Master builder finds music in wood

Harban falls hard for the ukulele

Chris Harban, who has developed a widespread reputation for crafting audio turntables that are functional works of art, recently became obsessed with building world-class ukuleles as part of his quest to blend a love for fine woods with music-making. (Photo by DAVID GUNTER)

SANDPOINT — On this side of the shop, the high-end turntable “plinths” that are responsible for this man’s national reputation as a master craftsman of exotic woods. On that side, the little instruments that have snagged his imagination and won his heart.

And as you watch Chris Harban stand in the middle of this workspace, you can literally see him being pulled one way and the other.

“The big problem is that’s work,” he said, pointing to a bench lined with turntable bases in various stages of completion. “And that’s play,” he went on, nodding his head toward a separate bench lined with the ukuleles he recently started building.

“And they’re both in the same room.”

It’s Harban’s love for fine wood that has created this artistic tug-of-war. In fact, he lists the material right up there with what most of us think of as the absolute necessities for maintaining life — air, water, food, love … and wood.

He was inspired in this direction by an uncle who had a passion for high-quality sound gear. After learning that vinyl-loving audiophiles considered the base of the turntable — the plinth — to be one of the most critical components in the signal chain, Harban saw a niche for himself. He joined his gift for working wood with the barely tapped market for what could rightfully be called audio artwork and gained a national following.

“I’m one of the go-to guys in the United States,” he said. “Ironically, there’s only a handful of people doing this.”

Little did he know that, hiding away in the scrap pieces of wood he generated on an almost daily basis, a spark of inspired madness was lying in wait. It took one special piece of koa to ignite the flame.

“There was a board that came through my shop,” Harban said, “and it said ‘ukulele’ all over it.”

The piece was so finely grained, so intricately colorful, that he at first sought to sell it at a premium price to another woodworker. But as he gazed into that board, the rounded contours of the uke began to emerge, begging to be freed from the inanimate state so they could resonate with music.

Harban placed one foot on this slippery slope when he looked into online ukulele forums and decided the idea was doable. Soon after, he was off like a shot on a journey that carried him thousands of miles away, to the shop of master luthier and ukulele builder Pete Howlett in Wales, where Harban lived and studied the art of crafting the instruments.

“I dive really deep when I go into something,” he said. “And Pete had the reputation of being one of the best ukulele builders on the planet.”

Back at home, Harban put this new knowledge to work, linking it to his extensive background in bringing out the best in fine wood at the finish stage. Last month, he completed his first instrument — a stunning, little concert-sized ukulele set free from that same piece of koa that caught his eye in the first place.

To find other examples of his deep-diving approach to life, one need only look at the bench over Harban’s shoulder, where half a dozen more ukes — these built in the slightly larger tenor size — wait to be completed. Just as with his turntables, the builder’s mind has taken him far afield as he explores different combinations of wood for their sonic and aesthetic characteristics.

Besides the koa, the row of tenor ukes have sides and backs of rosewood, Cuban mahogany, curly maple and Macassar ebony. The tops include the trusty koa, as well as redwood and spruce, with intricate rosettes around each sound hole complemented by bindings of curly maple and inlay work that shines in the ocean-like hues of blue paua.

Before they got to this point of near completion, Harban spent hours “tap testing” each top for perfect pitch and resonance and “flex testing” the backs and tops alike to ensure that, when joined, they would work as one to produce the best tone possible. Judging by his first outing, the builder got it right.

His concert is more than a lovingly crafted work of art; it is what musicians call a “player.” The feel of the uke in one’s hands is an invitation — a seduction might be a better word — to spend hours together. And while any brand new instrument has to “wake up” through what is known as the “play in” process, this concert already rings and sustains with the promise of a much bigger, richer sound to come.

It’s understandable, then, that Harban becomes distracted from his work by this recent form of play. A couple of things drag him back to reality — the mounting orders for his turntable plinths and the fact that the income they generate now goes to support his uke habit. Apart from the financial relationship, there are other connections. The exotic woods he uses for the turntable bases provide the scraps for future ukuleles. And his newfound involvement in detail work on the instrument side has begun to inform the way he selects woods and inlay patterns for the plinths.

Somewhere in the middle, Harban has found a cache that could benefit both endeavors.

“The base of a turntable is just like an instrument,” he said. “Everything matters — it’s all about vibration and energy control. So, would you rather buy a turntable from somebody who builds cabinets or a guy who builds super high-end musical instruments?”

The same question could be turned on its ear and asked the other way, with one small difference.

“I make a lot of money making turntables,” the master woodworker said, leaning against the bench lined with plinths. “But there are a lot of starving luthiers out there.”

With that, he took the few, short steps over to where the ukuleles were perched, picked up the koa concert, and began to strum softly through chord changes with a smile on his face.

Examples of Chris Harban’s turntable plinths can be seen on his website at: www.woodsongaudio.com The builder plans to add a ukulele page to the site in the near future.

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