BY BLAIR JACKSON | FROM THE SPRING 2022 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Montana is famous for many things: gorgeous mountains, spectacular forests, clear rushing rivers, glassy lakes, perfect ski slopes, endless vistas encompassing almost every type of scenic terrain imaginable. But ukuleles? Not so much—though there are or have been ukulele clubs in Missoula, Bozeman, Helena, Butte, Kalispell, and no doubt even more obscure outposts. And because Montana has long been a magnet for out-of-state folks, including many well-heeled celebrities—attracted by its natural splendor, easy-going lifestyle, reasonable cost of living (compared to the coasts), and relative isolation—it is also a place where artists and artisans from all over have migrated and set up shop.
Like Daryl vanderGroef. The New Jersey native moved to Missoula, Montana, in 2015, and over time has established himself as a top woodworker in the area, specializing in exquisite furniture—and guitars and ukuleles. His one-man operation is called de Houtwinkel (pronounced de hotevinkel), which is Dutch for “the woodshop.” Daryl’s father, who emigrated to the U.S. from the Netherlands in the 1950s, was also a wood craftsman (he’s retired now, living in Tennessee), so the name honors the family roots.
“He was a master woodworker and engineer extraordinaire,” Daryl says. “As soon as I was old enough to pick up a hammer, my dad had me working with him pretty much every day, all day, whenever; before school, after school. He got me into it at a very young age. It’s something I really picked up and learned from him.”
Daryl’s turn toward lutherie is relatively recent, however. Asked if he’s a player himself, he says, “I play guitar, but I have so much building going on I don’t have much time to play. I actually kind of stopped when I moved to Missoula. I sort of fell out of it, but then I fell in love with the art of making instruments, especially ukuleles.”
He is a self-taught luthier. “I read a few books, watched some videos online,” he says. “I picked up this book by John Weissenrieder that was like a graphic novel about how to build one of his instruments. From there I was hooked and went down a rabbit hole.”
Weissenrieder, who died in 2017, primarily built classical guitars, and Daryl says part of the appeal of getting into lutherie was to learn “the traditional way of building. I read a lot of books about Antonio de Torres [the 19th-century pioneer of the modern Spanish classical guitar] and I fell in love with the notion of making guitars or ukuleles in that style. It takes longer, it’s harder, there’s more work involved, but I absolutely love it. It’s mind-blowing that a couple of hundred years ago, this is what they came up with and it still works to this day.” Indeed, one characteristic aspect of de Houtwinkel ukes is they feature a Torres “Spanish heel” where the neck joins with the body. “It plays like any other dovetail or bolted-on neck,” he comments. “It’s just a way of building an instrument that is traditional.” Does it offer more stability? “Some say yes, some say no. I think it does—especially for a ukulele. And it looks nice, too.”
As for influences from the ukulele world, he cites “Martin, for sure. You have to try to make a Martin. But you’re not going to make it exact. I tend to not try to copy other luthiers, because you want to develop your own separate style. It’s important to learn from the past, but also experiment and try your own things. I’ve made plenty of mistakes,” he adds with a laugh. “I have some on my shelves to remind me not to do that again! Especially with tops, you want to get them as thin as possible; that was a thing I struggled with at the beginning. But every year that goes by I learn more and more. I keep journals on every instrument I build. I document everything.”
He enjoys building ukes with different woods but, naturally, has a few favorites. “I like mahogany, which is a good middle-of-the-road wood for backs and sides. I also like koa—it’s obviously one of the best woods—but I tend to stay away from it. There are a lot of luthiers out there where that’s their thing, and I want to kind of leave it to them. I use lots of different woods. I like to experiment with some of the local woods from Oregon and California and Montana. Redwood has a great tonal quality. Are you familiar with sinker redwoods? Guitar manufacturers started using them. It’s wood that’s been underwater in a lake or a river, sometimes for more than a hundred years. It gets hauled out, dried, and the tonal quality is just outstanding. Montana has some Engelmann spruce and Western red cedar that are native. Cedar is very resilient, much like spruce. I also source some black walnut, and Norway maple that isn’t native, as well.” He also mentions padauk and lacewood deserving further investigation as tonewoods.
Until recently, lutherie was not a full-time year-round gig for Daryl. He spent his summers protecting forests as a firefighter, but “I had to retire this spring because of health issues. I loved that job very much, but going forward I didn’t see a path. This is actually my first year doing woodworking full-time. Starting a business in the middle of a pandemic was not a great idea, but it’s been pretty good. I’m learning a lot. I’m home a lot more; my wife enjoys that. My dogs enjoy that. This was the first summer I had off since I moved to Montana.”
As a one-man custom shop, where ukuleles now account for about 85 percent of his business, he generally works on two or three instruments at a time, often devoting eight to 12 weeks for each “depending on how busy I am. Sometimes I extend it to one or two every 12 weeks because I’m putting more work into them. A lot more people are wanting more appointments on them; more binding work.” Prices range from $325 for his compact backpacker uke to around $700 for a soprano, around $800 for a concert, and around $900 to $1,000 for a custom tenor (which is the most popular choice).
He says his customers represent “the whole spectrum, from beginners to advanced players. Some are very specific about the woods they want and other aspects. They’ll show me pictures, have some ideas. With beginners, you walk them through it and that’s fine. I try to find out things like, are you going to be playing this just in your house? At a café? Are you recording? What kind of tone are you looking for? That’s one of things I love about this business—working with people, developing a game plan, and then giving them what they want.”