Reviving a sought-after Washburn tenor uke and rediscovering its original tuning
BY AARON KEIM | FROM THE WINTER 2019 ISSUE OF UKULELE MAGAZINE
When you think of Mainland vintage ukuleles, Martin and Gibson are probably the first names on the list. But for my money, I prefer the instruments made by and for the Lyon & Healy company from Chicago. They were a retailer, a distributor, music publisher, and a manufacturer, sort of like a combination of Guitar Center and Sears & Roebuck. Lyon & Healy started making instruments in the 1880s and carried on into the Great Depression with its premier brand, Washburn.
My love for this company started when I found a Camp Uke at a flea market. Its a little round-bodied soprano marketed as an inexpensive travel companion. Next I found a koa Washburn soprano with a beautiful gold decal on the top. Its looks and sound were on par with any vintage uke I had come across. When I ventured out on my own to build instruments, I based my body shapes off these ukes while adding some modern features. I have always wanted to get my hands on one of the company’s vintage tenor ukuleles but had never even seen one in person. Though they called it a tenor, it is sized between a concert and a tenor, with a lean but curvy shape and classic lines. I often trolled eBay for them, but they are rare and expensive. I finally found one that I could afford due to its poor condition, and soon a mahogany Washburn tenor [Fig. 1] was on its way to my shop.
When I opened the box for evaluation, I was happy to notice that it didn’t smell like cigarettes or cats! (All of you antique pickers know what I’m talking about.) Here was the list of issues: back cracks, badly repaired top cracks, a side crack, and a bridge that had been repaired and re-glued multiple times. The bad bridge work had scarred the top and four holes had been drilled into the top to hold the strings. My repair approach is simple and I used it here: undo bad repairs, make new repairs with a minimum of fussiness, and get it playing well. I don’t usually go for museum-quality restorations and glossy finish touch-ups. It’s OK to me for an old instrument to show use and wear over time.
I was on the fence about whether to repair or replace the bridge until I grabbed a thin pallet knife and probed a loose corner. [Fig. 2] A tiny bit of pressure popped the bridge half off with a dry, snapping sound. It also had a missing piece that had been repaired badly, so I decided a bridge replacement was in order. I planned to make it a little oversized to help cover the damage to the top and offer some stability to the weakened area.
First, I measured the original bridge and made a drawing. [Fig. 3] I then hit the scrap bin and found a piece of old Honduran mahogany that I salvaged from a house in Portland. It was about the same age as the uke and matched well. I also pulled a piece of rosewood for the saddle that was as close to the fretboard as I could get. Some Lyon & Healy ukes had bone saddles and bridge pins, but this model had a black plastic saddle and slots in the bridge for knotted strings.
Using the table saw, I cut a rectangular blank and ripped a slot for the saddle. I planed my rosewood saddle to fit and pressed it into place. I then used the sander to roughly shape the outside curved profile and the top winged profile. I could still see marks from a spindle sander on the original bridge, so I felt like I was not only copying the form of the original, but navigating a similar production path as the Washburn shop. [Fig. 4]
When it came time to cut a recess and four slots at the back bottom of the bridge to hold the knotted strings, I puzzled over how to machine it before grabbing a chisel and hand saw and just knocking it out. I then filed the top profile before sanding everything smooth. Fig. 5 shows that I added a little stain before I shellacked it. It looks nice, but the color is a little redder than I anticipated.
Before gluing it on, I laid out where it would sit, including compensation for proper intonation. I masked around where it would go with blue tape to protect the top and keep the bridge from sliding around. The top needed to have the old glue scraped away and some light sanding to make it smooth. An old repaired top-crack made for an uneven surface, which posed a bit of a challenge. I decided to add a small spruce cleat inside to reinforce the crack, using strong magnets to clamp it in place. I also plugged up the holes with maple dowels and chiseled them flush. [Fig. 6]
I clamped it in place [Fig. 7] and cleaned the glue squeeze out with a plastic straw and a cotton swab. The blue tape also helps with glue cleanup, protecting the top.
The glue sat overnight, so the next day I came back to file the saddle to the correct height, do some fretwork, and install the strings. For the tuning, I went back to the original Lyon & Healy catalogs, which stated that the Tenor uke was designed for a lower tuning, dGbe, like a baritone ukulele, but with a high D string. I learned that this was the same for the early Martin and Gibson tenor ukuleles, too. Their larger size was intended to have a lower voice.
At first, this tuning didn’t make much sense to me, as the low G third string would be the same as a low G fourth that is common in modern practice. But, after playing for a few days, I realized why it was such a nice tuning: I got the lower voice of low G but kept the unique reentrant sound of a traditional ukulele! I could play all my banjo music and trad uke stuff but keep the lower pitch of the baritone. I was hooked.
After closely inspecting and playing the tenor for a month, it caused me to tweak a few subtle things in my own designs to be closer to the original. You will notice that my Beansprout ukes already reference the shape of the headstock and end of fingerboard. [Fig. 8] I adjusted the depth and width of my baritone and tenor designs to be closer to the original. I learned how to quickly make the Washburn bridge should I choose to use it in the future. It also validated for me a few of the modern ideas I already use that aren’t on the original: 14 frets to the body, thicker fingerboards so there is more room to pick with your right hand, shifting the soundhole up toward the fingerboard for more vibrating top area, a radiused fretboard, and geared tuners. I don’t want to copy the old designs, but I am happy to pay homage to them. I look forward to making some tenor ukes with this tuning and seeing what players come up with. It wasn’t a museum-quality restoration, but it’s a solid repair that turns this instrument from a wall-hanger to a cherished player.
Aaron Keim is a luthier at Beansprout Musical Instruments (thebeansprout.com) and also a busy educator, historian, writer, and performer. He performs with his wife Nicole in the Quiet American. quietamericanmusic.com