c.1920 Unmarked Koa Ukulele Part Two

Well, here's how she came out! It's not as perfect as I'd like it to be, but I think it came out pretty well. The satin finish feels really nice on the hands and because of its thinness the tone has actually improved quite a bit from how it arrived... though it's also improved because it's setup properly, too! A bit under 1/8" at the 12th... nice and smooth, too, with the koa fretboard.

This is sort of a "ginger ale" colored koa uke... pale and golden up top, rich and warm reddish-brown on the sides, with a significantly redder neck.

Here's the headstock, and do compare it to the shots in the post before, because it's amazing how much grain popped out with the finish.

Some nice bits of figure in the fretboard, too. New nylgut strings.

And again, because the binding and inlay was cleaned up, it really pops out compared to before when it was super yellowed. I prefer the vintage look, but it's fun to see this uke in a state that it might have looked like when it was younger.

Bone saddle. Nicely contrasting bridge.

Side view.

Sides again.

I love these tuners -- polished back to health nicely, too. I've always preferred these narrow fine-quality Grover Champions to other bakelite pegs of the period and they look fabulous on this oversize peghead.


Fun, huh? Figure on one side, less on the other... very peculiar but a very pretty effect.

Here's a closeup... love it. For some reason the coloring of the koa on this uke makes me thing "eukalyptis."

Headstock again.

Long 3/4.

Here's the end-block join.

And the above-the-soundhole label.

Nice lines!


c.1920 Unmarked Koa Ukulele Part One

Well, I thought you folks might like some "in-action" photos. This is a ukulele marked only with "Genuine Hawaiian Koa" inside the soundhole. It's built like some Oscar Schmidt ukes I've seen, (bracing and square kerfing is familiar) but ukes with this headstock shape have also been attributed to Harmony and others at the time. At any rate, it's an extremely well-crafted uke, sturdy, light, but neglected.

As you can see, the finish has alligatored to the point where you can't even see the grain of the wood. I'm going to be refinishing this uke because I know there's beauty underneath (and a much happier customer, in the end, I believe).


Sides could have been simply restored but because I'm refinishing the top I'm simply going to do the whole thing.

Back isn't horrible but it isn't pretty, either.

I had to pull the bridge and fretboard because they were coming up. Here's a now-sanded top (ain't that nice?) with some bridge regluing under-way. The top is nice and flat (no belly) so it's relatively easy to glue this bridge back in place with a single clamp and a medium amount of pressure.

Here's the uke in "bare bones" after sanding, fretboard cleanup and fret polishing, and everything glued back together.

The saddle is nice: bone! I'm making a new corresponding bone nut as the nut that was on it was some hastily-cut balsa -- yick. Check out how the yellowed binding is now stark white! One of the fun things about refinishing old instruments is you often get a closer idea of how an instrument looked when it came off the factory line: that is, with new finish not aged-in darker.

The back. There's some flame to the left of the back center strip.


As of this post, I've got two coats of varnish on it and probably another in the morning left to go. The wood is a rainbow of koa colors from light sunshine yellow to orange sunset tones. I can't wait to hear it! The hardware's all polished and restored, too, so as soon as the last coat of varnish is dry she'll be ready to play!


c.1925 Bruno "Lyra" Koa Ukulele

Here's a recently-sold nice mahogany uke sold by Bruno (a NY distributor) under their "Lyra" brand name. Like many other Bruno ukes, I'll bet that this one was built for them by the Richter Manufacturing Company, as the construction inside is familiar to others of that make -- that is to say -- well-made, super-lightweight, and very responsive. These tend to have a snappy tone with a lot of volume and "bite!"

Typical island-to-mainland trappings: nice rope binding and simple Hawaiian-style fingerboard (directly into the neck and no fretboard over the neck).

Rosewood nut. These are newer Grover tuners, too. Good "shield-type" peghead.

This has a nice slim, wide neck -- typical of this brand.

The soundhole on this uke was cut just a hair off-center. Hard to tell unless you're looking for it!


Side view. Original finish is in pretty good shape!

This uke has good dimensions for volume: 5" upper bout and 6 1/2" lower bout (from what I remember!).


Some flame on the back which gives it some elegance.

Tuners -- originals were probably bakelite.

Side 3/4.

Yessir, a darling!


c.1960s? Portuguese Guitar

First of all, she's all done! Thankfully... I couldn't wait to string it up and hear it! Stringing is bizarre, because you have to loop both ends of the strings when putting them on, which means (at least) hand-looping one side of them. I've used a set of GHS bouzouki strings and a set of Martin mountain dulcimer strings and that filled (almost exactly) the gauges that are traditionally used in a set of guitarra strings.

Speaking of strings... I've tried several different tunings. "Standard" is DABEAB bass to treble, though I can't wrap my brain around it. I've tuned it to "baritone guitar" voicing: BEADF#B, and that sounds actually very nice and full, with good bass. It's an octave up from baritone guitar, and if you play standard guitar (E to E) your "G" chord would be a "D" and so forth...

I've also tuned to CEGCEG, which I think is a very pretty open C tuning: it looks like a 5-string banjo capoed at the 5th fret in terms of fingering for the top 4 courses (GCEG) and the low C and E make nice drones. Awesomely, you can play the same tune on the first three strings that you can on the second three strings and you'll be playing your tune an octave up in this tuning. This follows the same logic as the Hawaiian guitar or dobro's GBDGBD tuning. This C tuning is also the very same as the oldest "natural" tuning for the instrument, which I learned about later on a Wiki article (click here for it).

And here's a video to listen to while you read along:

This thing is wide! Very wide! Wide as a dreadnought guitar, though you wouldn't think it until you have it in your lap.

Fun headstock with bone nut and brass Portuguese-style tuners -- these are essentially threaded shafts that pull up on the string-hitch "nuts." Now, if someone can figure out how to make a stay for this end that's as easy to string up as a regular tuner, I think all mandolins and many-stringed instruments should be using these tuners... they're extremely lightweight, hold tune well, and you don't have to have a super-giant headstock. Not to mention, they're held in place by the tension of the string load rather than screws, so they're easily removable for service with the strings off and don't muck up the headstock.

Lovely super-radiused fretboard -- a comrade-in-strings mentioned that it might be olive. I'm guessing he's right, as it has that look and that sounds about right for an Iberian-peninsula-built instrument! By the way, those are bar frets like on old Martin guitars -- definitely a throwback to the past!

Nice, elegant rosette. Also, well-sculpted bone bridge... I love it.

From the Santos Beirao workshop in Lisbon. Apparently, they closed their doors in 1985. I'm guessing this was built earlier on, however... considering the tarnish (when it arrived) on the tuners and tailpiece, and the bar frets. Or perhaps the bar frets are still being used? I don't know myself.

Here's a filled crack. Not as pretty as I'd hope but it does lend an air of seriousness to the instrument!

Simple purfling. I like the lack of binding but the inclusion of purfling... I always find that styling exquisite!

Back and sides... here you can really see the lovely orangey-yellow glow of the sycamore wood.

And here you can see the grain!


Back detail.

Headstock back. Portuguese guitars tend to have scrolled volutes and I think that this one either never had it put on or it lost it at some point in its life. When I got this, this neck "heel" had scribbled pencil on it and was unfinished. I've sanded and sealed it with a satin finish to protect the wood. I actually rather like its appearance this way... simpler than when the instrument has its curly hair!


Grain detail.

And here's a closing beauty shot!