BY BLAIR JACKSON | FROM THE WINTER 2023 ISSUE OF UKULELE MAGAZINE
Kawai Carvalho does not fit the profile of uke makers who typically populate this column. He isn’t some virtuoso player who got into uke building because he wanted to make himself the perfect instrument. He’s not a luthier who has produced guitars or other instruments and suddenly became curious about what building a uke would be like. He’s not from a long line of woodworkers, and did not grow up carving wood in a home shop at a young age. In fact, he’d never made an ukulele until a few years ago, and he came into it with no background in lutherie or any other woodcraft. Yet here he is, a one-man shop—Coast ’Ukulele—based out of his cluttered garage in a small ranch house in Petaluma, California (about 40 miles north of San Francisco), turning out beautiful and unique custom instruments that sell for anywhere from $2,500 to $5,000.
Carvalho has lived in the Bay Area since he was 18, but his entire upbringing until then was in Hawaii, where his ancestry goes back generations on both sides of his family tree. “I was born and raised on Oahu,” he explains as we sit in the part of his garage that houses his workshop, surrounded by ukuleles in various stages of construction. “On my mother’s side, I have Hawaiian ancestry, but when you grow up in Hawaii, it’s very mixed, so I also have some white and some Chinese in there. On my dad’s side, it’s pure Portuguese, which is cool—when I started building, I really wanted to dive more into the ancestry, since the ukulele was a Portuguese instrument built in Hawaii.” Indeed, a search into his father’s roots reveals that his not-too-distant ancestors appear to have sailed from the Portuguese island of Madeira to Hawaii around the same time (1879) as the three Madeirans who are generally credited with developing the ukulele in what was then known as the Kingdom of Hawaii: Manuel Nunes, José do Espírito Santo, and Augusto Dias.
Like most Hawaiian families, the Carvalhos had ukuleles around the house, “but they didn’t catch my attention as a kid,” Kawai [pronounced “ka-va-ee”] says. “Everyone had them. I played a little bit, but never took any lessons or anything.” However, he did take up the bass in his teens: “It’s the instrument that you play when you’re learning and you want to be hanging out with your friends,” he jokes. “I was in a band that played kind of punk rock Hawaiian music. We had an ukulele player with a distortion pedal. We played a couple of shows at a Chinese restaurant. I didn’t really play much Hawaiian music growing up; not until much later.”
Carvalho worked at a small record shop in Honolulu when he was 17, and then at one in Berkeley for a few years after he moved to Oakland in 1996. But mostly through the years he did video editing work and various computer-related jobs to make ends meet. He moved to San Francisco to be with his partner, EB (short for Elizabeth), and they had their first child, Kaipo, in 2017. The following year they moved out of the big city to Petaluma, where their second child, Nahele, was born. All the while Carvalho kept up with his family on Oahu and visited as often as he could. It was on one of those trips, to the family’s old beach house in Waimanalo, that Carvalho finally had his ukulele epiphany: “I’m with my kid watching the ocean and I’m like, ‘Let’s get an ukulele. We need to get an ukulele!’ We went to one of the stores and I think the first one we bought was a Makala Dolphin. I bought it so my kid could kind of strum along. But I fell in love with it. I spent the whole trip playing it.”
From there, he started to get more serious about the instrument, and went online to Ukulele Underground to learn as much as he could. He also went to a couple of kanikapila meetups around Petaluma and in nearby Sonoma, attended uke festivals in San Francisco, and even took some lessons with multi-instrumentalist Steven Espaniola. Then, when the pandemic hit, Carvalho decided he wanted to buy another ukulele, “something fancy, something custom. I was looking around at some really amazing builders, and the wait times for their ukuleles. I thought to myself, ‘I could spend the money on buying a fancy ukulele. Or. . . I could try to build one,’ because I wanted to learn more about the instrument, how it made the music, how the sound was created.
“The first one I built was a kit. The kits are nice because you don’t need to have too many dedicated big tools. A lot of the work is already done. I built that kit and fell in love—but it did not even barely scratch the itch for me on wanting to build. The second I finished that first kit, I said to myself, ‘I need to build everything myself. I want to go from scratch.’ So I started buying more tools. To be honest, if you are looking to get a fancy ukulele, it is much cheaper to buy one than to build one, with how much you invest. But for me, this greater love for the instrument came out of me. I was blown away by how I felt building these instruments, how connected I felt to them, how there was this calming energy to making them.
“I had built three of them when, in January 2021, my partner had a sudden heart attack and died. She was 20 weeks pregnant with our third child. Then the next thing that happened almost right after that is we got kicked out of the place we were renting through no fault of ours—the owner wanted to move back in and that was that. Dealing with the grief was already huge, but then having to move, too, was so disruptive with two small children.
“When we moved to this house, I did not think I was going to build again. I thought that was going to be over, transitioning to being a solo parent. But it turned out that ukulele building saved me during that time. One of the first things that happened was, right before EB died, I had bought a couple of sets of woods—this expensive, fancy spalted mango and some other pieces from Koality Woods [an Oahu wood supplier]. Then, when she died and we were struggling, I wrote to Michael at Koality and said, ‘We just had this huge tragedy. My partner passed away. Can I return the wood for a refund? I know we just got this, but can I send it back?’ And he said, ‘Keep it. When you’re ready, build again.’ I cried and cried. There’s so much generosity in the ukulele community. The ukulele is such a connection to aloha for so many people, even for people that didn’t grow up in Hawaii.”
And this is when Carvalho got truly serious about making a living as an ukulele luthier. “When we moved here, the kids’ grandparents helped me build this little workshop,” he says, “and once we were a bit settled, I started building again. It was the pandemic. I knew at that point I wasn’t going to be able to find another job. I think at that time my children were two and four. So I can’t leave the house at night. I can’t leave to go to work; it’s a pandemic. We’re all home. But I could work from my garage. So I started ramping up the production in here. I had the world’s smallest band saw, and I bought a bigger one. I started expanding into more equipment, upgrading things, getting a bigger CNC, a laser cutter, and figuring out how to build things a little faster. So, I pretty much dedicated all my time that I wasn’t parenting to building.”
He honed his skills “watching many, many, many videos. I have books, too, but pretty much everything I learned was watching videos online, scouring the websites of luthiers. Luckily, there’s a lot of information out there. The community of builders is, I find, very open with a lot of shared information. There are a couple of websites and forums where you ask any question and get real answers. No one seems to be gate-keeping with ukulele building, which is amazing. But of course a lot of it is just build, build, build, build. The more you build, the more you understand. I’m still learning, but with every instrument I make, I feel like I’m getting better and better.”
Along the way, he’s gotten more into doing inlay work—again, something he had no background in before he started doing it, but now has become a specialty of his. When I ask him what it is in his personality that allows him to master skills that require so much finesse and refinement, he says with a laugh, “I don’t know! Maybe it’s an attention to detail. That’s what people say. For me, it just feels normal to care about little things, like that the neck alignment is perfect or that the inlay comes together right. It sometimes feels like I’m doing a puzzle.”
As a one-person operation with limited time because of his childcare responsibilities, Carvalho has still been able to turn out 20-something high-end ukuleles for each of the past couple of years, selling about half through a pair of popular online outfits—the UK’s Southern Ukulele Store and the Hawaii-based The Ukulele Site—and the rest from client commissions, a process he says he enjoys immensely. “I really like making customs, because it lets me explore ideas that I would not have thought of doing. I have my ideas of what I would do in combinations of woods, but when I work with someone else, they might have a completely different idea, and that’s fun.”
A glance at the photo galleries on his website, coastukulele.com, shows a remarkable variety of sizes (from sopranino to baritone, though tenor is the most popular) and shapes (standard, pineapple, “avocado”), and a panoply of wood types and combinations—koa, chocolate heart mango, Cuban mahogany, figured and tiger myrtle, spruce, walnut, sinker redwood, Vietnamese rosewood, ziricote, and more. One unusual feature he’s tried on a few instruments is known as the “live edge,” where the soundhole is formed from the natural, irregular contours of the edge of a piece of koa sapwood, rather than carved into a conventional circle. He’s also used the live edge on seams; it’s quite a striking look.
Evidently, the word is spreading about the quality of Carvalho’s work: He estimates that the waiting list for a Coast uke is currently around two years, though he hopes that once his kids are both in school all day (they are four and six currently), he’ll be able to devote even more time to building. When his instruments do show up periodically on The Ukulele Site or the Southern Ukulele Store, they sell very quickly, but that’s still probably the best bet for folks who don’t want to wait. The modest luthier seems genuinely surprised (but gratified) by the strong positive reactions to his ukuleles.
“I’m not doing this for attention,” he says. “I’m not doing this for fame. I’m doing this for my heart, for my grief, and to support my family.”