I do like to scatter my ukulele reviews with breaks from the norm (not everything ukulele related comes from China..) so I was delighted when I was contacted by luthier Liam Kirby offering me a loan of one of his hand made soprano ukes - the Wunderkammer 'Ike' Model.
Wunderkammer you say? German? Nope - these are hand made by Liam in his workshop in Bristol. And when I say this is a handmade ukulele, I truly mean it is handmade. Read on!
Liam makes a range of instruments (and is open to making customs) but this is the smallest instrument he builds with it's own name and is a traditionally shaped Soprano ukulele made from solid mahogany. And by handmade, I should explain that Liam makes his instruments with only hand tools. No sanders or electric cutting equipment. The tops are cut down by hand on a bench plane, the necks and even the bindings are hand carved and cut. A very traditional process I am sure you will agree, and in this Ike model we have a very traditional looking instrument.
It's a typical double bout ukulele, reminiscent of early Martin ukuleles and I think looks an absolute treat. The wood is solid mahogany with a clear grain pattern and a hand rubbed shellac and Tru Oil finish that really brings out the orange glow of the wood, whilst still leaving quite an open grain structure and visible pores. The result is not a mirror finish instrument, but I like that it looks (and feels) that way. It feels hand made. It feels kind of old.
Elsewhere on the top we have rope style purfling around the sound hole which is very nicely done and wooden edge binding where the top meets the sides (in Rosewood). The bridge mounting is a Martin style slotted bridge with an ebony bridge saddle.
The sides have an even grain also that lines up with their orientation, and are in two pieces with a rosewood shaped inlay at the join on the butt.
The back is ever so slightly arched, and is not bound where it joins the sides.
The whole body is light, and feels slight yet strong. Inside the sound hole all is neat and tidy apart from a few bits of sawdust and a terrific woodshop smell that evokes the hand made aspect here.
Up to the hand carved neck and this is in three pieces with a stacked piece at the Spanish style heel and another at the headstock. It's a fairly standard ukulele soprano profile and is comfortable and smooth. Around the heel and the back of the headstock you can see a few tooling marks, but I like those and they remind you that this is not from a Far Eastern factory with laser cutting machines.
The fingerboard is rosewood and pretty plain and pale in colour. It is unbound and edges down over the soundboard and just peeks over the sound hole too. It's a nice thing to look at and you can see it is hand carved, but was a little disappointed to see that the frets only go up to the body. This leaves an expanse of fingerboard doing nothing, though Liam did explain that in custom orders he could easily put frets in here too.
Speaking of frets we have 12 to the body, which is typically soprano and they are the ultra traditional bar fret type without crowned tops. The earliest Martins and Hawaiian instruments used this style of fret, so full marks for tradition. Not full marks for comfort though as I find these can catch a little on the fingers when changing fingering positions. They are however neatly done and set well. We have mother of pearl markers at the 5th spacing, a double at the 7th and another at the 10th. There are no side markers here.
Past the Ebony nut we have a simple shaped headstock with a rosewood facing piece. Tuning is provided by decent friction pegs. Not the best I have seen, but not the worst, and they work just fine. Anything other than friction pegs would have been so wrong on an instrument this traditional looking!
Completing the deal are Aquila Super Nylgut strings and in this configuration the cost will run to £395. Considering the work that has gone in to this I think that is a great price for a truly handmade instrument. Of course you could speak to Liam and work on a custom and your price will vary, but it the price of the Ike is anything to go buy, I would say that is pretty reasonable.
So how is it to play? Well the first thing you notice is how light and nicely balanced it is. A true soprano that feels great in the hands. It's got a tactile quality to that finish that is hard to beat and rarely seen on Chinese factory imports. Oh and as I say, it smells good too!
Strummed and... wow. It's explodes with volume - this thing packs a real punch and is right up there with some of the best projection on a soprano I have played. It resonates fantastically too and gives you a satisfying buzz in the chest when strummed hard. Sustain is there in a way that you don't often see on mass market sopranos too.
Clarity across the strings is good, and it doesn't come across as muddy, but has a full and rich tone that I really liked.
Fingerpicking is equally accurate and clear all over the fretboard. I do find the bar frets hinder me here a little bit but I suppose I could get used to them with practice. Talking of accuracy, I found the setup to be just perfect for me and intonation all over the neck was pretty much spot on.
So it's ticking most boxes with this reviewer and I am staggered by the projection for something so small and light. A testament to the underlying build I think. Most of all though, it's a really nice thing that looks and feels great. It's about as far from a factory Chinese ukulele as you would imagine and at a price that is really not a bank breaker for a serious instrument. If you like your ukuleles traditional, then I think you will love this. Vintage Martin lovers might just want to take a closer look at Liams work!
It's been a joy to have this one on test.
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Great build quality
Feel of the thing
Projection and volume
Would prefer more frets
Would prefer more modern crowned frets
Looks - 9
Fit And Finish - 8.5
Sound - 9.5
Value For Money - 9
OVERALL UKULELE SCORE - 9 out of 10
To understand my review scoring and see this result in context - visit my review page at
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© Barry Maz