Ukulele Woods: House and Mill Interview

When I mentioned bamboo ukuleles before, there was a bit of discussion about whether you should care about the environmental impact of your uke and it got me thinking about the issue.

And, of course, there’s the ever increasing selection of woods there are to choose from.

Neither issue I’m particularly knowledgeable on. So I threw a few questions at Evan from House and Mill Tonewoods in hopes of enlightenment.

Can you tell us a bit about House and Mill?

We are a brand new company dedicated to providing quality woods to builders of Ukuleles. We know that Ukuleles are capable of being wonderful instruments when made well, of excellent woods and we want to establish ourselves as the suppliers of the very best of those classic instrument woods, spruce, cedar and maple. We will also offer a limited list of accessories such as a great capo, colored strings, and other ukulele related items that meet our standards for quality and uniqueness.

We are a family organization as our website relates, three generations of folks who love and respect wood and music, and ukuleles.

Why have you chosen to focus on ukuleles?

Firstly because we are passionate ukulele makers and players. We think this great instrument is being largely ignored by most of the purveyors of luthier supplies. Our own uke building led us to a major supplier of spruce, cedar and maple to the nations largest guitar makers. We discovered that a great amount of perfect wood, too short for guitars but perfect for ukuleles was simply being wasted. Saddened by the waste of this precious resource we saw an opportunity that would advance the ukulele cause and create a business opportunity for us.

Your wood is responsibly sourced, what does that mean. Why is it important that ukulele woods are responsibly sourced?

The wood we sell, despite it’s excellence, would be discarded and burned if we did not rescue it in the shorter ukulele lengths. The old growth Spruce and Cedar used in top grade acoustic instruments is a precious resource that must not be wasted. Much of the worlds supply is already gone, and we must use what is left responsibly. One can make the argument that no more of the old growth forests should be cut. Our point is that if any is to be cut, it must not be wasted.

What should people consider when choosing wood for their ukulele?

Ukulele tonewood should be perfectly quartersawn, stiff, and tight grained, and properly dry. While color and figure are important aesthetic considerations, only the first mentioned attributes are essential to tone and construction integrity. We firmly believe that the beauty of the wood is also very important to a player’s enjoyment of their instrument. Early in our building experience we realized that if you are to put the hundreds of hours into building a fine ukulele it is silly to do so without beautiful wood. As a result, we sell and stock only highly figured maple for backs and sides, and the best, unblemished and fine grained spruce and cedar for tops. The goal is to create an instrument of great beauty that has a lovely tone.

The immortal violin makers of Cremona, Nicolo Amati, Antonio Stradivari and Guarnari del Gesu learned in the 1600’s to make their instruments of maple, spruce. Their violins remain the worlds best. The great American guitar builders of the 1950s, John D’Angelico and James D’Aquisto built their classics of Maple and Spruce. We build our ukuleles of Maple and Spruce, and those are the woods we sell.

Visit House and Mill’s website and watch House and Mill on YouTube.

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13 Comments

  1. Dan March 23rd, 2011 6:52 pm

    Wow! I never thought of the scraps wood from guitars just going to waste and being burned. Really interesting :)

  2. pepamahina March 23rd, 2011 7:54 pm

    I definitely agree that it is much preferable that these woods are used with to the greatest degree possible with none going to waste, but I’m not sure that using guitar luthier’s discards completely excuses ukulele players from carrying some responsibility for the continued felling of old growth trees. At the very least it is worth our consideration. Thank you Al, for keeping this discussion alive.

  3. Ron Hale March 24th, 2011 1:17 am

    Musical instruments are one of the best uses for wood, any wood. The joy they bring, the satisfaction they provide, blah, blah, blah.
    Ukes are tiny and ukers are neither going to destroy nor save the planet. So, no guilt-trips or tripping allowed.

    Except…It might be nice if players would limit themselves to a modest number of instruments, say twenty-five or so. Some ukers have so many – I know, each song needs a different combo of woods/strings – that I do believe that the average uker (unbeknownst to him or herself) now owns on average at least ten ukes.

    We wallow in how many we have, we brag about them, we show them off, we make a joke out of it. Only it’s not funny. If the twelve ukuleles you already have just aren’t enough and you need more, maybe there’s a message that’s just not getting through to you. Having so many that you just go to your uke closet and pick a different one out each time is no substitute for having one or two very special instruments that you can always count on.

    So there’s my take on being environmentally responsible with our uking, Al. Buy fewer…

  4. Dan March 24th, 2011 3:42 am

    well… here is the thing, and I suppose it would be different for everyone. It is some sort of value analysis placed on the wood.

    Would you rather have a nice old growth tree or a really nice uke. Which really is better for society?

    Music is really nice and brings a great deal of value to people who play it and those that are around to hopefully enjoy it.

    Old growth trees are really cool to look at and be in the presence of. They bring great enjoyment to those that go out and walk among them, including myself.

    But it the wood being used to make your uke was simply going to be burned up, really, it seems like an easy call.

    Buy 12 old growth ukes and buy the rest from wood that was going to be burned anyway ;)

    Additionally, I only have a single cheaper uke made in china, so if any of you with 20 or so want to get rid of one of your nicer ones because you feel guilty, I am accepting all donations ;)

  5. Cappers March 24th, 2011 9:18 am

    Hi,
    interesting article, as Dan (1st post) says i never thought that scraps from guitar makers could be used to make ukes. I like the idea that all those extra scraps are being made use of in creating, in many cases, a beautiful instrument.
    Being fairly new to playing ukes i only have the 2 in my collection, one very cheap Mahalo and a recently bought Ohana tenor, which is made of mahogany. I can’t see myself being a big collector of ukes, i don’t have the space nor the money, but a general awareness of this issue when you are making a new purchase is something that should be taken into consideration. Maybe for my next purchase i’ll be better informed and willing to do more research into where a uke maker gets their supply of wood from.
    cheers

    Cappers

  6. Foinnse March 24th, 2011 11:59 am

    Very interesting subject alright, not something I had really thought about much myself. I am not at the stage though either that I would be considering any expenisvely made uke right now.

    At the moment I am the proud owner of just one realtively inexpensive Stagg soprano. But thats purely because I am a very skint student, I will be upgrading/collecting as soon as I can! I have to say the thought of owning 25+ Ukuleles seemed quite laughable to me at first but as I think about the various different sizes, makes, novelty ukes etc. I can actually see that happening pretty quickly to me if it was a possibility! And I would like to think that I would at least consider the idea of using woods from a responsible source. I wonder would Luthiers like Mya-moe be using good sources for example?
    Had a look at the website and they certainly seem to be a good source when considering for woods.
    Also I really want those Aurora/aquila colored strings that they are selling! Although with only one little uke and having already strung it up with Aquilas very recently I guess i should wait….or buy a new uke.
    Cheers, -F

  7. pepamahina March 24th, 2011 12:24 pm

    I think there is a common misunderstanding out there about what “old growth” means and why it is so important. It is not that the trees are old and large and beautiful and nice to take an afternoon stroll under, it is that these old forests support equally old and intricate ecosystems teeming with thousands of species. When these old forest are destroyed, all of the life that they support is destroyed too. Forever. You can grow back the trees if you have the patience, but what you end up with is a giant tree farm. You cannot replicate the ecosystem that was destroyed. So if you’re making a value choice, it is not truly between “would I rather make pretty music or look at this pretty tree.” A more accurate description would be “should we destroy this ancient and irreplaceable ecosystems and all the life it contains forever so that I can have a fancy tone wood for my instrument?”

  8. Lindy Danny March 24th, 2011 1:27 pm

    This is one of those issues that I have to limit myself on. I’ve rewritten my comment three times because they got too long.

    So, just a couple of points:

    First: Sometimes it isn’t the woods source, but how long that material traveled to get to the ukulele player. China buys wood and sells instruments. That’s two trips across the Pacific.

    Second: Collectors are whom luthiers and manufacturers build for. Exhibit one: Gibson Les Paul Ukulele (WTF?). Working musicians don’t have the money to have 25 instruments (not without a day job or a global record deal).

    Third: I’m not exempt from my criticisms. I own 9 ukuleles and three guitars, none of which were produced domestically.

    ~DB

  9. Dan March 24th, 2011 4:11 pm

    “A more accurate description would be “should we destroy this ancient and irreplaceable ecosystems and all the life it contains forever so that I can have a fancy tone wood for my instrument?””

    This still is some judgement call from person to person. A lot of people would say yes. Guitar player The Edge who publicly promotes environmental responsibility travels with 40+ guitars:

    http://www.musicradar.com/news/guitars/u2-exclusive-the-edges-stage-setup-revealed-223342/11

    If the wood from all of Edge’s guitars is going to be burned anyway, you might as well put it to good use.

    Also, it depends on how the wood was harvested. I used to live in the pacific northwest and when hiking sometimes you would come to some place that was just devoid of all trees from logging. Sometimes you would see where the trees had just been thinned.

    Environment discussions always seem like abortion discussions to me. I’m kind in the middle on both of them so I usually get hateful glances and raised voices from both sides.

  10. Dan March 24th, 2011 4:20 pm

    Oh, BTW – that wasn’t a knock on U2. They are one of the greatest bands of all time and have brought joy to millions of people :)

  11. Rob NY March 27th, 2011 6:11 am

    Excellent Post!

  12. Randy April 14th, 2011 3:20 am

    To say that the wood used for these Uke’s would have been burnt anyway and therefore there is no environmental issues is a little naive.
    Any wood supplier will charge for a product in demand at some point so by using these “offcuts” you are still creating a demand for these old-growth trees and still contributing to environmental degradation (assuming this wood was from old-growth forests). Unfortunately the majority of people tend to think in black & white to justify the reality they want rather than looking at the issue in the shades of grey it is.

  13. Patrick Madsen September 27th, 2011 8:16 am

    I was blessed to be able to buy one of Brian Griffins Tenor ukuleles. The Cedar top grain is so tight it has 373 rings in the 8 1/2″ bout. The Black Walnut neck and sides was cut 35 years ago from a tree he bought from a faller cutting the tree down in Bellingham. Brian figured the tree was at least 85 years old when felled. He used old growth bookmatched figured curly maple for the back, Honduran Rosewood fretboard and a slice of old growth spalted maple for the peg head. Most of the woods were found , re-claimed and stored for 50 or so years. Brian had the forethought of knowing the old growth trees were limited and needed to be saved from the burn pile for future projects even 50 to 60 years later.

    The stories he tells of each piece of wood stored and how he came upon them is a fascinating lesson in wood appreciation and a man who loves the wood he uses to create such wonderful instruments.

    His vision of appreciation of old growth wood and conservation seems to be carried on by the younger generations of his family.

    I feel truly blessed to own two of Brian Griffin ukuleles. Trustfully the stories of the wood involved will be passed along with the instruments to all my future generations playing them.

    Thanks, Griffin Family

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