As many of you know, I work on ukuleles as a hobby. I have always been a woodworker and that has given me the basic skills needed to work on ukuleles. I have restored a number of stringed instruments over the years, such as a Russian balalaika, a guitar, and more than a few ukuleles. The first ukulele that I fixed was a Duke Kahanamoku that I got from one of our yard sales about 4 years ago. The glue holding it together had aged and lost the ability to hold the pieces of the instrument together. Fixing it was straight forward. I glued it back together and put a new coat of varnish on it, and I still have that ukulele today.
I didn’t do much more until the pandemic started in early 2020. I received an ukulele kit for Christmas and as the lock-down started I realized that I had the tools and the time to put the kit together. It was a tenor ukulele that I now use as my primary instrument playing with the Dharma Strummers.
Around that same time, my dad had a stroke that left him with limited mobility. With all that was happening between the pandemic and his stroke, we started FaceTiming each Sunday. Since I picked up my love of woodworking from Dad, it was natural that we would talk about the progress of that first ukulele. I have talked to Dad every Sunday since then and in addition to the ukulele videos, we talk about my other projects around the house.
I thought more and more about that first ukulele that I restored and the kit that I put together and wanted to do more. I also wanted to share the process and progress with Dad, because it would be something we could talk about each Sunday. Sending pictures or videos helped him to see the process and I texted a few to him to give him a better idea of what I was doing. From this experience, I decided to start a YouTube channel where I restore and make ukuleles.
The latest ukulele restoration was for Lori Munekiyo. She has a Kamaka Soprano Ukulele that she received from her father back in the 1960s. The bridge had fallen off and she wanted to get it fixed so that when her grandson came to visit, he could play it for the family.
The first step was to inspect the little ukulele. The bridge was detached and hanging by the strings. The sound board, the top surface, had separated from the side leaving a four-inch gap. The finish looked dull, the frets and the tuning keys had a bit of corrosion and there were some specks of paint on the back. The inspection is also a time when I can get a feel for the instrument. Is it solid or are there structural problems? What can I do to bring the instrument back to life without erasing the character that it has from being around for sixty years?
I re-glued the sound board to the side by cleaning out the old glue from the gap between the sound board and the side. I applied hide glue and clamped the edges together. Hide glue is made by rendering animal hides and has been used as an adhesive for woodworking for over 4,000 years. Often, the animal skin being rendered is a horse, and horses that are put down are often said to have been “sent to the glue factory.” However, other animals are also used, including cattle, rabbits and fish. Hide glue is still used in making stringed instruments today, and because I like to make my repairs to match the original condition as closely as possible I used hide glue for the repair.
I moved onto reattaching the bridge and cleaned the old glue from the bridge and the area of the sound board where the bridge is attached. You need to have a clean surface for the best glue adhesion. I applied the hide glue, carefully set the bridge in place and started to clamp it in place. As I was tightening the clamps, I heard a “POP!” The seam that I had just glued between the sound board and the side had opened up. To say the least, that was discouraging. To make a long story short, I realized that the hide glue that I used was past its prime. Modern hide glues have a shelf life of twelve to eighteen months and my glue was over two years old. I then removed the bridge, removed all of the expired glue from the bridge and gap in the side and with a fresh bottle of hide glue, I re-attached the bridge and closed the seam between the sound board and the side.
Life was good… at least for a day or so. The bridge was solidly back in place, but the seam on the side had opened up again. No popping, but a day after I took off the clamps, there was that four-inch gap.
When I got the ukulele from Lori, it was in its original box and in there was a piece of paper with the ukulele. On the paper it said “Jeff” followed by “Uke repair” in parenthesis and below that a phone number. Lori had taken her ukulele to Bounty Music for the repair, but they couldn’t do it, so they recommended Jeff. I was curious and I called Jeff before I started to work on the ukulele. I told him I was just starting out as an amateur ukulele maker and restorer. I asked if he had any advice for me. I think he was really confused by my call. Eventually, I think he realized that I was mostly harmless, and he gave me one piece of advice. He said, “When you re-glue a sound board or backboard you need to use Titebond III. That is the only thing that works.” I thanked him and thought to myself, I am not going to use a modern wood glue like Titebond on an ukulele. That is just wrong.
As I looked at the gap that had opened up again on the ukulele, I thought to myself, maybe I should use Titebond because even the fresh hide glue is not cutting it. Maybe, just maybe, Jeff knew what he was talking about. I am still amazed that the one piece of advice that he gave me was the one piece of advice that I actually needed but didn’t accept at the time.
The modern glue worked and the ukulele was in one piece with no gaping holes. I then cleaned off the paint spots, polished the frets and applied paste wax to the entire ukulele to restore the wood. The final step before putting on a new set of strings was to clean and polish the tuning keys. I disassembled each of the keys. They are made up of a metal shaft that the strings wraps around, a decorative collar, also metal, a plastic button and a small set screw that holds it all together.
The key’s shine had dulled and the surface of all the metal parts were pitted. I have a small polishing wheel that I used to clean up all the metal parts. I was on the home stretch to get the ukulele finished and I was polishing the heads of the set screws to remove some rust and make them shine. On the last of the four set screws, the screw was yanked from my fingers by the polishing wheel. Now this is a very small set screw and my work area is cluttered. I looked and looked, and finally after two hours I found the screw underneath my shop vac. I was so happy. I was back on track and I had all the pieces of the ukulele. I looked at the set screw and thought that it just needed a bit more polishing and the little ukulele was ready to be reassembled. I touched the head of the screw to the spinning polishing wheel and sure enough, it was yanked from my fingers again. This time, despite all my efforts I wasn’t able to find the set screw.
Losing the set screw was frustrating, but losing it twice was even more frustrating. Had I not found it and then lost it again in less than a minute, I would not have felt as bad as I did. I couldn’t return the ukulele to Lori if it was missing a screw or if I had to replace the screw with one that didn’t match the other three.
In desperation, I called Kamaka Hawaii on Oahu, the makers of the ukulele, to ask if they had replacement parts for one of their 1960’s soprano ukuleles. I talked to Tony from Kamaka, and he said that no one makes those screws anymore but they have some that they salvaged from repair jobs. I sent Tony some photos of one of the set screws I still had and he sent back an exact replacement, free of charge.
Being mindful of what had happened, I wrapped the shaft of the screw in painter’s tape so it would be easier to grasp, because if it was yanked out of my fingers again, it would be easy to find. The process of polishing the fourth set screw went off without any problems.
I reassembled the tuning keys and put new strings on the ukulele, tuned it up and put it back in the box to give it back to Lori.
In many ways, a lot of the things we do outside of church have elements of Buddhism and we only have to take a minute of reflection to see what they are.
I have always thought of my woodworking as wood-based meditation. When I am working in my shop, I am in the zone and totally in the moment. Before I know it, hours have past and it is time to call it a day. Sometimes, I am not as mindful as I should be. It would have been a good idea to take a moment and think when I found the set screw. If I had taken a minute or two to think, I would have used tape to secure the set screw before I lost it a second time. One minute to pause and think would have saved hours of effort. Instead of thinking of this as an opportunity to exercise mindfulness, maybe it is actually a lesson in karma.
Impermanence is a fact of life and a tenet of Buddhism. Everything changes. We don’t want good things to change and we want bad things to change in to good things. The little ukulele went through some changes in the last sixty years. It also went through some changes in the restoration process. Change is constant, but I don’t think we should ever think that we can force change to get back to a situation that we experienced before. The little ukulele will never be exactly like it was when it was built back in the 1960’s. Most of the change we experience in life is out of our control and some changes we can initiate. We should work toward change that makes our lives and the lives of others better without fixating on the past.
In Buddhism we recognize that we are all connected despite the feeling that we are individuals. So in that light, this shows our connectedness because I couldn’t have restored this little ukulele by myself. I learned a lot about woodworking from Dad and a little part of him is in everything I build or fix. The one piece of advice from Jeff, the ukulele repairman, let me know that I don’t know everything and that I am dependent on others to make it through life. Finally, when I was in a bind with the set screw, I reached out to Kamaka and got the help I needed from Tony without any hesitation.
We all have a Buddha nature and we need to recognize it in ourselves, in others, and in what we do and say everyday. If we see a bit of the Buddha in others, it will be easier to find loving kindness and compassion for them.
We should also be looking out for bits of Dharma out there in the world. We can find it in our everyday activities and people we know. It can come as bits of wisdom and we would do well to listen to these bits of wisdom as we go through life. To see the restoration process go to https:// youtu.be/r5EaEdVBkBo.