7/15/2016

1920s Kumalae Koa Soprano Ukulele





Update: Since originally posting this, I've been using it for shows and so I've installed a nice set of Gotoh UPT 4:1 tuners ($65ish) and a K&K pickup (sounds great, passive, and high-output) with a jack at the endpin. I've updated the photos and priced it accordingly. If you haven't tried these tuners yet, they're the bee's knees. I have them on all of my personal ukes as they make it a joy to tune and they're even lighter than your average period metal friction pegs. Now back to the original listing...

I've worked on a bunch of Kumalaes over the years, and each one has been very familiar to me. These are lightweight, small-shop, sparkly-sweet instruments and once they're in proper working order, they have a good amount of volume and pop for their diminutive, peanut-shaped sizing. This one is no different and it also happens to be darn pretty. I would hazard to guess that it probably dates to the late 1910s, though the 20s would be a safe bet. Lardy's database has a good writeup that agrees with my own opinions on the company, as well.

These Kumalaes are certainly handmade instruments and filled the need for a huge mainland demand for Hawaiian-made ukes. Like other contemporary Hawaiian makes, they're a bit off-kilter (all the fret slots on this one are cut at a slight angle) and are almost never truly symmetrical in the body and neck. Personally -- that's something I admire in old Hawaiian ukes. They have reality pouring out of them in a very good way.


This uke is made entirely from solid koa and has only two cracks -- a small hairline below the bridge and also a small hairline above the bridge. Both are repaired. In person, the uke's finish is a little darker, though taking the shots outside (even on a gloomy day like today) means the orangey-red koa popped right out.



In the above pic you can see some of the finish "blem" from time. It's not obvious at all unless you turn it into harsh light like you see here.

My work on this uke included a refret (with standard "guitar" wire), cleaning, a brace reglue and the aforemtenioned crack repairs, one seam repair, bridge recut for better action/intonation, a K&K pickup with a jack at the "endpin" area, and general setup and cleaning. I also added a set of Gotoh UPT tuners (geared, banjo-style) that look awesome with the buttons that're matched to the koa's color. It's strung with fluorocarbon strings and plays to spec with 1/16" action at the 12th fret. It's ready to go and feels very "fresh" with the modern-feeling frets. It's got a standard (for the time) 13" scale length.


The headstock is in the usual "shield" shape and has an original nut.


The new frets feel great. Like most Kumalaes, the neck shape on this is fairly wide side-to-side for a soprano uke, though the string spacing at the bridge is narrower than the board itself. The neck's profile front-to-back, however, is very thin and the "back profile" is a very flattened D shape. This is very, very typical for Hawaiian-style ukes from the time -- and famed maker Kamaka used the style right up into the 50s.


The only decorative touch is the three-ring inlaid rosette and a contrasting-wood endstrip at the endblock.


I reprofiled the front of the bridge for better action height and intonation. The "front wedge" shape is actually similar to some Weissenborn and Kamaka ukes I've seen around.



There's some very nice koa on this uke -- including a bunch of curly figure here and there on the body and some decent flame in the neck.






Here's the finish "blem" on the back -- though as you can see, like on the top, it only shows itself in harsh light.



The sides are bit more "chocolate" in coloration.


The finish, by the way, is all original. These ukes used a thin, hand-rubbed, gloss finish.



I try to make the 1/4" jacks as flush as possible with the sides to keep the feel "ukey."



The tuners are really well-matched to the koa's color. I got compliments on them wherever I went and a uker was present.

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