By Aaron Keim | FROM THE FALL 2021 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Little River Ukuleles instrument maker Dave Sigman is living the dream of many readers of this magazine. He works and lives within sight of Honaunau Bay on the western shore of the Big Island of Hawaii, south of Kona. Sigman builds custom ukuleles, paddles in the local canoe club, practices free diving, and enjoys the slower pace that seems built into island life. Working in a location like this can be distracting, especially with the view he has from his workbench.
Sigman grew up in Little River, California, a few hours north of San Francisco. He always had a connection to the water—surfing, paddling, and diving where the Little River meets the Pacific Ocean.
Upon completing high school and community college, he worked in rough carpentry before progressing to finish carpentry, cabinet making, furniture building, and fine woodworking. After 20 years in the trades, Sigman followed a course common for woodworkers—the projects got smaller, finer, and more detailed. He always wondered about building a guitar, so lutherie was a logical next step.
Around the year 2000, Sigman was lucky enough to study guitar making with Charles Fox at the American School of Lutherie. Fox is a preeminent guitar builder and educator with multiple books and articles to his name. He also is famous for designing and building jigs and tools for small lutherie workshops. Fox not only taught Sigman important building lessons, but also the art of laying out the workshop for optimal flow. “It’s almost like feng shui,” says Sigman. “The wood naturally flows in through the big door, passes over your machines and tools, and the guitar naturally flows out the small door.” After making a few guitars, Sigman’s many visits to Hawaii sparked the desire to build an ukulele, and Little River Ukuleles was born. To date, he has built 97, with plans to complete a special 100th ukulele later this year.
Sigman also studied the art of inlay with the legendary Larry Robinson, who is famous for the mind-blowing inlay work on the Millionth Martin guitar (among other instruments).
At one point during his class, Robinson lamented the lack of good abalone shell available. Sigman was surprised, as he had spent many years as an abalone diver off the California coast and had access to plenty of shells. He called around to his fellow divers and passed on the coveted material to Robinson to slice into inlay blanks. Most of Sigman’s instruments feature an inlay on the headstock and fretboard, with engraved shell and wooden elements combining to make realistic but artistic designs. He often carries motifs and colors from these inlays to the rosette, binding, purfling, or end graft. “Charles Fox told me that my instruments would have to stand out in the racks of a crowded guitar shop. With my custom inlay work, I found my way to do that.”
After working in his large California shop for almost 20 years, Sigman recently relocated to one of his favorite spots in Hawaii, Honaunau. He fixed up an old house and built a 300-square-foot shop with a view of the bay. All the precious Hawaiian koa wood he collected over the years was packed up and brought back to Hawaii, ready for a lifetime of building. It’s a small shop, but has enough room for a few power tools, a workbench, and all the hand tools he needs for ukulele building.
On an earlier visit to Hawaii, Sigman witnessed members of the local canoe club carving a traditional canoe from a single huge koa tree. Now that he is a local, he has joined the club and participates in the six-person races as well as solo paddling. He also has started carving koa canoe paddles, a traditional art form that is highly respected in Hawaii. I can’t help but notice the similarities between Sigman’s paddle with the shark teeth motif and the traditional diagonal rope binding on one of his ukuleles. Most paddling is done today with modern materials like fiberglass and carbon fiber, but the koa canoe and paddles come out for special occasions.
Sigman currently builds about six ukuleles per year, mainly in concert and tenor sizes. They are typically custom orders, with Sigman and the customer working together to produce a very personal instrument. “I love getting to know the customer,” he says. “I like keeping them in mind when I am working on their ukulele.” Most orders come in via word of mouth or his website.
Although koa is his most featured material, other woods such as spruce, cedar, rosewood, walnut, mango, monkeypod, redwood, and mahogany are used as well. A less traditional but more eco-friendly ukulele made from bamboo can also be ordered. Most instruments feature Sigman’s inlay art, making them truly one of a kind. And like the koa canoe paddles made to push you across the water, each ukulele is a functional piece of art that reflects the artist. You could just hang it on the wall to look at, but it’s meant to be used for its intended higher purpose: strumming a tune and bringing joy.
In a traditional Hawaiian canoe, there are six paddlers, but some say there are seven spirits present. The seventh is the powerful spirit of the canoe itself, keeping the paddlers safe on the water. Maybe each Little River ukulele has its own spirit inside, too, made with aloha on that workbench with a view.