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15 March 2013

Far North Ukuleles

Not too long ago you might remember that I did a post on Ukulele Russ. We ended up talking about all sorts of things, but of course there was a fair bit of uke-talk too. I discovered that Russ is sponsored by Far North Ukuleles which is run by Tom Parse.

Tom Parse of Far North Ukuleles

Having got in touch with Tom, I quickly realised that I wanted to know a lot more about him and his ukes. Since then Tom has been kind enough to furnish me with all sorts of photos and has been patiently answering my questions. What is it with Alaskans? I have been genuinely taken aback by both Tom and Russ's friendliness and willingness to chew the fat. The pleasure has been all mine. I want to thank both of them for their time. They really are an inspiration.

I love this picture! This is how Tom sleeps every night! ;-)

There is no website for Far North Ukuleles, so I'm chuffed to bits to be showing you some of Tom's handiwork here. I think you'll agree that the quality of workmanship is self-evident. All of the pictures in this post were taken by Tom's wife and business partner Faith Nava. There really are some great shots here Faith - I'm very impressed! :-)

I've joined a number of photos together. If things look a little cluttered here and there... that's all my fault!

"Hang 'em high!"

As is usual, I'm going to jump around a bit in this post and undoubtedly dive off at the odd tangent here and there. If like me, you love the whole end-to-end build process then you're in for a treat; There really is a lot of ukulele goodness below.


Here's Tom's business card. I love the picture. Tom designed it and uses
this same image on his uke stickers.

Tom provided me with a little bit of background on himself. Check this out:
I was born in Indiana but headed to the Far North of Alaska for adventure as soon as I could. I have lived here now for 30 some years with my wonderful wife, Faith. I have two grown sons, one in Hawaii and one in Alaska. 
I'm a helicopter/Lear Jet mechanic by trade but an artist at heart. After doing woodworking for many years, I learned jewelry making from my good friend and master jeweler, Richard Koskovich. From jewelry to luthiery was not that great a leap. 
I studied ukulele building with Sam Rosen in Holualoa, Hawaii, and have become acquainted with most of the builders on the big island of Hawaii. I thought, instead of making a piece of jewelry that someone will keep in a box, why not make a box that someone can make happy music with all the time. So I took all of my skills I had learned and built my first ukulele "that was it", I had found my passion in life, and I haven't looked back since. Faith jokes that she has become a ukulele widow, but she's ok with that. 
My main luthier shop is in Fairbanks, Alaska but I am currently building on the 26,000 acre Hokukano ranch in Kealakekua Hawaii. I built the owner a uke a few years back and he invited me to come and make ukes from the Koa and other woods that grow here. Since I had just retired from Search and Rescue in Barrow Alaska and needed to warm up a bit, I took him up on the offer. I am a member of the Big Island Ukulele Guild and may eventually move to the Kona area, stay tuned.

Great ukes start with great wood. Tom uses local Hawaiian woods like Koa,
Mango and Milo, sourcing other woods like Maple, Walnut, Mahogany, Ebony
and Padauk (an African hardwood) from wherever he can. Tom says that some of
the best sounding ukes he's made have been out of Padauk, but these days he's
pretty much only making Koa ukuleles from the Hokukano Ranch where he is
currently working. When making ukuleles with a spruce top, Tom sources the
spruce exclusively from Alaska Speciality Woods. Tom will use Alaskan Sitka
Spruce, Engleman Spruce and also Cedar and Redwood. He's always on the
look-out for new and great sounding woods.

There is some serious kit in this set of pictures. Here we can see how Tom
"stickers" and weighs down pieces of wood after cutting. These will eventually
go on to become uke backs, sides and tops. They are left like this until completely
dry. It can take a year for the wood to fully cure.

What a beautiful trio of ukes just waiting to be put together. That glossy
finish is fantastic.

Do you fancy making one yourself?

Tom explains how...

"My standard headstocks are 1/2 inch thick with an Ebony headplate. I usually
incorporate some inlay of either body matching wood or Mammoth ivory from
Alaska. The nut and bridge are usually from Mammoth ivory as well. I use
Spanish cedar for all of my necks. It is very light and very stable. I inlay
a rectangular carbon rod the length of the neck for strength. The fingerboard
and bridge are of Ebony. I use small Mandolin style fret wire for better
intonation. On the inside, I use Spanish cedar kerfing. I just love the way it
gives all Far North Ukuleles that distinctive cigar humidor aroma. The
bridgeplate is where I have moved away from the vintage style of luthiery
construction. The bridgeplate is directly under the saddle. The purpose of the
bridgeplate is to reinforce the saddle where it is glued to the soundboard. It is
traditionally made of a piece of wood.  I use a very thin piece of carbon sheet. 
It helps in reducing the weight of the ukulele and I feel it allows the sound
board to vibrate more freely.

Wherever I build I insist that the humidity from start to finish is held as
close to 45% as possible. In Alaska that means adding moisture and in
Hawaii that means taking it out. Building in the middle of the humidity
range helps prevent any trouble no matter where my ukes end up. I have
seen what happens when a uke is built in Hawaii and moved to an Alaskan
winter without considering what humidity does to wood.....  it moves.
My first uke I built is now totally unplayable..a future lamp maybe. I also build
my ukes with a 15 foot radius bowl shape on the back and a 25 foot radius
arch on the top. This builds in strength and stability to the top and back.
No matter what I do my goal is always the same, to make the best
sounding/playable ukulele that I can."

Wondering what all that adds up to? See below...

There are so many little gems in Tom's comments above on how he builds
ukuleles! Perhaps the biggest revelation for me is his use of carbon. This
is something I haven't come across before with ukes. Also, when I built my
Kingcaster electric uke
, I worried about whether I might need some sort
of truss and convinced myself I didn't
. Tom is fitting a carbon rod in the
necks of his ukuleles as standard. It's obvious that Tom is building
instruments that are going to pass the tests of time. And I absolutely love
that Tom can get excited simply about the smell of the build! Brilliant!

I broached the subject of prices with Tom and he says that you can expect
to pay US $1750 for a soprano, $1800 for a concert and $1850 for a tenor.
While he'd much prefer to sell ukuleles that he's already made, you could
probably twist his arm and get him to make "something special" for you.

The ukes in this picture are outstanding. See that the one on the left
is thinner than the one on the right. Tom is finding that he's tending
more and more to building the thinner ukuleles. In his opinion they
just sound better; they vibrate more and sound louder. "Ever seen a
fat violin?" Ha ha... no I haven't Tom! I remember talking about thinner
bodies when I posted about Argapa Ukuleles. I wonder if we're on the
brink of revolution here?

I love these "work in progress" shots. I'd spotted some writing on the heel of the neck
and asked Tom what it was. You can see I've blown it up on the right hand side of the
picture. It says "Far North Uke" with Tom's signature below and the date. I think that little
details like this are wonderful - a hidden message for restorers of the future. Tom marks
all of his Alaskan ukuleles this way.

Here's one of the thinner ukes. I am particularly taken with the darker
strip of wood that Tom has used to edge the bodies. It's a nice touch
and works well to offset the lighter wood of the body.

Here's where it all started for me. Do you recognise this uke?
Yep! It's Ukulele Russ's uke!

Tom had this to say on Ukulele Russ:

"Building Ukes for Ukulele Russ has been a joy and a challenge.
He plays so hard and so much that I have had to rethink many of
the things that I have been doing. He wears out the frets in less
than a year so that gives you an idea of the challenge. Working
with Russ has been to me what test tracks are to car makers."

I've already mentioned the trademark "6-pack" carry hole. You'd
think that there wasn't much more to say on this uke... but wait!
On closer inspection I became intrigued by the fact that there are
two end pins! Could there be some crazy stereo piezo pickup
thing going on here? Actually no: One is for a piezo and the
other is for a quick-disconnect strap as per Russ's exacting
demands. ;-)

Tom doesn't fit piezos as standard, but his designs allow for
them to be fitted. If you want Tone and Volume controls then it
would be better if you specified them pre-build, but he can fit
these afterwards too. His piezo of choice is produced by MiSi...


This intrigues me... I've never some across MiSi before...

The MiSi pickup is an under saddle piezo system that has no battery, but
 instead uses a capacitor that can be charged with an included charger or a
9 volt battery. A 60 second charge gives you up to 16 hours playing time.
 They are light and MiSi produce a model especially for ukuleles. As in
 Ukulele Russ's uke above, these piezos can be fitted with a tone and
volume control inside the sound hole.

I asked Russ if he uses his and he certainly does. He was quick to reply...
"The MiSi pick up is AWESOME.  Very strong clean signal that charges
 in 60 seconds and lasts for about 9-10+  hours. Get one!"

If that isn't a glowing endorsement then I don't know what is! If anyone
else reading this is using MiSi pickups then I'd love to hear your
experience of them.

Tom builds solo and though not the cheapest ukuleles you'll find, Tom says
he's not getting rich making them. "I do believe that my ukes are some of the
 best available. They are light, strong, responsive and fun. Being a jeweler 
and well-versed in the art of inlay, I have deliberately not used much of it
on my ukes. I know builders that are very good at this and their ukes are
quite stunning. For me it is all about the sound and playability. I feel my
ukes are beautiful but like a good looking woman, they don't need make-up. 
I let the wood speak for itself."

Ha ha. I echo those sentiments exactly, especially the comments about
inlays. It's a very subjective thing, but personally, I'm not a huge fan of
some of the OTT inlay-work I see in instruments at the moment. I believe
that a lot of it is simply down to some clever machinery. Like everything,
subtlety is often best. On the comment about good looking women not
needing make-up... Tom's right about his ukes... I think this point is
illustrated perfectly in the picture above. I wonder if the one on the left is
single?

I've mentioned shops in Fairbanks Alaska and Hawaii, and that Tom is
spending this winter at the Hokukano Ranch in Kealakekua. You might be
interested to learn that this isn't anything new; Tom and his wife have
wintered in Hawaii for the last 25 years. Tom considers the "Big Island"
their second home and is on the lookout for a permanent address. This
picture is of Tom's workshop in Hawaii. I've almost forgotten what
 sun looks like!

I asked Tom if he is the most northerly uke maker in the world, and it
may well be true! He says he knows other ukulele-makers, but that he's
the only full-time maker he's aware of. If you know better... let me know!

Okay, Okay! I'm talking too much... Time for a few shots of Tom's
workshop. See this one here. I'm not sure what Tom's doing on the left.
Perhaps he's making some new-fangled sort of bear trap?

Here's a sort of panorama of Tom's workshop. I was marveling at the
beautiful setting and how much room Tom has. Tom made me laugh with
his response... "Not near enough room!" It just shows you... It doesn't
matter what you've got, you always want more! ;-D

That's your lot. This has turned itself into a bit of an epic post. To be honest, I could have gone on... and on... but I must end...

I really appreciate the insight Tom has given me on what he does and how he thinks. What a great guy! I hope everyone reading this feels inspired to look him up. I'm going to finish with a little quote from Tom that I think sums him up perfectly. Until the next time...
"Building ukuleles for me is a work of passion. It is what I love to do and each one is special to me. I feel very lucky to find myself in a situation where my life and my work are one and the same. Someone said find your passion and you will never work another day in your life. I can say I am living that dream. How cool is that! 
~ Tom Parse 2013



5 comments:

  1. I got a MiSi pickup in my uke and I love it. I don't even notice it's there it's so light, and no ugly control panel embedded in the wood.

    Sounds pretty good too.

    /jon

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  2. Thanks for the comment Jon. So I must be the last person in the world to find out about them! ;-)
    BTW - I was flicking through your blog and just thought I'd let you know that I enjoyed the whole Plotting/Pantsing piece. You can apply what you say to blog post writing too. I'm more pantsing than plotting at the moment and I think it's coming up with better results for me. Hold on! I should be adding this comment to your blog...

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  3. Really enjoyed the post and pics! I know a couple of great ukers in Alaska, it's a growing trend there. I also prefer the MiSi pick-up.

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  4. Glad you enjoyed the post Anon. I think you can tell that I really enjoyed myself putting it together for you. If Tom and Russ are an indication of Alaskan ukers then there is a great community up there and the future is bright. And another thumbs up for the MiSi! Thanks for commenting.

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  5. these pictures are awesome. i wish i could build instruments. Great post keep up the hard work. Check these out IStillGotMyGuitar.

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