Michael Brown, executive chef of residence hall dining at 5,500-student Southern Oregon University in Ashland, has played the guitar since he was 15. After a hobby in building furniture, he decided to try building guitars and ukuleles. He has since built more than 20 ukuleles and about five guitars.
“I’ve been an avid guitar player since I was 15 or 16. About 10 or 12 years ago I got excited about building them. One thing that got me going early on was when I read about this village in Mexico where they build guitars. The whole village is based around building guitars, and I saw some pictures of these guys who were using pretty primitive tools. That made me think I didn’t need a shop full of tools to do this, I just need to do it.
It took awhile to build up a workshop and get all the right tools. I pretty much taught myself by reading some books and researching online. I started building ukuleles first because they are much smaller and don’t take as much material. I was able to build ukuleles out of wood that I just had around the shop with a minimal investment. What sparked my interest in ukuleles was a book by Jim Belhoff. He started finding them in flea markets and started going crazy for them. There’s kind of been a renaissance with ukuleles lately.
I have probably built 20 or so ukuleles. I’ve sold five or six and I did one on commission that was a really high-end one. Once I got going on ukuleles, I really fell in love with them. Somewhere along the line I realized I had started out to build guitars so I’d better get going on that. So about four or five years ago I built my first guitar, which was a classical guitar. I’ve built several electric guitars since then.
There’s not much difference between building a ukulele versus a guitar besides their size. There are some aspects of building a ukulele that are more difficult. You have to go a lot thinner on the wood, which is difficult. Some of the custom jobs I’ve done have had really tight bends so in a way when I built the classical guitar I thought, this is pretty easy because they are so big. The bends were easier. I think the ukulele has become a more sophisticated instrument than it was 10 years ago.
I mostly keep the guitars and ukuleles I make. I’ve sold a few and given some away as gifts. I built a little pink one for my niece where for the sound hole I did four little hearts. The first ukulele I built that I thought was amazing I built with this wood called purple heart, which is a purple wood. I was going for a ’60s/surfy sensibility. It was the first one that I built that really sounded like a ukulele.
I just finished a guitar that I think is really interesting. So much emphasis is placed on the fact that everything with a guitar is supposed to be perfect, and I’ve tried to achieve that at home by hand. When I built the most recent one I had three or four big slabs of oak. When oak gets old it gets grey and that’s what this wood looked like. These things had been laying around in my yard for eight years. I wanted this guitar to be very rough so I glued the pieces of wood together where it would leave the look of the wood as intact as possible. I used a chisel to dimple the wood so it kind of looks likes a golf ball. It’s a combination of rough and refined. I really liked that style. I was at a guitar swap meet and everyone would walk by and feel the top so it definitely attracted attention."