KP's Custom Ukuleles

Ken Potts makes high-end ukuleles in his studio in Lahaina, Maui, where musicians show up with ukes and beer 

By Helen Chang

Ken Potts, a former carpenter, makes hand-built wood ukuleles and guitars. In 2000, he moved from Oregon to the former whaling port of Lahaina, now a tourist town filled with brand-names such as Crazy Shirts, Wyland Galleries and Hard Rock Café.

Garage Studio

A few blocks off the main strip, Potts toils in a modest workshop behind his house. The garage-sized studio is filled with ukulele skeletons, ready to turn into whole instruments. Molds, pegs and wood pieces peek out of the shelves, giving a glimpse into the shapes and colors these instruments might take some day.

“Anybody considering making string instruments knows … you’ll never make money making them. You make ’em because you love ’em,” Potts explained. “You repair them for money.”

Ken Potts of KP Ukulele
Video by Helen Chang

Handmade Ukuleles

Potts showed me and my boyfriend how he crafts his ukuleles, hovering over specialized saws, molds and casts to produce the elegant curves. When the ukulele is complete, he caresses the infant-size instrument, using a cloth to polish it in a French technique that leaves a light veneer. The sound is more resonant than many mass-produced ukuleles, whose heavy varnishes look appealing but bind the instrument like a straightjacket, choking the sound.

Potts describes how he repairs ukuleles
Video by Helen Chang

Potts’ clients appreciate the difference – paying between $1,000 and $3,200 for a custom-made instrument.

What’s the most outstanding ukulele Potts has made?

“The one that makes the person who owns it happy,” he said, smiling.

Kanikapila and Beer

Just then, Uncle K.K. stepped in, carrying an instrument in need of repair, and a six-pack of beer for his friend Potts. (In the islands, we say “Uncle” or “Auntie,” not “Mr.” or Mrs.”)

Soon, Uncle K.K. had picked up the nearest ukulele and started strumming. Potts joined in, as did Robert, and a typical kanikapila jam session started. I was the sole audience to the symphony created by the three tenor ukulele players.

Uncle KK sings "Ikona"
Video by Helen Chang

Later, between gulps of beer, Uncle K.K. said he had trained with the renowned Hawaiian songwriter Irmgard Aluli and until his retirement had played in a band that performed at a leading hotel.

One of the songs he sang that day was “Puamana,” a classic Aluli wrote about her family’s Lahaina homestead, located just up the street. As I listened, I felt that I had finally connected with Maui’s essence.

What song makes you feel like you’ve connected with a place? Or a time? Or a person? 

Where to find them:

KP Ukulele & Guitars
458-A Front St.
Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii 96761

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