By Greg Olwell
If the traffic gods will it, you run into the rapidly developing city of Petaluma about an hour after heading north from San Francisco. Though long known for its agricultural heritage of chickens and dairy, it now may be fair to call Petaluma the ukulele capital of the mainland.
The reason is Kala. The largest supplier of ukuleles calls Petaluma home and the company has been going through many changes in the last few years as the ukulele market continues to mature and gain wider spread exposure as not just an instrument, but also as a lifestyle choice. Have you been to a surf shop lately? There’s a good chance you might see a display of Kala ukes the next time you go shopping for a wetsuit.
Kala’s offices and warehouse are located in an industrial park on the north end of town and it continues to expand and grow its business in ways that seemed unimaginable a few years ago. The company recently opened a warehouse in Ashland, Virginia, to serve the East Coast clients that make up about 60 percent of company’s business. But for ukulele fans, the real excitement may be what’s going on in the workshop carved from some of the space in the Petaluma warehouse.
It’s in that climate-controlled room that a team of around ten men, mostly in their 20s and 30s, are creating Kala’s new Elite brand of ukuleles. These instruments are built in the shop, from planing the seasoned koa blanks into tops, backs, and sides, to finishing the custom instruments with a thin and durable UV coating that highlights the koa body’s rich streaks and figuring. Though the team uses CNC machines to shape many of the components, like the necks, there’s also a lot of handcraft going on here.
During my visit, each team member was working on a different task, from bending sides into a body form, to pressing frets into a fingerboard, or carefully sanding a neck heel to make a neck fit tightly to a freshly finished body. Jason Villa, the shop’s amiable, easygoing manufacturing manager, manages all of the Elite team’s highly detailed work and he took time out to show me around the shop, warehouse, and the display room that shows off one of each instrument that Kala offers.
Here’s a little taste of what we saw.