Larry Hinkle, founder of Hinkle Ukulele, is a musician, woodworking craftsman, and entrepreneur. And, as unconventional as it sounds, he is very much a creative Nerd. How else could you describe a former punk-rocker who now designs, builds and jams on ukuleles?
Son of a writer and a film producer (neither of which had any knack or desire for woodworking but encouraged his creativity), Larry has always been an artful tinkerer. As a kid he made comic books, played with LEGO, and indulged in science fiction novels. He’s also always followed his passion for creating music.
Of course, curiosity, creativity, and a passion for making are three essential ingredients Nerds need to thrive, so we reached out to Larry and asked him how he got his start and what fuels his drive to keep making those amazing musical instruments.
RN: When and how did you first develop a passion for music and musical instruments?
Larry Hinkle (LH): Growing up, my mother played the piano at my grandparents’ house and taught me a couple simple tunes. In 6th grade I was hanging around with [my good friend and classmate] David Grohl a lot, and we started a “band,” which was basically him on guitar and me on drums (using his mom’s laundry baskets and knitting needles as sticks). I started playing a little guitar and David gave me a lesson, passing on stuff he had learned. By 10th grade, I started playing guitar in a punk rock band and have pretty much been playing music ever since.
I’ve been a professional woodworker for about 25 years. About 10 years ago, I was making lots of scrap wood and thought I would try to make a xylophone from all this stuff. I did a little research and started making marimbas. I met a local guy who used to play vibraphone with the Sun Ra Arkestra in the late 1970s and consulted with him (I ended up getting a gig with that guy!). I just produced and played ukulele on his new record.
Building a guitar has been a dream of mine. I’ve always been a little intimidated by that project because it will be a long process and my first guitar might not be very good.
RN: When did you get into woodworking?
LH: I dropped out of the University of Maryland in 1989 after three semesters. My grades were good, but I felt like I was spinning my wheels and wasting time because I wasn’t really enjoying what I was studying at that time. I had a part-time job working on campus in the furnishings department of Resident Life because I was drawn to woodworking. I moved out and joined the steamfitters union for a short time and eventually began working in carpentry and cabinetmaking.
During this time, Dave Grohl was riding his trajectory to rock and roll stardom with Nirvana. I guess he’s always been an inspiration for me to continue playing music and do what you love!
After working for a number of years in downtown Historic Fredericksburg, I decided to enroll at Mary Washington College (now University of Mary Washington) and study historic preservation. I took some interesting studio art and art history classes. I spent a summer in Bangkok, Thailand at a field school for historic preservation. I learned a lot and became inspired by Asian approaches to aesthetics and historic preservation.
My entire time at Mary Washington, I was a self-employed cabinetmaker with my own shop space. I graduated in 2000, with honors and considered pursuing a master’s degree in studio art at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). But that was before I learned about James Krenov and his Fine Woodworking Program at College of the Redwoods. I read his book, A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook, a philosophical book more about the “why” rather than the “how-to” of cabinetmaking. I decided to apply to the program and was accepted for the 2001-2002 year. Spending that year with Krenov and the other instructors and students at CR seriously boosted my woodworking skills. I think of JK’s lessons all the time.
RN: Can y0u give us a little background on Hinkle Ukulele – its genesis, your product line, and your “artistic vision?”
LH: When I was in Fort Bragg, my wife found a cheap ukulele at a thrift store that needed the bridge repaired. That can be a little bit technical, so I went to visit a guy who made ukuleles and surfboards. He fixed it for me. He’d make these cool little instruments in his little shop by the ocean. I thought he had a cool lifestyle, making and selling things he was passionate about.
So, years later, I had become a ukulele enthusiast and had the idea that instead of carrying a ukulele with me everywhere, I would just “install” a uke everywhere I went, i.e., a ukulele in the house, one in the shop, one in the truck, etc. Work had gotten slow due to the recession, and I found myself looking at a nice handmade ukulele and trying to figure out how I could afford it. I felt the time was right to take advantage of my woodworking skills and down time and I bought a ukulele kit. I copied all of the parts from the kit and built my first uke in 2011. I still have the kit!
At Hinkle Ukulele we make soprano, concert, tenor, baritone and bass ukuleles. I’m not that interested in a bunch of flashy decorations that have nothing to do with the way my ukes play. I want my instruments to look good, but I focus more on having them feel good and sound great. I feel that since I’m a player, I make ukuleles how I would like them to play. I’m kind of surprised how many instrument makers there are that don’t really play.
Furniture making is also a major part of my trade. I’m currently looking at project designing and building furniture for a church. This past week I’ve been thinking about pulpits, altars, baptismal founts, and flower stands. I’ve made reproduction furniture for museums, sold original designs of chairs and tables, built countless built-in cabinets and free-standing display cases and making and installing restaurant and bar fixtures. A couple years ago I was involved in designing and building a permanent pergola installed at the United States Botanical Gardens.
RN: What other instruments do you play? What drew you to the ukulele, in particular?
LH: I started playing guitar when I was about 12 or 13. I played drums in a couple bands in the late 1980s and I’ve played guitar, bass, or drums in bands periodically since.
I got turned onto the ukulele about seven years ago on a family beach trip. My brother-in-law and his family were getting ready to move to Hawaii, so I brought a cheap “uke” to the beach to pique their interest since they were moving to the islands of ukulele. I probably played that uke about five or six hours a day and ended up with sunburn, except for the pale shape of a ukulele on my belly.
Since then I’ve been hooked.
The ukulele has a convenient, portable size. And it’s just fun to play. It really is kind of a happy instrument. I think it’s easier to play than guitar because it has two fewer strings. I can “fake it” when playing jazz on ukulele but I can’t play jazz guitar.
RN: Hinkle Ukulele has a somewhat unique process for acquiring its building materials. Can you tell us about that and why you decided to do it that way?
LH: I have a chainsaw mill and use it to slice fallen tree logs into planks. Many of the trees I get wood from have a history of their own, like the old shade tree that was behind someone’s house or maybe a tree that grew on an historic property or was planted by a famous person. In my mind, this wood has provenance…and the price is right.
Lately I’ve been salvaging soundboards from old pianos – wood that’s been musically resonating for perhaps 100 years. I don’t really buy any wood for my ukes, but the wood is usually special.
RN: What’s been your biggest challenge since you launched your ukulele business? What’s been most satisfying?
LH: Getting greater exposure and selling to a wider market is definitely a big challenge because I don’t really feel like a businessman. I rely on my customers having personal interaction with my ukuleles. Then they just kind of sell themselves.
I’ve made more than 100 ukuleles and have saturated the local market. I’m learning that selling ukuleles can take almost as much time as making them. But working [social media] has been incredible for free advertising and [helping increase] sales.
I think by far the most satisfying thing about making excellent ukuleles is hearing the first few chords ever played on a fresh instrument. It’s a magical feeling!
RN: What is it about your business that might pique the interest of a young maker and get them excited about instrument design, building, or similar creative field?
LH: I work for myself, so I can choose not to make compromises. I make my own hours and do something I’m passionate about. I have always been interested in woodworking and in music and I feel making ukuleles is the perfect blend of these two interests. I often use the “research and development” excuse to just hang out and jam on my instruments. I started a band where I can showcase my ukes to the masses, and I have a blast playing with them.
RN: At Raising Nerd, we’re all about encouraging kids to explore and learn by failing. In your work, how do you get beyond design and building challenges?
LH: I think my first real decent ukulele wasn’t until the 8th or 9th one I made. I have continued to dial in the quality of my instruments as I learn the nuances of what makes a fine instrument, through trial and error.
RN: What would you tell a young student is the best way for them to pursue a career in woodworking – through higher education, do-it-yourself, technical training, other resources (on- or offline)?
LH: I think the best way to pursue a career in woodworking is to get a job in the trade. Carpentry and cabinetmaking jobs offer real-world experience in how to use tools and how things go together. Studying art and art history and the decorative arts is valuable for developing a sense of composition and style. There can be some tedious tasks involved in woodworking, so I think a strong desire to produce quality work, while enjoying the work, is essential.
RN: If there’s one thing – one sage piece of advice or technique – for students to take away from a woodworking class, what would it be?
LH: Every day, I think of what my master James Krenov would say: “It’s all about weights and measures.” A chair is only as good as it sits. Make things so they have a pleasant feeling. When making a piece, remember it’s never too late to spoil it.
The best lessons are often the hardest learned. Sometimes you don’t need to try so hard. Just be passionate, persistent, and work with integrity.
RN: What would you say are the most important qualities a parent should nurture in a child who shows an interest in music and/or crafting musical instruments…or any other artistic career?
LH: Creativity and discipline. Playing music or working wood can require a certain amount of muscle memory, and once you’ve learned to play or work without concentrating so much on how to play a scale or work a chisel, your mind can be free to explore creative possibilities in composition.
My dad is a writer and has always encouraged me to be creative. In high school, my parents weren’t big fans of the punk rock stuff but never discouraged me from listening to or playing the music, wearing the fashions, or going to shows.
RN: How do you spark and support your own children’s curiosity?
LH: I have two daughters, ages 15 and almost 14. My wife and I have always encouraged them to pursue their interests. They both dance, draw, and paint. We have, at times, set up parts of the house as an art studio and dance studio. There are ukuleles everywhere and we have a piano. One of my daughters plays trumpet in the school band and the other one is into artistic facial makeup.
RN: What other learning resources and activities would you recommend parents use to inspire their kids and spark curiosity in music, woodworking or making, in general?
LH: YouTube is an amazing resource. Beyond that, I also really like [and encourage others to seek out local history museums and fine arts programs, including] the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. And Colonial Williamsburg is cool for seeing how fine furniture is made by hand. A lot of the techniques used back then can be used efficiently today.
Here in Fredericksburg, we have a place called LibertyTown Arts with lots of individual art studios and workshops and classes. There’s also an annual event called Art Attack, where artists set up on the streets of the heart of downtown. Fredericksburg All Ages is an organization that puts on music showcases for young and fresh bands playing with more established touring bands.
Hinkle Ukulele also exhibits at various, kid-friendly music festivals. I think those kinds of events can have a lasting impression on kids [who interact with us there].
RN: What’s one thing you wished you’d known growing up that might’ve helped you in your career? What’s one thing you did right early on that’s helped you?
LH: Ha ha – I wish I’d taken woodshop instead of auto mechanics in high school! And I wish I’d paid more attention in math class. Although I’m glad I took lots of photography classes in high school. That’s when I first started to learn about composition and maybe developed an intuitive sense of “weights and measures.”