Great Ukes: Restoring a 120-Year-Old Ukulele Back to its Original, Playable Glory


Last March I got a text message from my friend Marnie Ward, a teacher, singer, ukulele player, and lifelong student. It read: “Hey, I’m at a vintage electronics show in Colorado and I think I found a Nunes ukulele!” I frequently receive similar messages; usually people are excited to show me a 1950s Harmony, a 1930s Kamaka, or a 1920s Kumalae. This time I knew it was different when the pictures showed a very early Hawaiian musical instrument.

At the time, I was in the middle of a long-term project studying Hawaiian instruments of the 1880s–’90s and recreating them in my shop using appropriate hand tools, materials, and techniques. Ward was following along on social media, which led her to recognize that this instrument showed many features of the era. “It was small in scale, like a machete. Solid koa—even the fretboard and headstock,” read her text. “No label or markings that I could see. It was incredibly light. Missing its bridge but the original hand-carved tuning pegs were there!” As we discussed her find, we hatched a plan: we had to purchase the uke, fix it up, and get it back to Hawaii.

When I saw the photographs, I thought we were dealing with an instrument from one of the three original builders (Jose do Espírito Santo, Manuel Nunes, and Augusto Dias, Portuguese men from the island of Madeira), but not in their earliest years in Hawaii. This one had a “figure eight” headstock and bold rosette in the top, but was made of all koa and had the frets set right into the neck, no fretboard. It seemed to be a transitional piece between the old and new way of building. I guessed that it was made between 1900 and 1905, but without a label it was difficult to date.

To learn more, I called Shawn Yacavone from the Honoka’upu collection in Honolulu, who runs the website Ukulele Friend and is a scholar and collector of these instruments. He agreed that Ward’s find was an important early piece and offered to buy the instrument. “Having these ukuleles in Hawaii will ensure that we can perpetuate the history and culture of the ukulele and Hawaiian music in such a way that future builders, composers, researchers, musicians, and the general public will be able to continue to celebrate and advance education in these fields for generations to come,” he says. In support of this goal, Ward went back to the dealer, paid him a fair price, and sent the ukulele to Yacavone’s luthier to be repaired.

A Little History

Dias, Nunes, and Santo came to Hawaii in 1879 to do agricultural labor before they turned to woodworking. They built two different Madeiran stringed instruments: the rajão and the machete. The rajão was a larger instrument with a 17-inch scale length and five strings tuned D G C E A. The machete was a smaller instrument with a 13-inch scale length tuned to a higher register, D G B D. 

For the first years of building in Hawaii, the trio retained many traditions and features from their European craft. This included soft wood tops with hardwood backs and sides, a long fretboard that was a separate piece from the neck, a rounded “figure eight” shaped headstock, bridge pins, and whimsical inlay, marquetry, and decoration. Over time, the instruments changed to become more familiar to us as Hawaiian objects, made of all Koa wood, no separate fretboard, a pointed “crown” shaped headstock, a simpler bridge, and less decoration. Also, the smaller body of the machete and the tuning of the first four strings of the rajão (G C E A) merged to create one instrument called the ukulele. 


The Restoration

Some collectors choose to keep historical instruments in the condition they are found—that is, unrestored and unplayable. Other collectors restore the instruments so they can be played and heard as intended. Yacavone has them repaired to museum-quality standards in a non-invasive way that uses period-correct glues, finishes, and techniques.

“I lean towards the spirit of the builder who made these early pieces, and although they are collectible pieces, they are first musical instruments,” he says. “It makes me smile to think that Jose do Espírito Santo, Manuel Nunes, and Augusto Dias would be proud to know that their instruments are being heard, enjoyed, and played nearly 140 years after they were made.” 

At first glance, there were some obvious parts missing on this instrument, including the bridge, bridge pins, and strings. There were also structural repairs to tackle, including loose seams, binding, and braces. In this case, the best way to address the repairs was to carefully take the back off. This allowed for all the braces and other parts to be glued, without having to work through the tiny soundhole. The back was already loose, so it came off easily with a little alcohol and a palette knife.

  • 120-year-old ukulele in roller clamps
  • 120-year-old ukulele with new pegs
  • 120-year-old ukulele interior

The inside had a very rough texture, likely from a toothed plane. This is a tool that a 19th-century cabinet maker would use to roughly reduce the thickness of a hard wood with tricky grain like koa. The outside primary surface is carefully scraped, sanded, and finished, but the inside secondary surface is left rough. Although the sides and neck look like koa for sure, the top and back seem to have a rougher grain and a different reflective quality than koa, even though the color is right. Could it be something like monkeypod or kamani? We may never know. 

The repairs were done with historically accurate hide glue, which must be mixed and heated by the luthier daily. One benefit of hide glue is that repairs can be easily undone or modified in the future with the application of a little heat. The new bridge was made of koa, with four new bridge pins and a fretwire saddle, which is correct for the time this instrument was made. Next, a few pieces of matching rope binding were made and applied to the edge of the top. Then the instrument was carefully cleaned and touched up with a little shellac, a finish made from alcohol and insect secretions that was common at the time and is still useful today for restoration as it sticks and blends well with other finishes.

The headstock needed to have the holes plugged and re-drilled to hold the pegs properly. The violin-style pegs were carefully refitted to work smoothly and hold their pitch before strings were added. The instrument sounds bright and clear, fitting well into the role of rhythm playing and vocal accompaniment. The single notes are sweet and charming, perfect for a simple melody. It is not the loudest in the collection, but it is well balanced.

120-year-old ukulele

A Living Mystery

Unfortunately, the instrument has no markings, signature, label, or brand. All we can do to identify it is compare it to the known instruments from the first three makers and speculate on its provenance.


First off, it does not have the careful workmanship and graceful lines of a Nunes. Of all the builders, he was the most uniform in design, wood selection, and craftsmanship. I also don’t think it is a Dias, as it is missing the inlays, curves, and whimsical flare of his work. Santo made the widest variety of instruments and was more likely to make a plain, “working man’s” ukulele like this. The headstock curves, the binding details, the body shape, and the heel carving are all close to Santo’s work.

I am, however, puzzled by the extra-large rosette that extends beyond the border of the instrument. I have never seen one like it, although I have seen a Dias instrument with an extra-large rosette that almost extends past the border of the top. Maybe Santo took a top that he made for a larger instrument but used it here instead? Maybe an unknown builder in their circle made this under their direction? Maybe Dias made a simpler model that looks more like a Santo? Even with these uncertainties, I think it is safe to attribute it to Santo—but we may never know for sure. 

After the uke was repaired, it was sent back to Yacavone in Hawaii. Ward traveled there to meet up with him and ukulele master Bryan Tolentino to play the instrument and talk story, which you can see and hear in a video below\. “To have found an instrument that is (nearly) 130 years old is astounding,” says Ward. “To be able to touch it, a joy. To be able to play it, an honor.”