4/30/2011

c.1920 Hawaiian Niu Kani Coconut Ukulele






This uke was made in Hawaii, around c.1920, and is made from high-grade koa... and... half a coconut! I see these Niu Kani brand (TikiKings says this translates roughly to "coconut sound" though I've seen it used interchangeably to mean half-shell coconut on the web) from time to time, but never in really great shape. This one took a lot of work (neck set, new bridge, additional light brace to the top, fret dress, new tuners, new nut, etc.) but also happens to be in generally good shape.

The koa top is extremely thin and extremely lightly braced, which means that over time it has acquired a little sink in front of the bridge (though now it's reinforced a little and stable), and had a loose neck when I got it. The neck was actually attached to the coconut/neck block with nails... bad idea... so even though it was built with a beautifully-crafted neck joint, it was loose. To remedy this problem I thought up a bunch of ideas but went with a bolt-through heel/block solution for a good solid fit and durability, and also installed a strap button at the heel at the same time to hang this "mandolin" style over the shoulder, which makes its round-body shape easier to deal with while upright.


I also had to install a new bridge (this one is mahogany) as the original was missing and because the original bridge foot was so tiny, I decided to go with a pin-style setup to remove extra sideways pull tension off of the bridge. It has a '20s style fret saddle.


Frets are bar-stock brass and needed dressing. Check out that gorgeous flamed koa on the neck!


New bone nut, nice flamed koa... and the Niu Kani logo (Diamond Head + palm trees + ocean).


Really pretty koa on this uke.


...and there's the coconut! Sweet!


New tuners and "Made in Hawaii" stamp. For once, this is true!



The flame on the neck is surreal...


Bridge pins are vintage ebony ones with pearl dots.

Overall -- this is an incredibly nice uke, easily with as good a tone and projection as old Kamakas, Kumalaes, etc. Darn loud, too! The scale length is on the weird side at 12 1/2" though I don't notice the short length too much as the neck is nice and wide. I imagine they shortened the scale for two reasons: puts the bridge in the right place for the length of the neck -- and it also lessens tension on such a thin and fragile top when tuned to the (much more favored back then) ADF#B tuning.

UPDATE: Just found the above image on the net on a French forum. Very cool little historical blurb! But 50,000 a year -- nope! Never made in those numbers!

4/29/2011

c.1950 Harmony Baritone Ukulele


Harmony baritone ukes are like the baritone uke bread and butter: all solid mahogany, simple and rugged build, and after a good setup... they play like butter and sound fantastic... that is, if you're talking the c.1950-1960 types... early 60s and onward and the quality starts to suffer just like all the rest of the Harmony builds after the 50s. That isn't to say they aren't good instruments... it's just that they're not as good as a 50s bari, like this one.

This particular bari happens to be on the early side of the 50s as the neck profile is slimmer, both the nut and saddle are bone, the quality of the mahogany is better (and the top is thinner), and the Brazilian rosewood bridge and fretboard are both good quality as well. In addition, it has the "made from genuine mahogany" sticker on the back of the headstock, confirming its earlier origins.

All these details add up to a sweet, rich, mellow, and yet very "ukulele" sounding instrument, with good volume. It has almost that samba-sounding guitar overtone, which would make it ideal for a jazz player looking for a different tone.


My work on this uke was: fret dress, saddle and nut adjustment, lots of cleaning, setup, and also the patching of some small drill holes on the back of the instrument (totally bizarre, can't figure out why they were there) as well as some drill holes leftover from strap buttons at the heel and "end pin" area.


The uke shows plenty of use-wear but has come out much better than many of these old baris. The finish still has a bit of satiny shine left and it really pulls out the gorgeous mahogany used on the instrument.


Bone nut, brass frets, old-style Harmony logo.







Simple one-ring rosette.


New Grover tuners work dandy. The originals were somewhat worse for wear.



Tortoise binding & the leavings of a strap button hole. Would be really easy to install buttons if you're a stand-up character!


Just a pretty bari! I love the neck profile on these older Harmony baris... very fast and comfortable. No stress at all to play it as it holds the hand so nicely.

4/28/2011

c.1917 Gibson Alrite Style D Mandolin





All hail the fancy pancake! Pan-a-cake! Yum.

This is the upgrade model, made for "one year only" in 1917, of the plain-Jane "Army/Navy" style pancake-shaped mandolin made by Gibson for the "doughboys" of WWI. This is the classier civilian version, complete with top binding, fancy marquetry purfling, an ebony fretboard, pickguard, etc. etc.

This mandolin is 100% original, and now after a fret dress, setup, crack repairs on top and back, and the addition of a (tiny) brace just below the soundhole (serves as cleat, and anti-top-sink brace), it plays and sounds wonderful as well.

A keeper!

Top is solid spruce with "v" bracing, back and sides are solid birch, neck looks like plain mahogany or cedar and the fretboard and bridge are ebony. This has a nicely compensated bridge as well and the long 13 7/8" Gibson scale length, which pumps out plenty of volume and pure clean tone.


Ebony nut, ferrules for the tuners are a nice touch.


Flatwound strings give this instrument more "spring" in feel and a warmer bottom end. With regular-wound strings it had much more bark and bite but didn't have the sweet crisp lows for tremolo.


Amazingly, the pickguard has survived intact.



Gotta love that purfling!


Cloud tailpiece.



Compensated bridge.


Bound on the top edge only.



Tuners in good order.






Clamp for the pickguard.



Big old crack on the back, repaired.

c.1930 Favilla Teardrop Soprano Ukulele


Favilla ukes are prized for tone and feel... and this one is right up there with the rest of them. Big, sweet, mellow, but loud, poppy tone. Very nice player -- feels a lot like a Martin in terms of neck width and scale length (has a slightly longer-than-typical scale of 13 3/8" which feels nice).

This is one of their teardrop-shaped ukes, which are immediately identifiable from a stage, and have a tone similar to a pineapple Kamaka uke but sweeter and somewhat deeper. It's entirely made from solid birch, with brass frets (replacement vintage 12th fret), rosewood saddle and nut... and has light and well-sculpted braces similar to high-grade Lyon & Healy ukes.

All equipment is original and it's crack free, though the finish shows some use-wear here and there and some discoloration on the back. My work on this uke included a neck reset/reglue, cleaning, and setup. I also added some extra washers to the tuners for smoother operation.


Gold Favilla logo.


Dots are like a tortoise-y celluloid material and are brown.


Nice inlaid rosette -- simple but a lot nicer looking than the painted details on later and less-expensive teardrop Favillas.




I love natural finish on birch... seriously, with this uke and the last post (the Slingerland banjo uke) it feels like an ad for "go blonde for Spring!" -- but natural-stained birch really highlights the better qualities of the wood (slight figure and three-dimensional grain lines).



Some discoloration on the back.


Well-thought-out bridge, securely glued, and nice rosewood saddle! Resists wear and improves tone.




Bakelite buttons are in good shape.


"End pin" area.