hi everyone! :)
I thought this might be the right section of the forum to ask you a question whose answer I am really curious about!

I know that for full wood instruments (and not laminated) something 'magical' happens: after some time that the instrument is used, it opens up and changes sound, tone and volume. Fascinating!

I just purchased my first full Koa instrument (Kanile'a k1 gloss tenor) and I was wondering how it will behave in the future.

Could someone explain me the process that occurs in the instrument? Would you also know how long does it take (on average. I am sure it depends on many factors) to a uke to open up considering a daily usage?

Thanks! I am really intrigued by this topic! Wood is a wonderful material :)

Cheers

DownUpDave
08-20-2016, 08:32 AM
You will get all kinds of answers ranging from one month to a few years to never. This topic is a polarizing one but the answers are always interesting. I will sit back with the popcorn and enjoy the debate.

Lillo
08-20-2016, 08:33 AM
Ahahah sounds like fun! :D

Recstar24
08-20-2016, 08:52 AM
Yup there's tons of factors and possible influences on the "opening up" process. Wood is very much an organic thing that moves and changes over time, so it's hard to predict. How often an instrument is played and how hard it's played is also another influence, in addition to environment. How the wood was dried and for how long before building as well as how it was cut I'm sure is also a factor. Suffice to say, there's a lot of things that go into your question for sure.

I have one Koa uke, a koaloha, and for whatever reason, it sounds extremely opened up right from the start even though it's relatively new made in February 2016

johnson430
08-20-2016, 09:06 AM
This is an unanswerable question. Anyone who says otherwise is dealing in hearsay and conjecture. =)

Mivo
08-20-2016, 09:18 AM
I know that for full wood instruments (and not laminated) something 'magical' happens: after some time that the instrument is used, it opens up and changes sound, tone and volume. Fascinating!

Well, then you know more than numerous guitarists and other players of stringed instruments who have fiercely argued about this for decades and never reached a consensus. :)

Kanaka916
08-20-2016, 09:19 AM
A topic that has been discussed often. Here are some previous threads regarding that topic ......
http://forum.ukuleleunderground.com/showthread.php?36007-ukulele-s-tone-will-quot-open-up-quot-with-age
http://forum.ukuleleunderground.com/showthread.php?74966-Do-Mahogany-soundboards-quot-open-up-quot-over-time-too
http://forum.ukuleleunderground.com/showthread.php?41108-Solid-Wood-Ukuleles-open-up
http://forum.ukuleleunderground.com/showthread.php?49243-Do-Solid-Top-Ukuleles-quot-open-up-quot-and-mature-with-age

You can also check this listing (https://www.google.com/search?q=site:forum.ukuleleunderground.com&espv=2&source=lnms&sa=X&ei=ROC1U6fdHYb8oASw1YGwCw&ved=0CAcQ_AUoAA&biw=1366&bih=633&dpr=1#q=site:forum.ukuleleunderground.com+open+up) .

Lillo
08-20-2016, 09:56 AM
Every answer was awesome! :)
I guess it's a tough topic.

Recstar I had read already that Koaloha sound bright and opened from the beginning, while some like Kanile'a all the opposite. But again it seems it is a bit like religion, "you have to believe"

;)

Timbuck
08-20-2016, 09:59 AM
I always thought that this was a myth ..it's a favourite line from salesmen in music stores trying to sell you duff uke that's not up to scratch..;)

cml
08-20-2016, 10:14 AM
Just let it dry enough to crack and you have one opened up top ;)!

Barrytone
08-20-2016, 10:30 AM
I have read about experiments done where tones are played through amps directly in front of various wooden instruments for prolonged periods that result in changes in the alignment of the inter-crystaline structure. This link is to one such article http://www.nytimes.com/1996/02/27/science/when-violinists-play-their-violins-improve.html?_r=0

wayfarer75
08-20-2016, 11:01 AM
I always thought that this was a myth ..it's a favourite line from salesmen in music stores trying to sell you duff uke that's not up to scratch..;)

I'm with you!

janeray1940
08-20-2016, 11:08 AM
I've had one - just one - koa uke change tone and volume over time, and that's my oldest uke. It's been a change for the better and if that's so-called "opening up" then I'm of the opinion that *sometimes* it happens. My other koa ukes sound to me exactly as they did when I bought them, which is to say they sound great :)

I'm also very strongly of the opinion that if you don't fall in love with the sound of a uke right off the shelf - then you shouldn't buy it, especially under the weak pretense that it will "open up." I'm mostly experienced with Koaloha and Kamaka, and I've heard a few of each that didn't sound fantastic to me on first listen. They really are all a bit different and what matters is how it sounds and plays in the here and now.

I guess that makes me mostly a non-believer :)

Recstar24
08-20-2016, 11:17 AM
Every answer was awesome! :)
I guess it's a tough topic.

Recstar I had read already that Koaloha sound bright and opened from the beginning, while some like Kanile'a all the opposite. But again it seems it is a bit like religion, "you have to believe"

;)

I would agree with that based on my own experience. I have a local store that carries kamaka and Kanilea, and occasionally people from my local uke clubs will bring a new kamaka or Kanilea (I'm one of an only few with koaloha around here). The kanileas brand new do sound "tight" as well as the new kamakas, like they sound somewhat subdued and mellow, that could just be my ears and preferring the koaloha sound. The leader for one of my groups is a kamaka dealer and has been playing the same kamaka soprano for many years, and I swear that thing projects all over the venue easily and you can hear it anywhere in the room, it's that opened up! Not an exact science for sure...

I know you asked about Koa but I hear similar effect with cedar vs spruce. I have one of each by same builder, and the spruce even after one year of solid playing is a tighter, less open sound, but the cedar has always projected very wide and open from day one.

janeray1940
08-20-2016, 11:22 AM
the new kamakas, like they sound somewhat subdued and mellow

It's the stock black nylon strings. Despite my great love of Kamaka ukes, I cannot for the life of me understand why Kamaka favors those strings. I've seen a few posts on UU from people who like them, but not a single person I know IRL does. In fact, the store where I buy my ukes lets me change them to Martin fluoros to test-drive before I buy :)

So after writing that, hopefully without straying too off topic, I'll add my two-cents-worth that a string change can be an immediate here-and-now improvement rather than waiting for opening-up to happen.

Pete Howlett
08-20-2016, 11:52 AM
I don't know how many more times I'm gonna read this shtick... it's the words of a snake oil salesman. If you cannot make a great sounding ukulele from the outset you really ought not to be inflicting those failures on the public. It will improve with time but as for 'opening up' - it ought to be wide open to start with! So let's say it al together now, "Ukulele are not guitars (repeated as nauseum)". You really have to get it together right off the bat - there is absolutely no wriggle room with them!

Doc_J
08-20-2016, 12:56 PM
I was told by two awesome, experienced, and well known luthiers that my new Koa ukes would open up in time (with noticeable changes in 1-week, 1-month), and ear-witnessed that on both. True, they sounded good to begin with.

mikeyb2
08-20-2016, 02:35 PM
I'm with Ken and Pete. Wood changes and so does tone over time but as for "opening up", it is my opinion that it's your ears that open up and learn to like and accept a tone that may have disappointed initially.

TjW
08-20-2016, 04:19 PM
If someone were to tell me that the sound of wooden stringed instruments would change slightly over time after they're built, I could see that. Wood drying slightly here, changing its set slightly due to string tension. I can imagine mechanisms that would allow wood to change.
The problem I have is why does it only get better? If it changes, and luthiers put it together with the idea of sounding good when they deliver it, there should be the occasional item that gets worse.

Mivo
08-20-2016, 05:31 PM
The problem I have is why does it only get better? If it changes, and luthiers put it together with the idea of sounding good when they deliver it, there should be the occasional item that gets worse.

That is my view on this topic also. Wood and other material changing and these changes impacting the sound to a possibly audible degree, that makes perfect sense to me. Noticeable changes shortly after construction is also an aspect that makes sense to me. But that the result will always be better, or even mostly be better, doesn't.

In these debates, people will sometimes point to vintage instruments as proof for the "sounding better" theory. I feel that a possible explanation for this observation is that the vintage instruments that didn't sound great to begin with and didn't "open up" favorably simply didn't survive long enough to become vintage instruments. Plus, I believe that 50, 70, or 90 years ago, even "mass market" instruments were built with more care than the shelf stuff we see today where so much is designed to last for a few years only so that the consumer has to (or will anyway) replace it.

sequoia
08-20-2016, 06:34 PM
Noticeable changes shortly after construction is also an aspect that makes sense to me. doesn't..

OK I'm gonna wade into this bitches brew of a subject... First I want to say that I think that the perception of sound (music) is a highly subjective and fallible precept of the human brain and is thus subject to all sorts of biases. For instance, an ukulele will sound different to me on different days. Know what I mean? It isn't that the ukulele or the wood changed, it is my "ear" or perception that has changed. I'm talking subtle differences here. A crappy ukulele is gonna sound crappy every day and a good ukulele is gonna sound good everyday. Also my playing and attack changes slightly day to day.

I have however noticed a definite effect when I first string up a new build for the first time. It definitely sounds a little tight at first. However in a couple hours it begins to "relax" and volume and sustain increase. It continues to get better over a day or so or even a week and then things seems to stabilize and I don't notice any changes. I believe (I think) that an new uke needs a couple days to "settle" in. I believe this is due to the forces put on the instrument and particularly the sound board reaching an equilibrium and loosening up. I also believe this initial equilibrium is reached and that any further "opening up" is probably trivial and not significant.

The problem here is; we are talking art and not science. Art to science anyone?

Titchtheclown
08-20-2016, 07:50 PM
I am afraid the only thing opening up is the customers wallet. Apart from that you will be possibly be hearing the strings breaking in or your technique adapting to the instrument to make it make the noises you want to hear. You may also be hearing the effect of you practicing if you used to play once a month and then play three times a day on your new fantastic koa uke.

BlackBearUkes
08-20-2016, 08:56 PM
As a wooden instrument ages and the cellular structure of the wood ages, that is, the cells are drier and actually more open, the sound will change and most times for the better because that is the nature of wood and that is why we use it. After working on hundreds of different older string instruments from violins to guitars to ukes, my opinion is that if the instrument has been well cared for and played for most of its life, the sound is better than the day it was made even if it was a good sounding instrument from day one. Some are improved more than others due to many factors, but most improve over time simply because the wood has aged. That is why well aged, cured, light weight, stiff, quarter-sawn wood sells for a premium, because it matters in the world of lutherie. I don't know any luthiers who wouldn't care about the woods they use. Call it opening up, well aged or whatever you want, but time matters.

Michael Smith
08-20-2016, 09:31 PM
its my belief that the "opening up" has more to do with things really drying out and hardening. The glues, the finish and the wood itself and less or nothing to do with being played. Most finishes we use get harder and harder over a period of months and years. Same with most glues.

Moore Bettah Ukuleles
08-21-2016, 10:57 AM
I'm a believer that new instruments do open up and improve tonally. I personally think a lot of this has to do with the finish curing further, becoming harder and putting the body under more compression. When I sell an uke the lacquer has only been drying about three weeks at that point so the opening up effect is most noticeable with the first few weeks or months. (Lacquer can take a couple of years to fully cure.) Factory made ukes hanging on a retail shop wall may have been sitting there for months or even years in some cases an any changes may not be as apparent.

hawaii 50
08-21-2016, 11:29 AM
I'm a believer that new instruments do open up and improve tonally. I personally think a lot of this has to do with the finish curing further, becoming harder and putting the body under more compression. When I sell an uke the lacquer has only been drying about three weeks at that point so the opening up effect is most noticeable with the first few weeks or months. (Lacquer can take a couple of years to fully cure.) Factory made ukes hanging on a retail shop wall may have been sitting there for months or even years in some cases an any changes may not be as apparent.


Thanks Chuck since you are one of the builders that use Koa on most of your ukes I tend to agree with you.....I do know that ukes do sound better as they get older....mine do but that is only my opinion...I wonder how may Koa ukes the other builders have built on this thread, not many as you I believe

I believe the builder has a lot to do with it too....pretty sure if the uke is over braced it may seem like it does not improve...(or Open up) maybe open up wrong word for sounding better...

sequoia
08-21-2016, 05:42 PM
its my belief that the "opening up" has more to do with things really drying out and hardening. The glues, the finish and the wood itself and less or nothing to do with being played. Most finishes we use get harder and harder over a period of months and years. Same with most glues.

I so agree with this quote. As for "aligning the crystalline structure of the special wood through playing"? Hooey if you ask me.

printer2
08-22-2016, 02:06 AM
There is a report on the water bonds between the fibers breaking up due to pressure (audio) cycles. Mind you the test was to do with pulping wood and the amplitude was higher than you would get on a nylon instrument. Other than that who knows.

ksquine
08-22-2016, 08:18 AM
its my belief that the "opening up" has more to do with things really drying out and hardening. The glues, the finish and the wood itself and less or nothing to do with being played. Most finishes we use get harder and harder over a period of months and years. Same with most glues.

I suspect this one too.
Most of this "opening up" folklore comes from the violin and guitar worlds. Both are high string tension instruments and produce more string vibration energy. MAYBE that energy can cause some wood changes over time?? I dunno. Ukes are very low string tension and don't vibrate too hard so I don't think they can drive much change in the wood crystal structure or whatever.

resoman
08-22-2016, 08:31 AM
Then there is this

http://www.tonerite.com/

On the Tonerite website some pretty respected musicians and builders say they are using it but I'm pretty skeptical.

I just don't know. I am pretty sure something happens with age/playing, I just don't know.
As a side note, I've noticed that sometimes when I pick up an instrument I haven't played in a while it feels kind of stiff and non responsive but after I play it for a while it feels like it's old self. Whether it is my perception or something that is real I just can't say.

chuck in ny
08-23-2016, 01:50 PM
not only do wood instruments acclimate to themselves, glues slowly finishing cure, finish curing, things becoming 'one thing' instead of a collection of components, it's the same with brass instruments. there are subtle stresses on the instrument from soldering on the bracing bars, with the instrument seasoning out over half a century. if you want to pretend it isn't happening, fine. i notice a change in ukulele voice particularly at about 6 months.
if you want to go way out there here's something from my trumpet life. one of the well know fellows on our forum lent an instrument to someone who did not blow on pitch. when he got the instrument back, he couldn't get it to play properly and in tune and wound up selling the horn. there is magic in vibration. there is considerable less magic in those who see the miracle of life and explain it away as mashed potatoes.

Kekani
08-23-2016, 03:01 PM
To the original q, +1 to the response it can't be answered.

Does breaking in happen? Sure. Instruments settle, things break in, components get worn. Always for the better? Maybe not.

Whatever the folklore, I have a step in my process that simulates vibration and playing of the instrument. Once I added this in, one of the comments was how "old" the instrument sounded, as in broken in old, in a good way.

Is it because of this added process that my Spruce/Maple tend to have a sweetness (not my words) about the tone right off the bat?

Who knows?

Whatever its worth, the process will remain, even if its only psychological to me.

Funny though, the comments came from people who don't know what I'm referring to. Of course, its no secret. Just a simple, lazy cheap way to do what David Hurd does. Costs me nothing, but time.

Michael Smith
08-23-2016, 05:44 PM
I wonder if they would open up quicker if you made a box put in some nasty speakers with your ukes and played metal for a few days. You know some real head smasing stuff. If that doesn't open em up nothing will.

sequoia
08-23-2016, 07:18 PM
I wonder if they would open up quicker if you made a box put in some nasty speakers with your ukes and played metal for a few days. You know some real head smasing stuff. If that doesn't open em up nothing will.

One week of Spinal Tap turned to eleven will do the trick... But seriously, what is this argument that "magic" happens? If the phenomena even exists, if you don't believe in it you are "unmagical"? Sure we don't understand everything. This doesn't mean that things happen that can't be explained. Good things sometimes. Bad things sometimes. Sure instruments change over time. My point is that maybe it is the player more than the instrument that changes. Maybe they start to fall in love?

My reference has always been "vintage Martins". I have a neighbor that has a 56 D-18 that is a very sweet sounding guitar. The top looks like a quilt and you can see every brace witnessing, but it sounds beautiful. My thesis is that this 56 Martin sounded great in 1957 and still sounds great because it sounded great to begin with. It hasn't acquired something magical along the way (except for a big price tag). I have a 91 Taylor that sounded killer good right out of the box and still sounds great. I've also played old Martins that were as dead as canoe paddles and yet were greatly prized for their "vintage" sound. Mostly by people that were more swayed by the hefty price tags than they were by the sound of the instrument.

In conclusion: Good sounding ukes will sound good after a little settling in and crappy sounding ukes will never sound good no matter how much you play them. Will good sounding ukes sound GREAT after a 1,000 hours of playing? Don't know, but you will probably be playing better.

resoman
08-24-2016, 05:38 AM
I wonder if they would open up quicker if you made a box put in some nasty speakers with your ukes and played metal for a few days. You know some real head smasing stuff. If that doesn't open em up nothing will.
For years I used to hang my fiddles in front of my stereo speakers to try to sweeten them up. It was only bluegrass of course, LOL. Did it work, no idea.

Lillo
08-28-2016, 12:30 AM
Just got my Kanile'a! I totally love it! I changed the Aquila strings for a set of EJ65T D'addario which so far I like a lot, also because of the higher tension that makes arpeggio more effective IMHO.
I'll share my super-personal-subjective experience in the next months/years about the changes I hear (which maybe will be only on my mind) :D

One thing I think should be a bit less subjective and more measurable is VOLUME
Under the same circumstances (same room, same level of noise in the room, etc) one should see if the volume improves with time or not, right?

I am aware I have started another thing here... ;)

Timbuck
08-28-2016, 01:39 AM
Don't forget that the volume and tone varies with the seasons the weather and climate changes ....some days my uke sounds a bit flat and out of tune, then another day it rings like bell..But that could just be me... going through different moods depending what I had the night before :rolleyes:

Pete Howlett
08-28-2016, 03:06 AM
This is all very interesting. IF there is an improvement, and whether this is real or perceived, then it really MUST be a bonus. It can never be a crutch to a poorly sounding instrument at the outset. I have recently made a really suspect sounding Terz guitar - despite playing it daily, changing strings and string configurations it is not improving! The top has to come off and be remade...

PTOEguy
08-28-2016, 04:22 AM
Regarding opening up - I think some of it is adapting your playing to the instrument.

When I got my Clara (no wood there) it improved in sound drastically in the first few weeks. You could make an argument that the eKoa was "opening up", except that my Clara is the one that went on the road show documented elsewhere in this forum, so it was played a lot before I got it.

I think I just got better at bringing out the tone of the instrument. When I first played it in the store, there wasn't much special about it. The second time I played it (including back to back with another uke) it sounded better. I bought it, and it just got better over the first few weeks at home.

stevepetergal
08-28-2016, 05:37 AM
A lot of very interesting stuff here. Beliefs abound, but evidence is utterly lacking. This is why I'm one of the non-believers. I think opening up does not happen. If it does, we would never notice it on an instrument as small as an ukulele. Now, when I read what timbuck says here:


...the volume and tone varies with the seasons the weather and climate changes ....some days my uke sounds a bit flat and out of tune, then another day it rings like bell..But that could just be me...:

I can say that see lots of evidence supporting both thoughts- that a wooden, acoustic instrument goes through daily and seasonal fluctuations in sound due to atmospheric changes, and that a lot goes on in the mind of the player.

I don't say the tone is static, or that the changes your ukulele goes through are imaginary. I say these changes (be they slight or great) can be very misleading and easily misinterpreted. Hence my statement that there is no evidence whatsoever to support the "opening-up" theory.

I think my instruments sound better over time because I get better at coaxing a decent tone out of them. Perhaps I open up.

johnson430
08-28-2016, 06:30 AM
Here is some information from Taylor Guitars about Koa wood opening.
Seems like it doesn't take long to open up, around a month.
https://www.taylorguitars.com/guitars/acoustic/features/woods/body-woods/hawaiian-koa

Here is a quote from the Taylor page:
A common mistake is when a bright player buys a koa guitar in part for its visual beauty, finds it to be too bright, and doesn't play it enough to allow the wood to warm up.

Michael N.
08-28-2016, 09:23 AM
It's a get out of jail card, an excuse for someone to say that an instrument might not sound great now but just wait! In 2 or 3 years time your new XXXXX will truly sound great.
Strange that Strad and Guarneri violins don't fair so well against their modern counterparts in blind tests. You'd think that 350 years of 'opening up' would give them a distinct advantage. Blind tests tell us otherwise. Then again if you've just been told that the violin you are hearing cost a few million you just might start to hear things differently. . .
I'm not convinced at all. I think it may be a combination of factors, most of which have already been covered. Now I'm fully aware that wood changes over time and that string tension has it's effects. I just don't think that those changes necessarily result in better tone. Don't underestimate the player 'tuning in' to the instrument, both in terms of physically playing it and becoming accustomed to it's particular sound. Let's call that falling in love, sometimes it takes months or even years. Then every other instrument is judged by that particular instrument.

sequoia
08-28-2016, 06:46 PM
Regarding opening up - I think some of it is adapting your playing to the instrument.

I think this is so true. I remember buying a Taylor guitar many, many years ago and thinking it sounded a bit stiff. After playing it awhile what I realized was that I needed to adapt and increase the energy I putting into the instrument and start really "digging in". The thing just really woke up and the volume and projection was amazing. I think instruments are a bit like boats. They have a speed they like and perform best. There is a sweet spot and each instrument is a little different. An instrument like a boat hull needs to "get up on plane" to function efficiently. From what I can tell the Taylor has not changed appreciably over 25 years. A beautiful instrument. What has changed is me. Older, slower and smarter.