Updated: Aug 28, 2020
This is a question I’ve had to answer ever since I started in this biz. So I figured I’d sit down and let you know about the state of laminates and their place in the ukulele marketplace. 11 years ago when I started out, saying the word laminate was like using a curse word. The use of the said word would send customers running for the hills. Fast forward to today and ukulele are constructed using all kinds of materials. Carbon fiber, fiberglass, plastics, and even recycled metal come to mind when I think of the current build materials in the market. Yeah, you heard me right... plastics (they actually sound pretty good and best of all you can play them in the rain)! But by far the most common building material is still good old fashioned wood. And with the majority being laminate!
The top, back, and sides of professional grade ukulele are still made of meticulously crafted cuts of solid wood, while beginner and intermediate models are built partly – sometimes entirely with pressed plywood. Pressed plywood is laminate. Laminate wood is essentially multiple layers of thinly processed wood that has been pressed and bonded together with an adhesive for strength and stability. Many laminated boards today are made using three layers of wood. These layers are pressed together like a sandwich, with the outer layers have the grain direction flowing in the same direction with the center layer running cross (or opposite) greatly increasing it’s strength.
Now a major difference between laminate and solid wood ukulele involves how the tonewood is sourced and processed. Where affordable ukulele tend to require less refined wood variations, today’s custom ukulele builders rely exclusively on the most resonant, heavy grained, and exclusive cuts of solid wood. This makes the production of laminate ukulele easier since the materials are more abundant and easy to acquire.
Sourcing these high-end materials requires not only planning and connections but the ability to judge and assess the quality and potential resonance of raw, stockpiled wood. It is a skill that can quite literally take a lifetime to master. Common knowledge would suggest that beginner players would choose a laminate ukulele while professionals would still opt for a high-end, entirely solid wood instrument. But as you’ll see, there are more factors at play when looking at laminate ukulele. And many benefits of owning one over a solid wood ukulele may surprise you.
Here’s a quick tease... there’s no wonder why many players are opting to play laminate ukulele. And why many solid bodied ukulele manufactures are designing laminate models that outsell their solid bodied ones 10 fold!
Laminates Can Look Good Too!
There is no doubt that aesthetics factor significantly into our everyday purchases, and ukulele are no exception. To be honest it‘s the main factor even over sound! I‘ve seen novice players, (and I say that lightly), pay out thousands of dollars for a high end ukulele and they don’t know how to play. They want to own these special woods because they look incredible. If the choice was between a Maple bodied ukulele, or a heavy curled Hawaiian Koa ukulele? Well, no contest.
Custom builders will often utilize more exotic wood species such as Ziricote, Cocobolo, Redwood, ‘Moon’ Spruce, and Hawaiian Koa. But the limited supply of these materials means that these options, though visually striking, are simply not available to most because they in themselves are rare. Laminate ukulele on the other hand can produce more ukulele out of the same amount of wood making them far more accessible! And since laminate ukulele today are using high end wood with striking grain and appearance, more players who want to own beautiful exotic wood ukulele now can.
This also extends to extras. In the past, low quality laminates were made to be simple. Simple shape, no bindings, no rosette, and matte finishes. Today, laminate ukulele are made with everything you can find on custom ukulele. From slotted head stocks, arm bevels, and cutaways. To fancy purflings and decorated rosettes.