I have a soft spot in my heart for the ukulele, koa, luthiery and woodworking in general. Having owned a Kamaka ukulele before (I hope to own one again someday), I was excited to learn that the Kamaka gave factory tours. Kamaka is the only surviving manufacturer of ukuleles from the 1920s when the popularity of the instrument boomed. The tour was given by Fred Kamaka, son of Samuel Kamaka Sr., the founder of the company. Listening to Fred recount the history of the company, it was easy to see that he is the heart of this family business and is truly a living gem.
Fred holds up a picture of Manuel Nunes, one of the men responsible for the invention of the ukulele. Nunes was one of many Portuguese immigrants who moved to the islands to work the sugar cane fields. They invented the ukulele, deriving it from basic designs of instruments from their homeland. Sam Kamaka Sr. apprenticed under Manuel Nunes before making his own ukuleles in 1916.
Fred sings the tuning of the ukulele, “my dog has fleas,” while plucking the strings of an early hand-painted pineapple ukulele made by his father. The reentrant tuning combined with the sweet timbre of the koa wood give the ukulele its distinct sound. The sound of the ukulele is as enchanting as the islands and the people of Hawaii. The portrait on the wall is of Samuel Kamaka Sr.
This is a baritone ukulele and the largest ukulele produced by Kamaka. It is tuned like the highest 4 strings of a guitar D-G-B-E.
Bookmatched koa wood veneers adorn the mahogany headstocks with the signature double “k” mother of pearl inlay. One “k” represents Fred the other represents his brother Sam. Sam Sr. used to smash substandard ukuleles made by a young Fred while chiding, “if you make instruments using the family name, don’t make junk.”
Although Kamaka only uses koa for the body of the ukulele, there are some ukuleles builders that use mahogany, mango wood, and even maple. Fred speaks of the resource as one would speak of an old friend.
Book-matched koa blanks for the ukulele’s soundboard.
The halves are glued together and clamped in a custom rotating jig.
The glued soundboards are laser cut and receive bracing for the bridge and reinforcement for the tension of the strings. Kamaka’s bracing produces a ukulele with good projection and responds well to hard strumming.
The sides of the ukulele body are book-matched and bent. Fred stands next to the original bending apparatus, consisting of bending forms atop heat-lamps, which have since been replaced by more modern equipment.
Each ukulele receives a serial number. The factory aims to produce about 3,000 a year.
Ukulele bodies are glued together on a special clamp, creating the distinct curvature on the back of the body that has become a signature of Kamaka.
Workers inspect and sand the instruments before finishing.
Workers sand between coats of gloss finish.
Fred telling stories in front of shelves full of ukuleles that are finished and ready to ship.
This guitar was being refinished. It is the first instrument that Sam Sr. built and has features that are commonplace on modern acoustic guitars. Kamaka was originally founded as Kamaka Ukulele and Guitar Works. Sam Sr. never wanted to make ukuleles but had great ideas for building guitars. The ukulele boom of the 1920s left him with no alternative than to make ukuleles as part of his business.
It was just past Halloween when I visited, so the pumpkin decorations were still up =)