Why I Build UkulelesBecause I love music and I love wood.
By: Jon Dale ’73, as told to Meghan Kita Tuesday, April 5, 2022 08:30 AM
Jon Dale ’73 scraping bindings level under his backyard coconut trees.
I built my first instrument a long time ago. After I graduated from Muhlenberg, I was living in a farmhouse with a bunch of other people in a semi-commune. The Foxfire books [instructional books about Appalachian culture] had a chapter on banjos. I built a banjo out of wood I found in the barn. I skinned a groundhog and took the hair off just like the book said and stretched it over a coffee can. It cost me about 75 cents to build this banjo. I built more banjos over the years—they traditionally have a lot of “bling,” and that is how I learned to do pearl inlay.
I’ve always loved wood, and I amassed a stash from dumpster-diving at Martin Guitar back in the ’70s, off-cuts from manufacturing guitars. I finally decided to do something with it, so I built a little soprano ukulele. My daughter, who was a senior in high school, had a friend over who saw it and said, “I always wanted to play the ukulele,” so I said, “Take this one—I don’t play.” She took it off to college, came back over Christmas break and visited my daughter. She told me, “This instrument really got me through some tough times. I was new. I was feeling lonely. I’d go into my room and play a little bit and then other people would come in.” And she came back playing these blues chords. I said, “That’s really cool. I’ll have to build another one.” So I did, and I sold it at the local library fundraising auction. Then I built another, and another. I’ve built 92 instruments so far.
I love music, but I’m not a musician—I’m an engineer. In building instruments, there are two questions, “How do you engineer this thing to make it sound better?” and, “What do I do, engineering-wise, to make building these easier, faster, more accurate, more repeatable?” Now, I work in sets of three or four, and it takes me a few months each time. I build a fair amount of custom instruments, plus some for inventory and some to give as gifts. Of the four instruments on the bench right now, one is a commission, one is an experiment and two are wedding presents for my niece. Her future husband is a guitar player, so I’m building a small parlor guitar and a tenor ukulele out of exactly the same wood. They’ll have some inlay, and it will be a matching set.
I mostly use local woods. In the eastern United States, the Appalachian chain has more species of hardwood than any other place in the world. Now that I spend time in Florida, there’s a whole other set of woods here. One of my favorite Florida woods is casuarina, and it’s an invasive species. I’m making instruments out of stuff that was taken down because it’s invasive. Redwood is one of my favorite top woods, and the redwood I have used to be part of water tanks on top of New York City apartment buildings. I made a wedding present for a neighbor’s daughter out of an ash tree he’d taken down. Musical instruments, to me, are a way of showing the beauty of this wood. I show off what Mother Nature created.
I’ve never liked a full-sized guitar. If you put it in your lap, you have to reach way around to play it. A ukulele, it’s like a baby: It’s this beautiful thing that fits in your lap. You can hold it closely. It feels delicate, but it’s actually tougher than it looks. The other thing is, if you take a ukulele and just hand it to somebody, they always smile. It’s universal. How cool is that?
Jon Dale ’73 retired from the computer software industry in 2017 and splits his time between Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Jupiter, Florida. His creations can be found at jupiteruke.com.