July 19, 2010 by Tim
Every so often you find something that seems too good to be true. You may find $20 on the ground or you get something for half off and you feel lucky. When I found D.S.Gill ukes at Weed Patch Music in Nashville, IN I could not believe that there was a guy making ukuleles in his garage out of solid wood for only $350, and they sound awesome.
Please don’t get me wrong, they are not made of super high grade lumber that is purchased from a high end luthier woodshop, but they still look, sound, and play like most any high end ukulele that you will find. At $350 I am hard pressed to find anything in the $1200 range that has the quality and sound that his ukes have. I will get into more about the wood, but first a little about David S. Gill.
I first met David during the Ukulele World Congress (UWC). It was kind of by chance that I was able to meet him. The Saturday morning of the UWC is left open so people can explore Nashville and buy ukes from Mike at Mainland. I decided to go into town to eat breakfast and to find Weed Patch Music; I was told that there were these great ukuleles that they had that are made in Columbus Indiana. So after some searching I found the place and was absolutely amazed. I played a soprano and then picked up a mahogany concert pineapple; I said to myself “this would be great if it had a spruce top”. Also at the time I did not have $350 to spend on a new ukulele (that and my wife would kill me, 15 ukes is her limit). I went back to UWC and ran into a few friends that also played a few of the Gill ukes and told them that I love the concert pineapple but would love it with a spruce top. By chance one of my friends had called David Gill to see if he made tenors (He does not……Yet) and said I should call and ask, so I did, and he did have a concert pineapple with a spruce top at his shop. Now I did not have $350 to buy it and I figured that he would not have one, but I had to at least see it. I asked if my two friends and I could come and see it and also his shop, he said “Yes, I love when people come by and talk uke” and away we went on our 45 minute drive. We get there and we see a sign that says Handmade Ukuleles and an electric car out front.
We had heard that David is very unique. When we got there we did not know what to expect. We heard that he had not purchased gas in several years and he drove a golf cart everywhere, and both are true. David has not purchased gas in 3 years. He has geothermal heating and cooling and his “car” runs on electric, and this works for him just fine. He does not need to go very far for anything. Mostly people come to visit him, like us. David is a retired injection engineer which makes sense why his ukuleles are so spot on in every way. Every piece is precisely measured and he has jigs for every part to make sure that it is made just right, down to the micro-meter. His 2 car garage is filled wood working equipment, jigs, and wood. One of the tools he uses to make the dovetail joint for the necks and cut the body pieces is this weird looking router thing that he used to own the patent on that he invented in the 80’s. How it works is still a mystery to me, I could have asked but figured that I had too many other things I wanted to ask.
One thing that many do not know about Gill ukes is that they use to be sold by Bushman under the name of Bluebird and a few other models. They were new wood ukes unlike the ones he makes currently. I actually played a bluebird and loved it, but I could not afford a $400 ukulele at the time and had to pass. But it was very nice. In the end John Hall did not want to sell them anymore and stopped.
That brings me to my ukulele. Yes I did buy it; it just was another trip a few weeks later. But we went to his basement that he has the ukuleles that he has finished. I picked up the spruce top concert pineapple (They are rareish, you can find them from a few makes like Mele and Oscar Schmidt, but you will not see many concert pineapples) It was love at first play. It is light as a feather even though it has geared tuners and it sings. Basically I love it. I am hard pressed to find anything wrong with it. What you will notice is that it is not super decorated with nice purfling or binding; this is because David feels that it weakens the joint. He also does a few other things that most builders do not do. The lining is put in backwards to add stability and he also has thinned out the bracing so that it will vibrate more with the top. Also he makes a 3 piece neck. Not in the way that most do, but it is one continues neck out of one piece but he cuts it in half and puts a strip of walnut between to reinforce the neck. He builds like an engineer and less like an artist like Geoff Davis of Hoosier ukes and the Bluestone Folk School (BSFS). Geoff will make a Ukulele and fine tune as he goes, always adjusting and trying to work with the wood. David knows every aspect of what the size will be and how each part fits and can guarantee it is made exactly to spec.
As I mentioned earlier, the wood that David uses for his ukuleles is a little bit different than most ukulele builders. For the most part David does not buy wood for his ukes, it is all recycled or reclaimed in one way or another. The mahogany that my uke was made with comes from old patterns. (A pattern is a large piece of
wood that is carved to make molds for casting things. Mahogany was popular since it is so stable) the spruce is from some furniture, I think, and the walnut stripe in the neck if from another pattern. Some of the other woods I saw were the aromatic cedar (That uke smells awesome) that he gets from a place that makes veneers and he gets the pieces that cannot be sawn any thinner due to limitations of the machine, and they come about 1/8 of an inch thick, so perfect start for any instrument. Another place he gets wood is from is friends who happen to find really neat pieces like the spalted maple that he is looking at making into the sides and back of a pineapple.
One of the funny things about David is that there are no models per say. Yes he makes sopranos, concerts, and concert pineapples but the woods that he uses are on a whim. He loves to experiment with woods, like the spalted maple, to see how it will sound. Good or bad that is how it is. For the most part you will find he works in African mahogany and is currently on an aromatic cedar kick.
In the end if you are looking for an awesome one of a kind ukulele that is made in the USA, then this is the one I would recommend. Visit Weed Patch in Nashville, IN ASAP to experience a true gem for very little money.
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