The ukulele is a uniquely Hawaiian instrument. But when buying an ukulele, you’ll face some key decisions. There will be different woods, sizes, shapes, and craftsmanship – and each variable creates a detour from the instrument’s heritage. So what sets apart the traditional-style Hawaiian ukulele from the rest?
Characteristics of a Hawaiian Ukulele
In its purest sense, a Hawaiian ukulele is one that is hand-built in Hawaii and made from woods grown and harvested in Hawaiʻi.
Hand-built means that a majority of the parts were crafted by a person skillfully operating hand and power tools. This allows the builder to account for the character of each wood and impart a personal touch to produce the purest tone.
The most common tonewood used to build a Hawaiian ukulele is koa, but other local woods are also used. This includes milo, mango, ʻohiʻa, or kamani.
The Four Ks
There are four major companies, building Hawaiian-style ukes in Hawaiʻi today. They are commonly known as the “Four Ks” – Kamaka, KoAloha, Kanileʻa, and Koʻolau. All four brands build high quality instruments and each has their own style of construction, resulting in subtle differences of sound, feel, and playability.
Changes in Traditions
Ukulele craftsmanship has evolved over the last twenty years.
The scarcity of Hawaiian woods has forced many builders to use materials from other parts of the world. These may include spruce for soundboards, mahogany for the bodies, or ebony for fingerboards.
These woods may not be grown and harvested in Hawaiʻi, but the fact that the instrument has roots in Hawaiian ukulele crafting traditions still means that they are sought-after contemporary variations.
Technology has also moved ukulele building away from strict hand-crafting. Machines now enable builders to laser cut the necks, bridges, and other parts, lending a new level of precision that cannot be achieved by handcrafting. Some companies maintain the integrity of the hand-building process by hand sanding the parts after they are laser cut.
What is considered “hand-built” exists on a spectrum and it is rare now to find a production-level instrument that has been 100 percent crafted by hand.
The build process of most shops can now be inspected online. If you’re curious which parts a certain company hand crafts or CNCs, check out some of these videos:
There are trade offs between machine and hand made instruments. Technology provides a consistency of build at the cost of tonal character. Building by hand injects human magic by compromising consistency. Some hand made ukes sound amazing, some sound okay, but a uke that is built with precision technology can split the difference 99% of the time.
In contrast to ukulele that are Hawaiian, we can call all other ukulele “non-Hawaiian.” These can be put into two categories– factory-made imports and internationally handmade ukulele.
A factory-made instrument (like this) will have the majority of its parts – such as the body, neck, binding, and bracing – cut by machines. While each ukulele may be assembled at some point by a person, it is often done in an assembly line.
Building an instrument in this way doesn’t allow for the human touch and attention to detail that so often creates a magical depth or color of an instrument.
Internationally hand-crafted ukulele are instruments that are hand-built elsewhere in the world than Hawaiʻi and primarily use local tonewoods. These might include spruce, walnut, cherry, maple, rosewood, zebrawood, and sapele. Here’s a Kala that’s hand built in Petaluma, CA at a large scale, though many of these international handmade ukes are crafted in small, one-person shops
For instance, an instrument built in Michigan, USA might be intended for people who have folk and blues music roots. This might be reflected in a uke with a chimey, bright tone.
Whereas, a Hawaiian ukulele is probably built for (and by) people who have Hawaiian music roots and like a punchy, woody sound.
The Cost of a Made in Hawaiʻi Ukulele
The price of an authentic Hawaiian made ukulele can range from $1,000 for a simple all koa soprano (standard) size, to over $5,000 for a high-end custom tenor. There are two components considered to justify these price points: the woods used and the level of craftsmanship involved in the building process.
Hawaiian ukulele are made with koa, one of the most expensive woods in the world due to its limited supply and high demand. There are strict regulations on how much can be harvested per year and, of the wood harvested, only about 1-2 percent is instrument-grade wood. Thus, the market price for koa is significantly more expensive compared to other woods used for uke building.
In terms of craftsmanship, ukulele luthiery is a highly-specialized skill that requires years of experience to cultivate. There is an artform to how the soundboard is sanded, the carving of the bracing, and fine-tuning of each step in the building process.
This knowledge results in an instrument of high playability and tonal quality. True ukulele craftsmanship is something that can be seen. It can be heard. It can be felt. Seasoned players are willing to pay top dollar for this instrumental experience.
Think of it like a car– a Mercedes or Porsche costs a lot more than a Hyundai. A Hyundai runs perfectly fine and gets you from point A to point B, but a fine imported European vehicle will do it with a level of comfort and performance that comes with an extra cost.
An ukulele is the same way. While an imported factory-made ukulele will get the job done, cradling and strumming a hand-crafted Hawaiian ukulele is like sliding into the leather interior and revving the engine of a Porsche.
Ultimately, globalization creates choices that make it a great time to be an ukulele player. There are a variety of styles, brands, and price points available to anyone around the world.
If you want a true Hawaiian ukulele, there is lots to learn about the feels and build styles imparted into each instrument. Consider what you want from your ukulele experience. Ask your music store or online dealer where the woods are sourced from and what parts of the ukulele are handcrafted versus machine made.
If owning an instrument that connects to the rich heritage of Hawaiʻi is important to you, then the extra research, cost, and effort to try these ukes in person is well worth it.