View Full Version : Two piece or one piece top and bottom?

01-06-2009, 02:31 PM
Could any of you help me out. I notice ukulele tops and bottoms seem to be glued up from two pieces. I can understand this on something big like a guitar, but is it that important on a ukulele like a soprano. Mike J

01-06-2009, 08:35 PM

A lot of wood species are getting harder to come by. Book matching enables us to use smaller pieces, although it's about triple the work of a one piece top/back. Personally, I prefer to do one piece, but wide koa is very, very hard to find. When I do get planks wide enough, I put some into production and save some for a rainy day. I imagine by the time my son and nephews take over KoAloha, 10" boards of koa will be a relic of the past.

The aspect of sound can be debated, but most of us do it because of necessity. Especially in the custom builds. Trying to find a 10" wide board of curly koa with no defects and overall straight grain is like hunting for a needle in a haystack. Finding a nice curly board at 5" is not too bad.


dave g
01-07-2009, 02:19 AM
What Paul said, plus in my case I simply haven't got big enough machinery to re-saw that wide.

Pete Howlett
01-07-2009, 02:34 AM
Paul - you are so right. What is happening with the replanting program in Hawaii. Bart Potter is supposed to be involved and he strongly suggested that koa can reach instrument quality maturity in 30 years. I rea\lly struggle as a british builder living in the UK getting kao of the right quality and now rely on eBay because it's the only place I get to see what I am buying. twice in the past 3 years I have bought 'Instrument Grade' sight unseen only to receive 'full curl' grade...

As for one piece backs and fronts - wherever possible because it's the best guarantee against changes in humiduty and seams bursting.

E-Lo Roberts
01-07-2009, 02:51 AM
Anybody entertaining the notion of triple or quad tops instead of a single bookmatched top? It certain would be cheaper given the recent pricing I've been seeing on ebay for koa lately. $110 bf to bookmatch some AAAAA curly koa for a tenor uke? Much better pricing for this grade on the thinner blanks of koa. I'm thinking about gluing up a quad top just to see how it looks. It might be where we are headed boys...e.lo...

01-07-2009, 02:57 AM
Thanks everyone,
I am starting to realize this "Koa" is a real challenge for the prof. builders. My dad own a wood manufacturing company thats supplies the door and window industry world wide. They follow very strict rules with replanting and everyone participates. Makes me wonder why more people in the ukulele community don't get together and form a group that promotes replanting before it's too late. Of course high prices, of Koa tells me time might be running out. Mike J

Moore Bettah Ukuleles
01-07-2009, 06:03 AM
Pete, all "instrument grade" means is that it is quarter sawn, the grain is fairly straight and it is free from defects. It doesn't consider grain pattern or curl at all. If you want some very nice select sets, very nice color and grain, at a very good price, call our mutual friend over here (BG) or I can put you in touch.
Addressing the two piece top question, out of necessity it came from the guitar world, but the practice has other benefits as well. A bookmatched piece of wood can be visually more attractive, but both physically and tonally, many believe that it evens out and balances the stresses of the wood and makes for a better instrument, so there are practical reasons as well.
I have a large stash of curly koa that I've acquired over the years. I consider it my IRA. After I get it and it's dry enough to do so, I bring my koa boards or cants to a mill for resawing into 5mm thin planks. Then I'll sticker them and they'll sit for as long as it takes for the moisture content to fall to between 6% and 8%. The price of koa being what it is I have long stopped resawing koa myself. Anyway, I will regularly take 10" to 12" wide planks and cut them for two piece tops and backs because I feel it makes a better instrument. Whether it really does or not is a matter for debate, but logically and scientifically it makes sense to me. Most of the methods we apply to ukulele building comes from the guitar world and I doubt whether the same reasons and techniques can be transposed to what we are doing on these tiny instruments.
As far as your original question is concerned Handprop, I build sopranos with one piece tops and backs because that seems to be traditional from the Nunes and Dias days. (And it much easier.) On an instrument that small I'd have a hard time believing it's really going to make a difference in the tone. I've seen as many one piece as two piece tops and backs on sopranos.
Lots of different theories abound and they are all interesting to entertain. Lots of smoke and mirrors and other BS as well. As with many other ancient hand arts, lutherie is shrouded in tradition, and I've rarely gotten a straight answer on anything.

01-07-2009, 06:28 AM
Not enough reforesting goes on, because of politics and cattle. 90% of the land that koa comes from is either owned by The State of Hawaii, or Bishop Estate. The remaining 10% is divided among smaller private land owners and most of them make money by ranching cattle. A good friend of mine has been ranching and milling for longer than I've been alive and he is a strong proponent of reforestation. At today's market prices, an acre of land will yeild more money than cattle in the long run, but you will have to wait at least 30-40 years for the trees to mature. Almost everyone who owns enough land to sustain koa is more interested in making some money now. I can't really blame them, since 40 years is a long time to wait.

Then, there's the political bs that Hawaii is not so famous for. We have had a few projects that were supposed to be pilots for sustainability, but none of them really made it to success. Most of this due to people not getting along, with their individual agendas.

As for the stability issue, one major benefit of a one piece top or back is one less point of failure. Even a good glue joint will age. Not having a joint in the middle eliminates one joint, in a major area. However, most book matches are more consistent across the width than an equivalent one piece. That's another reason why one piece tops and backs are so rare with the larger sizes of ukulele. It's already hard to find wide boards. Finding one with uniform grain, especially in a wood like koa is hard to find.

I've found that book matching does affect the tone, but it's not a night and day difference to me. The density and consistency of the grain itself has a much bigger bearing on the sound. We started doing exclusively one piece instruments in 1995, then started integrating book matches in 2005. Roughly ten years of one piece. At first, it was a 75/25% split, single piece to book match. Then, it came closer to 50/50. Now we primarily do book matches, unless the occasional wide board makes it's way over.

Moore Bettah Ukuleles
01-07-2009, 06:41 AM
"40 years is a long time to wait."
And the "good" stuff takes longer.

Pete Howlett
01-07-2009, 07:59 AM
Chuck, Paul - if ever I am given to envy it's when I look at you guys living where the koa is - and I know there are other things I would not want to experience in Hawaii. I guess one day i will have to make a buying trip... However, I really do not like buying sets as they are an extortionate price. When I have made good on wood purchase and sent it to California to be resawn by david borson (high yeiled specialist instrument re-sawyer) then I get it for a good price but I am in desperate need for so fiery culry koa at the moment to do some speculative bling...

despite all this, I love that pale cream/pink koa that is as light as a feather and produces the most spectacular of instruments!

Moore Bettah Ukuleles
01-07-2009, 09:01 AM
You're right about the less spectacular koa, the light blond with minimal curl. If more people knew what kind of instruments this kind of koa made it would bring $100 a board foot.
Pete, if you are low production builders like we are (I build 50 a year) I'm not sure that buying sets is a bad idea. I'm currently paying a minimum of $45 a board foot for AAAA curly, IF I can find it. Most of this is green and all will have to be resawn. I figure with waste, it takes about two bf to build a tenor. So we're up to $95 so far. Add another $10 to resaw it and another $10 for overhead for the few years you've had to store it while drying and protecting it from bugs and rot. So now I've gotten about $115 invested in the set. That sounds like an OK price and you can find decent sets available on the Internet for that price.
Keep in mind that the above figures are based on defect free wood, which is virtually non existant. I don't need to tell you of the heartaches you find when reswing wood, from rot to bugs and staples and bits of fencing, not to mention that sometimes it just ain't all that pretty when you get into it. I recently bought a cant that was 10 feet long by 9" X 9". Paid $900 for it. It was tight fiddle back curl. At least on the outside. When we resawed it, most of the curl mysteriously disappeared and the majority of the sets that came from that became student grade stuff.
The advantage of buying sets is that you get exactly what you see, nothing hidden.
When it comes to koa, for the small builder such as myself, I just have to buy it in whatever form I can, whenever it is available. Just don't dismiss buying sets. I just bought a dozen sets from someone on the mainland who was in a desperate position. It was cut many years ago and it is spectacular.

01-07-2009, 09:46 AM
This post sure has been a learning experience. I'm curious, If you fellas produce fifty or so a year are most of these Koa? If most of the uk's produced are Koa thats gotta be dam near a full time job just dealing with buying and selecting? geeeeeez:) Mike J

Moore Bettah Ukuleles
01-07-2009, 10:20 AM
Please keep in mind that whatever I say is stictly from my own personal experience and I'm sure is, and will be, unique from anyone else's. With this in mind I generally shy away from any discussion of personal philosophies. It's interesting but it's usually futile......
When I first started building I'd build with anything. Not a bad way for a beginner to go anyway. I was also very experimental with shapes, etc. That's a luxury that you can have if you keep this a hobby.
I build exclusively with koa now. It's what most people expect when they buy a Hawaiian uke. I take that back, it's what they expect when they come to Hawaii and buy a uke. At least fro me. There are other choices and even some better ones. I will often use a soft tone wood top such as spruce, cedar or redwood but only at the customer's request. Almost everybody who comes here and buys my work wants koa! And it has to be curly! When it comes to Hawaiian woods, koa is definitely king. Market price reflects that.
Before building for a customer I am very careful to find out exactly what they expect from me and from the uke I build for them. They can be overwhelmed with choices and they very often don't really want what they originally said they wanted. It's a tedious process to sort through the options and priorities the customer wants but after talking with them at some length, they usually trust me to decide what's best. When it all works, they end up with something that far exceeded their expectations. That's when my real pay-off happens.

Love what you do with ultimate 100% obsessive passion and ALL OF THE REST WILL TAKE CARE OF ITSELF!!!!! Yes, everything.

Pete Howlett
01-07-2009, 10:27 AM
If only you knew what it takes to build a ukulele here in the UK - that $115 would be more like $230!

01-07-2009, 11:30 AM
Hey Pete,

Here's one for you. Koa IS hard to find, even for us in Hawaii, but it is available with some hunting. It doesn't hurt to have a big pocket book, too. I have the darnest time finding good maple, spruce, and myrtle. It took me three years to find a plank of yellow cedar that I liked! I needed it for a custom build, but we're so isolated from the rest of the world, anything other than Hawaiian hardwood is hard to come by in the islands. Not quite the same predicament that you are in with koa, but I thought it was kind of funny that I can't find the stuff that you guys have commonly.

If you need a couple of boards that have extreme curl, contact me offline. I can spare a plank or two for another builder. I would resaw them for you too, but in all honesty, I will probably not get to it for a long time.


$45/bf is not bad. You live on the Big Island or Moloka'i? Remember when regular koa was $4/bf? As was da days!

Kaneohe til the end
01-07-2009, 11:47 AM
Love what you do with ultimate 100% obsessive passion and ALL OF THE REST WILL TAKE CARE OF ITSELF!!!!! Yes, everything.

i wish i couldve used this as my senior yearbook quote

Moore Bettah Ukuleles
01-07-2009, 12:26 PM
Paul, I'm on the Big Island now, Puna side, not far from Gleason. When koa was $4 bf I could no more afford it then than I can afford $45 bf now! Keep in mind that the price of custom ukes was far below what it is now. I bought my first new Kamaka in the early 80s for less than $300 I think. I was looking at some koa on the Kona side a while back, guy want $125 bf for it.
The good news is that I'm seeing a little more koa available this year than I have in the past. High prices combined with hard times have made some of these guys more approachable. I'm seeing a few of these cutters who would normally only sell to the likes of Martin, Kamaka (and maybe even you) are now willing to sell a few thousand dollars worth to a little guy like me. It's really not even that there's no koa to be found, I can buy "select" for $12 bf, it's the really nice stuff that's impossible to find anymore. I think it's all been cut! The one real advantage to living on the Big Island is that I spend most of my free time scouring the island for koa, from yard sales to word of mouth, a few board feet at a time.

Pete Howlett
01-07-2009, 12:48 PM

I was told that because legislation had virtually forced all of the big lumber yards out of business that wood was being handled by small independant outfits who were hording it, waiting for that ceiling to be reached. I think it may have been Bob who told me this. Just think if you were a guitar maker? We'd be having this discussion about Brazilian Rosewood.

problem with my position, I can't negotiate from 8,000 miles away :eek:

I would like to know what the true picture is tho... Is it scarce or are people working the supply and demand model? Can't blame them if they are...

Moore Bettah Ukuleles
01-07-2009, 01:09 PM
Pete, be thankful we're not furniture makers! They're the ones who really have it tough.
I don't know anything about a ceiling but the price has doubled in as many years. I think the supply just isn't there. Most of the koa logged now are deadfalls, trees lying on the forest floor. And most of it is being shipped to Japan or to veneer mills to be turned into conference room tables and paneling.

01-07-2009, 04:15 PM
Hey guys, I was just reading through the added posts and for the hell of it I called my father and asked him about Koa and if any of his dealers sell it or trade the commodity of Koa. For 2008 they bought $27,000,000 worth of premium lumber. He said in the morning he will have purchasing call his lumber buyers and see if they carry it or can get it. All of his lumber comes in by rail and he said if it's available he could drop ship it anywhere in the US. I know he has buying arangements with Georgia Pacific in Atlanta and he usually can get whatever he wants. He said he needed to know what the minimum grade needed to be and I told him to tell his buyer it needs to be instrument grade.

When I was building bows he kept pushing me to increase production so I could take advantage of discount pricing on exotic lumber but I never wanted to and it would of been foolish for me to buy a bunk of cocobolo or bubinga when I was only doing 80-90 bows a year. All my blocks of wood for bows were 2" x 4" x 24" long, so of course it wouldn't make sense for me.

If it works out at least you could get a price and split it up between everyone. I don't know, I figure it's worth a shot, ya never know! Mike

01-08-2009, 04:31 PM
OK guys, here's the scoop!
Oh man, you fellas are right, what a mess. My father called me 2 hours ago and said the whole Koa thing is a mess. First off Koa has no commodity trading to it so to bid at a good price is a lost cost. Second, Koa is one of the few woods that cannot be insured because big houses refuse to deal with it. According to his buyers this wood is now only handled by the "good ol boy network", and if you order a bunk you have to qualify for a slip which means they need to know you intend on purchasing throughout the year.

That was the good news. The bad news according to his buyers, is Koa is ordered with no option on rough sawn size in this quantity, so you have no choice in thickness but usually the range is 1/4 - 5/4. The other factor is how it is sawn, you get what you get.

Now for the really bad news. My father talked to another buddy of his to see if I could get a couple of boards( still waiting on that) and his buddy said Koa is expected to be overwith in 3 - 5 years. I know this isn't great news and being it's my father I figured what the heck, it doesn't hurt to find out but no such luck. Mike