The Pacific Northwest might not seem the logical epicenter for a boom in ukulele playing. But it apparently is. Two local ukulele circles meet each week while a third holds monthly meetings. Each draws more than a dozen people. And now a startup company in Pierce County is making the four-string strummers as “green” as they can while also bringing music to children battling cancer. This is that story.
Rainy Day Ukes are all handmade using local, plentiful and highly sustainable woods gathered from the small cutters around the South Sound, mostly within 30 miles of this Pierce County shop. Red alder, spruce, big leaf maple and madrona might fly in the face of Hawaiian ukulele traditionalists who are used to koa, but using that Pacific Island wood misses the point of uke making, designer and company President Michael Dresdner said. “You have to design around the material anyway,” he said. “And as long as you do that, you can use anything. It makes sense to make a ukulele out of koa if you are in Hawaii, but here it doesn’t make sense.”
Hawaiians only started making their ukuleles out of koa because it was really the only hard wood available on the islands, after all. They went local, so Dresdner’s ukes will go local as well. And if he knows anything, he knows wood. He has more than 40 years of experience in woodworking and is a nationally known expert in such matters. Most locals, however, may remember him as a founder of Tacoma Guitars from a decade ago. The firm’s signature Papoose and its subsequent models gained favor with Bob Dylan, the Dixie Chicks, Vince Gill, Ben Harper, Nickelback and Bonnie Raitt, before it was bought out by Fender and eventually ended production in 2008.
Dresdner folded his career at Martin Guitars and Tacoma Guitars into his woodworking knowledge and added a symphony of a new technology to make ukuleles, that would otherwise be impossible, through a system called cold bending that allows the wood to be twisted into shapes that would otherwise splinter from the stress. While the small family shop hand sands and molds the $400 to $700 concert ukes these days, it has also undertaken an effort to share ukulele playing by producing uke-making kits bound for Camp Goodtimes.
That side effort all started with a challenge earlier this year, when Dresdner’s son, daughter and her boyfriend were looking for a project they could share during their volunteering at the American Cancer Society’s summer camp on Vashon Island for children who have cancer. Dresdner designed a ukulele kit with a gaggle of Rogers High School shop students cutting and sanding the pieces from donated wood and parts courtesy of Ken Warmoth of Warmoth Guitars in Puyallup. By the time camp is done, 100 children with cancer will head home from their summer camp with a Camp Goodtimes ukulele they put together themselves. The first 50 have already been delivered, with the second half of them camp bound later this month.
The largest ukulele performance in local history is in the works for the Proctor Farmers Market on Aug. 4. The goal is 100 players strumming during some two hours of “mega uke jam.”
Monday Ukulele Ohana are held at the Asian Pacific Culture Center, formerly the South Park Community Center at 4851 South Tacoma Way, every Monday from 5:30-9 p.m. The group is free and open to the public to learn about ukulele playing and Pacific Island culture, hence a jam session always ends with a potluck fest. Uke ‘an Jam, a free ukulele strum circle, is held every Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at Ted Brown Music, 6228 Tacoma Mall Boulevard. Washington Association of South Sound Ukulele Players meets on the fourth Tuesday of every month from 6:30-8 p.m. at Point Defiance Village, 6414 North Park Way. All are welcome to watch, join in and learn or just hang around and enjoy all things ukulele.