April 13, 2012

Do you like this?

New Haven man builds his own unique boat-paddle design

Jerry Hoffman was fed up with ukuleles.

Not the instrument itself. He loved the instrument. He heard Joe Brown’s rendition of “I’ll See You in My Dreams” at a concert in 2002, and that did it for him. He went out and bought a cheap ukulele right away, but it didn’t sound as good as Joe Brown’s old Martin.

He became frustrated with the quality of foreign commercial ukes that cost between $50 and $200 and looked good but didn’t sound good. He decided to build his own.

Then he became frustrated with the one he built. He wanted a great uke, so he kept building them.

First thing he did was scrap the traditional mini-guitar look. He replaced the shape with an original design looking more like a boat paddle, a functional shape he had constructed and tweaked digitally with drawing software before making it by hand in his workshop. He heated thin side stock wood to 300 hundred degrees Fahrenheit, bent them to shape before assembling and finished with ten coats of polished lacquer.

His ukulele was special, and musicians around New Haven, where his workshop is based, were noticing. After a few years of prototyping when the design was pinned just right, Jerry walked into small, local instrument shops and showed people what he had created. The savvy musicians under- stood: This was a revolutionary design.

He uses hand-carved bracing inspired by classical guitars to give more tonal range and clarity. Foreign manufacturers use little or no bracing.

And the ukes are becoming well known. Jerry has given interviews to several ukulele-enthusiast websites about his growing business, Boat Paddle Ukuleles. Chat boards have sprung up with Boat Paddle customers describing the high quality and unmatched affordability of Jerry’s design.

Most Boat Paddle ukes sell for about $500 to $1,500, about 20 percent less than ukuleles of comparable quality can cost.

Musicians can also custom-design their orders, based on wood and trim choices.

Will it be an AA or AAA walnut body? Would you like custom or standard fret markers? Would you like to upgrade from a soft gig bag to a hard case? How about an ornamental border with that?

The standard turn-around time for a hand-built order is one to four months, which includes Jerry personally checking over each detail of the instrument before it goes out to a customer. He guarantees his product.

Jerry is developing a habit for redesigning existing products into better ones for personal use. This isn’t the first time he’s opted for making rather than buying goods.

For instance, when his wife, Janelle, bought a horse years ago, the horse needed horseshoes, of course. Jerry figured that was something he could do. He became a blacksmith, made the shoes, and afterward, whipped out a monthly how-to publication called Blacksmith Journal that still exists today, nearly 20 years later, covering a range of projects beyond horseshoes.

Whatever Jerry will design next will likely benefit Boat Paddle Ukuleles. He’s currently developing a guitar-shaped model, and a few years ago, he designed an M-style ukulele, so-named because it is shaped like a mandolin. It has now become one of his primary products.

If Janelle takes up a new hobby, she better hope she doesn’t need special equipment; Jerry says he is sticking to building ukuleles.

boatpaddleukuleles.com, 573-237-5889

April 13, 2012


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