CONGRATS!, YOU'VE FOUND THE ULTIMATE
You've probably heard the beautiful sounds of the ukulele. You might even have wondered how to play this four-stringed wonder. But as Factory Tourists - you can find out how the lovely instrument itself is made.
Tour: Kamaka Ukulele
Address: 550 South St., Honolulu, HI 96813
sFinding the tour isn't easy. Kamaka, one of the oldest makers of high-quality ukuleles, is based in a small factory in Honolulu, Hawaii. It's easy to drive right past the company's non-descript building that barely is identified other than a tiny sign. But you don't want to miss this one.
The tour starts with a 20-minute description of the company's history by the original founder's youngest son, Fred Sr. Fred Sr., 92, tells you about how this small company survived the decades by building unique instruments with high-quality materials. You also get a glimpse into the determination of this family and how the founder handed the control over to his sons over the years.
Until a year ago, Fred Sr. guided the main part of the tour - but has since handed the rest of the job to his son Fred Jr. The third-generation ukulele maker steps you through the entire ukulele production process starting with the piles of koa wood, aged for years to have the right consistency for the instrument, to final production and testing.
Over the years, the process of making these has changed a bit. So has the price. A Kamaka ukulele will set you back $1,000 or more today - but decades ago could have been bought for $5.
But the company's focus remains on keeping the sound of their instruments ahead of the imported versions. Much of the process is done by hand, including the sanding and finishing work. In fact - not a single instrument leaves the factory until the sound, shape, and overall quality is checked by the co-owner.
As with most tours, you get an idea of what it takes to run a production-based company and the challenges that come with it. Fred Jr. recalled a time when demand for ukuleles slackened in the U.S., so the company quickly retooled to serve the Japanese market. That move to globalization kept the factory humming.
There was also a point in the company's history when many of the workers were deaf! It turns out the deaf workers were able to "hear" the sound coming out of the ukuleles better than workers with no hearing impairment because they could feel the vibrations of the instruments. Many of Kamaka's employees were deaf until just recently, when the last remaining worker from this era retired.