*A small four-stringed guitar of Hawaiian origin made in Todd Korup’s basement workshop in Port Washington
Todd Korup has spent a decade making acoustic and electric ukuleles, the small, four-stringed member of the guitar family frequently associated with Hawaii.
But Korup, who calls himself the Uker of Oz, couldn’t be farther away from Hawaii. He painstakingly builds each of his ukuleles in his basement workshop in Port Washington.
He has sold more than 70 of his ukuleles to people around the world, and among those who own them are a few celebrities.
In 2003, while buying his sister a gift at a music shop, Korup noticed a ukulele for sale. On a whim, he bought it.
“That was kind of the start. It just made sense playing it,” said Korup, 42, who learned how to play the guitar in high school. “There’s so much on the guitar so you can get discouraged easily, and the uke just makes sense. It has four strings. I have four fingers to put on it.”
After a year of playing the ukulele, he decided to try building the small guitar himself.
“I just started looking at it more and said ‘I could probably make this,’” Korup said. “At the time I started, there was not a lot of information around on them. I gleaned little bits that I could off the web.
“I never really worked with blueprints, but it’s an instrument, so there are things that have to be right to get it to play.”
It was a process of trial and error, Korup said.
“The first two that I made I have in our bedroom. They look awesome, but they sound like junk because I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. “The third one I made actually sounded pretty good, and that’s when I started thinking, ‘OK, now I know what I did wrong.’”
He started by purchasing guitar-making supplies and cutting them to size. Now Korup makes everything from scratch.
“I’ve thinned my own woods,” he said, noting that had to build some of his own tools to use for the job.
A friend in Hawaii ships him the wood of koa trees, which are native to the islands. A nice sounding ukulele starts with good wood, Korup said.
“It can’t just be thin wood. It has to be cut right. The person cutting it and selling it as instrument wood needs to know what they’re doing,” Korup said.
The first thing Korup assembles is the body of the ukulele.
“The body is kind of the heart of the whole thing,” he said.
Korup uses steam to bend wood into the curved shape for the outside frame of the guitar.
This is the most difficult part of construction, Korup said.
“Sometimes they don’t want to bend and they blow apart and I have to start all over,” he said.
Wood blocks are put inside the frame to reinforce the body and support other parts.
“I’ll do a top and glue that on, then I’ll do a back and I’ll glue that on,” Korup said. “After that, depending on what size I’m making, I’ll select the wood and cut out the wood for the neck.”
Finally, he turns it into a string instrument.
“The most important part, as far as it being an instrument, are the frets, the fret board and the length (of the neck). Otherwise it won’t play,” Kroup said.
It doesn’t take long for him to find out if he’s done a good job on a ukulele.
“A musician will pick it up and they’ll let you know really quick if it’s good or bad. If it doesn’t play right, they’ll say so,” he said. “I learned a lot early on about what I should and shouldn’t be doing as far as making something that people will like.”
None of the parts on his instruments are touched by a machine. Korup sands, assembles and stains each one by hand.
The process takes anywhere from 15 hours to more than 40, depending on the intricacy and detailing of designs, Korup said.
The depression-style ukuleles he builds from vintage coffee cans and cigar boxes are especially popular.
While the materials are easier to work with than wood, there’s a challenge to finding coffee cans that produce the desired sound, Korup said.
“I would go around flea markets and tap on cans. People would look at me wondering what I was doing,” he said.
It was one of his coffee can ukuleles that caught the eye of a celebrity customer, popular children’s author Sandra Boynton, who saw the instruments on Korup’s website.
Boynton, who had just finished a children’s music album, wanted to give Korup’s instrument as a gift to country music star Brad Paisley, who worked with her on the album.
She also bought a banjo ukulele as a gift for Ron Block, who plays banjo for country and bluegrass music star Alison Krauss.
Korup said he was flattered to have his instruments given as gifts to professional musicians.
“It made me think ‘OK, I guess I finally know what I’m doing.’ It was cool,” he said.
Korup’s coffee can ukuleles sell for $165, while standard wood and banjo ukuleles start at $700. Specialized electric and banjo ukuleles with intricate inlay detailing can go for more than $1,000.
Most of the instruments he designs come from requests.
Korup recently made an electric ukulele with an orange body that was painted by a motorcycle painter in Oshkosh.
“I did one for a friend of mine where the entire neck was inlaid with a palm tree scene and a canoe that wound up the neck,” he said.
A birthday gift for a teenage girl featured a striking blue ukulele inlaid with koi fish swimming up the fret board and around the sound hole.
“That one I had put in almost 20 hours on just the inlay work,” Korup said.
The first ukulele he made was for his daughter Mackenzie, 14, and had a heart-shaped sound hole on the front. Mackenzie and her siblings Max, 12, and Molly, 9, have all picked up a ukulele at one point, but Molly has stuck with it the longest.
“I like music a lot, so it’s really fun to play the Ukulele,” Molly said.
Korup said he’s better at building the instruments than playing them, but he does enjoy performing in ukulele music shows in Milwaukee.
One of the things Korup likes about the instrument is that there is no limit to the music that can be performed.
“It’s a legit instrument. It’s a serious instrument, and you can play anything on it,” Korup said. “I think the coolest thing about it is that it’s much more obtainable and less intimidating and daunting than a guitar,”
“You can do a lot on a guitar, but I think you can get there quicker on a uke.
“I could sit someone down and in probably in five minutes have them strumming a song.”
Korup especially enjoys the creativity and expression that comes from ukuleles long after he has assembled them.
“I can enjoy building it and being creative while doing it, but when you’re done it’s not just a piece of art,” he said. “Every time you pick it up, you can play it. It‘s that continuation of it every time you handle it.
“Then I go and watch people play it and it’s even cooler because they’re playing the thing that I made. That just kind of blows my mind.”
Image Information: TODD KORUP OF Port Washington played a banjo ukulele alongside his daughter Molly, 9, who held an acoustic ukulele. Korup made the instruments by hand in his basement workshop. Photo by Sam Arendt