Of Orcs and Ukes – the Orculele


At first glance, Orcs and ukuleles do not go together very well. Orcs, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s stories, are vile, petty, quarrelsome, violent…the antithesis of aloha.

Nor do I have a clever explanation for why they belong together, for instance revealing connection unearthed from Tolkien’s less known works like the Silmarillion or The Book of Lost Tales (which have so much to say about ukuleles).

One thing just led to another, starting with a curious piece of wood.

My friend Konrad, who makes astonishing hand planes, is a magnet for great wood–it seems to find him as often as he finds it (he might disagree, but that’s how it feels to me). In the course of his work he squeezes everything possible out of each precious old plank, many of which are generations old. As with great gemstones, long hours go into figuring out how to best cut it, and often little more than toothpicks and sawdust are left when he has finished.

From time to time, though, there are scraps that I can turn into a headstock overlay–the thin layer of wood on the top of the neck where the tuners and my new-moon logo are.

We were looking at one such piece a few years back, and in a Rorschach moment I said that the swirling orange and black grain looked like the eye of Sauron. As if triggered by an earthquake, we erupted with ideas and laughter, and within minutes the orculele took shape.

Two orculeles, in fact: one in austere blackwood for Isengard and the tower of Orthanc, the other in swirling orange and black woods for Mordor and Barad-dur. They bore the shield-symbols of Saruman’s white hand and Sauron’s red eye (both originally drawn by Tolkien, though you’ll have to search for them, I’m not finding stable links), and common to both, the beautiful but terrible Elvish inscription on the One Ring at the heart of the entire story.

The key woods were already in the shop. I had African blackwood slashed with pale yellow streaks, perfect for Saruman’s Orthanc themes. The pinnacle, however, was a single small billet of palisander with…volcanoes. Volcanoes! Orodruin (Mt. Doom, in Mordor)–where Sauron forged the One Ring, and where Frodo’s journey ends with the Ring’s destruction! Destiny was obviously speaking–the orculeles were inevitable.

Or not. A couple of cancer diagnoses (and a host of less dramatic things) made the path far more crooked than it first appeared. However, with the cancers at bay for now, the orculeles are once again progressing, and if providence smiles I will bring them to the Reno Ukulele Festival in April.

Volcanic terrain requires the finest of shavings. 

But…ukes simply aren’t Orkish

Ahhh…yes. I’m forced to agree. This has bothered me (on an off) since the initial rush subsided, not just because orcs and ukes are so spiritually different, but because Tolkien’s rich tales and imagery quickly spawned non-Orkish ukes.

However, my attempts at alternate names have so far been abysmal, too embarrassing to share. It doesn’t help that “orculele” rolls off the tongue so damnably well.

With no pretense of logic then, I will say that orculeles are not grim and ugly, nor nasty sounding, nor badly made–I make them to delight, as always. When I’m not obsessing over what purer minds may think, even the name (orculele) is cheerful to me, sounding so much like “ukulele”.

Though visually these first Black and Mordor orculeles reference Tolkien’s darker imagery, they are light at heart. Like our German shepherd Cap, who many folks find intimidating, these ukes just want a little loving.

But maybe not after a mud bath…

Ack! This sounds crazy! And when I complete the Elvish ukes, or Hobbit-ish ones, what then? A Galadriel orculele, or the tireless Orculeles of Rohan? Ridiculous!

If you come up with a great name–one name to rule them all (sorry!)–please, please share! I will hold you in esteem and sing your praises on this site, in the tradition of song-making that runs throughout Tolkien’s work.


Unnaturally observant readers may notice that the Elvish text at the top of this page is not the original inscription on the One Ring. It is instead a riff on the last phrase of that inscription (kindly translated by a Tolkien language expert), which says “And in the music join them”, pretty well capturing why I make instruments.