Ukulele beginners tips - different uke finishes

28 Feb 2011

Ukulele beginners tips - different uke finishes

So you have decided to take the plunge into the world of ukulele, and you are already bewildered by brand names, how much to spend, what size to get.  You may also find yourself wondering about the different finishes that are available, and do they affect the uke?

The "finish" of the ukulele is the way the wood on the top back and sides is treated before the instrument is finished.  In the main, the finish is cosmetic, but the debate on whether it affects the actual sound of the instrument is something that rages on many discussion forums.  Listed below are the main types of ukulele finish you will come across.

A gloss finish, as it's name suggests, leaves a very shiny, almost mirror like finish on the uke.  It is usually created with the application of a type of varnish such as nitrocellulose, polyurethane or similar and polished to a high shine finish.  A gloss finish can really bring out the "shimmer" in some nicer wood grains, reflects light and can make an instrument look very classy.

A good glossy finish could well make the ukulele more expensive as it naturally takes more time in the building to get the shine.  That said, cheap ukes are on the market with less then high quality gloss finishes achieved by applying the gloss varnish in thick coats.  This is something I would, personally, avoid - tell tale signs of such are drips or "pooling" of the excess varnish around the soundhole, at the heel of the neck where it joins the body.  A good quality gloss finish should be not thicker than it needs to be, and there should be no signs of too much being applied.

A gloss finish will protect the underlying wood of the instrument more than a matte finish, but conversely are prone to scratches and chips.

A satin or matte finish absorbs more light than it reflects giving it a dull and unshiny look.  Whilst when I describe that in words it sounds horrible, it actually looks very natural and allows the wood to show itself off on its own.  Such finishes may be created using very thin applications of the same lacquers used for gloss, but without polishing.  They can also be created using an application of a wood oil or wax.

When ukuleles first appeared in the early 1900's, this was the only finish available and as such, many traditionalists suggest this is the better finish for the instrument.

As the coating is very thin, a satin finish means that any knocks and dings you give your instrument are more likely to scratch or dent the actual wood underneath.

Painted finishes, using a variety of bright and bold colours are usually the preserve of the cheaper ukulele market, and on novelty ukuleles.  I have nothing against these, but again, as is the case with gloss, a heavily applied paint finish can look messy.

That said, paint, when professionally applied can appear on higher end instruments.  Bruko, the German handmade manufacturer make some ukes with a spray painted finish, and most of the tops on Fleas and Fluke ukuleles are painted.  Both of those manufacturers make excellent professional quality instruments.

As I said in the introduction, I am of the view that finish is, in the main, a cosmetic factor only.  There is much written about whether a gloss finish and a satin finish differ in sound.

This comes about because anything that is "added" to the soundboard, the part of the uke that vibrates to amplify the sound can, theoretically, affect its efficiency to do so.  If two completely identical instruments were played side by side, with identical set up, strings etc, It may be expected that a satin finish will allow for a louder sound, and a gloss finish a very slightly softer sound.  Whether it changes the tone of the instrument though is, in my view, subjective.

Worse still are the arguments that rage comparing matte and gloss finishes on completely different ukes - this to me seems a nonsense as a large number of other factors need to come in to play (even before you take on board the fact that the sound is subjective anyway).  How the instrument is made, braced, how big the sound hole, type of strings, type of player, solid or laminated wood, type of wood etc all have a far greater impact on sound than whether one is gloss or matte.

My advice is to choose your instrument based on its quality, how it plays and how it sounds to you.  Your choice on gloss or matte should be made based on which you prefer the look of.  If you have a choice of identical ukes in a gloss or matte finish - look at them and listen to them.  There is no right or wrong!


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