BY DAVE SIGMAN
It all starts with the wood. From the entry-level, factory-made ukuleles produced overseas to the high-end custom instrument fashioned by a skilled luthier, selecting the right wood for the job is where it all begins. The two main criteria in wood selection are, of course, beauty and, perhaps more importantly, tonal quality. As a custom ukulele builder, a big part of my job is selecting the woods I’m going to use. When shopping for a ukulele, it’s good to be informed about the wood, why it was selected, and how it affects the sound.
Where sound is concerned, probably the most important wood in the whole instrument is the top (also known as the soundboard) and the wood used in the soundboard bracing (the reinforcing pieces glued to the top inside the instrument). Commonly used woods for a uke’s soundboard include koa, mahogany, cedar, and various types of spruce.
When selecting a suitable soundboard, I first do a visual inspection of the wood to make sure the piece has nice, even grain and no flaws. I then gently flex the board, checking it for stiffness across the grain. Stiffer is better. If the potential soundboard is too flexible, the sound quality can be compromised—resulting in less volume, a lack of sustain, or tonal imbalance. Finally, I check the “tap tone,” holding the board up between my thumb and index finger and tapping it to produce what will hopefully be a nice, clear tone.
Many species of wood improve tonally with age, most notably Sitka spruce. I’ve noticed that right after stringing up a new uke for the first time the sound may be a bit quieter for a while, but this will soon change. The low notes become deeper, the high notes brighter, and the sustain longer, all in the first hour of life. The sound quality will continue to open up and mature for several months.
I’ve seen beautiful ukes built with dazzling woods that are a delight to behold, but lacking in tonal quality due to mediocre wood selection of the soundboard and supportive bracing. Think of how a stereo speaker works. It’s a box made of wood back and sides with a lightweight paper cone in front that vibrates and pushes out the sound waves. A ukulele body works in much the same way. The more freely the top is able to vibrate, the more efficiently sound waves will be produced.
A lot of entry-level, factory-made ukuleles are constructed with laminated wood, which is created by bonding together inexpensive, thin layers of wood with an outer layer of an exotic or decorative veneer. This method of production is less expensive than solid wood construction. I’ve played quite a few ukes made with laminates and found the majority of them to have pretty decent sound, though they’re generally not as dynamic as a higher-end instrument.
However, they do offer some advantages. The lower price tag makes the uke more affordable, of course, and a good choice for a first uke. The laminate construction, while making the uke a bit heavier, also makes it sturdy, so a laminate-wood uke is a good choice for kids. They also make great travel ukes—the laminate construction may stand up better to the varying changes in climate one may encounter during travels.
Back & Sides Woods
Probably the most common wood choice for the back and sides of ukuleles is Hawaiian koa. Koa works beautifully as a top as well, producing a warm, mellow tone that really evokes the island feeling. That, along with its exotic color and grain, make it the tonewood of choice for many.
Honduras mahogany is also widely used in uke construction. It is quite similar to koa in density, workability, and sound quality and, like koa, it’s also used in ukes where a single kind of wood is used for the entire body—the soundboard as well as the back and sides of the instrument.
One of my favorite wood choices for ukes that use the same wood for the entire body is claro walnut, a California native that is similar to koa and mahogany in terms of stability and tonal character. And, like koa, choice pieces of claro walnut exhibit very curly, dramatic grain. Many other species of wood, both imported and domestic, are used in uke body construction as well, including maple, sycamore, madrone, myrtle, ebony, monkey pod, a wide variety of rosewoods, and even bamboo laminates.
Rosewood is widely used and much prized for its beauty and distinctive bright sound. There are several varieties well suited to uke construction: East Indian rosewood, Honduras rosewood, and cocobolo to name a few. These are true rosewoods, of the Dalbergia family. Brazilian rosewood, once considered the “holy grail” of all tonewoods, is now subject to several trade restrictions, which means that it has become expensive and difficult to find in good quality. However, many sustainably harvested alternative woods are being used for instrument building.
The most commonly used wood for the necks of ukuleles is probably Honduras mahogany. It has nice, even grain; is stable; and is easy to work with. It also has an impressive strength-to-weight ratio, making for a well-balanced instrument that feels right in the player’s hands.
Many other woods work well for necks, too. I often use koa, if it’s not too dense. Spanish cedar also works well and is the traditional choice for flamenco guitar necks. Sometimes I’ll get a client who requests a neck made with wood that is similar to the wood used in the body, so I may go with black walnut on a darker uke or maple on a lighter one.
Fingerboard & bridge
There are several wood choices available for the fingerboard, but I generally choose a hardwood like ebony or rosewood. The fingerboard takes a lot of wear and must be tough enough to stand up to the abrasion of the strings as well as the player’s fingers. I once saw a very old Hawaiian uke with a koa fingerboard that had holes between the frets all the way through the fingerboard and into the neck wood! This uke had clearly been to quite a few luaus. Koa is commonly used for fingerboard and bridges, too. However, it’s best to pick a dense piece. Hardwoods are also better suited to hold the tang of the fret wire, as well as any decorative inlays, firmly in place on the fingerboard.
The bridge, like the fingerboard, should be a select piece of hardwood, completely dried and free of any defects. I usually match the fingerboard and bridge woods for aesthetic purposes. The tension of the strings on the bridge is considerable—about 35 pounds is exerted on a low G tenor uke. That’s a lot of weight, but not as much as on a steel-string guitar, where the pull is closer to 160 pounds.
In selecting the binding for the edges of the body, I usually pick a hardwood that creates a nice contrast and compliments the body wood. For example, if the uke body is a straight-grained, darker wood, like rosewood, I might pick a lighter, curly wood, like koa or maple.
Conversely, on an instrument with highly figured grain, I would choose an edge binding that’s less showy. Basically, if it’s a plain wood, I use fancy binding, and for a more figured wood, plain binding.
The binding’s job, besides looking nice, is to protect the edge of the uke from bumps and bruises and to help hold the body together. That being said, there are a lot of ukes out there with no edge binding at all. Some builders use a decorative “rope” binding, a series of alternating light and dark wood edging around the body, giving the instrument a vintage look.
Plastic bindings are commonly used, too, and are available in different colors and patterns such as ivoroid, pearloid, and faux tortoiseshell.
Wood & Its Impact on Tone
So how do you know what kind of wood your uke should be made of? It depends to some extent on what kind of sound you prefer.
If you mostly play solo, a warm, well-rounded tone, like that produced by an all-koa uke or one with a mahogany or cedar top, might suit you. Or maybe you play in a group and you need your solo licks to soar above the guitars. Then perhaps a uke with a rosewood body and a spruce top will deliver the bright, punchy sound you’re after.
The list of possible combinations is as vast as the number of wood species.
Just remember: the most aesthetically pleasing woods are not necessarily the best sounding, so take time to audition as many ukes as possible to help inform your purchasing decision.
DAVE SIGMAN is a luthier and inlay artist who runs Little River Ukes in Little River, California.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Ukulele.