By Laurence Vittes
Turns out Les Tussing, a 71-year-old retiree with an interesting ukulele habit, is based in Folsom, California, where Johnny Cash once sang at the prison, and is now rated as among the most attractive of Sacramento’s suburbs.
Tussing uses his carpentry skills and specialized tools to makes ukes out of primo cigar boxes with a special touch: He inserts a vintage tea strainer into the empty sound holes of his instruments—each of these exquisite little masterpieces were meticulously selected to stand out like a jewel, and each also comes with an intriguing history.
He first discovered cigar box ukuleles during a trip to Oregon, where he met someone making electronic cigar box ukes. Soon after, Tussing methodically taught himself how to make ukes. Beginning with YouTube tutorials and a few generic beginners kits, he quickly progressed and learned that his artistic pursuit would soon turn into a uker’s obsession.
How did you get started?
I always liked to hear musicians perform and when I decided to learn an instrument a few years ago a friend told me about Valley Ukulele Society and its free, beginner classes. I went to a Tuesday singalong where they projected the music and chords up on the wall. There were 30 people there. Lots of retired people, lots of young people. I went to listen. Now, I play and make my own ukes.
What are the keys to a successful cigar box uke?
You have to start with a solid wood box and it has to be made strong to endure the stresses of a musical instrument, reinforced on both ends and the lid.
What about size?
I thought that the larger thicker boxes would produce more sound, but it’s just the opposite: the thinner the wood, the more the sound resonates in there. A thicker cigar box absorbs the sound.
Why tea strainers?
You can use generic black or silver hole covers for cigar box ukuleles with two holes on either side of the fretboard, or just leave them open, but I was looking through some catalogue or book and saw the tea strainer and thought they were just the right size and shape, and that they would add a nice, personal visual touch. I try to incorporate them into the actual fretboard, inlaid to match the wood.
How expensive are tea strainers?
Tea strainers can be very pricey—as much as $100 for an antique. Some are amazingly beautiful, with cherubs or scenery. Each uke is a piece of artwork—you can hang it on the wall and look at it, play it, or both.
How do the cigar box ukes sound?
Depends on the box—and the strings. Worth are my favorite low Gs. All strings sound different so you’ve got to try them yourself.
What do you charge?
The most expensive ukulele I have is $150. But that’s for a custom-made cigar box ukulele with a mint cigar box and a tea strainer. Cigar box ukes are becoming more popular in folk art and in music. Yes, they had cigars in there. And the majority of buyers want to display them in their homes.
Who do you sell to?
Just local people. I’ve only been doing this a year. I, started in January, made about 30, sold nine of them. Had some nice compliments when I went to the ukulele festival in Auburn. Daniel Ho and Dani Joy liked them; they signed the back of my own personal one. It made me feel good.
Do you teach cigar box uke making?
I could give a 45-minute seminar and teach somebody what to do and how to do it. They’d need the necks, the fretboards, the other components, and the tools: a drill press, a small table saw. By the way, the ones I’m making now are capable of being put through an amplifier.
What are the pleasures you get from the work?
I get great pleasure when I string a new one up for the first time. Also, the recognition I get that they’re really great musical instruments, like at a crafts fair this year, when some guitarists who hadn’t really looked at a uke before, when they saw it’s tuned in the key of G, they suddenly took it and they were wailing away on it. It’s wonderful when everybody is drawn into the music, getting lost in the lyrics, into what is taking place.
Where can we hear you play?
I play on Tuesdays. The society does a lot of volunteer work at senior centers and retired homes, the Folsom Zoo, and up in El Dorado Hills. It’s a wonderful thing that Christine and Charlotte have done. There are always brand new beginner’s classes. People come from 30 miles away. It’s how I started.