Posted to the New York Times December 11, 2005 by By BRENDAN I. KOERNER
IF there is a ukulele stashed in your closet, chances are that it's a flimsy model bought during a Hawaiian vacation. It might have been played once upon your return home, at which point everyone within earshot complained about its shrillness. And so it was cast into storage, to languish beside old blankets and jigsaw puzzles.
Dale Webb attributes your uke's sad fate to manufacturers who envision their products as souvenirs first and as serious instruments second. Mr. Webb has flipped those priorities with his Fluke line of ukuleles, which are engineered to produce clean tones and rich vibrato -- and not to fall apart if accidentally banged against a coffee table.
Before being laid off from his job as an ultrasonics engineer in 1998, Mr. Webb had never played a ukulele, let alone built one. But his brother-in-law, Jim Beloff, is a longtime enthusiast, and he encouraged Mr. Webb to try his skilled hand at making a prototype worthy of true musicians, rather than tourists.
Mr. Webb said he researched some widely available ukuleles. "I took one look at the traditional uke, and it wasn't appealing at all," he said. "It was this little shrunken guitar, and it was cheap and boring."
Mr. Webb, who lives in New Hartford, Conn., bought a book on the art of luthiering, or making stringed instruments, and started scribbling designs for a first-rate ukulele. He noted that several guitar makers, like Ovation Guitars, were making high-quality instruments by using molded plastic, instead of inexpensive woods like plywood, for the backs of the bodies. The plastic produces a deeper, chunkier sound than Mother Nature's cheapest alternatives. (The world's priciest ukuleles, concert-quality instruments that can sell for much more than $1,000, remain all-wood affairs; they are typically made of rare koa wood from Ha
waii.) Using his kitchen oven, Mr. Webb baked several plastic shapes, seeking a ukulele body that would please both eye and ear. He eventually settled on a rounded arrowhead shape, which makes the Fluke look more like a space-age lute. Though he kept a wooden top for the body, Mr. Webb went a less traditional route by molding the fretboard, or the front of the neck, out of uretha
ne. In 1999, after some positive feedback from music-store owners at a trade show where he showed off some prototypes, Mr. Webb refined his design with the aid of stereolithography. This involves entering a product's dimensions into a computer, which in turn instructs a refrigerator-sized machine to build a three-dimensional model using lasers and liquid plastic. Examining these ukulele mock-ups helped Mr. Webb work out the kinks, like errant curves in the body, before production started later that year.
All of this detailed craftsmanship means that the Flukes cost more than what is typically available at Waikiki Beach gift shops. The least expensive, solid-colored Fluke sells for $179; adding a body design, like flames or stars, and a rosewood fretboard can push the final tally close to $300. The most recent addition to the Fluke lineup, a model with a koa top, sells for $365 unadorned.
Mr. Webb and his Magic Fluke Company have sold 24,000 Flukes so far; most sales have come through his brother-in-law's Web site, flea market music.com, though the ukes are also available at retail outlets like Mandolin Brothers on Staten Island. If you think that a few hundred dollars is a mighty sum for a ukulele, Magic Fluke also offers a $59 version called the Fortune Soprano. It's imported from China, where most cheap ukes are made. But Magic Fluke promises that the Fortune still sounds pretty good -- perhaps not as good as the Fluke, but good enough to keep it out of hall-closet purgatory.