BY AARON KEIM | FROM THE SUMMER 2022 ISSUE OF UKULELE
When I was a younger man, I often dreamed of “making it.” But as I got older, I realized that the ultimate goal was to get to keep doing what you love, year after year. That sustained and focused hard work is what makes a craftsperson’s life ideal. As I drive down the Columbia River Gorge, I think about my colleague Kerry Char, a quiet giant in the world of lutherie with 30 years of experience in the trade.
I pull into the driveway of Char Lutheries, his Portland, Oregon, shop/home, contemplating the many people who have come here seeking help for a new set of tuning machines, a top crack in their favorite guitar, a vintage ukulele needing restoration, or the custom ukulele of their dreams. As Kerry lets me in, we pass through the machine room, the walls crowded with tools and slabs of wood. The inner door leads to a shop about the size of a one-car garage, with big windows, three workbenches, racks of hand tools, and the most obvious evidence of Kerry’s place in the world: every available surface stacked with customers’ instruments waiting for his dependable hands.
Kerry’s great-grandfather came from China to Hawaii in 1877 as an agricultural laborer, mainly working on banana plantations. In 1914, Christian missionaries arranged for him to study at Cornell University in upstate New York, after which he returned to Hawaii to work as an architect. Kerry, the oldest of three children, was born in Hawaii and raised in Gardena, California. Gardena is famous for its Asian American and Hawaiian communities, and the 1950s–’60s was a culturally vibrant time to be there. Kerry went to college to study art, specializing in pottery. After a few years trying to make it on the art show circuit, he took a job with Continental Airlines. He also loved music and guitars and used to prowl the pawn shops to look for unique instruments in his free time. One regular haunt for Kerry was a pawn shop run by the Hoffmann family. “I was trying to haggle a deal on a couple of parlor guitars and the owner said, ‘I’ll agree to your price if you will do repair work for us,’” he says. “I told him I didn’t really know how to fix guitars, but he said, ‘I think you can figure it out.’”
Kerry began taking work home to do on nights and weekends, diving headfirst into restoration. I asked him what it was like to accept work he wasn’t really ready for: “Around that time, Bill Monroe’s mandolin had been destroyed by someone with a fire poker. He picked up every splinter, put it in a paper sack, and sent it to Gibson. Someone there [Charlie Derrington] put it back together and that mandolin was better than new. I figured that if he could do that, then I could fix things too.”
By 1988, Kerry had a workshop in the back room of a vacuum cleaner shop in San Pedro, California, taking on all kinds of repair work. This was when “used guitars” were becoming “vintage guitars” and Baby Boomers were catching the collecting bug. During this time, Kerry restored an old European harp guitar that had two necks. That job led him to Gregg Miner, a well-known historian and collector of harp guitars. Miner brought him many more instruments, including ones made by Chris Knutsen (1862–1930), a West Coast builder who made ukuleles, mandolins, harp guitars, and Hawaiian guitars. Over the years, Kerry says, “I’ve probably worked on more harp guitars and Knutsens than anyone else alive.” Some of Knutsen’s instruments feature koa, rope binding, and other appointments familiar to fans of Kerry’s custom ukuleles.
In 1992, Kerry’s family moved to Portland. He still worked for Continental Airlines and fixed instruments after hours. However, four years later, Continental closed their Portland operation, so Kerry opened up his shop fulltime. It was a difficult few years, as the pressures of running a business built up, but the hard work eventually paid off and demand has been steady ever since.
In 2004, Kerry’s mother called, asking him for an ukulele. She was still living in Gardena, was active in strum and hula groups, and wanted an ukulele made by her son. He complied and a short time later she contacted him asking about pricing—several people in her group wanted one too! “I figured that it took about two-thirds of the labor and materials of building a guitar, so I priced it that way and got a few orders,” he says.
In addition to his busy repair schedule, Kerry builds about six to eight instruments a year. Guitar players tend to be traditional: “For years, everything had to look like a Gibson or a Martin,” Kerry says. But ukulele players let him be a little more creative with design and materials. Some customers from Hawaii stick with traditional koa, but others let him loose to use such woods as bearclaw spruce, claro walnut, Brazilian rosewood, mango, and African blackwood. Living in the Pacific Northwest, he has easy access to top-notch local woods, including curly maple, redwood, and Port Orford cedar. His ukuleles are a great mix of traditional and modern, with old-style rope binding, figured koa, and familiar shapes outfitted with geared tuners, easy playability, a robust tone, and simple artistic touches.
“Really, the field of ukulele building is wide open,” he says. “Whatever I choose to do will touch somebody. If you do good work on the playability and the sound, then people will find you.” From soprano to baritone, they are all heirloom quality instruments at fair prices. Each instrument is supported by 30 years of experience in the field, with an inherent knowledge of what works and what doesn’t.
Kerry has also been trusted to work on many historic ukuleles, including those from the Kingdom era, predating Hawaii’s annexation in 1898. He has repaired instruments by Manuel Nunes, Augusto Dias, and José do Espírito Santo; his favorite being Santo. “Nunes lived longest, had his sons to help run the business, and had good marketing sense, but Santo was the best builder, I think.” He gestures to a tiny ukulele hanging from a peg that a prominent Hawaiian collector recently sent over. “From looking at their work, I’m convinced that these early builders had luthier training in the Old World. Some of the moves they made show knowledge of the tradition. These were not just figured-out and thrown together on the Islands.” Most people will never even be in the room with a playable Kingdom era ukulele, but for Kerry it’s a regular thing.
One of his restoration projects, a 1930s Radio Tenor ukulele by Leonardo Nunes (Manuel’s son), led Kerry to study the instrument closely and build his own version. “It’s on my bucket list to build a close copy of each of the three original builders,” he says. “I just need to find the time.”
He admits that it’s sometimes hard to balance repair work with building, because “it’s a whole different mindset and shop process. I get bored easily, so repair work lets me move from job to job. For building, I sometimes have to carve out a week to make it happen.”
It can be hard to say no to repair work, especially when it literally walks in the door. As we are chatting, a customer comes in carrying a guitar case. I shut off the recorder and try to blend into the rack of guitars in front of the spray booth. They open the case and start talking about Kerry’s bread and butter: a neck reset, some new frets, the color of the stain, etc.
“A Gibson Hummingbird, right?” Kerry asks. “Yeah, a ’77,” the customer replies. “Wish it was a ’65 or so, but it’s served me well. See that mark on the front? My wife knocked it over right after we got married. Those scratches are from when my boys were young, and that ding is from when I dropped my harmonica on it during my old regular gig.”
They close the case, fill out a repair tag, and find a place against the wall for it. The man walks out the door, confident in leaving his guitar in Kerry’s capable hands. Kerry files away the repair ticket and gets back to work.