BY AARON KEIM | FROM THE SPRING 2020 ISSUE OF UKULELE
A custom ukulele order is a big decision, and every customer deserves to be treated like the most important person in the queue. When I work on someone’s ukulele, I try to consider how long it took them to save their money, how lucky I am to have the work, and how many beautiful songs they will play on it. But every so often a customer comes along that truly requires a little more attention and care. In this case, it’s my most important customer: my wife, business partner, band mate, and artistic collaborator, Nicole.
Nicole is a master teacher, quirky folk artist, lifelong musician, and a great mother, Everything I make, from the ukuleles I build to the books I write, passes through her hands before seeing the world. She is the facilitator and editor of every crazy idea I pursue and she still loves me. When I worked at Mya-Moe, I built her a ukulele for our tenth wedding anniversary. It had leopard-print myrtle, custom inlays of her artwork, and “bling-bling” abalone purfling. She loves it, but she realizes that she needs to play an instrument that better reflects the natural aesthetic of our current brand, Beansprout.
We knew she wanted another myrtle tenor with a pickup for stage work, and the same tone and playability as her last uke. But, we needed to find a few things to set it apart from the crowd and reflect her personality.
This past summer (2019) we celebrated Nicole’s birthday with a quick trip to the Oregon coast. We pulled into a souvenir store to find our son a fossilized shark tooth. This place also had a huge selection of bowls and vases turned from local myrtlewood. In the back were dusty stacks of myrtle lumber, so I went to check it out. Everything in the stash was plain and flat-sawn except for one piece. It was curly, quartersawn, streaked with blacks and browns, and big enough for ten or so ukuleles. It was about four feet long, two feet wide, and one inch thick. This meant it was big enough that I could make tops and backs that were one piece and asymmetrical, which have been popular with my customers. I checked the price, made sure it fit in the car, and began dreaming of the ukes it would become. I didn’t mention it at the time, but I was hoping Nicole would pick a part of this board for her instrument.
We spent the rest of the weekend on the beach, watching the birds, collecting objects for nature art, digging holes with our son, and breathing in the ocean air. When we got home, I set the board aside to acclimate to our shop and waited for Nicole to be ready to select her myrtle.
The first task was to get out a template and place it on the board, letting her find a shape that she connected with. I also had to sign off on it, making sure the grain was oriented for strength. After she found her piece, I scraped it smooth and wiped it with solvent to mimic how it would look under the finish.
Second, I had to re-saw it to produce the matching sides and top and back plates. Making a cut over 12 inches deep with the bandsaw can be a tricky task, but I had just tuned up my 100-year-old saw and changed to a sharp blade. I was able to get two matching ukuleles worth of wood from her pieces, which was lucky.
The last step before I built the body was to pick a decorative element to mimic the abalone purfling on Nicole’s old ukulele. Purfling is a border that wraps around the uke inside the binding. I no longer wanted to use abalone for two reasons: 1) It is an animal product that I don’t control the harvest of and I have no idea of its environmental impact or where the shell is sourced from; and 2) the brilliant sparkle of abalone just doesn’t fit the more muted, natural wood aesthetic that I am going for. After several long discussions, Nicole agreed to look at some fancy wood purfling designs made by Gurian Instruments in Seattle. She chose a design that looks like bird prints in the sand, a call back to our beach trip. She also chose vibrant curly maple to bind the body outside of her custom purfling.
While we waited for the purfling to be delivered, I got started building the body. I bent the sides, sanded the wood thin and smooth, braced the top and back with spruce, glued it all together, and bound the soundhole with curly maple.
We still need to select a neck and fretboard, bind the body, do a lot of sanding, add finish, and set it up. Stay tuned for the finished product in the next issue!