In most ways a ukulele is nearly identical to an acoustic guitar and it is a fairly safe assumption that caring for one is the same as caring for the other. There are a few subtle differences between the instruments, mostly related to the size and therefore structure, but caring for your ukulele is, with few exceptions, the same.
Cleaning and caring for a ukulele is the best way to keep it looking and sounding great. These are simple procedures and the more often you do them, the quicker and easier it gets.
To clean your ukulele, begin by removing your old ukulele strings by unwinding each one until they become slack enough that you can easily remove them from the tuning machines. Remove each string from the bridge by either untying or cutting the strings. Once the strings have been completely removed, use a clean dry cloth to remove all the dust, dander and debris that will easily wipe off the ukulele. Wet a small section of the cloth with naphtha or a ukulele cleaner of your choice, and wipe the entire ukulele body, neck, fretboard, bridge and headstock. Continue wiping until you are satisfied with its cleanliness, then restring.
Do not use a cleaning agent if your ukulele does not have a shellac, nitrocellulose or polyurethane finish. Using a cleaning agent or water on a bare wood will stain and damage the wood.
If you have a ukulele that was made to be played, is well built, and has a shellac, nitrocellulose or polyurethane finish that can be cleaned, cleaning is a simple procedure. It is best practice to wipe it down before and after you play it to remove dust and any moisture or oil that gets on the instrument. This helps prevent more frequent, deeper cleanings.
What you will need to clean your ukulele:
- Two clean, dry cloths or lint-free shop cloths
- One very soft, lint free cloth or microfiber cloth
- Naphtha or other ukulele cleaner
- Polish or wax
Steps for cleaning your ukulele:
- Place one dry cloth securely over the opening of the can of naphtha or your preferred cleaner.
- Tip the can upside down and let a little bit of the cleaner soak into the cloth.
- Use the wetted area of the cloth to wipe down the ukulele
- Pay extra attention to the areas where skin comes into contact with the ukulele like the neck and lower bout of the body. This is where sebum (oils excreted from skin) tends to accumulate.
- Using a clean, dry cloth wipe the entire ukulele down to get rid of any excess cleaner.
- Apply a small amount of paste wax (Renaissance is my go-to), auto polish (I like Mother’s or Maguiar’s) or a ukulele polish to the finish.
- Rub the polish in with a very soft, lint-free cloth, let it dry for a few seconds and then wipe it off to bring out a freshly polished, bright finish.
Caution: ukuleles are frequently made without a protective finish and these should not be cleaned in the above manner.
Consider the history of the ukulele
You might think the history of the ukulele is not important to its care, however, you would be sadly mistaken. Here’s why – Though a relatively new introduction to western music, the ukulele became extremely popular in the United States very quickly after its predecessor’s introduction to the Hawaiian Islands.
The ukulele takes its origins from the Portugese Machete (not the knife) which was brought to Hawai’i by Portugese immigrants in the 1800s. The instrument was quickly accepted by native Hawaiians and evolved to become the ukulele we recognize today.
Soon after James Cook’s “discovery” of the islands, westerners began exporting sugar – bringing more westerners to the islands. As western history tends to gloss over, this was pretty profitable and westerners felt entitled to whatever land they wanted on the islands which, surprise surprise, led to conflict with the native Hawaiians. Eventually a small group of Americans and a couple Europeans sought to overthrow the Hawaiian monarchy and with the help of the United States Military, and did exactly that near the turn of the 20th century. With the Kingdom overthrown, the queen under arrest, and an American military presence, the United States stole annexed Hawai’i, eventually establishing a military base at Pearl Harbor. This invasion led to an influx of American military personnel and their families to the Islands in the early 20th century. Word quickly got out that Hawai’i was warm, stunningly beautiful and for the taking. Thus, it quickly became a destination for American travelers.
Native Hawaiian music was popular with the Americans that were living in and visiting Hawai’i. Soon westerners were mixing the native Hawaiian sounds with American popular music styles resulting in the extremely popular “hapa haole” music that most of us envision when we think of Hawaiian music. A prime example of this genre is “My Little Grass Shack In Kealakekua Hawai’i”. Written by some dude from Montana, it is a parody of a song called “Back in Hackensack, New Jersey” and named one the 50 greatest songs of Hawai’i. SMH.
The ukulele’s unique sound was integral to the style, eventually becoming synonymous with the genre. Because the ukulele is small and uses low tension nylon or gut strings to contribute to its signature sound, it doesn’t need the additional bracing structure of an acoustic guitar, which also allows it to generate more sound in comparison to its size. Critically, it also makes it less complicated to mass produce and therefore less expensive to manufacture.
Which is how we get to the rub. Why is Hawai’i’s history and that of the ukulele important to its care? Due to the ukulele’s sudden and explosive popularity, the majority of ukuleles are manufactured as inexpensively as humanly possible. Many are nothing more than toys made from plywood and plastic meant to be bought as souvenir reminders of a trip to an exotic tropical island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. If you’ve ever visited the Hawaiian Islands you will find cheap ukuleles in every corner ABC store and souvenir shop for as little as $20. They are as prevalent as slot machines in Las Vegas and Starbucks in… well… anywhere, actually. Due to the fact that so many of these ukuleles have been produced I would venture to guess there is a 50/50 chance you have one. If you’re in the other 50%, congrats! You’ve got a great and fun instrument that deserves your attention and care.
How to clean an unfinished ukulele
Because the mass produced instruments either do not have a finish or just have water-based paint on them they should not be cleaned with anything other than a feather duster or dry dust cloth. And restringing one will not likely improve its sound or playability. As I’m fond of saying, “You can’t polish a turd.” If you have one of these ukuleles just dust it off and do your darndest to keep it in the ballpark of in tune. They may be useful for learning your fingering, but you won’t want to use it to bust out Mele Kalikimaka after Xmas dinner.
How long does a ukulele last?
The answer to this is similar to the answer to the question, “How long is a string?” It depends.
As with any stringed instrument, how long it lasts depends on a combination of the following factors: The type of ukulele you have, how well it is made, how often you play it, and how well you care for it.
If you have a well-made ukulele made from quality tone woods and with a protective finish, it will likely last you a lifetime – if you care for it properly and clean it frequently. If you have a souvenir ukulele that never gets played it can still last a very long time. I recently restored one of these ‘toy’ ukuleles for a friend because it was his grandfather’s and it is a cherished family heirloom.
This is certainly atypical for this type of toy/souvenir ukulele as it literally had a plastic fretboard with formed plastic frets and screws under the fret dots adhering it to the neck. I made a rosewood fretboard and bridge, installed nickel frets, quality tuning machines and completely refinished it. If it is properly cared for this ukulele will be a good beginner instrument for his kids and perhaps even their grandchildren as well. However, the vast majority of these toy/souvenir ukuleles have a very short useful lifespan and are not worth the time or effort to make them playable.
Is it bad to leave a ukulele in the car?
It is a bad idea to leave any stringed instrument in a car. There are two very important reasons to not leave your ukulele in a car. First, ukuleles are typically made from wood and the pieces are glued together with wood glue. Wood glue begins to soften at about 120 F. A car parked in the sun when it is 80 F outside can reach 120 F within an hour. Secondly, strings that are up to pitch put about 35 lbs of tension on the neck and bridge of the ukulele. That’s like a 4 year-old child sitting on your ukulele. If the glue gets hot it will soften and that 4 year-old will easily pull the neck, bridge, soundboard or a combination of the three, away from the body.
Whether you’ve got a ukulele hand-built by a luthier or bought in the Kona airport, with proper care, it will last substantially longer than if it is neglected. If you employ a proper cleaning and care routine you will have many years of being able to hear the old Hawaiians sayings “Komo mai no kaua i ka hale welakahau” as you imagine the humuhumunukunuku a pua’a swimming by.