BY EDDIE SCHER | FROM THE FALL 2021 ISSUE OF UKULELE
I bought my vintage Martin ukulele from a shop in Nashville about ten years ago. It was previously owned, they told me, by a “professional” player. And given the heavy wear on the uke, there was little doubt that it was an important part of that player’s arsenal. The shop wouldn’t give me the name of the player, and my research hasn’t turned up any obvious suspects. I’m hoping this ukulele spent time on the famous stages of Nashville, but whoever had it thoroughly loved it.
This Martin Style 1 concert mahogany ukulele is a workhorse: handmade, high quality, but no fancy binding or top-shelf woods. It delivers with a lively, responsive tone, high volume when pushed, and sublime softness as required. There were few other choices for pro players in the 1950s and 1960s, when I believe this ukulele was built (though I don’t really know for sure). Somewhere along the way—whether from the Martin factory in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, or whoever spent thousands of hours playing this uke before I got it—this instrument acquired a sound that I’d describe as phenomenal, unworldly, and just magical.
I got it at a time when I was incorporating more ukulele into my band. I was ready for a quality, highly reliable uke. This one fit the bill: it wasn’t expensive (important because it isn’t too precious to bring to a gig), and it came with a few modifications that help me as a player. One is an active undersaddle pickup that allows me to plug into my guitar amp or a PA without any fuss. The other is the replacement tuners, despite the horizontal pegs that look wrong on a ukulele whose original setup would have been with friction tuners. But I’m no purist. The geared tuners work like a charm and are as close to bulletproof as anyone could ever expect.
When I got the uke, the soundboard was covered in deep scratches from strumming. The headstock, top, and back showed previous repairs. I don’t think there was a single spot on the ukulele that didn’t show wear. The frets, however, were just fine; nylon strings don’t really challenge the metal bar frets. And while visible, the many nicks in the neck and fretboard were cosmetic; nothing affected the feel or playability. So I put a strap on it, a set of Worth brown strings, and, for the past ten years or so, put another not-sure-how-many-thousand hours of play on the instrument.
And so things went, smooth sailing until late 2018 when ukulele expert (and former Ukulele editor) Greg Olwell picked it up and asked me if I had noticed the cracks. I hadn’t. He held it up and I could plainly see through the soundhole light pouring through the back into the body, a place that is supposed to be pretty dark. Now, I was not too upset because the uke still sounded great. What bothered me was that I couldn’t be sure that those cracks, and the high action (more appropriate on a bow-and-arrow than a musical instrument) were not critical to the tone, volume, and general magic of the ukulele. So I delayed doing anything… for a couple years. Over that time I became acutely aware that the high action was making the uke more difficult to play, and that it would be better to fix the cracks than have them continue to spread from inattention.
So, in the fall of 2020, with no gigs on the calendar and time on my hands, I decided it was finally time to turn the Martin over to a luthier. I made an appointment with SF Guitarworks and in a quick, COVID-safe but deeply unsatisfying handoff outside the shop door, dropped off the uke. And then I waited.
A few impatient months later, I met with SF Guitarworks owner and master luthier Geoff Luttrell on the outdoor back patio of his shop, where he explained what he did to bring the ukulele back. Opening the case for the first time, Geoff took on my #1 concern—that the magic could be “fixed” out of the instrument. “I think it sounds better, because now everything is structurally sound, so everything vibrates like it should. There’s no longer anything dampening the sound.”
We started with the back. “It had a couple of good cracks running down the center,” he explained. He secured them with magnets to keep the two sides of the crack level, got glue in there, and clamped the cracks shut. After the glue was dry, he made cross-grain cleats to put across the crack. He used fish glue for all these repairs. Fish glue is an animal-based natural glue very similar to the hot hide glue that Martin used. It is not a synthetic PVA glue. It’s true to the original construction of the instrument.
“Whenever you are gluing a crack, you need to make sure you have the two sides aligned,” he said. “Once it’s glued, if one side is prowed [raised] you are done. You have to work it by hand to get the two sides flush, and then secure it with strong rare-earth magnets. It doesn’t require a lot of clamping pressure; you just need the crack to close. Structural repairs are going to come out best if you are paying close attention to details. Every step of the way should be as accurate as can be.
“The top crack was similarly glued and cleated. It was particularly tricky working on the top of the instrument through the small soundhole. There’s no way to both work through the hole and see what you are doing at the same time. After gluing the crack and clamping it shut, I used a metal wire half-hoop with a very small piece of two-sided tape on it to place the cleat. I used magnets on the inside—held in place against magnets on the outside top—as an alignment guide so when I fished the cleat through I could line it up across the crack against the magnets. I also used magnets to clamp the cleats on the top.
“The grain on the cleat should run 90 degrees to the grain of the cracked wood, like a butterfly closure. That way the cleat won’t split. I have mahogany around the shop that I hand-carve into rectangles with tapered edges. You want to add as little weight to the instrument as you can, especially on the top, so the cleats are as small and thin as possible.”
The headstock has a crack with a pretty ugly previous repair. Geoff pulled the tuners off to try and repair it. “I tried wicking some hot water in the crack. If it was a hide glue repair, the hot water would soften and bend, then I could squoosh it shut. But the earlier repair seems to be Titebond, or some other water-resistant, inorganic glue that just won’t move, so I couldn’t get it loose. I’d be happier if it was a tighter joint, but it is not hurting anything. The crack goes into the tuner holes, which is bad, but it is not moving, and it isn’t worth re-breaking to try and do anything. So this is a problem that is better left alone.”
The lesson with this headstock is that if somebody is working on an instrument and they don’t feel confident that they can nail it, “It’s best just to leave it alone, because if you halfway repair it, it can make it impossible to repair correctly later.”
Next was the action. “I routed the saddle slot to compensate for the thickness of the saddle pickup, which was not done when the pickup was originally installed,” Geoff said. “It seems they just took out the bridge, dropped the pickup in, and stuck the bridge back on top. The saddle was just teetering on the top of the pickup. To get the slot routed down to the right depth I used a routing jig that indexes the bit and the slot, which was pretty funky to use on this little ukulele. The jig gets clamped to the instrument and everything gets centered up. There’s a guide channel that lines up on the exact dimensions of the slot, you set your depth, and shwoop, it carves the slot. Getting it all set up takes an hour, the routing takes ten seconds. And now there is the appropriate amount of saddle sticking up out of the bridge.
“I also oiled the tuners and cleaned up all the wiring inside. It was a mess, so I shortened the battery leads and plug, and used cable clips to secure the battery and wires up out of the way.
“The finish lacquer on the back is lifting, shrinking, checking, and cracking. Eventually, it’s all just going to fall off. And that’s OK. I thinned some glue and put some on to help hold what’s left onto the body. But the mahogany is fine—just oil it and it will be fine without any finish. So everything is in good structural shape now. Grain cracks in any instrument are not atypical. The main thing is just getting all the structural stuff glued and cleated.
“Whenever instruments come in that look like this one, we know that they get played because they are good. This is a great little instrument and it doesn’t need anything else from here.”
My fears of rehab, it turns out, were unfounded. An instrument is made with wood and glue, so it can be fixed with expertise and care, and wood and glue. The cost for that expertise and care was more than I paid for the uke, and probably less than I would have paid for a comparable new or used uke. But no matter what, it was well worth it for a ukulele that I love.
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