Story and Photos by Mim
What does your ukulele want from you? It wants to be played, it wants to be enjoyed, and it wants to be cared for. So, let’s talk about the last part—how best to care for your new ukulele friend!
If you are playing your ukulele as you should, your hands are all over it. Hands are dirty and oily. My advice is to keep a soft microfiber cloth in your ukulele case and go ahead and wipe it down after a long playing session. If you get a buildup of grime, a slightly damp microfiber cloth should do the trick. You can use a little bit of polish on a gloss finish, but use a light hand and don’t over polish, as this can leave swirl marks. It is important that there is no debris on your cloth. Satin and matte finishes require different care. You do not want to use polish, because it will seep into the wood and it can change the sheen of your ukulele and leave it splotchy. For those finishes it is best to just stick with a cloth.
I like to change my strings a few times a year, and that is when I take a moment and spend some time really giving my fretboard a good once over. With the strings removed, it is easy to clean off any debris before treating it with a fretboard oil of your choice. There are many specifically made for fretboards, and a small bottle should last you a long time. Just remember, a little goes a long way. Rub any excess oil off your fretboard before re-stringing.
Tuners and Hardware
A few times a year, I take note of the hardware of my ukulele. If my tuners are held on with a nut, it is always good to ensure they are tightened. With a lot of play they can sometimes come loose and create a slight metallic buzz, often leading players to think there is a bigger problem, when all they need to do is tighten the nut or adjust the screw on the end of the tuner knob. If your ukulele has friction tuners and they are no longer holding tune, take a Phillips head screwdriver and tighten the screw on the back of the tuner until you reach your preferred tension.
Strings are not meant to last forever. They are made stretch into tune, and eventually they will be stretched too thin and need to be replaced. I am often asked how often strings need to be replaced. It depends on how long you play, how aggressively you play, and what kind of strings you use.
This may seem obvious, but you should avoid subjecting your ukulele to extreme temperatures. Leaving your ukulele in an extreme hot or cold environment can cause damage. An ukulele left in a hot car can dry out the wood and loosen glue joints. It would be best for the instrument to be stored in the trunk, but better yet, it should be taken inside. Similarly, extreme cold can also damage an instrument. Always keep in mind that a sudden change in temperature rather than a gradual warm-up or cool-down can be harmful. If your ukulele has been out in the cold, allow it to warm up to room temperature inside the case before exposing it to the warm air. This will minimize the chance that the sudden temperature shift could leave small cracks in the ukulele’s finish.
Humidity, the amount of water vapor in the air, is my number one concern when it comes to ukuleles. It is the hardest issue to tackle, because it is always in a constant state of flux. Wood reacts to humidity, and most ukuleles are made out of wood. The sweet spot for ukuleles is generally between 45 and 55 percent humidity. The “danger zone” is when your ukulele sits in humidity lower than 35 percent or higher than 65 percent.
When humidity is too low, ukulele symptoms may include:
- Sharp fret ends. As the fretboard shrinks, it exposes the fret ends.
- Fret buzz. Your fretboard may shrink and bow backwards, making the neck relief inadequate and lowering the action to the point where the strings will hit the frets.
- Structural damage and cracks. Braces can loosen, sides can pull away from the body, and the wood can separate, causing cracks if the ukulele has a sudden drop in humidity or is allowed to remain in a dry environment.
When the humidity level is too high, ukulele symptoms may include:
- Structural damage. The wood can swell, causing bows to the soundboard, and even loosening glue joints.
- High action. The neck may bow upwards, raising the string action and compromising the playability.
- Corrosion. It can lead to corrosion of the frets and other metal components on your ukulele.
The most common damage I see is from low humidity. An extreme humidity change does more damage than a slow and gradual change. Many of these issues can be repaired by a skilled technician, but it is always better to not have to repair your ukulele in the first place.
There is not a one size-fits-all humidity solution for all of my customers. They all come from drastically different climates. In my state of Virginia alone there are five different climate zones that would lend themselves to different humidity levels and fluctuations. The Big Island of Hawaii boasts eight climate zones. My advice is:
Know your climate. If you live in the dry desert of Phoenix, Arizona, your humidity needs are going to be very different from someone who lives in the Florida Keys.
Know your seasons. In the mountains of Virginia, I have to run humidifiers all winter. But when the summer hits, the weather is very humid, so I actually have to run a dehumidifier.
Know how your climate and seasons affect your indoor humidity. This can be easily done with a humidity gauge from a hardware store. Make sure you are aware of the indoor humidity during all seasons, and how it is affected when using different methods of temperature control in your home. Wood heat tends to dry the air. Air conditioning can also dry the air, but some systems re-introduce humidity back into the environment, so it is best to track your individual home.
Consider a case. When humidity levels are extreme, it might be best to keep your ukulele in the case and track the humidity there. It is a lot easier to purchase or make a small ukulele humidifier and control the humidity in a case, rather than a whole room. There are a lot of hygrometers for ukulele cases that can let you know if your ukulele is resting in “comfortable” humidity inside its case. Since I run an ukulele shop, I have ukuleles on my wall, but in the winter I have two five-gallon humidifiers running to keep my humidity levels ideal. They cycle on and off most days, but on brutally cold days and extremely dry days, my shop has constant fan noise. This would not be ideal for a home.
Be prepared. Instead of having to repair a problem, head off any humidity damage by purchasing a hygrometer and a humidifier. It is a cheap and easy way to have peace of mind. You can also make one of your own. Just make sure no humidifiers come in direct contact with the wood of your ukulele.
It is well known that laminate ukuleles are less prone to damage as humidity fluctuates. But keep in mind they still should not be exposed to extreme humidity levels. Their fretboards are often made out of wood, and therefore they are still susceptible to sharp fret ends and neck-relief damage if allowed to remain in an extremely dry or moist environment.
After this humidity discussion, I do not want you to think ukuleles are high-maintenance and delicate. Once you get the knack for your personal humidity levels, it usually is as simple as remembering to refill your case humidifier once a week. Many people live in milder climates where this may never be an issue., but I would rather err on the side of caution than to not warn about a potential problem. Also, even if you live in a mild climate where humidity is not a concern, you may travel with your ukulele to a different climate and it is better to have too much information than not enough.
The Case Question
One final thing to consider is what kind of case to choose. Case preference often comes down to lifestyle, climate, and your own personal taste. I will share some thoughts that might be helpful when making that decision—but understand there is no right or wrong answer.
When considering the case that will house your ukulele, think about the functionality of the case, the climate, and your travel. If you travel frequently, need a lot of humidity control, are clumsy, or have a lot of activity around your home, a hard case might be preferable. It will seal the ukulele inside making it easier to control the humidity level, while also protecting your ukulele from outside forces. That being said, if you do a lot of travel that includes walking, you may want to consider a structured soft-case or well-padded gig bag with backpack straps. You will get a lot of protection and it will make travel with your ukulele a little more comfortable and less inhibitive when you have the option of wearing your instrument. Simple gig bags are an affordable way to protect your ukulele. They are preferable if you do not live in an extreme climate, own a laminate ukulele, or have a home that does not experience humidity fluctuations or clumsy chaos.
Enjoy Your Ukulele
The most important advice I can give you is to love your ukulele. Play the music you like to play. Do not get hung up on perfection, but rather make music that makes you happy. Then when you are ready, share that music with those around you!
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The Ukulele Owner’s Manual is the book that belongs in every ukulele player’s instrument case. Each chapter was written by the experts and performers at Ukulele Magazine, with topics ranging from commonsense instrument care to fixing rattles and buzzes to a pictorial history of the instrument. Book owners can also download how-to videos with step-by-step guidance on common set-up and maintenance topics.
Ukulele Basics – Learning and Practicing is a great resource for players just starting out, as well as those looking to build a more solid foundation of knowledge and skills. Get your copy today at store.ukulelemag.com.