Ukulele beginners tips - When is wood, you know, SOLID??

14 Apr 2010

Ukulele beginners tips - When is wood, you know, SOLID??

Something has been bothering me for quite a while - in fact in all the time I have been buying guitars, let alone ukuleles, and that something didn't change when I bought my first uke. In fact I just saw that the confusion (and the potential rip-off) continue.

If you are new to stringed instruments in this family, and are looking to buy a uke, you may notice listings making reference to "solid" wood, "solid tops", "all solid" and the like - but are people who are new to the instrument clear on what is being sold here? - worse still is there some misrepresentation going on?

The basics of wooden ukes ( as with wooden acoustic guitars) is this - the wood that makes the instrument is either an actual thin slice of solid wood, or it is a laminate of lots and lots of thin pieces of wood with a nice looking veneer on the outer visible edge. This applies to the wood on the soundboard or top (the piece with the hole in it!) , the sides of the body, and the back.

The general difference in most wooden instruments is that a solid piece of wood is by far the best, and laminate is worst. I say general, as this is also dependent on the type of wood and type of instrument, but for the purposes of a general buyers guide, it is generally accepted that top quality is "all solid top, back and sides", medium is "solid top" and the cheaper end is "laminate all over".

The other thing is of course price, as all solid instruments cost a good deal more than laminates - and I fully appreciate that we all have to cut our cloth accordingly, and and for some, a laminate may be the only option (I am not knocking laminates - I own some!!)

But what really concerns me is where ukes are advertised, a(nd I have to say, ebay is mainly the culprit), where the description of the woods is less than clear.

I recently saw a baritone uke for sale on ebay at what was an inflated price compared to what it could be bought for in a store, but worse still, the seller had it listed as a solid mahogany wood uke, despite it clearly being a laminate top and body model. I was so annoyed that I emailed the buyer to point out that his listing was incorrect, and he replied saying it was a laminate of sheets of mahogany, and therefore it was all mahogany, and therefore solid mahogany...... !!!!? The item sold, - total rip-off.

But the manufacturer websites don't help either - and nothing annoys me more than those that don't say whether the instruments are solid or not. Many do it, and I don't understand why.

I stress again, buying an instrument that isn't totally solid is NOT a bad thing, but you should be clear what you are buying, whatever you buy - surely?

Therefore - do take care - if you see a bargain uke at anything under £100 - £150 claiming to be all solid wood I would exercise some caution (not rule it out totally, just be cautious)

I am often asked how to tell if the instrument is solid if you get to actually hold it - it isn't totally straightforward, but some tips:

  • On a solid top instrument, you should be able to look at the edge of the inside of the soundhole and see whether the grains on outer edge run "through" the wood. Imagine looking end on at a thick piece of wood such as a skirting board - the grain would run through - it is no different on a guitar top - just thinner! On a cheap laminate, you should be able to see the laminated layers of wood. Things get tricky if the top or inside of soundhole is painted . This is sometimes a case of the maker trying to hide the laminate, but not always! - Bruko put a binding on the inside of their sound holes (but then again, to be fair to Bruko, they advertise their instruments as all solid woods, and they are not lying - great solid Ukes!)
  • For the back and sides - if you can see the outer grain through varnish - look inside the instrument with a torch - do the grains on the inside match the patterns on the outside - if they do - a pretty good sign it is solid back or sides. The very cheapest laminated backs and sides have grains going in opposite directions!
Anyway - rant over, but I do get annoyed at limited information for new buyers - always remember, buyer beware, and if a deal seems too good to be true, it "probably" is...


  1. Do solid tips need to "settle"? I'm looking at a solid spruce top tenor to "upgrade" a bit from my laminate spruce model (Both Alvarez : RU26T laminate and the AU70T solid top) The salesman told me it will take a few weeks for the solid top to "settle" before I can make a fair comparison. The ukulele hasn't arrived yet- but I was wondering about this "settling time". Any thoughts on what I should expect comparing the two?

  2. I just found your article about wood "opening up with age" Your site here is a real treasure trove of info! Never mind my earlier question -I'll read the article..

  3. If it is "book-matched" (mirrored pieces of wood) you should be able to see some piece of maple in centre to make connection stronger. If you do not see it then "red flag", it is veneer. But is ***THE FLAG*** really ***RED***?

    I own Kala KA-SPT-SC All Solid Bear Claw Spruce/Indonesian Rosewood ***Limited Series*** Cutaway Tenor Ukulele. It has dead stupid tone. It has tone of plywood postage boxes of mid-1970. It is in Tonerite but it doesn't help. It has Oasis Warm strings but it does not help. Tone is lifeless. However, I never tried to strum it hardly :)

    And I also own Sinye Ukulele, top-solid Spruce (as per description) but it really looks richer in color than Western Red Cedar, and it is richer in tone than 2018 Pono (Cedar top, Mahogany).

    I am still guessing... this Sinye ukulele probably has veneer rosewood on sides and back.... because biik-matched, and I don't see maple stick in the middle which strengthen connection... so easy to find out, why noone noticed?

    Oh forgot to mention... sound of HPL Enya is amazing!!!


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