How are custom instruments built?
One at a time! When you order a custom shop instrument the instrument is built for you start to finish. I start by hand selecting wood for the body, neck and fretboard of the instrument. I am looking for extraordinary pieces of wood. In the neck I am looking for wood that is straight, strong, and stable – a piece of wood that will not warp over time and will give you years enjoyment. For the body I look for a mixture of character and tone. Sometimes I drive my wife crazy looking for wood on vacation, dragging billets of black walnut back from small family owned sawmills on the McKenzie pass or shipping slabs of koa back from a Hawaiian vacation. The boards I collect for custom tops are really special pieces of wood. Generally I resaw and bookmatch these boards to create a symmetrical design from the center out before laminating them to a thicker board for the back of the instrument that has been chosen to complement the aesthetics and tone of the wood chosen for the top. Occasionally a custom shop instrument’s body will even be made from a solid slab of exotic wood or with several layers in a “hippie sandwich.”
Once the body wood has been selected and bookmatched I use a template to carefully trace the body shape onto the wood. This is the first time we get to “see” the instrument. From this point I often make minor adjustments to the book match or the placement of the body on the wood, until the layout is perfect.
If the uke is getting a figured top, the next step is to glue it up, often with accent layers between the top wood and the back and then its onto “The Machine.” I use a 3 axis cnc mill, affectionately known as Gianne Carlo, to mill necks, bodies, and fretboards. Gianne Carlo is the only employee I have, but he gives me a level of control and repeat-ability that would be hard to match as a one man shop otherwise. With Gianne Carlo I know that my parts are going to be consistent from instrument to instrument, so I can place more of my focus on the details.
With all of the parts roughed out on the mill, I can start to turn them into instruments. The fretboard is glued onto the neck and several holes that are impractical on the cnc are drilled. I check the neck to body fit and make any adjustments that are necessary and once I am satisfied with the basic form of the instrument I start to do final shaping of the neck and body by hand. I adjust the transition areas from at the heel and headstock, smooth the contours of the body and spend lots of time with my hands on the instrument making sure that everything is perfect. The body and neck are then progressively sanded down to 400 grit to prep for finish.
Although I occasionally lacquer an instrument, the finish I use most often on my ukes is a product called Osmo. It is made in Germany and is a combination of waxes an oils. It is a low VOC finish made of ingredients that I feel good about using, mostly oils and waxes. Osmo builds and incredible luscious satin finish that feels amazing in the hands, while protecting the instrument. Once all of the parts are finished, final assembly, wiring, and setup begins. Everything is checked and double checked and I jam on the uke for a little while to make sure it plays and sounds as good as it looks before it is photographed and ready to be picked up or shipped!