View Full Version : Different laminates

10-16-2017, 12:12 AM
Well, it's more of a wood question than that it relates to ukulele building, but I thought the knowledge about that could be best found in the luthiers forum...

I've always thought that laminate is just laminate... some mass produced sandwich with a nice photoprint of your wood of choice. So, a 'laminate koa' is just a birch-laminate with a koa print, a 'laminate mango' is just a birch-laminatie with a mango print, etc... I know that there are a few different types of laminate other than birch, but I assumed that cheap and ready available birch is just the way to go for mass produced instruments (I really don't know where I get that idea form, probably just common sence). Therefor I've never taken the descriptions in the specs very seriously, based on the experience that most laminates sound more or less the same and that the differences can be found in differences in construction, strings etc.

But lately I started to doubt that, for I A/B-ed two laminate tenors of the same brand that sounded completely different...

Can anyone enlighten me? How seriously can I take those specs...?

Graham Greenbag
10-16-2017, 01:47 AM
A brief reply as Iím not an expert. Wood laminates are a form of plywood and plywood comes in many forms and grades. The outer surfaces of a wood laminate are not prints of one wood grain on top of a different wood, if it says that itís mahogany then it is (should be). Instrument grade laminate is just that, a more expensive grade of laminate suitable for making instruments from. As a laminate is not Ďsolidí wood (ie one piece) its characteristics vary dependant on the wood under the outer veneer. I hope that that has helped and look forward to reading a more expert explanation.

Michael N.
10-16-2017, 04:52 AM
Don't confuse the two. Laminate flooring is a photoprint. Laminated wood used on stringed musical instruments is a form of plywood. Laminated (plywood) used for back/sides isn't necessarily a bad thing. It does make for a very stiff material and therefore less active. It's what some of the modern lattice guitars rely on.
The difference in sound between the tenors that you tried is much more likely to be due to differences in the soundboard. In fact it's almost certain that it is.

10-16-2017, 05:12 AM
Well, laminate ukulele are in fact plywood ukulele.

I'm sure many could debate the reasons for calling this plywood "laminate". A likely reason it started was to distinguish good "luthier-plywood" from average construction plywood, and because laminate sounds less offensive than plywood when you're talking about an instrument.

The bummer is, the word Laminate, has already (for a very long time) been used to refer to high-pressure laminate (HPL), also know as Formica and some other names. But that's not plywood at all (it's layers of paper and resin).

So what you will "typically" find is that High Pressure Laminate DOES have a photoprint image of a species of wood, while the luthier plywood laminate will "typically" have one or both of the outer layers in the ACTUAL WOOD of choice, and almost never a photo print.

10-16-2017, 05:15 AM
In my opinion a good builder can make a fine instrument out of laminated wood, and all laminates are not created equal. I own 2 laminated instruments. My AT-4 by Islander [by Kanilea]sounds and plays almost as good as my Koaloha at about a tenth the price. The laminated Kmise I bought for a loaner not so good, although I did have a good one I gave away. I have also played a laminated Kiwaya that I thought was a fine instrument.

10-16-2017, 05:22 AM
Ah, thank you very much for the explanation. So the description does tell me something about wood of choice for the (outer layer of the) used laminate. Nice to know. :)

Than my next question is: how much does that outer layer affect the tone of a laminate soudboard? Or is the quality of the laminate far more important? And is that (nice figured) outer layer more of a cosmetic thing?

Just curious, I'm a technical guy who likes to know about all these things :)

10-16-2017, 06:19 AM
There is regular laminate, and then there is High Pressure Laminate (HPL). Supposedly HPL is stronger, although I'm sure both can yield great sounding ukes, depending on construction, and the builder's skills.

Graham Greenbag
10-16-2017, 06:45 AM
....... next question is: how much does that outer layer affect the tone of a laminate soudboard? Or is the quality of the laminate far more important? And is that (nice figured) outer layer more of a cosmetic thing?

I seemed to do OK with my first answer, in that it went with the consensus that followed it. Let’s try for two in a row, though I’m really on the edge of my limited knowledge now.

Yes, IMHO that nice outer layer is more of a cosmetic thing than functional. However still expect a Uke with that expensive feature to have the (extra) works under its skin to sound good and better than Ukes lower down any manufacturers range.

I don’t believe that you can honestly look at the vaneer or outer wood layer in isolation, it’s more indicative of what the laminate’s overall characteristics might be than anything else. With regard to sound the mechanical qualities of the laminate are important, as are design and build quality too. Not all laminates are equally ‘good’ just as not all ‘plywood’ and solid wood are not all equally ‘good’.

10-16-2017, 07:16 AM
I believe that some laminate used for ukes is higher quality, using all plys of actual mahogany or koa, which Kiwaya supposedly does on their Eco series laminates. As opposed to having a thin ply of mahogany or koa on top, for visual appeal, while the lower layers could be a different type of material, possibly wood, possibly other lower quality/cost material, stuff made from woodchips/sawdust, impregnated in epoxy. I would think that all layers being made of mahogany, koa, etc would be better. Maybe I'm just splitting hairs.

10-16-2017, 09:03 AM
The show side of fancy plywood is usually so thin that its easy to accidentally sand through it to the mystery wood. It is of no acoustical consequence. If 5mm birch ply is sanded to about .060" I usually end up with the show side and one layer of the center wood that runs across the grain of the birch. It is pretty floppy, too. If you want the inner wood to run the length of the body, then the show side will run across the body and look funny. I've only used the stuff for box ukes, but it seems fine. Baltic birch ply is supposed to be birch all the way through, but is expensive enough that it makes sense to go ahead and use spruce for the top wood. My Alarez-Yairi dreadnought guitar was a great instrument. As far as I could tell the rosewood show sides were much thicker than the birch stuff, and the center ply seemed to be maple or a similar white wood, ply direction unknown. So instrument plywoods definitely vary.

10-16-2017, 08:08 PM
Laminates are an attractive alternative to the manufacturer for several serious reasons: One, you can order laminate wood in big quantities which is cheaper. Also laminate woods can be bent easily and sandwiched to produce a product quickly with less waste due to failure like cracking. Plus, a laminate soundboard is going to sound just like the last soundboard made so you can get reproducability which in a mass production situation is desirable. Also you can order attractive wood for use on the outside that looks good (big selling point), but is thin enough you can make three ukes instead of one.

Laminate instruments do not necessarily sound bad. However that laminate layer tends to inhibit the transmission of sound and causes the instrument to sound... a little bland? Just a little flat? The best analogy I can think of of is blended malt whiskey versus a single malt. Or blended wine versus a single varietal. It is definitely different. Is it bad? I don't think so. The sad part is that most people can't really hear what a good uke sounds like. It isn't what it is made of it is how it sounds. The reason the big producers use laminate is that ukulele number 1 is gonna sound exactly the same as ukulele number 1000 and if you are kicking out the product consistency is all important.

I build one off ukes of solid wood and here is the thing: I'm not totally sure how the ukes are going sound because each is different because each piece of wood is different. In a mass production situation this would be totally unacceptable thus the laminate solution. One size fits all.

Graham Greenbag
10-16-2017, 11:49 PM
The concept of repeatability is, I think, a very valid point and puts advantage to using what might be regarded as an inferior material - let’s set aside that all laminates are not equal for the moment. As a consumer something that is important to me is repeatability, I want to purchase something of known characteristics and in some ways that’s more important to me than risking getting a dud out a process that typically produces gems (solid wood manufacture).

As far as I know Yamaha don’t make Ukes but they do make other instruments. I don’t believe that they make the very best sounding of instruments but they do make very good sounding instruments and they do it consistently, they are so consistent that you could purchase almost any Yamaha instrument and be 99% certain that it will play well and be virtually identical to any other Yamaha instrument of the same model. I really like that repeatability even though it comes at a cost.

Putting that into Uke terms I’m happy to have a laminate instrument that’s made along the Yamaha excellence model as I’m getting something affordable that’s of known good or better quality - that’s not at all to say that all laminate manufactures are equally good, Kiwaya (Japanese like Yamaha) are a known example of excellence. An all solid wood instrument made lovingly by an expert Luthier will doubtless be musically better than a decent laminate and is the way to go if you have the funds, a clear idea of what you want and access to such a skilled person. It’s a sad fact of life that that opportunity to own the best of Ukes is not practical for the vast majority of the population. However, for Joe in the street, mass manufactured laminate build can allow easy affordable access to good instruments that can give hours of pleasure. The two build types are complementary, well that’s what I believe.

Pete Howlett
10-17-2017, 12:15 AM
I had a Yamaha FG 150 that was a great guitar. The sound was strong and t worked for two obvious reasons:

Design - the body taper and curve of theback were quite radical and the shape and bridge placement perfect.
Construction - the early Ymaham were built to very high standard in Taiwan. They also sealed the inside of the instruments.

However I would laminate sides and backs in a heartbeat (in fact, now I have cnc technology I may just have a go) becuase you canuse premium (see where I am going) veneers with figure and grain that would be impossible in solid wood...

10-17-2017, 06:24 AM
Using fancy veneer that would be impossible in solid wood is plenty do-able. Here is a tenor made with amboyna burl laminated onto Pennsylvania black locust. I laminate the sides flat, and then bend them. The lamination is done with Pro Glue veneer glue (http://vac-u-clamp.com/adhesivesandsofteners) which is a urea catalyzed glue, so once it is hard, neither heat nor water is going to soften it.

10-17-2017, 07:00 AM
My main player is one of those Kala archtop ukes. It has a laminate top and I think it sounds and plays fantastic! It's loud and warm with just enough punch to cut through the other instruments. I'm very happy with it.

10-17-2017, 09:44 AM
In composites, layers are sometimes laid up at angles other than 0 and 90 in order to get different bending properties in different directions.
Plywoods seem to try to make the bending properties as identical in every direction as they can.
A solid wood top could be considered a unidirectional layer, and of course has very different bending properties in different directions. Has anyone used veneers laminated at shallow angles to try to get a non-splitting top with bending properties only a little off that of a solid top?

10-17-2017, 07:22 PM
I had a Yamaha FG 150 that was a great guitar. The sound was strong and t worked for two obvious reasons:

Design - the body taper and curve of theback were quite radical and the shape and bridge placement perfect.
Construction - the early Ymaham were built to very high standard in Taiwan. They also sealed the inside of the instruments.

I just have to respond to this thread because I too owned a Yamaha FG 150 when I was young and that guitar was as sweet a guitar as a person could want. And cheap. I think I paid $120 bucks for it. I loved that guitar and played it to death. I'm not even sure what happened to that guitar but I think it just died. I do remember looking at that cheap light thing and wondering why it sounded so good. For anybody that had an ear, the Yamaha 150 was like... wow... man. I think maybe because they built them light? Anyway, Yamaha put out some really nice instruments at one time.

Michael N.
10-18-2017, 01:41 AM
Way back in '79 I was taking guitar lessons and the teacher had that very same model, the Yamaha FG 150. It sounded extremely good and it wasn't just him or me saying it, pretty much everyone who heard it said the same. He did regular gigs with it on the folk circuit. I think it's a classic case of Yamaha getting all the factors right, all coming together in that one instrument. Of course I've heard many other Yamaha guitars with varying thoughts on them, some good, some bad.
Laminated backs on guitars go back quite a way. A great many French romantic guitars from around 1800 were done as a fancy decorative hardwood onto an inner spruce layer, done as sawn veneers roughly 1.5 mm thick, each layer. I've done a number of these laminates and it definitely increases the stiffness even though grain lines are running in the same direction, although the chances of grain lines crossing is virtually guaranteed.
Laminated soundboards with nylon strings are another matter. Nylon has pretty limited energy. That's where the stiffness will work against the efficiency of the instrument, well that's the theory.

10-18-2017, 08:33 PM
I think it's a classic case of Yamaha getting all the factors right, all coming together in that one instrument. .

I realize this thread is veering dangerously off topic and I apoligize. This is an ukulele forum and not a guitar building forum, but I think there is an important point about the Yamaha 150 that is relevant to ukulele builders and luthiers. The 150 had a very thin neck, low action, light strings and as I remember very close string spacing which made it easy to play. It was no powerhouse for sure, but a lot of guitars of the time had pretty clunky necks and wide spacing (I won't name names). The Yamaha had a slick little fast neck and good high end so a player could dweedle-dweedle. I think this is what Bob Taylor exploited later with his great guitars. So the lesson is: Make the instrument (ukulele) slick and easy to play with the low action and the low profile neck. Make an ukulele that is easy and fun to play.

10-18-2017, 10:24 PM
Well said. I found that out some time ago when I tried a few ukuleles in store. The way an instrument plays influences your opinion about the sound greatly, if it plays nice you'll find it to sound a lot nicer too. But I guess that isn't necessarily the instrument itself... the way the instrument plays makes you play and therefor sound better.
Same goes for intonation. A perfect intonated ukulele will sound better, despite where it is made of, and just makes it more fun to play. You can make a cheap ukulele sound much better just by fixing the intonation.

I guess those two are probably the most important factors about a nice instrument: intonation and playability.

10-18-2017, 10:40 PM
But to get back on topic: may I conclude that the differences in sound I experienced in those two similair looking tenors, were apparently not caused by the different woods used for (the outer layer of) the laminate bodies? But problably more by differences in construction of the instruments and/or quality of the used laminates?

10-19-2017, 01:15 PM
A reasonable thing to assume. Would be nice to hear from a person on the shop floor that builds the instruments.