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.
For the acoustic connoisseur, here is a category that is very important. Yes, your $3,000 solid wood, hand-built, fully loaded art piece of an instrument sounds phenomenal. The curl of the Hawaiian Koa ripples like a pebble skipping along a pond. And when stummed it sweeps you into a gorgeous scene from the The Lord of the Rings!
But let’s say you live in Florida and travel regularly to Denver for business and your ukulele is your travel companion. Then what? What could possibly go wrong, right? Haha!
Solid cuts of wood rely on their natural resins and the ukulele bracing for stability. Rapid changes in temperature and humidity can have a disastrous effects on your ukulele. The worst being cracks and warping. Warping can effect the sound and intonation. Without proper humidity your beautiful solid body ukulele will have issues.
For laminate ukulele, due to the nature of their construction and their more complex patterns of overlapping grains, laminate ukulele are far less susceptible to cracking and warping in extreme heat. For this reason, they tend to be better suited for players who travel or for those individuals who simply require a more sturdy ukulele (like my three little bears at home..... I mean boys).
If you want to learn more about the effects of humidity and how you can keep your solid bodied ukulele safe, read about it here.
Tone (Oh My!)
For many musicians, tone is everything. They are willing to drop unbelievable amounts of money for this mystical quality within an instrument. Can a $200 beginner laminate ukulele “out tone” a custom, handcrafted solid wood ukulele? Many would say no, but the fact remains that tone is entirely subjective. (I know I triggered some of you collectors, haha).
Truth be told, what makes a solid tone-wood sound good is not the fact that its solid, but it comes down to physics. SCIENCE! Density, weight, and shape are all factors in tone. And laminate manufacturing is becoming more sophisticated. The heat, pressure, adhesive, and process used in making the laminate wood is coming closer to the tonal qualities of solid wood tone-woods.
But ultimately, a laminate ukulele simply cannot resonate as freely as an all solid wood instrument. This is due to the laminates added rigidity that aids in it’s durability. The added tactile strength does have an effect on tone, hampering it a little. But laminates are catching up! This is great news for those wanting to have an affordable great sounding ukulele!
The Bottom Line
This is the big one...
Price is without a doubt the main determining factor when deciding which ukulele to buy, but it has now become really complex. There was a time when a cheap ukulele sounded like a cheap ukulele. We called them ‘toys’. Mainly souvenirs from your trip from Hawaii. When it was played next to an instrument that was two, three, or four times its price, you would be embarrassed you paid for it. Banishing it away to EBay...haha! However, those days are long gone!
Within the last 10 years or so, modernized building techniques and new, more sustainable methods of harvesting wood have brought about an increase in the number of high quality (and ultimately inexpensive) ukulele. This has certainly skewed the playing field with regard to what we can get for our money. Currently the market has shifted to ukulele under $200 being the highest selling market. I don’t think you can find a quality solid body ukulele for under that price.
Today, solid top ukulele, with a laminate back and sides are essentially an industry standard. A ukulele’s soundboard, being the most important factor with regards to the ukulele’s overall tone and projection profits the most from the resonant qualities of being a solid top. But the back and sides being made with a quality laminate greatly reduces the price.
For starters, a quality all laminate ukulele can be found for $150. One you could play for the rest of your life without the need to upgrade. A quality solid top, laminate back and sides ukulele could be found for around $250 or less. While a quality, all solid ukulele starts around $400, and goes up to $1,200. As you can see, the cost savings are meaningful!
So the secrets out! Laminate ukulele are amazing too! I hope this post gives you the confidence to purchase a laminate ukulele. You can always upgrade later!
Keep Jamming and aloha!