Published on 15/07/2011
Ukuleles are made from different woods. Each has their own special quality, and the look of the grain or pattern is important as this can influence the ukulele player's enjoyment. Woods typically used are mahogany, koa, spruce and cedar.
Ukuleles sound like ukuleles no matter what they are made of. The distinctive ukulele sound comes from the smaller body size and high pitch of the strings which produce tones in the upper range. For such a small instrument like the ukulele, the body has to have a thin soundboard which produces the typical ukulele sound, usually 0.0625 inches thick.
Laminates or Composite Woods
Ukuleles can be made from laminated or ply wood. This is not the same cheap ply wood used in houses with scrap wood glued in the middle, but rather a special composite wood especially designed for ukuleles. Wood being that thin is apt to crack easily or have grain separations when it gets too dry. These ukuleles are made from a cheaper wood which is laminated to a nicer looking wood.
A laminate is made of several thin sheets, or plies. Each ply is placed to the grain in the wood runs at 90 degrees from the previous ply. This strengthens the wood but also has significant effect on sound because the woods cannot move as well in response to the sound as a solid wood can. Laminates do not open and compress the same way solid woods do. By their nature, laminates tend to average out tonal and playing effects, so they do not change much over the life of the ukulele.
Well made composite ukuleles sound great and are really good value for money. You will get a consistent sound over time.
Solid Wood Tops
Solid wood ukuleles will almost always give a brighter tone than a ukulele made from a laminate. They vibrate more freely than laminate woods. The wood density in solid tops can vary, making each ukulele unique in tonal qualities.
Mahogany Medium density wood, mainly used on bodies and gives a warm rich tone.
Spruce A very close grained wood that produces a rich, vibrant tone. Spruce ukuleles have a spruce top but not the back and sides.
Koa A native Hawaiian wood which offers a bright, punchy tone, and is very attractive. Koa means bold. Many Hawaiian ukulele makers consider koa to be the best wood for ukuleles. However, good quality koa is hard to find and expensive.
Nato Known also as Eastern Mahogany, it is a reliable, strong wood used on guitar necks. It is a value-priced wood used more in the lower cost instruments. However, Nato still embodies all of the properties of more commonly used.... and more expensive mahogany. Not a bad wood at all.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What matters most is the sound you like from your ukulele. Apart from the looks and tone, how much you want to spend on a ukulele is also a factor. If you enjoy the sound from a laminate topped ukulele that is fine. If you prefer the solid-topped ukuleles, bear in mind that the sound will eventually alter over time giving the instrument a unique sound.