BY AARON KEIM | FROM THE WINTER 2020 ISSUE OF UKULELE
One of the best features of the modern ukulele movement is that people are taking back the act of making music. Instead of music being mostly a commercial item to be consumed, it can be something you do yourself. This builds community, boosts confidence, and reminds us all that we are capable people. Connected to this musical community are craftspeople who produce handmade items in the same spirit. They make things that have a real soul to them; unique objects that could not be produced in a busy factory with robotic automation. For these folks, it’s not just a craft, it’s a lifestyle that values skill and community and culture over fiscal growth, mass production, and shareholder profits.
One of my favorite ukulele builders, Zac Steimle of Oceana Ukuleles, embodies this hands-on lifestyle perfectly. Based in Port Orchard, Washington, on the Olympic Peninsula, Zac makes about 20 instruments per year. He works carefully in his small home shop, relying on traditional hand tools to realize his artistic vision. He also sets aside plenty of time for inspiration from the natural world, with the ocean and the wilderness so close at hand. His family—wife Melody and daughters Brisa and Sequoia—is always nearby, including eight years spent living in Ecuador (more on that later). With their support, Zac has, since 2008, been able to build Oceana into a small but successful operation, carefully balancing the needs of a growing family with an artistic life.
Zac was born into a family of artists. His father was a sign painter and calligrapher, juggling commercial work with the art show circuit. The kids were homeschooled and part of the family business. Zac remembers building picture frames, cleaning up the studio, and working on displays at the art shows. Every winter, they packed up and headed to Mexico to surf for a couple of months, living cheaply and recharging for the busy summer months. Zac recalls his father teaching him how to paint a straight line freehand on a wall by walking a certain way. He was delighted to realize later in life that it was the same walk that you make to the nose of a longboard on the perfect wave. “I learned from my dad when I was young that the way I breathe, the way I stand, affects how I use my hands,” he says.
His father always had musical instruments around, as well, noodling on a guitar or ukulele as a way to relax and create without pressure. This mix of art, music, and travel seems to have stuck with Zac from a young age, planting the seeds for his current career and lifestyle.
In 1995, Zac traveled to Ecuador to surf and study Spanish. He picked up some work in a guitar factory, sanding and painting electric guitars. In hindsight, he didn’t learn much about lutherie, but it showed him that the factory environment wasn’t for him. In 2002, he returned to Ecuador with Melody and Sequoia to work at a healthcare nonprofit. They spent eight years there trying to improve access to medical care for rural and low-income residents. Their second daughter, Brisa, was born there while Zac was working in the jungle.
It was in Ecuador that Zac met third-generation master luthier Jesus Ortega, who is very well known there. Zac apprenticed with Ortega for two years, learning traditional stringed instrument building. They had an electric hand drill and a router; everything else was made with hand tools such as planes, saws, chisels, scrapers, and sharp knives. Zac absorbed Ortega’s methods, pacing, and work ethic, and in the process finally found what he was meant to do.
Ecuador, like every region settled by the Spanish and Portuguese (including Hawaii), has a rich tradition of stringed instruments. The bandolin, charango, cuatro, requinto, harp, guitar, and ukulele are all popular. Many of these traditional instruments lean towards rustic, functional folk art, with their imperfections revealing the hand and heart of the maker. Yes, a traditional instrument can be beautiful, but it’s also a useful object that must be durable and easy to play—an important lesson for an apprentice luthier.
“When I started working with Jesus,” Zac says, “the hand plane was the tool we used the most and it was a real struggle for me. At first I thought it was a slow way to work, but then I realized I was slow, Jesus wasn’t. He can bend a set of guitar sides as fast as a mechanical press!
“After working with him for about a year, I built my first instrument. It was like ‘Wow, I’ve finally found what I am good at. I’ve got what it takes to be a luthier.’ I was feeling burned out trying to affect a change in the healthcare world and I knew I had to make a change in what I do.”
Around 2010, things in Ecuador were changing and Zac and Melody’s volunteer work was not as desperately needed as before. They decided to return to Washington and open up shop as Oceana Ukuleles. The family garage was converted to a workshop, including some larger power tools and a spray booth the size of a closet. Zac has maintained his relationship with Ortega, sometimes importing his instruments for sale in the U.S. as well as wood for his own builds.
These beautiful South American woods, like Peruvian walnut, Ecuadorian cherry, black palm, and Spanish cedar offer a nice contrast to the American woods that Zac has ready access to, such as myrtle, redwood, cedar, and spruce. Part of the global wood selection process is searching for sustainable, salvaged, and community-oriented woods. For example, the black palm that Zac uses for fretboards is very fast-growing, making it a nice alternative to slow-growing ebony. Most of the mahogany Zac uses was salvaged from bleacher seats at a high school. This old Honduras mahogany is of much higher quality and has a lower carbon footprint than importing new African mahogany. Also, much of the precious Ecuadorian hardwood that Zac uses is logged by mules, one tree at a time. This allows the forest to grow back quickly and sustains the forest crop over a longer time span, while also supporting the local community.
Zac offers five sizes of ukuleles, as well as bass ukuleles and small guitars. He often makes five-, six- and eight-string ukuleles, which provide a new sound for adventurous players. Playability is very important, most notably in his uncommon scalloped fretboards. These are fretboards where the frets are basically flush to the top of the fingerboard and the spaces in between are gently scooped out. He believes it makes for a new playing experience, with less hand fatigue, better intonation, and effortless fretboard slides.
“I see sound, playability, and durability as the three most important factors in any instrument,” he comments. “I don’t care if it looks like a jewelry box or a crown jewel. It has to sound good, play good, and last.”
Zac’s aesthetic is rooted in tradition but reveals an artistic and whimsical side. His instruments often feature small carvings, creative rosettes, nautilus shell inlays, and other details that straddle the line between folk and fine art. Zac’s wood selection favors grain that seems to sweep and flow across the lines of the instrument. This is most obvious when he uses the same wood for the back, sides, and pickguard. I can’t help but think of his father’s brush strokes flowing across the page, or the spill of the surf onto the sand, or the lines on a backcountry map. That is precisely what you want when you buy a custom ukulele: The maker’s head, heart, and life made solid in your hands. You then have a unique and precious object that is ready to make music, build community, and foster relationships, even if you just plan to noodle on the couch.
“We live in a world now where people want to do things for themselves—music, crafts, etc.,” Zac says. “When I first moved back from Ecuador, I knew every ukulele builder on the West Coast. Now, I don’t even know all the builders in my neighborhood! There are so many people making fine instruments now.”