Uking it out
The soft strum of a ukulele conjures feelings of cool and kitsch, like the “Arthur Godfrey Show” and “Laugh In.” Tiny Tim and his “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” nearly killed it, before Jake Shimabukuro breathed new life into the Hawaiian hit-maker. This humble little instrument, a small, four-string version of the guitar, is booming in popularity. Just ask neighbor Logan Daffron, he custom builds ukuleles.
It was juggling which led Daffron to the path of the ukulele. Perhaps an explanation is in order.
Flashback to the early 1980s. Daffron was making a living in photography, mostly shooting weddings, when he hears about a gig for jugglers at a Greco-Roman faire in East Texas. Though he had limited experience, he made it through the faire with a little instruction from a friend.
He, apparently, was a natural.
He quickly found representation in the form of an agent and worked full-time tossing objects in the air at parties. No slouch at juggling, Daffron opened for the likes of Leon Redbone and Melissa Etheridge, and taught classes. He even instructed a few Dallas Cowboys, who sought out his expertise to improve their hand-eye skills.
Around 2000, Daffron was teaching a class at Half Price Books when he crossed paths with a ukulele group meeting at the same time. “I already played guitar, so the fingering and chord shapes were familiar. They had an extra uke for me to play, and after a couple of weeks, I bought my own,” he says.
Daffron points to ukulele artist Jake Shimabukuro’s viral video — a crazy good rendition of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” — as a turning point for the instrument. “The ghost of Tiny Tim’s influence on the uke had passed and it was becoming cool to play one again. Four fingers and four strings make an easy, happy, fun sound. I was hooked.”
When a two-week intensive ukulele- building course in Hawaii landed in his lap, Daffron jumped at the chance. “I had always wanted to build an acoustic guitar but there was nowhere to learn.” He laughs, “It seemed like a good reason to go to Hawaii without having to get married.”
He returned home with his own creation: a beautiful ukulele made of mahogany with an ebony soundboard, abalone inlay and zebra wood headstock. “It was so much fun building my first uke I decided to keep doing it when I got home.”
Daffron set up shop in the garage of his home near White Rock Lake and went to work, building instruments for friends and others as word spread. Among his customers is singer-songwriter and Dallas native Edie Brickell, who tours with the New Bohemians and collaborates with Steve Martin on Americana music.
Daffron met Brickell when she performed frequently at a bar he owned a while back. A few years ago, she was performing at Club Dada, and Daffron was there with his ukulele. Chatting backstage with Brickell’s husband, singer-songwriter Paul Simon (who, by the way, also is a juggler), Simon admired his ukulele. Soon Daffron was at work in his shop, cutting out koa wood for the first of several ukuleles he would build for Brickell. In fact, he is currently working on a new instrument for her, which he’ll deliver in person when she is in town to perform this month.
“The ukulele is a simple instrument, but it can be complex [to build]. It’s like a person: It has a head, a neck and a body.” He laughs, “It’s not like Frankenstein. All the pieces are individually and happily made and cobbled together.”
Using his own template, Daffron cuts out the soundboard (front) from carefully chosen wood, maybe golden mango or Hawaiian koa or mahogany. “It’s the most important part; it’s where sound is made. Vibration makes the sound, not the strings.” He adds, “The wood has to be firm and strong but still vibrate.”
Those curved sides? He uses a side-bending machine which basically uses steam to create the lovely curved shape.
After attaching bracing, the soundboard and back are attached to the sides, creating a box. Lots of cutting and trimming commences. “I make a lot of sawdust, but it starts to look like a ukulele after a while.”
He meticulously cuts out and shapes the neck, heelstock and headstock; once attached to the box, the fret board is added.
Tuners are added to the headstock; the bridge is attached. “Then I string it up.” Voila: Ukulele.
Each instrument is personalized. In one, Daffron fashioned the letter “K” into the headstock; in another, he spelled out the recipient’s name in wooden letters inside the body, positioning it so was only visible through the sound hole.
Yes, his finished product is beautiful. But that’s not the point. “In the end, you just want it to play well and sound great.”
Daffron calls it a “labor of love. It’s not a money-making venture for me.” His advice for uke-building wannabes: “You need a lot of patience and time.”
The best thing about building ukuleles? “Playing them once you finish,” grins Daffron as he picks up his first-born uke and strums the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine.”
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