Jake’s Workshop: Martin Tuners, Out of Tune Mahalos…

I get asked quite a few questions about various repair and restoration questions and I am absolutely the worst person to ask about anything practical. I don’t even open a wine bottle without a fully stocked first aid kit and three fully trained medical professionals on standby. So I’ve enlisted the help of instrument repairer extraordinaire Jake Wildwood of Antebellum Instruments to answer the questions.

I found a Martin uke at an estate sale. Probably a 1940’s era. The plastic on the tuners is completely rotten and beyond salvage. Where can I get original Martin tuners (parts) to keep it original and perhaps a case to carry it in?

Bill

Good luck! You can find vintage tuners once in a while on eBay or other online auction sites, or possibly pay a high price for a set that a collector might have on some obscure backwater website. Fortunately for you, new tuners don’t seriously (or at all?) hurt value on an old Martin, because friction tuners due to their nature will wear out after a time. I’d suggest some of these to replace them.

Those are nice, simple, and look the part, but if your tuner holes aren’t big enough to accept the new bushings, do yourself a favor and don’t enlarge them, but rather use properly-sized washers to install with instead and forget the bushings.

As far as a case: watch the ‘bay, and pray. You can always find new cases, and I strongly vouch for those Asian-built tweed ones, but vintage cases command pretty steep prices, in general, unless they’re beat to a pulp and barely-functional.

I have a Mahalo UK2LTD2. Not sure how much it was or what quality level it is and don’t really want to ask, but it seems to have a drama with the second string down(C) where it doesn’t seem to keep its tune as you go up fret by fret. I play piano so I have a tuned ear, but it seems maybe the bridge gap where the string sits is too narrow which causes it to grab and stretch the string making every chord sound a bit funny.

Is this a common problem or could it be a fault with this perticular one? Should I try to file out the gap or be patient for a couple of weeks and send it bak to the eastern states of Australia to get assessed/fixed?

Kelwyn

I’m not familiar with your uke, but the “bridge gap” (is this the cut that holds the strings?) should not be the issue here. It sounds like either the nut is too high or the saddle angle is bad. Does the uke go out of tune sharp or flat as you go up the board towards the soundhole? When you tune the uke perfectly, and fret the C string on the first fret (C#) is the C# a lot sharper than it should be? That would be a sign that your nut is too high — and that when you have it in perfect tuning open, it will play a little sharp on all the frets except the ‘zero’ (though dropping off in degree of ‘extra sharpness’ towards the soundhole) on that string. This is due to the extra length the string has to bend when traveling from ‘above’ the fret to contact with the fingerboard. You’ll see this on lots and lots of older ukes which had less precise setup work done at the factory, and very often on Asian-import instruments with the same problem.

Also — if this is not the case — have you tried different strings? I find that many people have problems with brand-new ukes simply because the factory (cheapo) strings are still installed and simply don’t play in tune due to bad thicknessing, poor materials, etc. Try a set of new strings — I suggest fluorocarbon or nylgut strings — I don’t use anything else anymore due to the fact that they stay in tune better (in changing weather and temp), sound better, and have a smaller diameter in general as opposed to standard nylon — in sizing they are comparable to the thickness of gut strings.

Do you know if there is a way to preserve a signature on a high-lacquered ukulele so that it will not rub off with contact?

Depending on what kind of pen or marker made the signature, a similarly-glossy varnish applied very carefully should do the trick. One thin coat over the signature should be enough to keep general handling wear from ruining the signature. Be sure to check first if the varnish/finish you’re using will make the ink run beforehand, however!

I found an old 6 sting ukulele (or toy guitar) at a thrift store that I want to turn into a project. It is missing the nut, bridge, a tuning peg, and strings.

I was thinking about cutting the head down so it’s just a regular 4 string ukulele. The body and neck are in good shape, polished wood and everything, and the fret board is already made.

However, I brought it to a local music store and they told me that it was useless and that I was better off buying a new ukulele. (which isn’t the point.)

ANYWAYS.
Long story short. You guys seem to know a lot about ukulele’s, is it hopeless? The music store told me I won’t be able to find a ukulele bridge or nut to buy. Is this true? I can send pictures of it if you want.

Thanks so much for your time.

– April

While I’d agree that the music store was right in saying that your project seems to be more effort than worth, you have a couple of things to consider. First, if this is a small (or child-size) six-string guitar, your neck width will be far wider than a typical uke fretboard, making string spacing, even if you were to simplify it to four strings, rather cumbersome. If it is a six-string uke, you’ve made a good find, though lacking a bridge, peg, and nut, you may be dissuaded from the project. I’d really need to see photos to advise you better on how to advance: whether the project is worth it monetarily or not, or if you have the necessary tools and knowledge to proceed.

Suffice to say, you can craft a nut fairly easily, even out of something as simple as a birch paint stirrer or scrap of plastic that you cut down. You can also find uke bridges for sale, or on eBay, in various places… but in all likelihood you’ll need to craft a bridge to fit the instrument you have, as bridges are something that need to be perfectly placed, glued well, and of the right height to function well. If you have someone else do this work, the cost will skyrocket — bridge work is some of the most expensive repair work you’ll find as it is some of the most difficult, after neck resets.

So — unless you’re crafty, willing to learn about instrument setup, have some tools on hand, and have your heart really set on this uke/guitar — I’d say call it quits and invest the time and effort into something you’ll be happier (most likely) with in the end — either a project uke with more parts and less wrong, or a new uke in serviceable condition.

You can visit Jake’s blog here and download his latest album for free at JakeWildwood.com

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10 Comments

  1. Kelwyn January 22nd, 2009 2:37 pm

    Thank you Jake and Bill.
    I think you are spot on. I have changed the strings and the problem remained. It is the ‘nut’ I was refering to and not the bridge. I think it may be too high and I’m sending it back for repair. I will let you know how it goes.

    BTW, would love some tabbed Ben Folds/Five songs or anything Julia Nunes, she rocks!!
    Kelwyn

  2. Hello Jodi January 22nd, 2009 5:01 pm

    I second the recommendation on replacing original tuners with Grovers. I have a Le Domino and the original tuners were the most major PIA. The Grover tuners are like butter. I also have them on my no-name vintage banjo ukulele.

  3. Kickchick January 23rd, 2009 7:10 am

    Hey Jake – thank you so much for the advice on how to preserve a signature. I have some special signatures on my uke which I very much want to keep intact, so I’m off to buy some varnish tomorrow!

    Angie

  4. al October 15th, 2009 5:06 am

    Help,

    I bought a 8 string antique banjo ukelele it is missing ( nut, bridge and strings) can any one tell me where to get these parts

  5. HighlandCal October 18th, 2009 10:39 am

    I’m not much of an expert on ukuleles but i do own a vintage banjo uke- in fact it was my very first uke- you can find almost anything on ebay. I’m pretty sure an 8 string banjo is a banjolin which is to the best of my knowledge a very similair in size as well, but again im no expert so you would probably be better off listening to Jake.

  6. Woodshed October 18th, 2009 1:37 pm

    HighlandCal: Thanks for the info.

  7. Tony Salinas October 3rd, 2010 9:31 pm

    I got an old 1940s Martin Ukulele that was missing the tuners. Looked all over for replacements to no avail, I’m not willing to enlarge the hole size. Found some Ping brand tuners that only required a 1/64 larger hole size, they worked great as replacements.

    Tony

  8. Ron December 8th, 2010 2:42 am

    I have a barotone Uke I would like to tune GCEA
    Can this be done without causing any extra stress on the neck of the Uke. If this can be done where can I purches strings long enough ?

    Thanks Ron

  9. Ukellen January 13th, 2012 11:00 am

    I’ve got a rather cute soprano uke that probably has a bridge that is too high as the C string is really out of tune (sharper), and actually gains a half note in 3 frets (!)
    I’ve got aguila strings and really like them, and had my tuners replaced but the guys in the repair shop didn’t want to look at the bridge. (They also do the local filharmonic orcestra’s instruments, so…). As I’ve done a bit of work on my guitar earlier I’m not really scared to get going, but I really wonder how to do it. We’re also wondering if the bridge is supposed to have a bias, and in which direction, as the husband thinks it might be 180 degrees off.

    I really love your site!

  10. Jerry Humes March 4th, 2014 9:58 pm

    I have a cheap baritone Ukulele I would like to convert to a left-hand play. Do I need to reverse the nut and the bridge to get good sound.

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