Very Old Ukelele Needs Work

If you have a string instrument of any kind that needs fixing, a mistake you made in building a new instrument that you need to "disappear," or a question about the ethics of altering an older instrument, ask here. Please note that it will be much easier for us to help you decide on the best repair method if you post some pictures of the problem.
Post Reply
Andrew Armstrong
Posts: 30
Joined: Mon Jan 16, 2012 5:42 am

Very Old Ukelele Needs Work

Post by Andrew Armstrong »

Hello, I have been asked to get this old uke playable again and before I touch it I would like some advice for anyone who knows more about these than I do. It looks to be very old. The badly worn label on the head stock appears to have the year 1915 on it. The brand appears to have the letters: K?MA??? in the top line. Under that is not readable and the last line all I can make out is the year 1915 to right of the crest. Under the crest is says HAWAII. There is also a circular label for what looks like the shop that sold it SUTTONS Proprietary Limited so it may be an Australian shop.

You can see the main problem is that someone has had a go at a poor-bot neck re-set and taken to it with a saw and cut most of the way through the heel and neck. I presume they glued this but it has subsequently come apart. SOmeone has also re-finished the whole thing after the "re-set" and before it came apart and I can't say what the finish is. It may be satin polyurethane and they have gone over everything including the headstock decals - or what is left on them.

So first any info on its heritage would be good.

Second, any thought on the approach to repair? Re-gluing the cut probably won't last although I suppose epoxy might hold it. But I'd rather not. I was thinking about finding a way to drill a small hole from the inside through th eneck block and into the heel and inserting a smal screw which will be unseen from outside. Getting a drill in there will be a challenge - this is the smallest Uke I've ever seen: body length = 23.5cm lower bout = 14.5 cm, waist = 80cm scale length = 33cm (~13")

I'll add a few more pics in second post.
Let me know your thoughts.
Attachments
2014-04-14 16.11.48.jpg
2014-04-14 16.11.17.jpg
2014-04-14 16.11.06.jpg
2014-04-14 16.10.55.jpg
2014-04-14 16.10.35.jpg

Andrew Armstrong
Posts: 30
Joined: Mon Jan 16, 2012 5:42 am

Re: Very Old Ukelele Needs Work

Post by Andrew Armstrong »

Additional Pics
Attachments
P4150120.jpg
P4150119.jpg

Patrick Hanna
Posts: 199
Joined: Sun Jan 08, 2012 10:49 am

Re: Very Old Ukelele Needs Work

Post by Patrick Hanna »

I can't offer any specific advice, but it looks like a real interesting project. I hope you will post some in-process photos as you work your way through it.
Patrick

Chris Reed
Posts: 156
Joined: Thu Feb 02, 2012 6:26 pm

Re: Very Old Ukelele Needs Work

Post by Chris Reed »

What you have there is a Kumalae Style B or C soprano ukulele. Kumalae was the big mass manufacturer on Hawaii in the 1920s and 30s,making several thousand ukes in that time. The factory burned down in the early 1940s and Kumalae ceased operations (the brand has just been introduced for Chinese ukes which arenothing like the originals!).

The date 1915 refers to the Pan-Pacific International Exposition in mainland US where Kumalae won a medal for its ukes. This was the event which opened up the world to Hawaiian culture and began the first ukulele boom. Thus this uke has to be later than 1915 (Kumalae were building earlier, but hadn't won the medal then). So far as I know there is no way of dating Kumalaes - there might be pencil marks on the inside of the back but these are said to be batch numbers, not years, with a letter denoting the model. My own Kumalae is marked 1929a, and as that's right in the middle of the period it will do as a rough date.

These ukes are all koa (except the tuning pegs if wood, and possibly the solid linings). The bridge is normally one piece of koa, with just a lip at the front edge fora saddle,so I'd guess your bridge is a replacement. Build is ludicrously light (mine weighs in at 240 grams) and the thing almost jumps around in your hands while playing as the whole body resonates. Intonation is often a bit patchy on the high frets though mine is pretty good, but they make a great noise. Standard action is high, around 3mm at the 12th fret.

This uke is built with a Spanish heel, which still doesn't excuse the butcher who took a saw to it! The integrity of the neck is severly compromised, and even though these are very low tension I doubt woodscrews would do the job.

My suggested fix would be to drill through from the outside of the heel, as near to the the glue line of the two parts of the heel as I could manage, and then run a threaded rod through the hole. 4mm should be plenty. I'd countersink the "head" (a nut Loctited on) into the heel, and then use a nyloc nut and washer inside. This would close up that saw slot and might give you too severe a neck angle, in which case I'd make some veneer shims, clean up the slot and slide them in, gluing once I was certain the neck angle was right. Then plug the hole in the heel and refinish. The finish on these was French polish, so wiping on clear and/or amber shellac should enable you to get a fairly close colour match.

Most of these came with wooden friction pegs (1/4 violin pegs should work well), and you should be able to see if you have tapered holes. If cylindrical, Grover Champion friction tuners should fit and would be similar to whatever the uke wore in the 20s/30s.

The other point to consider is that on these ukes the back extended over the heel, thus providing an anchor point for the base of the heel. That was clearly removed some time back, so you might want to consider inlaying a piece of wood into the back and extending it over the heel, like the button on an F mandolin. But I'd do the bolting first, and if it was all stable then simply make a nice heel cap.

Finally I think I can see some seam separation on the back, near the heel, and this needs re-gluing as it's all structural. These were made with hot hide glue, so simply working some glue in and clamping should be enough to reactivate the old glue. If you don't have HHG, household gelatin works well, but you'll need to warm the joint with a hair dryer as gelatin gels in seconds (heat will keep it runny).

Hope you can get this back into playing shape. In decent order these ukes are not terribly valuable - 3-400 USD for this model - and obviously less with the neck butchery, but they can be great players and, of course, a piece of history. This is probably a memento of someone's holiday in Hawaii between the wars (honeymoon uke?).

Steve Senseney
Posts: 673
Joined: Fri Jan 06, 2012 2:45 pm

Re: Very Old Ukelele Needs Work

Post by Steve Senseney »

I don't have any suggestions to add as far as repair. Chris obviously knows his Ukes!

In one photo, it looks like there is some binding on the back of the instrument, but not on the view of the heel.

Is there any binding?

Chris Reed
Posts: 156
Joined: Thu Feb 02, 2012 6:26 pm

Re: Very Old Ukelele Needs Work

Post by Chris Reed »

Looked up the styles to remind myself - this is Style b (they went from 0, then a to e, e being pretty blingy with loads of rope binding). This model has no binding - the dark line at the base of the sides is just the edge of the back plate.

I'm a uke player and occasional builder, not an experienced repairer, so take my suggestion as just a first attempt. But so far as I can see the main element of this repair is to get the neck solid across this cut.

If it were mine, and I intended to keep it, I guess I might proceed as follows:

1. Remove back.

2. Route channel from the back side of the heel, fore and aft, almost as deep as body (stopping 3 or 4 mm from the top surface).

3. Inlet a piece of structural material, perhaps good quality ply, to give me a solid neck.

4. Fill saw slots.

5. Inlay some koa either side of the heel to cover up the saw slot and then re-carve.

6. Extend the back to give me material over the base of the heel, and build up the heel where it was cut away. Not sure how I'd extend the back - maybe a sort of triangular cutout from the back, scarfed down from the existing surface to nothing at the body/heel join?

7. Make a new bridge to the original pattern.

8. Refinish as little as possible, blending in as much as I could.

This feels like it would take a few months, most of which would be spent either learning to do some of these things or simply peering at it and thinking "Hmm". And I am lucky enough to have a quantity of koa, so I might stand a chance of matching the wood (the appearance of koa is immensely variable).

To make the uke playable for a friend I'd apply the bolt as previously suggested, keep the current bridge if the intonation is OK, and perhaps think about inlaying koa into the sides of the heel ('cause I've got some, and this isn't beyond my abilities).

Thinking about the bolt again, I wonder if it wouldn't be less invasive to get hold of a furniture fastening (metal rod with threaded hole in it, matching bolt), drill down from the base of the heel to fit the rod with the threaded hole, then drill from inside the uke for the bolt. I.e. a standard bolt-on mechanism. But this means drilling through the soundhole at 90 degrees, quite a challenge. On balance I think I'd go through from the outside of the heel and plug the hole - at least I'd be certain that my bolt would work.

Andrew Armstrong
Posts: 30
Joined: Mon Jan 16, 2012 5:42 am

Re: Very Old Ukelele Needs Work

Post by Andrew Armstrong »

Chris, Thanks for all of that information and your repair ideas. ;)

Steve, There is no binding anywhere. I think what looks like binding is just the edge grain of the back. It appears that the end of the heel (heel cap) has been sawn off. I guess if it was an extension of the back the butcher cut it off before doing the neck angel "re-set" cuts. The end of the heel is uneven and damaged.

I'm thinking I will do the surgery into the end of the heel and heel block and then cover everything with a new heel cap that extends just a little into the or over the back in some close matching Tassie Blackwood which is closely related to the Koa.

I will discuss a few options wit the owner and sees how he wants to proceed and I will keep you all posted on progress.

Regards Andrew

Andrew Armstrong
Posts: 30
Joined: Mon Jan 16, 2012 5:42 am

Re: Very Old Ukelele Needs Work

Post by Andrew Armstrong »

Apologies for the delay in providing an update - got busy with a few other projects. Here are some photos of the finished repair. I trimmed the rough truncated end of the heel and drilled a hole through at an angle. It penetrated through into the body cavity. I then cleaned out the saw cuts as best I could and filled them with epoxy with some saw dust - it is not intended to be a colour match, just to give it some body. I then epoxied in a stainless steel screw with the head "counter-sunk" into the heel. Once it was dry I dressed down the small part of the screw head that was proud and then applied a new heel cap in a contrasting wood with a thin veneer of dark blackwood between the old heel and new cap. This was leveled with the surface of the back and then I applied a final capping piece of Blackwood veneer to cover the edge of the back where it was sawn off- I didn't have any matching Koa. The neck is rock solid. I then stripped the entire uke except the front of the head stock (to preserve what is left of the original logo. The uke had been re-finished in poly at some point in its checkered history. I then french polished it all over. End result is a attractive warm finish and a uke that plays really nicely - the action and intonation are excellent. Additional pics in following post.
Attachments
Saw cut still visible but epoxy-filled and under new finish
Saw cut still visible but epoxy-filled and under new finish
Finished uke with new heel cap
Finished uke with new heel cap
Trimmed heel and hole for screw
Trimmed heel and hole for screw

Andrew Armstrong
Posts: 30
Joined: Mon Jan 16, 2012 5:42 am

Re: Very Old Ukelele Needs Work

Post by Andrew Armstrong »

Additional Photos ...
Attachments
Kumulae5.jpg
Kumulae4.jpg

Chris Reed
Posts: 156
Joined: Thu Feb 02, 2012 6:26 pm

Re: Very Old Ukelele Needs Work

Post by Chris Reed »

That's a very nice save! And delighted to hear that it sounds and plays nicely as well. These things are silly loud for their size, as well as having some sweetness of tone until played hard (when they yell out nicely).

I hope the owner is happy - damn well should be!

Post Reply