Model: GT (Grand Tenor, 19″ scale large body tenor)
Back and Sides: tiger myrtle (from the “Richard Parker” tree)
Top: Swiss bearclaw spruce
Binding: Santos Rosewood
Rosette: Paua abalone (electric blue/purple/green)
Neck: Port Orford cedar, slothead with Waverly tuning machines
Fretboard: Gabon ebony
Finish: Nitrocellulose lacquer

Katniss is the larger of the myrtle ukes in the following pictures, Prim is the small, and Bimal is the GT in darker woods.


A Uke named Richard Parker


Richard Parker?

Indeed. Richard Parker is the curiously named tiger who floats across the Pacific on a makeshift raft with Pi in the Life of Pi. The back and sides for this instrument are commonly called tiger myrtle, and this tree made one heck of a tiger!


But there’s more. When I started building instruments, my physicist sister Colleen lobbied me to name my vast enterprise “Pi Ukuleles” or “Pi Stringed Instruments”, and put the Greek symbol for pi on the headstock. After all, it is the Greek rendering of the first letter of my name, I was a math major in college and remain something of a geek, and it’s just cool.

AND I like pie, seeking out pie places up and down the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, which by the way has remarkable pie in some highly scenic places; pear-cheddar at 10,000 feet at the Rock Creek Lake lodge, anyone? Yum!

It all seemed obvious and settled to Colleen, but I decided to use my own name and the crescent moon for even more compelling reasons, if that can be imagined. However, the idea of building a special instrument each year to celebrate Pi day–March 14 (i.e. 3.14)–was too good to pass up.

These factors converged in Richard Parker. The specs:

  • Top: bearclaw Swiss alpine spruce, with Paua abalone rosette.
  • Bracing: 3 fans and bridge patch of euro spruce, tranverses of Sitka, hide glue
  • Bridge: Palisander, with compensated bone saddle
  • Back and Sides: curly tiger myrtle
  • Binding: East Indian rosewood
  • Neck: Port Orford cedar. Ziricote headstock overlay with MOP moon logo
  • Fingerboard: ebony, with bone nut and MOP side dots
  • Finish: Nitro lacquer on top, finishing resin on body
  • tuners: Gotoh UPTL
  • tuning: currently strung with low G Worths, easily converted to re-entrant.

I love this Swiss spruce–light and stiff, it rustles at the slightest touch, rings like a bell when tapped, and is a joy to work with. The bearclaw requires extra-high sharpness for hand-planing the top, but the result is so delightful! Here’s a closer look, though it’s still better in person:


RP has some serious go power, and will travel with us to Uke U-4 in a few weeks–Exciting!! Come and say hello if you can.



For many years I wasn’t much for naming instruments; they were “the Les Paul”, “the mandolin”, and so forth. Then in my 40s Cecilia came about as a way to describe the desired voice of a mandolin that Steve Gilchrist was building for me; Cecilia Bartoli is a golden-voiced mezzo soprano who sings with gorgeous warmth, verve, and line. I later heard that Steve listens exclusively to bluegrass and probably didn’t know Bartoli from Madonna, but he built a spectacular instrument so it all worked out.

Now, with multiple instruments in process at once, I often name them as an amiable way to think about and discuss them with others. Watson got his name by having English walnut back and sides and a big heart.

The specs:

  • Top: Carpathian spruce. Lynn Dudenbostel describes it this way: like great Adirondack without a decades long break-in time!
  • Bracing: 3 fans and bridge patch of euro spruce, tranverses of Sitka, hide glue
  • Bridge: Macassar ebony with compensated bone saddle
  • Back and Sides: curly English walnut
  • Binding: Bolivian rosewood
  • Neck: Honduras mahogany. Ziricote headstock overlay with gold MOP moon logo
  • Fingerboard: radiused ebony, with bone nut and MOP side dots
  • Finish: oil varnish, with light shellac top coat on soundboard
  • tuners: Gotoh UPTL

This walnut is almost good enough to eat:


It’s hard to capture in a photo, but the Carpathian top has striking silking, a term used to describe the lustrous appearance of the ray cells that cross the growth rings. Their prominence is an indication of well quarter-sawn wood.


Watson has lived in a loving home, but his owner dreams of an orculele, so he is available on consignment and will be available to audition at Uke U-4 in Bend, or by contacting me to arrange a visit.

Oak-ulele: a fashion shoot

Ed Hodney, Director of Albany Parks and Rec, came by last week to shoot pictures of the oakulele for the Lumber to Legacy auction program. It brought to mind Tina Fey’s description of photo shoots in her book Bossypants; the apparent glamour is compromised by the feeling of your extremely tight clothing popping apart in back, straining at pins and duct tape while you try to appear hip, natural, sexy, or whatever the shots call for.

The uke wasn’t 100% complete–I was freaking out–but to my great relief it doesn’t show:

Oakulele-Megowan 2014-2

Oakulele-Megowan 2014-3


Not a safety pin in sight!

The oakulele is complete now, and the strings are settling in. After playing it and hearing a uke teacher play for me–it’s important to hear from in front as well as from the players perspective–we concluded that it sounds…juicy. The Oak/Engelmann combination (along with the zillion other choices of a build) have provided lots of resonance and sustain, a warm and legato line that would suit campanella and claw hammer playing beautifully, but with the articulation needed for sing-alongs, pop and jazzy tunes.

The auction is approaching, and we’re ready with…holy smokes, more than two days to spare! I’d better be careful, I’ll jinx it and a string will break right on the auction podium.

From Historic Oak to Uke

ca. 1791: Mozart completes The Magic Flute, Beethoven is a teenage piano virtuoso, and the final Stradivarius violin is 64 years old. The ukulele won’t exist for over 100 years, but its Portuguese ancestors are making folk music. Nearly half a world away (geographically, and worlds away culturally) an oak tree sprouts near the confluence of two rivers in a valley where the Kalapuya tribes have lived for thousands of years.

2013: that oak–over two hundred years old and witness to the entire history of Albany, Oregon–is felled to make way for a Lowe’s Home Improvement Center. Mark Azevedo of the Albany Tree Commission obtains the trees and carefully saws them into quartersawn lumber, the most stable and beautiful form for oak. Albany Parks and Recreation launches the Lumber to Legacy program to have craftspeople and artists turn this oak (and several others from the same grove) into fine work which will be auctioned to raise money for white oak habitat projects and local high school woodworking programs.

Spring 2014: Not coming up with any furniture ideas, I casually mentioned the idea of an “oak-ulele” to Mark.

Beware what you say around Mark.

And so the Hackleman Oakulele began. I travel home from the Kenagy farm–where the logs were milled and stored–with two rough long planks sticking out the window of my sedan at a crazy angle, holding them with one arm. Cars pass and drivers stare.

A few weeks later I plane the boards smooth to get a better look and start hunting for portions that will be sound, stable, and beautiful. This old tree is long on beauty but short on clean wood–only a few short sections appear suitable, and I cut them into smaller blanks to see how they respond. Some of those go wonky, but a couple nice sections remain:


I carefully saw these into thin bookmatched pairs, then choose the nicest to become the back and sides.


Then I let them sit around for several weeks again to see what they would do. They behaved well (thank goodness, or we’d have to start over with planks), and need only a little more refinement to prepare them for use:


They bent like a dream.


The sides are joined, lined, and a pretty end graft of super cool myrtle is inlaid:


The back joins the sides in a flurry of clamps:


The top is braced. It is made of Engelmann spruce that was killed in a fire above McCall Idaho in 1992 and seasoned on the mountainside as a standing dead tree for over 20 years. It was harvested by Kevin Prestwich, a violin maker who felt it was some of the finest wood he’d ever handled. Braced with Carpathian spruce for tonal and structural reasons, glued with hide glue for tone and repairability.


Carving the neck using raking light to highlight the form, employing an assortment of carving chisels, planes, rasps, and files to refine the shape. While there are a few key measurements, most of the guidance comes from how it feels when held in playing position.


Inlaying the new moon into the ziricote headstock overlay, a summer moon for this instrument. Done with a jeweler’s saw and scalpel, very low tech.


First coat of finish on the back–really pops the figure on the oak. I use an old school finish from the golden era of Martin and Gibson – varnish, with a soft glow and great tone. While not exactly the same as a violin varnish, it is similar in being acoustically excellent, nice to the touch, and not automobile-glossy in appearance.


Carving the bridge from ebony. Like the neck, after a few guiding saw cuts it’s all chisels and files.


Not long now before this wood sings again!

UKEtoberfest – under the hood

A few behind the scenes images as UKEtoberfest draws closer.

Record keeping. These notes satisfy the curious, but also help a luthier in the future should the instrument be damaged.

The silking on this Carpathian spruce top is lovely. “Silking” refers to the hazy gently waving lines that are roughly right angles to the growth rings, going up/down in this pic. They are the trees ray cells, and their prominence indicates nice quartersawn wood.

Next, a shout out to the good friend who ordered me back to lutherie. I resisted, but Tom was right.
Those small holes will index on pin in the neck block to align the top perfectly, and will be covered by the fingerboard. The centerline is marked in pencil because the joint is virtually invisible, a combination of preparation with an ultra sharp hand plane and the use of hide glue, which shrinks and pulls together as it dries.
This view shows how the end block is beveled to provide a bit more free vibrating surface on the all important top plate. The block itself is baltic birch plywood, a very high quality material that will prevent splitting if someone bangs the end of the instrument on the strap pin or pickup jack.
The red clamps below are mashing together (laminating) pau ferro and curly european maple, which will become bindings after I slice them with my sushi knife. Or bandsaw. It took an inordinate amount of time to find a plank that would yield bindings to compliment the English walnut and Scottish beech that establish the dominant colors of this uke. You can see in the foreground where I spot-applied finish to the plank in order to preview the color.
Coming together nicely. I love this spalted beech! Spalting (the black lines and mottled colors) comes from fungi setting up shop in the wood; as competing colonies grow and meet each other they secrete melanin “battle lines” (zone lines–see Dr. Sara Robinson’s northernspalting.com for lots on the subject). Don’t worry, the fungi are gone.
The first of the volcano ukes!
And what is this potato chip? A test bend (the tightest bend on the sides) to see whether one of the “Holy Grail” woods of the classical guitar world will scale to the more compactly curved uke.
I’m interested in this species partly because of its remarkable sustain and resonance (even this little scrap!), and partly to scratch a Lord of the Rings itch. It will be difficult to finish it by UKEtoberfest, but we shall see.