FRETS.COM Field Trip

"The" Ukulele
© Frank Ford, 2000; Photos by FF, 2000

Please click on the small photos

On the industrial side of Honolulu, at 550 South Street, stands a small commercial building that's been the home of the Kamaka ukulele factory since 1959.

Samuel Kamaka was an apprentice of Nunes, the instrument maker generally credited with developing the ukulele from its Portuguese roots. In 1916, Kamaka decided to give it a go on his own as a ukulele maker. There's been no end of modernization and "development" of this island paradise since those days. Just look at Honolulu now!

Here's a place where time has passed very slowly indeed. The folks inside here make the classic Hawaiian ukulele in much the same way as their grandfathers did. My wife, Joy, and I recently visited here, and were treated to the usual island hospitality.

Fred Kamaka, Jr., started our tour way in the back of the building, right where the wood is stored. Joy is staring past Fred's right shoulder at the giant pile of native koa wood from which the instruments are made.

In a sort of lean-to behind the building is the material for the next few year's production. Fred told us they like to store the koa for about four years before making it into ukuleles.

They resaw the rough lumber to make all the parts of the instrument.

Here, Fred shows us a billet that had been cut for sides. All the rough work is done downstairs in the back of the building.

Upstairs is where the process really begins. Sides are dunked in water briefly, and laid up on these gas fired aluminum bending molds.

Just a quick trip on the mold, and the side is ready.

Here, end and neck blocks are being graded and selected.

After gluing the blocks and linings, the completed rims are stored in cast aluminum molds like these.

Or, in older wooden forms.

Kept in these little frames, sides retain their shape until their tops and backs are ready.

A bit of cleanup on the rims after gluing the linings.

Now, that's a pile of lining clamps!

Turning to go back downstairs, I could see an aerial view of the back part of the workshop.

Back on the main floor, rims are being assembled to backs and tops.

Ukuleles are small and stack easily as the batches move about the assembly area.

Behind this small group of bodies, you can see the rotating top and back gluing clamp fixture. There's nothing in the orange clamps right now.


Getting set to glue on the back.

Contouring top braces.

Here's a good view of the neck joint. A simple spline is sufficient for the low tension of nylon ukulele strings.

A fully assembled instrument gets a quick pass with an orbital "jitterbug" sander.

As he sands the back, look to left, where you can see bins of neck blanks.

It's at this stage Chris Kamaka gives them the once over. Here he picks up a likely suspect.

Looks like this one passed the tap test, and is ready to go "into finish"

Seventeen craftsmen work full time producing Kamaka ukuleles.

The factory was in high gear, but since the instruments are made in batches, not all operations were being done while we were there.

Here, almost three dozen tenors await their bridges. Notice the four- six- and eight-string models.

Each instrument is individually inspected as it progresses through assembly and finish.

The spray booth is small, but then, so are the instruments. Nitrocellulose lacquer is the finish of choice.

Cleanup and sanding between coats.

More sanding between coats.

This is the final stage, setup. Each craftsman works in his own style and ergonomic position.

Above are the racks of completed instruments, some of which are ready for shipment.

Our tour concluded, it's time to go back out front. On the way, we bump into Casey Kamaka.

He's working on a new shaper fixture for making bridges.

Casey is also in charge of custom instruments, two of which hang above his workbench. Check out the vine inlay on the ukulele at the left.

I have a little corner just like this one. . .

Out front in the office, Fred Kamaka, Sr. works on refitting a case. He tells us that it's easier to rework a defective case than to send it back to the manufacturer. This is another job I can relate to!

The showroom out front is quite small, typical of a factory operation.

Behind the counter, there's a rack of completed instruments, most of which are headed for some of Kamaka's many retail dealers.

If you're lucky and the timing is right, you can pick up a "factory second" at a reasonable price.

The showcase houses a nice assortment of vintage Kamaka ukuleles.

As we head for home, Chris bids us "aloha" as he displays the classic pineapple uke - a real Kamaka "signature piece."

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