9/25/2015

1950s Kamaka "Gold Label" Koa Soprano Ukulele




Update 2016: I forgot to mention that there's an aluminum (50s vintage) endpin installed on this one for strap-hanging. I bought this back from its owner recently and didn't even think about it until I saw its bottom hanging on the shop racks. I'll get a picture of it ASAP. It's low-key.

Yes, I've been actively hunting Kamakas! This one's a "gold label" soprano and probably dates to the mid or late 50s judging by the non-fretboard "frets in neck" build. Basically, though the logo and the fret stock changed, this style of Kamaka uke is pretty darn close to the company's 1930s models in build, sound, and feel. Unlike more modern Kamakas, this has that "mini classical" wide nut and flatter, very thin (front to back) neck profile. I find this very, very comfortable for open chords but slightly slower for transitioning to closed-position chords. Mileage varies, however, depending on how you hold your wrist.

This one came to me in good shape save that it needed a couple cracks cleated and filled, a mild saddle-slot shave, a fret level/dress, general cleaning, and a good setup. I also swapped the deteriorating 50s pegs with some nicer friction pegs cobbled from my workshop bins. The result is a uke that plays perfectly and has that sweet, lilting, sparkly, airy "Hawaiian" tone. Go figure, right, that it's Hawaiian-made. You just can't quite emulate it -- dunno why!


Kamaka uke bodies from this time (and in general) are somewhat deeper and a little wider than your average Martin soprano (the basis for most of today's "standard issue" soprano ukes). This gives them a fuller sound right off the bat, regardless of the rest of the build. In addition this Kamaka's body is a little longer and has a slightly smaller soundhole than the more-familiar later-style body that's come to be their standard shape.


This uke has glowing flamed and rippled koa throughout. The neck is one-piece with frets set directly into the top of it. This is very characteristic of older Hawaiian ukes and was retained on Kamakas for a long time. The nut is also koa and when I was doing work on it I filled the slots, sanded, and then repositioned them for a bit more even spacing.

The strings are Martin fluorocarbon and suit the longer 13 5/8" scale length of the uke.


Original brass frets and clay or plastic inlaid dots. I had to seep a bit of glue into the fret slots for all of these frets to keep them stable as they were slightly wobbly to begin with. After that I did a level/dress and now they're good to go.


Isn't that flame nice? Pretty contrasting dark/light grain, too! This is a "sunny orange" piece of koa rather than "fiery orange."


The bridge resembles an old Weissenborn-style uke bridge in that the strings come out of slots over a "ledge" that serves as the saddle. I had to do just a tiny bit of modding and adjustment of the bridge to dial-in the action at perfect 1/16" height at the 12th fret. The bridge itself remains glued nice and tight to the top. I think it may have had a reglue at some point in its life, though, as I chipped off a few tiny beads of glue around its foot to clean up the look.

Behind the bridge are a few little wear marks near the string slots and two tiny hairline cracks. One isn't even 1/2" long and the other extends from the bass side of the bridge to the edge near the endblock. They're both glued and cleated as needed.


Nice, huh?


The back is just as lovely!


The back has one longer (4" roughly) hairline crack that I cleated-up and glued/filled as well. It's with the grain so it's fairly hard to see in photos.


These are well-functioning friction pegs cobbled from bits in my parts-bin. They're newer tuners but look right on the uke. I added my own ferrules for the back and used the original ferrules from the old tuners on the face of the headstock.

Can you see the profile of the neck? This is very "old Hawaiian" style with a flattish, D-shaped contour on the back and a wide nut width. It's a very shallow depth, though, so it plays very quick.




The uke itself is quite clean for its age and has a nice look to it. The lower bout bass top is, however, polished up from "arm rub" and also has a small portion along the edge where the finish is basically worn through. I love that honest wear -- looks really great.






There we go! You can see how much flame this really has in this pic...


It comes with an older (maybe original?) red-lined chip case with someone's cute improvised handle made from electrical cable.


Here's the soundhole label.

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