The four chest-high workstations were neat and tidy, ready to glue, seal and string new polycarbonate ukuleles.
Just two workers make more than 3,000 ukuleles a year at Outdoor Ukulele, a Bend-based manufacturer of ukuleles and banjos.
Outdoor Ukulele’s instruments come in blues, greens, brown and black and sell for anywhere from $100 to $250 each. The banjo is about $250.
The instruments are made from plastic molds,custom ordered and designed to be taken outdoors, said Scott Seelye, who owns the 1,200-square-foot manufacturing business on NW York Drive with his wife, Jennifer.
Customers send him letters and videos of their ukuleles in snow, or as a paddle on the Amazon. One customer played her ukulele while wearing a survival suit in the Arctic Ocean.
An industrial designer by trade, Seelye saw a niche for musical instruments that could weather the outdoors in 2014.
“Our three primary goals starting out were to try to build an instrument in the United States, to make sure the acoustics are good enough to compete (with traditional wooden ones) and make it so it can survive outdoors. Make it humidity proof, heat proof and waterproof,” Seelye said.
Seelye spoke to The Bulletin about making ukuleles. His responses have been edited.
Q: How are your ukuleles made?
A: We use large injection molds from a manufacturer in Seattle. Polycarbonate is one of the high-performing plastics, and then we add glass fibers to it. Six months ago we started making a carbon fiber ukulele. Funny, the carbon fiber is our best seller. About a third of our sales are carbon fiber. We can make 12-16 a day. It takes about three days to assemble.
Q: Do your polycarbonate instruments sound the same as a traditional wooden ukulele?
A: Yes. We’re not trying to replace wooden instruments. The acoustics are close to wood. They’re brighter in tone. Wood is warmer in tone. When we started we bought ukuleles and measured the tone by measuring the density and the weight. That’s how we determined how much glass fiber to add to mimic what a wood instrument would be.
Q: Who buys your ukuleles?
A: We’re starting to sell more to schools. We shipped 70 to a school in Minnesota. All green to match the school colors. Most of the business, about 85%, comes direct from the website. But most of our instruments are made to order. We have 22 dealers. Our biggest international markets are China and Japan. REI wanted to contract us, but they wanted a year’s worth of product to start. We had to turn that down because it’s not easy to do this. We can’t outsource. It’s more labor intensive.
Q: What’s the future for Outdoor Ukuleles?
A: Some day we hope to make an outdoor guitar, smaller in size than a traditional guitar. More like a baritone ukulele. It’s been a prototype for a long time. We still haven’t figured out how to do this yet because this requires a machine that our molder doesn’t have yet. We’re not sure how big to grow the company, which has grown year-over-year by 20%. We don’t want to grow too fast because we don’t want to sacrifice quality.
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