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View Full Version : Stuff That Makes Me Scream: Refinishing Vintage Ukes



Tsani
07-10-2010, 05:01 AM
When you pick up that dusty old uke at the garage sale or the thrift shop - don't refinish it!! Especially if you don't know who made it! There is a gorgeous vintage uke on ebay right now. Definitely old, beautiful rope inlays, koa wood, it has the old wooden peg tuners. It looks beautiful and shiny because the owner has refinished it. In doing so, he took that old Hawaii crest decal off of the headstock. Nothing in the sound hole. Who knows what was on that label? It might have said "Kumalae". We will never know. He made it shiny, but he might have lost a couple of hundred dollars in value by peeling that decal off. Grrrr!!!! Vintage ukes don't need to be prettied up. Let them keep their dusty complexions. If you have them fixed up, have it done by somebody that knows what they are doing. Be gentle!

UncleElvis
07-10-2010, 05:06 AM
I posted "sand and refinish" in the other vintage ukulele thread and, for the life of me, I don't know what I was thinking!

Repolish, re-wax, etc, sure, maybe. Clean it up, sure. MAYBE sand out some of the more egregious sharp edges so they don't catch or if they're structural problems... but not a "down to bare wood refinish from the start".

I must have been losing my mind.

Harold O.
07-10-2010, 06:06 AM
I've been doing a lot of refinish work on older wood pieces lately. Tables, hutches, curio cabinets.

There is a major difference between a valuable antique and an old wood table. Too often I come across people who roll their eyes when I tell them I stripped the piece down to bare wood, cleaned all the brass, and stained it before adding a hand rubbed protective coat.

Well, keep in mind that a good piece of furniture can withstand several bouts of refinishing to help prolong its existence. And the pieces that usually find me most often have sentimental value far exceeding any monetary value. Too many people have the Antiques Roadshow mentality when it comes to old stuff. "Never touch the finish" they say. Or "You'll ruin the value". Dude, show me the guy who is willing to pay $30,000 for this particular table and I will gladly sell it to them.

But in most cases, the table will either be tossed in the burn heap or the owner will see some value and be willing to pay me to refinish it so as to continue its life.

All this is not the same as saying that every old thing should be refinished. But keep it in context.

With instruments, a good cleaning is typically the best way to go. But this has more to do with the thin, delicate nature of the material than any perceived value. Again, show me the guy willing to trade for a handful of cash and I will gladly do so.

Think of it this way. That table you bought last week at IKEA will never be a valuable antique. But 20 years from now, it might be worth the effort to replace the hardware with something that bites a little better and changing the finish might make it fit with your new decor. Which is the same as saying that not everything built 80 years ago was all that great to begin with.

mailman
07-10-2010, 06:54 AM
I guess the decision belongs to the uke's current owner.

If you want to take a belt sander to your antique Kamaka....knock yourself out. You will ruin the uke's value, if not the uke, but the uke is yours to do with as you please. Any loss incurred will be yours, as well.

If you don't want to refinish your ukes, that's cool too. Do what ever you like with your stuff. But I rankle just a bit at being told what to do with my stuff....

Paul December
07-10-2010, 07:36 AM
Does refinishing affect the sound? worse/better?
Pianos are the exact opposite... you want them completely refinished. Not just the outside & mechanics, but the soundboard too. With few exceptions, an unrestored antique piano is worthless as an instrument. Yes, that includes Steinway.

Harold O.
07-10-2010, 11:14 AM
With few exceptions, an unrestored antique piano is worthless as an instrument.

I've heard that the reason you don't see any antique harps around (like you do violins, etc) is that they are strung so tightly that their structures eventually give in. Wellm that and the fact that they're harps.

I'd guess that a refinished uke would not sound at all like the original. But who knows what the original sounded like anyway.

clayton56
07-10-2010, 01:19 PM
I've heard that the reason you don't see any antique harps around (like you do violins, etc) is that they are strung so tightly that their structures eventually give in. Wellm that and the fact that they're harps.


Harps may not be all that tight, but they give out because the tension pulls the soundboard upward (it's at the bottom) and it eventually warps the wood. Imagine if your uke was sitting on the floor and the strings pulled straight up from the soundboard. It would probably take less than a week to pull it out of shape.

This can happen with guitars as well, even though the tension isn't straight up, it's straight across and that can bow the soundboard up. The direction of the tension is essentially upward. I have two old Gibsons that have that problem. I put tailpieces on them and now the tension is all downward, so essentially they are now archtops, like violins or mandolins. By the way they sound great.

I wonder if something besides wood would make a better harp, say, carbon fiber or graphite.

Tudorp
07-10-2010, 01:30 PM
That kinda stuff makes me cringe too. It's erasing their history. Might as well buy something new if you are gonna do that. People ask me about my 1921 player piano because it looks like hell, but really plays nice. Fully operational. They ask me if I plan to finish it. I just tell them hell no. My piano has a history of being in California saloons after the turn of the century. I can only imagine who all played on it, sat on it, sang drunken songs around it. It had a rough, but fruitful history, and I just can't bring myself to erase all that. That is the good stuff man..

Harold O.
07-10-2010, 03:18 PM
That kinda stuff makes me cringe too. It's erasing their history. Might as well buy something new if you are gonna do that. People ask me about my 1921 player piano because it looks like hell, but really plays nice. Fully operational. They ask me if I plan to finish it. I just tell them hell no. My piano has a history of being in California saloons after the turn of the century. I can only imagine who all played on it, sat on it, sang drunken songs around it. It had a rough, but fruitful history, and I just can't bring myself to erase all that. That is the good stuff man..

My buddy had a tired old piano sitting on his porch some time ago. After a party one night, another friend of mine sat down and played some stereotypical cowboy/western movie upbeat themes. With all the hard keys, missing notes, and basic clankieness, that piano sounded wonderful!

Tudorp
07-10-2010, 03:23 PM
Yep.. We rebuilt the guts of mine, and it does sound good even tho we aren't pros (wife and I). But, it has that "rinky tink" sound. It just sounds like those old cowboy, ragtime, saloon songs you hear in the old movies.. I love it.. I love all it's battle scars too. I can see it sitting along a wall, with a huge mirror over it, and flusie flapper girl laying across the top with a little dude in a bowler hat and garter on his arm bouncing on the bench playing it, a bunch of old drunks staggering around sloshing beer singing around it.. I just can not errase that..

Thats the good stuff...;)

mm stan
07-10-2010, 03:34 PM
When you pick up that dusty old uke at the garage sale or the thrift shop - don't refinish it!! Especially if you don't know who made it! There is a gorgeous vintage uke on ebay right now. Definitely old, beautiful rope inlays, koa wood, it has the old wooden peg tuners. It looks beautiful and shiny because the owner has refinished it. In doing so, he took that old Hawaii crest decal off of the headstock. Nothing in the sound hole. Who knows what was on that label? It might have said "Kumalae". We will never know. He made it shiny, but he might have lost a couple of hundred dollars in value by peeling that decal off. Grrrr!!!! Vintage ukes don't need to be prettied up. Let them keep their dusty complexions. If you have them fixed up, have it done by somebody that knows what they are doing. Be gentle!
I guess it all boils down to personal preference.....and if you're a player or a collector. Some worry about how
it looks rather than how well it sounds never thinking that they may sand down too much and ruin the accoustics.
Too me, refinishing is showing off it's condition, for me I'd rather show off it's sound anytme. You tend to lose
it's charater and history which to me is more important than asthetics. Everyone has their own idea in prefer-
ence. Enjoy what you have and don't treat your instrument "skin deep" accept it for which it is and so do with
all mankind. Don't change things, rather accept things for what they truely are. MM Stan...

Paul December
07-10-2010, 03:42 PM
I completely understand all the sentimental reasons everyone is giving.... but....
... I just hate dirty and/or worn stuff. One man's "patina" is another man's filth.

Tudorp
07-10-2010, 04:57 PM
lol.. Patina is just a fancy word for rust I hear, hahhah.. I do clean stuff up, but only to take off grime that will effect it, but leave the tarnish, or "patina" intact. I do repair damage that will effect an instrument, or things from abuse. But will only repair enough to make the damage, or wear "stable" so it wont get any worse. I perfer preserving an instrument over restoration. If it is a basket case, thats another story. Same way with many antiques. I collect antiques, and was an avid classic car buff restoring, preserving and hot rodding many over the years. It all depends on what it is, and it's condition when I get it.

Teek
07-11-2010, 11:32 AM
I would never touch my Kamaka for example. But for the hot attic stored uke covered in 60-70 years of rat crap and urine and lord knows what else and bubbled, super bumpy grimed shellac, a little denatured alcohol softened the shellac and pulled off the filth. I polished the nickel silver frets and put Gotoh tuners on it, which could be replaced with original style pegheads at some point, but why bother? Eventually I will fix the cracks and re-shellac. I already have the dewaxed shellac flakes to stay as original as possible.

If I hadn't cleaned it I never would have seen the flamey koa and could not have used the fingerboard, it felt like 50 grit sandpaper. Plus it has a twist in the neck. It is featherweight and playable though and very plunky and loud. For a uke I could maybe get a couple C notes for if perfect, that I got for $20, I didn't care.

And I had a house full of Stickleys at one time so I am not a savage. ;)

Which would you want to play?

http://home.earthlink.net/~caffiened/olduke11.jpg

http://home.earthlink.net/~caffiened/1920ukesmall.jpg

Tudorp
07-11-2010, 12:25 PM
What you did with that uke is perfect. You just cleaned it up and made it playable, when it wasn't when you got it. So, that is a perfect example of what you should do with something like that. As far as shalacking it, Im not so sure I would do that. I would do just what you did, make it playable, even if you need to replace the tuners with something updated, and leave it at that. Play the heck out of it..

Pippin
07-11-2010, 12:31 PM
I've heard that the reason you don't see any antique harps around (like you do violins, etc) is that they are strung so tightly that their structures eventually give in. Wellm that and the fact that they're harps.

I'd guess that a refinished uke would not sound at all like the original. But who knows what the original sounded like anyway.

I have seen vintage harps, but, they are in use by orchestras. Harps cost way more than people realize for a high-end model and vintage harps are very high on the list of professionals dream instruments. Unfortunately, It takes someone independently wealthy to be able to afford one.

Tudorp
07-11-2010, 12:37 PM
Oh I dunno, my grandma used to play the "nose harp". She was very good at it, and used to entertain us kids for hours. It don't cost anything, and well, she was vintage.. ;)