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View Full Version : Custom Curly Koa Masterpiece Comes To Life After 10+ Years!



joejeweler
11-20-2011, 06:48 AM
I must say i was a bit surprised when i recently received a wonderfully made concert ukulele made with breathtaking curly koa construction and a flawless finish! (see post #2 for body shots)

Had this been a new ukulele from a master builder, quite understandable. But this uke was made almost 11 years ago, and by appearence alone i'm confident has spent virtually it's entire life in a case. The highly polished nitrocellulous finish was mirrorlike,....not a faint scratch anywhere! For those of you who play your instruments, you know it is virtually impossible to avoid faint hairlines on the back from contact with clothing, small buttons, etc. The top was likewise pristine, not a hint of actual use,....yet this was made/started in 2000 and delivered to a specific individual in June of 2001

It is signed inside as such, and as i am at least the 3rd custodian to have owned it,.....i will refrain from identifying the builder for obvious reasons. Please keep it to yourself if you recognize the uke! This discussion is simply to unvail a curiosity of why such a beautiful curly koa concert has no evidence of actual playing time, while having passed thru at least 3 (or more) owners over almost 11 years!

Possibly the previous owner(s) had made action changes that did not acoustically benefit the instrument. I will say that the ukulele arrived with a reasonable string height that was not buzzing anywhere, although it was a bit lower than i prefer. (maybe 1/2mm lower than i wanted at the 12th fret).

Certainly i could have lived with the setup......except that the tone was subdued and uninspiring. Could this be the reason it had sat thru various owners and remained virtually unplayed all these years? I believe that is exactly what happened,.....and yet it was not necessary!

I'm thinking the builder, like me, preferred a bit higher action and the 1st owner lowered the saddle to his preference, which in this particular instrument's case was not a feasable solution. The bridge slots and holes were only cut in about halfway thru, so when the saddle was lowered the break angle across the saddle was quite weak. When you can easily slide the strings sideways while at pitch, you know not much of the string's vibration is reaching the top!

I immediately recognized the problem, as shown here:

http://i204.photobucket.com/albums/bb200/joejeweler/Ukulele%20Curly%20Koa%20Concert/DSC04167.jpg
http://i204.photobucket.com/albums/bb200/joejeweler/Ukulele%20Curly%20Koa%20Concert/DSC04169.jpg

I realized that even replacing the saddle with one just 1mm higher (to gain 1/2mm string height at the 12th fret) might not be enough to fully realize the potential, and i really didn't want to go much higher than that to keep playabilty fairly easy.

I thought about 2 possible solutions to drastically increase string break angle at the saddle. I could convert this to a "string thru the bridge" method of stringing by drilling holes just behind the saddle. This would surely create plenty of break angle, but i thought it would look as an "add on" because the string slots in the bridge would still be present.

I chose the 2nd option, although it was much more work and had to be done carefully. After protecting the top with taped on cardboard, i used my Foredom flex shaft machine with a fine tapered cylinder bit to increase the length of the string slots toward the saddle. I also had to deepen the knot holes a little, which was done with a long hand file with a rounded cylindrical tip. This was a REAL pain with the bridge mounted! I wished the slots and knot holes had been given "extra" length when made, but that was not the case here.

After carefully reworking the bridge, i decided that in addition to the extra height i would make the new saddle, i would also add a scalloped design to it. I have come to like this look, and it makes individual string height adjustments a breeze should that be necessary. Some have said it directs the strings vibrations in a direct manner down into the top. Note sure if that can be proven, but it looks really nice imo, and the individual string height adjustment ease is worth the effort alone.

Here is the bridge after the work was completed:

http://i204.photobucket.com/albums/bb200/joejeweler/Ukulele%20Curly%20Koa%20Concert/DSC04237.jpg

http://i204.photobucket.com/albums/bb200/joejeweler/Ukulele%20Curly%20Koa%20Concert/DSC04268.jpg

As you can see, a substantial break angle was added by both increasing the length of the slots and knot holes, in addition to making the new saddle 1mm taller.

A great start,......more to follow......

joejeweler
11-20-2011, 06:49 AM
OK,....with the more difficult bridge work completed, i decided to rework the nut also. The action was at a reasonable height, but still was a bit more than i prefer. I like to press the strings down over the
3rd fret and see just a whisker of clearance under the 1st frets,....do-able for clear fretting if the neck is straight with just a bit of neck relief present. Also, i felt i could extract a bit wider string spacing of the strings,.....always a plus for fingerpicking solo arrangements. Since the neck was perfect,....i lightly tapped the nut loose with a plastic mallet and wood block in between to spread the force across the nut. I was a bit worried it wasn't coming out easily, as the nut was in a tight slot and didn't appear to move. But by tapping it from the end next, the nut worked its way out lengthwise intact.

I decided to reuse the nut for now, since it was such a tight fit in the slot, by simply gluing on a strip of ebony to the base. This would allow me to sand off the previous slot spacings and create new ones to my preference. I also like a fitted slot for each string, whereas somewhere in it's life this instrument had what appeared to be "V" notches cut as slots. As i was only planning on using Aquila Nylguts,....a nut slot fitting to that string set was next.

Here is what the nut spacing looked like before the changes. Notice the rather large space on the 1st string out to the edge.

http://i204.photobucket.com/albums/bb200/joejeweler/Ukulele%20Curly%20Koa%20Concert/DSC04164.jpg

Here is the nut after i re-worked the string spacing and added the ebony "lift" at the bottom. It is tight in the slot so no glue was added to retain it in place. The string pressure does a fine job keeping it in place. There is also just that "whisker" of clearance at the ist fret when the strings are fretted at the 3rd fret. Notice the "A" string is a bit closer to the edge, which allowed me to make full usuage of the fretboard width in spacing the remaining strings.

http://i204.photobucket.com/albums/bb200/joejeweler/Ukulele%20Curly%20Koa%20Concert/DSC04271.jpg

Was all the work justified,....i believe so. This ukulele is amazing to look at, and has begun to open up in tone in volumn. Over the 30 hours or so of playing time since i've done the setup, i can hear more clarity and sustain,.....with a sweetness of tone that had been locked away all these years. Had me wondering if a "green" instrument can remain that way over many years if strung and yet virtually unplayed.
I believe the answer is yes,.....for the string vibrations through playing are what open up the tonal characteristics of any well made instrument.

The concert size is my preferred size,...so i can assure you this one will recieve a few player induced "hairlines" in the finish over the next few years.

.......she's waited a long time to become a "play-ah"!

A few more pics, and you'll begin to appreciate why it was most definately a worthwhile project.

http://i204.photobucket.com/albums/bb200/joejeweler/Ukulele%20Curly%20Koa%20Concert/DSC04196-1.jpg
http://i204.photobucket.com/albums/bb200/joejeweler/Ukulele%20Curly%20Koa%20Concert/DSC04199.jpg

joejeweler
11-20-2011, 06:53 AM
A few more pics:

http://i204.photobucket.com/albums/bb200/joejeweler/Ukulele%20Curly%20Koa%20Concert/DSC04209.jpg

http://i204.photobucket.com/albums/bb200/joejeweler/Ukulele%20Curly%20Koa%20Concert/DSC04214.jpg

I was never a big fan of the Grover friction tuners, especially on a custom instrument. I just happened to have an extra set of Waverly geared tuners laying around (really, bought them as i knew i'd eventally find a home for them!)
I just loved the fine tuning control the 16 to 1 ratio gives you. These have the ebony buttons, although they also make this fine ukulele set of tuners with curly koa buttons. (can't have everything!) The holes in the headstock needed a slight enlargement,....maybe 1mm total for the front bushings to fit properly, and of course the screw holes added.

Now onboard.....

http://i204.photobucket.com/albums/bb200/joejeweler/Ukulele%20Curly%20Koa%20Concert/DSC04247.jpg

http://i204.photobucket.com/albums/bb200/joejeweler/Ukulele%20Curly%20Koa%20Concert/DSC04252-1.jpg

Now she sounds and plays as good as she looks! I suspect it will get even better with time and serious playing time committed.

Oh,.....forgot to mention that i was fortunate to have purchased it for about half what a current one would sell for,....just $845.00 plus $35 shipping. The Waverly's set me back another $93.00 or so.

......for under a grand,....."Priceless"!

It came with a very nice hard case, but i decided to let her reside in a case of superior protection,.....a solid Calton flight case i bought used from Aaron Keim. Aaron traveled extensively with it over many years, and the outer case finish lets you know that! But inside the fabric is as prestine as the ukelele it now cradles,......fitting i think.

AC Baltimore
11-20-2011, 07:37 AM
Stunning uke and work Joe. LOVE the saddle

Dan Uke
11-20-2011, 07:45 AM
Stunning uke!! Can I buy it for half the price of what you paid for in another 10+ years!!! LOL

Great job Joe...I am not a traditionalist and the uke is the joy of the end user so I have no problem in tweaking the uke to your likings. Did you sand the headstock to protect the uke maker? HAHA

joejeweler
11-20-2011, 08:02 AM
Stunning uke!! Can I buy it for half the price of what you paid for in another 10+ years!!! LOL

Great job Joe...I am not a traditionalist and the uke is the joy of the end user so I have no problem in tweaking the uke to your likings. Did you sand the headstock to protect the uke maker? HAHA

Funny. hehehe!,....no, the headstock is as it's shown,....just a wonderful match to the body in stunning curly koa. I'd hate to think of what pricing of most anything will be if the US Dollar keeps being printed without end! 10 years from now it might cost $100,000.00 to have another made,......but then minimum wage might be $500.00 per hour! Yikes!!!

I did crop out the makers initials on the fretboard, however! :D

BTW,....had i not gotten reamed so many times in the past i would have been happy to give credit to the builder for an outstanding build. No question he is a master at his craft. The changes i made were to address what were probably ill concieved user setup issues for the most part, .....but best to keep it on the down low. I've learned my lesson! :o

kamaka_4_life
11-20-2011, 10:11 AM
:drool: she's a beauty

Trinimon
11-20-2011, 10:53 AM
WOW! Gorgeous looking uke. Love the curls!

rem50
11-20-2011, 11:03 AM
You did some great work. She is beautiful!

mm stan
11-20-2011, 11:57 AM
Aloha Joe,
Nice uke..is it a William King... he he...thank you for sharing...one question..the scalloped saddle, thinking about it...wouldn't the breaks in the saddle disrupt the vibrations than a solid saddle?
Just wondering....Happy Strummings..and a great score no less..

Dan Uke
11-20-2011, 12:06 PM
Let's play Name That Uke!!

joejeweler
11-20-2011, 12:15 PM
Aloha Joe,
Nice uke..is it a William King... he he...thank you for sharing...one question..the scalloped saddle, thinking about it...wouldn't the breaks in the saddle disrupt the vibrations than a solid saddle?
Just wondering....Happy Strummings..and a great score no less..

Hi,....no quessing allowed! lol

Seriously. i seem to remember reading somewhere that the breaks in the saddle might actually have a beneficial effect. When an individual string is plucked, some vibration transfers across the saddle lengthwise on a normal configuration. However, it is thought that the breaks serve to direct downward a bit more of each strings vibration thru the bridge to the top.

Not sure if i'm explaining it correctly, but i have never noticed a "decrease" in tone or volumn when i have added this feature to an existing and already well fitted saddle. I have noticed (percieved?) a slight gain most times, although never actually measured. Some of that perception can probably be attributed to the slight lightening of the saddle, as it's well known that a lighter bridge (including saddle) will generally produce more volumn over a heavier one.

Moore Bettah Ukuleles
11-20-2011, 12:16 PM
Good job documenting your procedure. A couple of points though.
The builder may believe as I do in keeping the A string well back from the edge of the fret board to avoid the dreaded "gutter ball" effect when playing up the board. I will typically set the A string 1mm more inward than the G string. Especially important when using lower tension strings like Aquilas.
One thing I don't understand. Unless I'm misreading it, in your first post you comment that action was "1/2mm at the 12th fret". That would be about .020". I have no idea how the the instrument could be played at all with such low action. Most of us set the action at the 12th at somewhere around .090" or 2.2mm. Was that a typo? If not the ukulele likely went through some serious changes along the way.

joejeweler
11-20-2011, 12:28 PM
Let's play Name That Uke!!

Let's not,.....and just say we did! It can only lead to dangerous misconceptions, and unintended and hurtful dialoge,....usually followed by a closed thread and/or banning. I KNOW first hand on that!

Let's just consider for a moment that the information i presented can be looked at for the benefit of all. I will state that i have seen other ukuleles presented throughout the last year or so on this forum that i knew might benefit from a similiar creation of more string break angle. But because of what has transpired previously i kept it to myself, especially if it involved a builder. We "tinkerers" are not experts in all things,......but basic set ups can be learned and executed by most with a little skill and eye for detail.

For sure we have more time available to fine tune a personal instrument to "our" own preferences, which any builder simply cannot while trying to make a living. Set up's are therefore within a certain "average" range, which may or may not be best (or prefered) for any one individual player.

joejeweler
11-20-2011, 12:37 PM
Good job documenting your procedure. A couple of points though.
The builder may believe as I do in keeping the A string well back from the edge of the fret board to avoid the dreaded "gutter ball" effect when playing up the board. I will typically set the A string 1mm more inward than the G string. Especially important when using lower tension strings like Aquilas.
One thing I don't understand. Unless I'm misreading it, in your first post you comment that action was "1/2mm at the 12th fret". That would be about .020". I have no idea how the the instrument could be played at all with such low action. Most of us set the action at the 12th at somewhere around .090" or 2.2mm. Was that a typo? If not the ukulele likely went through some serious changes along the way.

Hi Chuck,...i meant to convey i wanted an "additional" 1/2 mm of string height at the 12th fret, and not imply it was the actual total measurement. I haven't measured it, but it's probably a total of 2 1/2mm now at the 12th fret string clearance to the top of the fret. I went back and made that a bit clearer in my initial post, so about 1/10 inch clearance now......which is my preference. The previous setup i did measure at 2mm at the 12th fret clearance, and i used a dial caliper to factor in a 1mm height gain on the new saddle, which should have given me my preferred 2 1/2 mm total clearance at the 12th fret.

And yes,.....i like the A string to be a little further in than the G string from the edge,.....but it was just a bit much as i recieved it. And as i like to work on fingerstyle solos,......any extra string spacing gained would be appreciated. It is true that technique is a bit more exacting when spaced to the outer range as i have done here. You can't be sloppy in fretting the "A" string at an angle,.....or the string can slip off the fingerboard. But i have played it about 30 hours this way, and have not had any problem in that regard.

......but part of the reason i left the nut unglued was "if" i did! :D

BTW,....i used your soprano as a confirmation the A string was set inward just a little too far. Visually it looked that way from the start, but comparing it to yours confirmed the need to change it. One of the nice things about things like a nut and saddle is that they are not permanent,.....and can be corrected or replaced with relative ease. The nut i may redue some time in ebony, as i like the look a bit better. Experimenting with an ebony saddle might someday come about also, as i prefer the tonal characteristics on my spruce topped ukuleles in concert size especially. It seems to tone down the brightness in that instance. Not sure if it's needed with a koa top, however.

Moore Bettah Ukuleles
11-20-2011, 12:58 PM
BTW, I have heard of guitar builders cutting slots in the saddle from the bottom (stopping before they get to the top naturally) ensuring positive contact with the bottom of the slot, almost creating separate footprints. I can't imagine any advantage though unless you were using steel strings and experiencing higher tensions. I could be wrong though.

joejeweler
11-20-2011, 01:26 PM
BTW, I have heard of guitar builders cutting slots in the saddle from the bottom (stopping before they get to the top naturally) ensuring positive contact with the bottom of the slot, almost creating separate footprints. I can't imagine any advantage though unless you were using steel strings and experiencing higher tensions. I could be wrong though.

I'm actually surprised more builders don't continue the slots on this style bridge closer to the saddle slot, and with it the knot retaining recesses. Not so much as to weaken the bridge beyond reason, but enough to allow for decent break angle where a player preferred low or really low action.

On thing i noticed here was that the knot recesses were centered in the back side of the bridge, so that the knots had some curved bridge wood underneath the knots. This allowed me to use a rounded tip hand file in a twisting motion (with a layer of protective cardboard against the top), without worrying that the file would be rubbing against the actual top. It stayed nicely centered within the centered drilled out sections. Otherwise i would have fitted a thin steel or wooden spacer to protect the top wood within the drilled out holes while i was hand spinning the file. (used more like a ball ended bur here)