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Easy Care Construction

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Easy Care construction offers just what the name implies.  As with an all laminate instrument, our Easy Care construction returns the care-free element to an Ukulele.  We have achieved this with no compromise in sound quality versus the current common high-end building methods.  The areas of difference from our Traditional construction are as follows: The Neck This is one of the most vulnerable areas of an Ukulele when it comes to stability, and an area that is vital to it’s performance.  A neck that bows or twists renders the entire instrument useless.  Longneck instruments, as many of our designs are, can be even more prone to these dangers.  At one time, well seasoned wood - meaning dried for decades - was thought to be the answer for stability for a neck.  But well seasoned wood is typically seasoned in a particular environment.  Start to move it around, start to change it’s environment from hot to cold, from dry to humid, the conditions an instrument goes through in modern times, and watch as sometimes stress in the wood that has sat dormant for all those decades will begin to manifest. There are a number of precautions to take when building a neck, but one popular way to combat the problem in Ukuleles is to use a carbon fiber reenforcement, or stationary truss rod.  This is an excellent stabilizer, and its light density adds almost nothing to the overall weight of the neck.  This is what we use on our Traditional construction instruments.  If you are taking the precautions in care that a solid wood instrument requires, then as long as there are no serious problems with the wood to begin with, this will be a secure solution. With our Easy Care design, however, we wanted something that could stand up to a much broader range of conditions than the protective environment that typically surrounds a solid wood instrument.  With a background in lumber production and kiln drying, we subjected the single CF rod system to a series of admittedly severe tests.  What we found was that while the Carbon Fiber held up in regards to bowing, it is not as strong a preventative against twisting.  At that point we tested a different construction. The older method to prevent neck deformation is to laminate it.  This construction is typical of long thin necks subject to relatively high stress.  Banjos are a prime example.  We took this structure - two sections of neck material divided by a hardwood spline, and then added two carbon fiber rods, one each below the fretboard in each section.  After one mishap due to glue, we simply could not provoke a neck failure.  We had frets popping off, we had mold, we finally had wood cracking, and still we could not provoke a bow or a twist over a series of necks built of varying material. This may seem like overkill on an Ukulele.  Admittedly, the impetus for this was the long necks on our Plectrum and Tenor Guitars.  On something as small as a Soprano Ukulele, even a longneck, and on a neck never subjected to high tension strings, it’s easy to feel that this may be too much.  But wood stress is a powerful thing.  If each piece is not completely relieved of stress during the drying process, then even “shorts” under no tension at all can deform.  We feel confident that this is something you’ll never see on an Easy Care neck, no matter what the environment. The Soundboard The soundboard and back of an Ukulele or Guitar are textbook examples of how not to build with wood.  These are thin pieces of wood that are fixed to sides in a fashion that doesn’t allow for much movement.  They are, in other words, cracks waiting to happen.  They are typically built with a bit of a curve to allow for some slight movement, otherwise cracking would be even more common, but with the soundboard, that movement can effect the bridge height, and therefore action and playability.  A solution does exist - it is to laminate in some form, to stop the wood from moving.  While we wanted Easy Care construction to be able to withstand a wide variation in temperature and humidity, in our design goals, sound is “Number One”.  We had to be able to find a way to laminate a soundboard without compromising the sound quality. We got close - very close.  We have a laminated soundboard design that actually sounds very nice, but in the end, not quite as nice as the solid material we will be using for the time being.  In other words, in this area, we had to compromise a bit.  We have some additional refinements to try in that composite soundboard, however, and we may revisit that option in the future. In the meantime, we feel we got very lucky.  In exploring solid soundboard material we tried Yellow Cedar.  Along with its southern cousin Port Orford Cedar, it is the most dimensionally stable soundboard material known to date.  The luck part came because we happen to love its sound on an Ukulele.  Again, sound is the priority (see the Woods page for more). We tested these Yellow Cedar soundboards @ 30% humidity over two weeks and found no cracking and almost no movement.  Over the same period @ 20% there was still no cracking, but I think at that point there was enough movement that intonation could be altered.  Remember that wood is an organic material, so each piece will vary somewhat in this regard.  Still, while this does represent a compromise compared to what our necks can stand up to, it is nonetheless much better than we would ever have expected from any solid wood soundboard.  Therefore, while we will often use Yellow Cedar in our Traditional instruments, simply because we like the sound, solid tops of Yellow Cedar will be the only material in the Easy Care models. As good as it is, however, it is the top material that will define the limits of Easy Care construction.  In the end, this is not a carbon fiber instrument and there will be boundaries in what these instruments can withstand.  In extreme conditions over an extended period, some care will be required. The Back With backs, the solution was simpler than with the soundboard, and that solution doesn’t partake much of anything in the way of compromise.  I say simple, because the answer was sitting right there in the nineteenth century in those same Romantic era guitars that the original Ukuleles were patterned after.  But not so simple in that implementing the solution requires over twice the labor and material of building a solid wood back.  In those earlier times a technique was developed for applying a lining to the backs of guitars.  René Lacôte was probably the most famous luthier of that era, and the one also most known for using this technique.  Cypress was the material typically used, and hide glue was used for fixing it to the outer layer.  Remember that in that era, new world timbers such as rosewood were just coming into widespread use in Europe, and the guitars of that day were not that much larger than a Baritone Ukulele.  Rosewoods are notorious for splitting, and so the first thought is that this technique was a preventative for that problem.  But this was also before the era of central heat.  Even with the rosewoods, splitting was not the problem it is today.  Lacôte claimed that the bright crisp sound of cypress was an ideal additive to the sound of rosewood: “sweetening” the tone.  In other words, the impetus for cypress lined backs was not for stability, but for sound. Of course it also provides stability, remedying a modern problem while allowing us to rediscover the sound possibilities of an earlier era of lutherie.  We use the term that was used then: ”cypress lined”, as opposed to “laminate”, and we do it for two reasons.  First because it is more accurate.  “Laminate” can, and most often does signify multiple layers of cross-grain veneer.  That is not what we are talking about here.  Secondly, that term has been so poisoned by the poor quality of factory built “laminate” instruments, that it understandably implies secondary quality.  So - let’s be specific about these differences between our cypress lining and a “laminate” and how they affect the performance of the back.  First, as mentioned above, there are not multiple layers to this construction.  There are just two - the outer hardwood board and the inner board of cypress.  The grain runs parallel, not cross-grain.  This allows for movement like you would have in a solid back.  Actually compared to a solid rosewood back, it allows for slightly more movement, as the rosewood component is thinner, and the cypress component is a more flexible material.  The glue in a “laminate” back is generally a typical wood glue, so you have multiple layers in your back of a notorious sound absorbent.  In our backs we don’t use hide glue.  While it is an excellent material in regards to sound, we have discovered another laminating glue of superior durability and the same crystalline hardness that gives hide glue its reputation as a good adhesive where sound properties are important. You can “work” a cypress lined back in the same fashion as a solid back, thinning it for optimal tone.  Each piece starts out only a little thinner than a typical finished solid back.  Actually in regard to thinning for tone, one can say it offers greater possibilities than a solid back.  You can adjust the tone in one direction by thinning the cypress side, and in another direction by thinning the hardwood.  Obviously with a “laminate” you do no thinning at all - you can hardly sand without going through the thin decorative veneer.  You can also see at this point how repairing dents or scratches on a cypress lined back would be similar to the procedure for a solid back. Then, the added stability of the cypress lining allows you to expand the palette of wood choices you can use for your outer layer.  You are no longer strictly confined to quartersawn patterns.  Certain woods that are simply not stable enough in a plain solid back now also come into play.  You don’t have as much latitude in this regard as with a “laminate” back.  These boards are still, after all, not drastically thinner than a solid back - they are not the 1/42” thickness of a typical factory “laminate”.  Still, a wood like Bocote, for example, beautiful in color, figure and tone, is a wood that we would be hesitant to use without a cypress lining.   So - if this is such a wonderful construction for backs, why did it disappear?  Well, it didn’t disappear entirely.  To this day it is still used (though not widely) in some Spanish Guitars.  But there two main reasons for its decline.  The first blow came from the most famous guitar builder in history, Antonio Torres.  His innovations marked the end of Romantic era  guitar design in Europe.  After Torres, we essentially have the modern form.  Guitars went from smaller, more melodic instruments to a larger instrument with a deeper, more powerful sound.  In one of his most famous experiments, he constructed a beautiful sounding guitar using nothing but papier mache for the backs and sides.  His point in this was to show the relative importance of the top when it came to the production of fine sound.  But if the master had demonstrated how little the backs and sides mattered in this regard, then why would one go to the extra time and expense of “sweetening” a component that contributed so little to the overall tone? The second blow came when factories began producing the sort of cheap “laminate” instruments we see today.  They actually demonstrate that saying the Torres experiment meant backs and sides have no effect on sound at all is going too far, for as a rule, these “laminates” are so poorly done that there’s little argument they produce diminished sound quality.  Still by this time, cypress lined backs were part of a previous era.  Small shop builders then jumped at the opportunity to promote solid wood as the benchmark of quality.  After all, for a small shop, laminating of any sort is more expensive than building with solid wood.  Only in a factory setting can it become economical, and even then that is partly due to the virtual elimination of the sort of warranty issues associated with solid construction. In the end, though, our priority is still about sound.  Does this back produce as good a sound as a solid back?  Is it even better?  The argument on that level would be exactly the same as an argument over solid Mahogany or solid Koa.  A cypress lining alters the tone of whatever wood it is applied to.  In the case of Rosewood, Lacôte heard what he felt was an improvement.  For the better part of a century people agreed with that view.  That is not to say some may not have preferred the sound of unadorned rosewood.  Some prefer Koa, after all, and some Mahogany. If you’ve looked at the commitment we’ve made in terms of design, you can rest assured that at this point, we would let nothing compromise our sound quality.  And there is also no doubt that the finest Romantic era guitars were capable of a gorgeous light tone.  So at this point, just listen to an original 1830 Lacôte, and let your ears decide.   The Sides Sides are probably the most stable elements in an Ukulele.  They are freer than the top and back to move along the width of the grain, so stability is not that great a concern here. But when we started looking at lamination as a possibility for improving stability in other areas, we noticed how many high end guitar luthiers paired their lined back construction with side linings.  The cypress lined Ramirez guitar backs of Spain today, for example, also have cypress lined sides. Sides are essentially a bridge between the vibrating soundboard and the reflective back, and the stiffer they are the less sound they absorb.  Stiff side construction can create a bit more of a direct sound, improving projection.   Layering the sides is how guitar makers get what they want in this regard, because there is a limit in how thick you can go with a solid side.  At some point they will start to break instead of bend.  Of course, as we have noted, lamination is an expensive process with a luthier built instrument.  What we ended up doing, therefore, was to modify this concept for solid side construction. In all of our Easy Care instruments, you’ll see that the sides are a different material than the back.  They are not much thicker than a typical Ukulele side.  The side of an Ukulele, however, will be somewhat stiffer than a guitar side to begin with.  The curved areas, the stiffest sections, are distributed over a smaller area, or to put it another way, Ukulele sides have a greater portion of their length made up by curves.  We then just substituted denser material for our sides than the woods used for the back. In our exploration of woods, before we ran into the permit process, we tried this with Lignum Vitae sides paired with a Mahogany back and front.  Lignum Vitae is one of the hardest woods known to man, and yet hard does not always mean that the wood won’t take to the bending process.  Now, we are unable to use Lignum Vitae (or Mahogany for that matter), but the sides of Easy Care instruments are made from dense woods that can still be bent without problem.  We also liked this idea from the point of aesthetics.  Being lovers of wood, contrasting side material has also been appealing to us.  We also looked at this as an opportunity to show that our back construction is in fact different from the sides.  Rather than hide that difference with conventional wood selection, we want to emphasize it.  The process does add time and expense.  Selection is more complicated and waste factors are often higher.   As to whether it adds to the quality of sound, we would say perhaps.  But remember the Torres experiment.  If there truly is any difference it would be extremely small.  As a matter of fact, we will not claim any superiority in sound for the Easy Care construction.  While Lacôte preferred the sound of a cypress lined back, in the end, that will be a matter of personal preference.  The characteristics of a lined back are not different in any substantial way from those of a solid back.  Any improvement from stiffer sides or a stiffer neck would be difficult to prove.  Of course, we feel when it comes to sound, Easy Care is at least the equal of Traditional construction.  But our sound profile comes more from the top design and the overall layout of scale and body volume.  These key elements are the same for both forms of back & side construction.  When you make a choice between the two, then sound is not really an area that should enter into your consideration. Making Your Choice If sound is not a consideration, then what do you look at when deciding between an Easy Care or Traditional instrument.  The most obvious factor is the “Easy Care”.  If you live in a climate where humidity levels can be tough on a solid wood instrument, if you don’t like keeping an instrument cased up all winter, then Easy Care is a definite consideration.  This construction does cost more, so if you have grown accustomed to caring for a solid wood instrument, the extra expense may not be worth it. If you travel, and like to take your instrument along, Easy Care will be an option to look at.  Of course in that situation, you also have the advantages of our “Passport” declaration to get your wooden instrument through customs (see the Woods page for more on this), and a case built like the Rock of Gibraltar. Finally, aesthetics are not to be overlooked.  If you happen to like the contrasting sides, unfortunately you’ll have to pay for that look.  If you prefer a more customary arrangement of woods then “tradition” will cost you less.