Does your uke need a service?
This article was written by Mitch Morris of aPurla Guitars and edited by BUMS.
Just like your car or bicycle, your ukulele may need a bit of TLC once in a while to keep it sounding and playing well. Here are some tips on how you can keep your uke in the best condition possible, and how to tell when it needs some expert attention.
Set yourself up for success.
First tip is to buy a good quality ukulele from the start. Anything from $200 upwards is likely to be built reasonably well and should sound good. If you look after it, your uke should be your friend for years.
Anything under $50 just isn’t going to be easy to play and won’t sound good. Read aPurlas’s blog post Things to know before you buy a Uke (apurla.com)
As with anything you use regularly, it will deteriorate over time but there are many things you can do to keep it going strong and at its best for longer.
The pros and cons of timber
Ukuleles are usually made of timber. This is quite a sensitive resource which is porous and vibrant and reacts to its environment. This is one of the reasons it is used for musical instruments because it sounds so alive and natural. It sings and has its own uniqueness.
On the other hand, timber reacts to moisture, and over time, moisture or high humidity can cause damage to a timber stringed instrument. Generally, this kind of damage is most severe on poorly made instruments. For example, a uke with poor glue joints which relies too heavily on glue instead of a good timber joint is going to deteriorate faster than a well-made uke.
No instrument is 100% immune to moisture. That is just the nature of wood, especially in the harsh Australian climate with its extremes of wet and dry periods, or periods of high humidity. If an instrument is constantly kept in a house that can be fine most of the time. But if it is in a room that is overly damp that moisture could be causing damage.
Caring for your uke.
One of the attractions of the uke is its portability. If your uke is being moved about a lot for example, taken to gigs, jams, on holidays, to campfires and on aeroplanes, it will be exposed much more to the elements. A good case is vital to protect your baby.
Fluctuations in weather is another variable that needs to be considered. Keeping your uke in a case means you can maintain a microclimate for your instrument. That is easier than trying to control a whole room, car or house. There are humidifiers and dehumidifiers that you can put in a case to reduce the risk.
However, an instrument can deteriorate from lack of use. An instrument left untouched in a case could get mildew, timber splits, weevil damage or moths laying eggs. Getting your uke out and playing it often will help keep it in a playable condition.
Ukes can also get a bit of shock when they are taken out of a microclimate like a case or a climate-controlled room. They may need time to adjust to the new environment such as a humid bar or a festival where conditions are very different.
After humidity, heat is the next highest cause of damage to stringed instruments. It doesn’t take much heat to start to do damage. At around 40 degrees Celsius, glue starts to soften and at 70 degrees, the glue will liquefy. The tension in the strings at these temperatures can mean the instrument soon starts to break apart.
Our experience shows that heat damage most commonly comes from leaving a uke in a hot car, hot room or hot caravan. Usually this happens when the uke owner wasn’t with their uke. For example, not realising that the sun shone into their music room at some times during the day.
One solution to avoid these risks can be to keep your ‘best’ ukulele in a safe and controlled place and use it for special events, recording or gigs. And then have an ‘everyday’ ukulele for the rough and tumble of normal life.
When might your uke need a service?
Some symptoms such as a crack or split will be immediately noticeable. One place to keep an eye on is where the bridge glues down onto the body of the instrument. This is a common problem, so if the seam doesn’t look like it is joined, it will need professional attention.
The most common symptom is a drop off in playability. Some more experienced musicians might notice a buzzing on some strings or some strings seeming out of key. These symptoms often come back to the action.
The action on a uke is the distance between the strings and the fretboard. A ‘low’ action means the strings are close to the fretboard and a ‘high’ action means the strings are further away from the fretboard.
With a high action, it can be difficult to press the strings particularly as you play down the fretboard. It can make the instrument play sharp – meaning the notes won’t be in tune with each other anymore. Generally, the higher up the neck you go, the worse your instrument sounds.
If the action gets too low, then you will get buzzes or strings that just won’t ring out anymore.
Some players just get a ‘feel’ that their instrument isn’t as good as it used to be. A professional luthier can quickly identify what needs to be done to bring it back to life. Sometimes a problem may be age-related or linked to poor initial manufacturing standards. We can assess whether repairs are economic or if it’s time for a new uke.
Setting up a uke.
When the uke is first made, the action should be set with the strings at an appropriate height above the fretboard. Over time, with the tension of the strings and changes in the timber due to heat, humidity and general wear and tear, the action can often become too high.
A luthier will remove the strings and adjust the saddle and the nut. The saddle is where the strings are fixed onto the bridge. The nut is at the top end of the fretboard.
The saddle and nut are solid pieces of material that need to be delicately removed and sanded to be the right height and level. As a luthier, I guess putting that into words is a lot quicker than the job itself which is quite tedious and requires great precision.
What does it cost to repair a ukulele?
As far as my own prices go, setups are generally around $85* for a uke setup.
More significant damage would be more expensive. Of course, any of this damage would have to be assessed first, but my rough prices for things like bridges coming off is around $100-$150* depending on severity.
Crack repairs are around $75* if the crack needs to be glued and braced.
Necks that have been cracked in half or cracked head stocks would be more expensive at around $300-$400*. At this point, we have to consider whether the repair is economic to you.
When we work on an instrument, we will usually do a string change because it makes the uke easier to work on and you get it back feeling (and sounding) nice and new again. You can supply your own strings, or we can provide them at a cost of around $17*.
The prices quoted (*) are estimates and will change over time.
The bottom line.
We hope this article has helped you understand how to protect and care for your ukulele. Now you know what to look (or listen for) to identify simple problems and what a set up or repair cost might be.
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