The rising cost of "hand"made ukes

70sSanO

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I guess the myth of how hard it is to build a ukulele should be busted... at least not if you are a talented woodworker. I couldn’t make one, but I have gone by to see Fred Shields a few times, and although his designs are not complex, his woodworking is excellent. Tight joints, smooth transitions, no sharp edges, nice necks, and great intonation. You won’t get the bling, but he seems to knock them out without too much stress.

And if you think about it, being a luthier is a great job. A person may not get wealthy, but they don’t have to worry about living close to work... work lives close to them. If you have a significant waiting list, you already have your year set and can fill in with spec or even non-instrument work as needed. No 8 to 5; you work when you want to. A great life if you can do it. Like a surfboard shaper. Go catch waves and make boards in between. The ultimate goal is building only spec, since commissioned instruments bring a level of unrealistic expectation.

And as others have said, if the market supports a price of 4000 pounds great. If it doesn’t it will sell for less. Is it worth it to me? Probably not, but maybe one day it will be. From an acoustic and playability perspective, all the embellishments don’t add anything. I play everyday, and if I find a plain looking but great ukulele for a lot less, I’ll jump on it.

John
 
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Rllink

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I often wonder what made a particular luthier decide to make ukuleles for a living. Is it the love of ukulele, the love of woodworking, or both? Are they players in the sense that they regularly go out and play ukuleles? Do they like music, or are they just intrigued by musical instruments? I'm a woodworker. Probably not a good enough woodworker to make a nice ukulele, but I have a wood shop and I work out there making things. I suppose that I could give it a go, I mean I have a lot of tools. I'm sure that there are lots of ukulele players that are also woodworkers and want to take a stab at it. But I'm talking luthiers who make a living at it. For me, when it comes to ukuleles I would much rather play them than go out in the shop and spend hours making them. So I always wonder what was the motivation. I would be interested to hear what some luthiers have to say about it, especially those who have been at it a long time and have made a name for themselves. What keeps them going? Some of these guys have been shelling out ukuleles for a long long time.

Anyway, I went to my calculator and in the US, the standard work week is 40 hours. When I was working we figured 2080 hours a year, which does not take into consideration twelve holidays and vacation time off. Divide your income by 2080 and see what you would have to get for an hour of your labors if you decided to build ukuleles and then figure out how many hours you would have to work to make just one. That doesn't include the overhead, the time it takes to pack them up and ship them, the time answering emails and talking on the phone. I figured it out for myself, and I don't think that I could keep it up day after day, week. It was an interesting five minutes on the calculator crunching numbers. Frankly, I don't know how anyone can afford to build ukuleles at any cost. My hat is off to those who make a living at it. If they can do it, more power to them.
 
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Doc_J

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I often wonder what made a particular luthier decide to make ukuleles for a living. Is it the love of ukulele, the love of woodworking, or both? Are they players in the sense that they regularly go out and play ukuleles? Do they like music, or are they just intrigued by musical instruments? I'm a woodworker. Probably not a good enough woodworker to make a nice ukulele, but I have a wood shop and I work out there making things. I suppose that I could give it a go, I mean I have a lot of tools. I'm sure that there are lots of ukulele players that are also woodworkers and want to take a stab at it. But I'm talking luthiers who make a living at it. For me, when it comes to ukuleles I would much rather play them than go out in the shop and spend hours making them. So I always wonder what was the motivation. I would be interested to hear what some luthiers have to say about it, especially those who have been at it a long time and have made a name for themselves. What keeps them going? Some of these guys have been shelling out ukuleles for a long long time.

Anyway, I went to my calculator and in the US, the standard work week is 40 hours. When I was working we figured 2080 hours a year, which does not take into consideration twelve holidays and vacation time off. Divide your income by 2080 and see what you would have to get for an hour of your labors if you decided to build ukuleles and then figure out how many hours you would have to work to make just one. That doesn't include the overhead, the time it takes to pack them up and ship them, the time answering emails and talking on the phone. I figured it out for myself, and I don't think that I could keep it up day after day, week. It was an interesting five minutes on the calculator crunching numbers. Frankly, I don't know how anyone can afford to build ukuleles at any cost. My hat is off to those who make a living at it. If they can do it, more power to them.


From (luthier) Kent Carlos Everett's website, one of his books: On the subject of deciding to becoming a luthier. This is very insightful and a good read. Being an artist/luthier is not for the faint of heart or those looking for wealth and security.
http://www.everettguitars.com/library.html

How to Make a Living Doing Something Crazy
By kent everett

Taken from Everett's popular 2007 Healdsburg Guitar Festival lecture.

"This little book should be read by millions of young people hoping to start out
in the world as artist of various kinds. "
Tim Olsen - Founding Editor - Guild of American Luthiers
 

Moore Bettah Ukuleles

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I’ve been hesitant to jump into this conversation but the last two comments compelled me to do so and it’s enlightening for me as builder to know what the ukulele community thinks.

70sSan0 paints a lovely portrait of how many creative people pursue their art or craft. I’m sure this is true for many people. ( and I know surf board shapers who live exactly the life style you described! Haha). In my particular case, the stresses and expenses of being self employed, without pension, retirement plan or paid health care, worrying about the future of living with a debilitating disease that makes working even more difficult (likely due to the environment hazards or toxic dust and chemicals we work with) and working 70 to 80 hour weeks (that includes weekends) is what probably led to the heart attack I suffered earlier this year. To be fair, since that event I, too, have been more inclined the lifestyle that 70sSan0 mentioned. :) When I think of all that I’ve given up in life, relationships I’ve ignored, and things I’ve missed, for this selfish pursuit of my art I sometimes feel a bit resentful and wonder if I’ve made the right choice. (I’m reminded of the Charlie Daniel’s song about selling your soul to the devil.). But to answer 70SSan0’s comment directly; yes, it certainly can be a great job and I wouldn’t trade what I do for anything..

To answer the comment: Why does someone decide to build ukuleles? Of course I can only speak for myself. I can’t really call it a compulsion or obsession but I feel I have no real other choice but to be creative. Every day I must create something, hopefully something to make someone’s life just a little better in some way. It’s as vital to me as breathing every day and I can’t imagine a day without creating something new. Why ukuleles? When I moved to Hawaii
30 some years ago I knew that in order to be having the privilege of being allowed to live in this beautiful place I had to return the gift. My life long love of Hawaiian music and culture along with being somewhat clever with my hands made building ukulele a natural fit and I feel like I’ve made some very small contribution. Not a day goes by that I am not grateful for this journey. And I must say that the very best, the most rewarding part of this experience has been all of you wonderful, kind, intelligent ukulele people I’ve encountered and have gotten to know, either virtually or physically. I’ve often felt that the ukulele has only been a vehicle to experience and be a part of the ukulele community that has made my life so fulfilling. For that I thank you all from the bottom of my heart. I can’t imagine my life without ukulele being a part of it.

Sorry, this has turned into a pretty sappy diatribe. In the end, it’s all just stuff. What we do with that stuff, how we share ourselves with it, how it makes us feel or become better people because of having it, is what’s really important. As long as we are discussing such things with a certain amount of respect and Aloha its all good. There is a legitimate market for all levels of art and craft in this world. Whether it’s worth what it costs is purely a personal matter. Oh, and if you really want to know what it’s like to be a luthier please do read Kent Everrett’s short but insightful book of the subject. Every word is gospel. Thanks Doc_J. :)

Good lively discussion. I’ve enjoyed it. Mahalo. :)
 

PeterRabit

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Thank you for your comment Mr Moore, I appreciate your insight so thoughtfully presented.
 

captain-janeway

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Gee, was just scrolling a site today and saw for for $8200. The $4000 one is a bargain comparatively. Oh well, good things these are priced all over so we can all play and enjoy them.
Some of them are so beautiful though
 

70sSanO

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Chuck,
In no way was I trying to minimize the real life worries and concerns that go with being self employed. I have never had the intestinal fortitude to take that chance and spent 30+ years stuck in rush hour traffic.

I’ll be praying that your health improves and things get less stressful; and there is a path forward to being able to retire or at least cut back some and enjoy life more.

John
 

keenonuke

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I’ve been hesitant to jump into this conversation but the last two comments compelled me to do so and it’s enlightening for me as builder to know what the ukulele community thinks.

70sSan0 paints a lovely portrait of how many creative people pursue their art or craft. I’m sure this is true for many people. ( and I know surf board shapers who live exactly the life style you described! Haha). In my particular case, the stresses and expenses of being self employed, without pension, retirement plan or paid health care, worrying about the future of living with a debilitating disease that makes working even more difficult (likely due to the environment hazards or toxic dust and chemicals we work with) and working 70 to 80 hour weeks (that includes weekends) is what probably led to the heart attack I suffered earlier this year. To be fair, since that event I, too, have been more inclined the lifestyle that 70sSan0 mentioned. :) When I think of all that I’ve given up in life, relationships I’ve ignored, and things I’ve missed, for this selfish pursuit of my art I sometimes feel a bit resentful and wonder if I’ve made the right choice. (I’m reminded of the Charlie Daniel’s song about selling your soul to the devil.). But to answer 70SSan0’s comment directly; yes, it certainly can be a great job and I wouldn’t trade what I do for anything..

To answer the comment: Why does someone decide to build ukuleles? Of course I can only speak for myself. I can’t really call it a compulsion or obsession but I feel I have no real other choice but to be creative. Every day I must create something, hopefully something to make someone’s life just a little better in some way. It’s as vital to me as breathing every day and I can’t imagine a day without creating something new. Why ukuleles? When I moved to Hawaii
30 some years ago I knew that in order to be having the privilege of being allowed to live in this beautiful place I had to return the gift. My life long love of Hawaiian music and culture along with being somewhat clever with my hands made building ukulele a natural fit and I feel like I’ve made some very small contribution. Not a day goes by that I am not grateful for this journey. And I must say that the very best, the most rewarding part of this experience has been all of you wonderful, kind, intelligent ukulele people I’ve encountered and have gotten to know, either virtually or physically. I’ve often felt that the ukulele has only been a vehicle to experience and be a part of the ukulele community that has made my life so fulfilling. For that I thank you all from the bottom of my heart. I can’t imagine my life without ukulele being a part of it.

Sorry, this has turned into a pretty sappy diatribe. In the end, it’s all just stuff. What we do with that stuff, how we share ourselves with it, how it makes us feel or become better people because of having it, is what’s really important. As long as we are discussing such things with a certain amount of respect and Aloha its all good. There is a legitimate market for all levels of art and craft in this world. Whether it’s worth what it costs is purely a personal matter. Oh, and if you really want to know what it’s like to be a luthier please do read Kent Everrett’s short but insightful book of the subject. Every word is gospel. Thanks Doc_J. :)

Good lively discussion. I’ve enjoyed it. Mahalo. :)
Chuck Thank you for your input. I'm grateful that you're here and building ukuleles that most of us can dream about. (Your instruments remain on my wish list.) Please take good care of yourself and wishing you improved good health.
 

Tonya

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Every day I must create something, hopefully something to make someone’s life just a little better in some way. It’s as vital to me as breathing every day and I can’t imagine a day without creating something new.

And I can tell you that for me, Chuck, you have made my life better in a very good ukulele way. Thanks, always, for my three great instruments--and most of all for your friendship, insight and compassion.
 

Jag-Stang

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Growing up with an incredible luthier being a close friend I spent many a day hanging out in John Zeidler’s shop on South Street in Philadelphia. John was a true craftsman with talent as an engraver as well as lutherie skills. He built incredible guitars and mandolins. I don’t remember any ukuleles but that is not my point. John passed away in 2002. Back in the 1980’s I recall those who said why buy a guitar for $3000 from a luthier when I can buy a Martin of my choice for much less? Although some may not appreciate my comments here, I have had the past twenty years since John’s passing to let that question brew. First any Artisan has the right to access the value of his work and price it accordingly. The level of production from a single luthier to a factory is very different. I am not saying that factory produced instruments are not fine quality, I am saying that the level of attention to detail can be quite different. In John’s case the minimum charge was $3000 to build an instrument. Yes back in the 1980’s that was a great deal of money, however what you were getting was a beautifully made instrument from a very talented luthier with a great deal of experience. Today John’s guitars are highly sought after and fetch nearly 8 times what they were originally sold for. If you track guitars from C.F.Martin from the 1980’s that has not happened.
The value of the 1980’s Martin instruments hasn’t increased much for several reasons. Factory built instruments are made in batches and are plentiful. Even Custom shop instruments from Martin are part custom and part factory, details like bridges and bindings are used on factory built as well as custom shop builds. Have the Martin Custom shop instruments increased in value? For the most part the answer is slightly. Yes it costs more to buy a Custom shop instrument today but have the 1980’s instruments increased in price in the marketplace. I am afraid not or not by much.
What we view as expensive today may turn out to be a true bargain tomorrow. There are several talented ukulele builders today and only time will tell if their instruments are worth what they are asking. The market
for well built instruments has always been a fickle one. I have spent the last two years studying the prices for new and used Kamaka and C.F. Martin ukuleles. These instruments are factory built from a small Company (Kamaka) or built in Mexico by C.F.Martin in large batches or built in small batches at 3or 4 times the price at Martin’s Nazareth shop. To be frank I do not see these two Companies ukuleles being a good investment over the years, in fact I think ukuleles by respected luthiers who are currently wait listed being a much better investment. I also am learning that these handmade instruments by luthiers are scarcer, and generally made with greater care than the factory builds. Don’t get me wrong there is nothing quite like an all koa Kamaka standard. At $1195 new I can find many older ones available at half that price and there is a reason for that the Kamaka standards are plentiful. So many Martin Mexican ukes were made that the dealer inventory worldwide is full. I see thousands listed on virtually every site that has ukuleles listed. They are what they are I was advised by a friend who owns one. If you believe in the work of a luthier paying his price today I think may be a better direction to go for a new instrument than even the high level factory built instruments. It will be a unique build and special compared to a common build where there are many.
 

Patty

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TLDR version: The best in the world at what they do are perfectly within their rights to charge whatever they please. People will either buy or they won't. The long-winded version is below.



My take is this. Get them now, while they're cheap because it won't be long until you're paying a much higher cost for top quality customs. Ukuleles are still unreasonably considered 'novelty' instruments by much of the uninformed world. My guess is top quality customs will sky rocket in price over the next decade as the rest of the world wakes up to the fact that ukulele's are serious instruments to be respected (something most of us here already know). The top uke luthiers in the world fetch a little over $10,000 for their absolute top of the line models. These are instruments with hours upon hours of intricate inlays woven into the instrument. These people are absolute geniuses and are the absolute best in the world at what they do. Workmanship of the same quality, with the same amount of time spent, and marginally greater materials costs would fetch tens of thousands of dollars if they were building guitars (Granted, the guitar market is probably harder to break into at the moment due to the greater number of established guitar luthiers).

Is the luthier that the OP is referencing one of the 'absolute best in the world?' I don't know, but the title of the post is about 'hand made' ukes in general, not a single luthier.

If you think custom ukes are priced high, google top of the line, custom mandolins. $25,000 easy. One quick google search of custom guitars brought up a Monteleone at $65,000. Ukes are cheap, even the most expensive ones. Not a single one of us can judge if someone charges too much for their hard work and expertise. Only the broader market can determine that. I don't mean to say that $4,000 isn't a lot of money. This is all relative, of course, and not everyone can afford, or is willing to pay, $4,000 and up on a musical instrument.

To put a different spin on it. Let's think about a brand that does both broad production and customs. Why would someone pay $5,500 on a 2019 KoAloha Black Label that sounds marginally better (granted that is just my opinion) than a KTM-00 that they could get for a little over $1,200 bucks, especially knowing that, at the rate KoAloha innovates, much of what you'll be getting in the Black Label may be introduced into future iterations of the KTM-00? Because for many, it does indeed sound better. Because it plays smoother. Because it's unique. Because it was built by the best of the best that KoAloha has to offer. Because, for some, it's beautiful beyond measure.

I'll step down from my soap box now.

@WestyShane - As a former cycling addict, Amen, brother.
Agree with everything you say, mnb128. Also, is the OP talking about “hand made” or “custom”? Many top hand-made ukes can be had for well under $1,000 (not even talking about pounds!) like my LoPrinzi and Timms sopranos, both magnificent instruments and incredible pieces of workmanship. Luthiers are highly skilled craftsmen. Figure what you’re paying for their labor by the hour, plus the cost of top-quality tone woods and other materials, plus overhead and depreciation on tools and workspace, insurance & taxes and all that brouhaha, then tell me they’re overpaid. It irritates me that people don’t blink at paying $50,000 for a hand-made guitar or violin, yet raise their eyebrows if you say you paid $700 for an equally well-made ukulele. Just shows that they don’t take this wonderful instrument seriously and still regard it as a toy.
 

chris667

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The correct answer is that ukuleles are really a price per hour spent playing, so the purchase cost is more or less irrelevant.
 

Graham Greenbag

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The correct answer is that ukuleles are really a price per hour spent playing, so the purchase cost is more or less irrelevant.
😁 I’ve had fantastic value out of my old Mahalo U30’s then. They cost me ‘peanuts’ second hand and I’ve played them lots - ok I did have to sort them out with a good set-up and new strings. More seriously I do think that Chris’s evaluation is a useful guide to point folk in the right direction. We buy Ukes to enjoy playing them so if you use a particular one a real lot them it becomes cheap recreation.

The more I think about it the more I like that way of price evaluation 👍. We are used to paying - by time - to use recreation facilities like Theatres and Swimming Pools so it’s not too unreasonable a mental step to think similarly of our instruments. If we want a better recreational experience, at say the Theatre, then we accept that we’ll have to pay more for it so again to do so for sessions on a Uke isn’t too unreasonable a mental step.

However, beware of the painful downside of that evaluation because for every winner bought there are also duds and we have the capital costs to fund regardless. A few dearer to purchase Ukes have disappointed me and therefore the price per hour spent playing is painful. Fortunately the purchase prices weren’t dreadfully expensive, but I resent being misled into believing that those instruments were better than they actually were. Price is not a reliable guide of quality.

I answered the thread early on (years back) and my view is unchanged. If you can’t afford it then don’t buy it, if you can afford it then is it a good purchase? Going right back to the original post the rather high price suggests to me that there’s a lot better value - and likely better quality too - Luthier built instruments elsewhere.
 
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Kenn2018

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Just like art, comic books, coins and antiques, if you buy them as an "investment" that will appreciate enough to make money, most of us are going to be disappointed.

If you buy them because they speak to you and enjoy and appreciate them for what they are, you will be content.

I have both luthier made tenors and those made in company workshops. With few exceptions, they have brought me pleasure when I play them. Even though I am not a good player, I derive joy from producing music with them. I still marvel that I can do so, and my skills are slowly getting better to extract more from each one.

I have nothing but respect and admiration for luthiers. To me, they express their creativity by making works of art that can also produce beautiful sound. Even in the hands of a hack such as I.
 

richntacoma

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The correct answer is that ukuleles are really a price per hour spent playing, so the purchase cost is more or less irrelevant.
This. Since I have begun traveling again, my Brad Donaldson Martin 0 Style soprano has logged many dozens of hours in Colombia and Mexico. I would guess across several trips, I have played about 200 hours plus in various parks, by the ocean, overlooking mountains, etc. At about 400 dollars or so, these experiences were 2 bucks and hour, and that is not counting "normal" playing. Dirt cheap, IMHO. I just noticed my Outside uke made it into a couple of pictures--I brought 2 ukes with me in December and January :ROFLMAO::ROFLMAO:
 

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