View Full Version : The importance of scale...

Pete Howlett
07-04-2010, 10:47 AM
I'd just like to offer some wisdom and caution to all those building ukulele for the first time. Elsewhere in another thread Chuck wisely points out the time honoured method of copy first, innovate later. In a lot of new builds I notice some glaring errors of scale - 'improved' body design, chunky square kerfed lining, massive end and tail blocks, oversize depths, bridges either too big or too small, 'lazy' heels.

I don't suppose I am alone in this that my first interaction with any build is to feel the instrument, look inside it and examine both workmanship and design. If these fit together nicely it's almost a guarantee that the uke will sound good. Often, a lack of research produces for me a less than pleasing result.

Advice? - I have none that could improve on Chuck's.

Plea? - follow it and do yourself proud.

Dave Higham
07-04-2010, 11:19 AM
Ah, but will they listen?...

Pete Howlett
07-04-2010, 11:30 AM
A reed blowing in the wind....

07-05-2010, 10:32 AM
I'm still copying Pete..Innovation is very slow in coming to me...I'm the same with Music I do loads of covers..but my own songs are lacking something.

Pete Howlett
07-05-2010, 10:48 AM
As you know - I can't see the point....

07-06-2010, 09:03 AM
Pete, you can't see the point because your reasons for building are entirely different.

I've now built a grand total of two ukuleles. Neither were from plans, nor were they copied from good ukes. I read lots about building, watched your videos, and then kind of made them up as I went along.

My motivations were not those that you would recognise:

1. I make my living from intellectual activities, speaking and writing. I wanted to see if I could make something with my hands which would work, after a fashion. Both my ukes play (though each has defects which make it less playable than a "proper" ukulele). They're wonky, show tool marks, have blotchy finishes, etc. etc. But I am pleased as Punch because (a) they didn't explode when strung up, and (b) they make a tune and sound quite nice (actually, much nicer than I ever thought they would).

2. I'm interested in exploring the subject by doing it. Thus I've used yew, inspired by one of your own builds. Of course, I couldn't find quarter-sawn yew, so mine is full of wavy patterns - nicely decorative, but far from perfect. What I discovered is that less-than-perfect can still be pleasing.

3. I'm learning new skills - planing, sawing, scraping, side bending, etc. I can cut a 3mm slice from a billet of wood with a handsaw - I never thought I had the physical skills to achieve this (OK, it's 3-3.5mm, but my newly acquired planing skills can fix that).

There's much more to this list, but the bottom line is that I'm not attempting to make the best uke possible, or even the best uke I could make. I'm trying to make a uke, exploring other things on the way. My satisfaction is in the journey, with a playable result being a bonus. Currently I'm recycling a mahogany wardrobe frame (four-piece top and back??? Lunatic!)

By the way, I've been amazed at the nice things people say when they see my ukes, even once I've pointed out their flaws. I've seen your ukes, which are magnificent, and you must be reeling from the constant stream of compliments. One day I hope to ask you to make me one, and my appreciation will be increased by the knowledge gained from my amateur potterings, not diminished.

Pete Howlett
07-06-2010, 11:07 AM
Prof - I've had my 15 minutes of fame many times and am delighted when someone praises one of my ukes, or hunts me down for information on one that they have 'inherited'. Yes, we all have very different reasons for doing what we do - the luxury of innivation is something I personally cannot afford to indulge. And with respect and high regard for your views, IMHO successful builds are those that go beyond the reach of a friend's praise. I quickly came to realise that there are more tests for success than my wife's adoration of my work.

07-06-2010, 12:35 PM
Thank you Pete for sharing your views on this. The one comment I would like to add is this; I have noticed whenever I show my instruments to people, they are almost always very complimentary. When the kind words are done, I always ask, OK, now tell me what you don't like. It startles people, but you learn more that way. Just another tip for the newbies.


07-06-2010, 05:45 PM
uhh... What's a "lazy heel"? Just wondering, so I can make sure I don't build a uke with one. Unless you're talking about a "no-good, lowdown lazy heel." In that case, I sure try hard not to be one.


07-06-2010, 10:26 PM
Thank you Pete for sharing your views on this. The one comment I would like to add is this; I have noticed whenever I show my instruments to people, they are almost always very complimentary. When the kind words are done, I always ask, OK, now tell me what you don't like. It startles people, but you learn more that way. Just another tip for the newbies.


If you want to get really depressed :(..Ask yourself what "you" don't like about it.:D

Matt Clara
07-07-2010, 01:24 AM
"And stay off of my lawn!"

07-07-2010, 04:44 AM
Sometimes, I think that the "pro's" forget what its like to be a newbie. I am guessing that they also don't realize how arrogant and condescending some of their remarks may appear regardless of how good their intentions. I think its fair to say that most hobby builders don't have the time or means to commit to building like a professional. Nor do newbies have the luxury of cutting up a uke because it isn't perfect. Do you guys not truly realize how proud someone is of their first uke regardless of how it looks and sounds? A lot of the features that Pete mentioned in his original post are a result of being new to luthier, not having the correct tools or not knowing the correct way of doing something. Yes, they could spend hours upon hours doing research but its not going to do them any good until they actually start the building process. Very simply put, its these very things that you complain about which are the lessons to becoming a better builder. If they continued to make the same mistake over and over then I could possibly see your point. I'd suggest trying something that you have never done before to remind yourself what its like to be a newbie.

Moore Bettah Ukuleles
07-07-2010, 07:30 AM
Hmmmm, who's he talking about?

07-07-2010, 07:32 AM
Believe me Timbuck, all the good builders I know are acutely aware of every minor flaw of all their instruments. The hardest thing to learn sometimes is when to let go, it is good enough for now. The day I make the perfect instrument, I'll quit.


07-07-2010, 08:31 AM
Believe me Timbuck, all the good builders I know are acutely aware of every minor flaw of all their instruments. The hardest thing to learn sometimes is when to let go, it is good enough for now. The day I make the perfect instrument, I'll quit.

That's what I was on about..Someone will have to write some Ukulele Specifications and then we can say it's within spec and no one can complain..I'll bet it's already been done.

07-07-2010, 08:39 AM
Can we base the Ukulele Specifications off a uke built by a newbie? That would make things a whole heck of a lot easier.

Ahnko Honu
07-07-2010, 09:02 AM
All I know is I'm glad Sam Kamaka thought outside the box in 1921 and came up with his patented (in 1928) pineapple 'ukulele. ;)

07-07-2010, 11:56 AM
I'd like to break my silence on this thread.

Returning to Pete's first post, I agree, there is a certain set of design asthetics and principles that will ensure a sweet result. Nature is beautiful and well engineered, I think this is what Pete is touching on.

I don't get the impression he is criticising any ones efforts, he is only sharing his opinion on design principles.

I've made English longbows (about my only woodworking). They may have 3" of set, but I made them. Doesn't stop me being proud, doesn't stop
me marvelling a master bowyer's bows. And if he gives me tips on tillering, I hang on their every word.



Doug W
07-07-2010, 12:33 PM
When I read the original post I thought of my high school pottery teacher's comment to a fellow student. The other student had slapped together some clay and commented that he didn't want to feel constrained by rules and wanted to put together something spontaneously.

The teacher's comment was something to the effect of "If you want to translate what is in your head to a piece of art you have to start by knowing how to control the clay, which means you need to be able to start with a lump of clay on the potter's wheel, then have the ability to throw a cylinder with consistent sides or a bowl that doesn't collapse into a glob. When you can do those things, then you can branch out".

My guess is that Pete doesn't personally care what we are doing in our rooms. He was just giving advice on his ideas of advancing the craft. I didn't take it as warning anyone off from innovation.

07-07-2010, 03:18 PM
I, for one, was happy to see Andrew's post. Like Pete, he is a pro, and I appreciate his remembering what its like to be an amateur starting out. Even newbies should be encouraged to experiment, if only because they (I) will learn from their (my) mistakes. As Harry Chapin once sang, "It's got to be the going, not the getting there that's good." Then again, he died young in a car crash, so take his advice with a large grain of salt.

Pete Howlett
07-07-2010, 09:04 PM
Advice? Criticism? I think I started with the word 'wisdom' and my remarks refer almost exclusively to the very genesis of the process - the design. Doesn't every one have a pencil and paper? Arrogance? I'm past that my friend - read the latter section of this thread...

The luxury of being an amateur is that you can experiment; you have time. The urgency to get it right everytime is not there. You can live with your mistakes but above all, you can take time to research. I was lamenting the seeming position of someone with no knowledge or experience wanting to improve, use an impossible specie of wood or make a bizarre breakthrough as if it was the innovation that was going to change the world of ukulele building forever. I have a clear and stated line on 'improvement' and a very strongly held opinion regarding design - it's taken me 16 years to get right the slotted headstock for a 4 string tenor! However, there are universal aesthetic 'rules' which tell you when something is right and unless you look 'back' in order to face forward you generally end up with a dog's dinner!

I remember very well my first and miserable attempts to make an instrument - it was a Les Paul copy. I was 15 years old, had an impossible piece of maple for the body, no direction or guidance, a coping saw and a very blunt spokeshave. And it didn't get made. My next attempt was a guitar made using Kasha principles... it didn't survive its first year. And remember, I have a university degree in 'craft' and design...

My first real instrument was built in 1993; a parlor guitar - a copy of a Martin size 2 slotted headstock mahogany and spruce cannon. Using my experience as a cabinet maker - yep, 7 years at a bench designing and making bespoke furniture, putting into practice in the 'real' world, my unversity learning - it held up and got gigged out until my wife accidently smashed it 7 years later. It now forms an 'art piece' on my friend's living room wall.

My first ukulele was a copy of a Kamaka 8 string tenor built in 1994. Using the experience I had of building Terz guitars with slotted headstocks I built the first slotted 6 and 8 string tenors to hit Hawaii for decades. My first 2 ukulele didn't have bridge patches. I thought I knew best... after 2 weeks the bridges flew off and Bob Gleason repaired them 'telling' me in no uncertain terms me to put then in my instruments in future if I didn't want a huge warranty bill! My next mistake was to think that the world would flock to my door if I built those cute and lovely Lyon and Healy sopranos with colored binding, oh and that they would beat the path to workshop door for those adorable bell shaped ukes - I built 2... When I said wisdom, I meant it! I have learn't that the ukulele market, by and large is conservative and has a very narrow specification when it comes to comissioning work, that designing is constrained and not 'free'.

You wanna talk about mistakes because I thought I knew best? There's not enough room on this forum to catalogue mine :)

07-08-2010, 12:29 AM
Perspective from someone who has has worked in education for many years: "newbies" have less humility than most teachers. Comparisons BTW to scientists and the discovery of scientific truths/theories are seriously flawed. Why? Because someone like a luthier is subject to scientific truths not simply a discoverer of them. Also, the supression of scientific truths and their suppression in history was the result most frequently of "innovations" not conservatism: using theology/politics to depart from scientific method...even using claims to individual infallability.

Not bashing here electric solid body ukes or even ukes with 2-3 holes (inspired by bowling balls?)...because in the end the innovation itself does not escape the first "dumb" uninnovative test of "sounding good."

I do think a good chunk of the current uke movement piechart is always looking to be "blown away" by an instrument...this underlies the impatience with luthier conservatism and informs a lot of uke buying tips...and fuels partially, along with spending/hoarding compulsions UAS.