Les Tussing: fashioner of bespoke ukuleles
Cigar box rock
Les Tussing has long admired musicians and their ability to make their skills look so easy. Not too long ago, the retired carpenter and craftsman began studying and playing the ukulele. Although he owns traditional, store-bought examples of the instrument, the 71-year-old Folsom resident also creates his own bespoke ukuleles from old cigar boxes. The entire process takes about four hours, each piece of art constructed from an array of parts Tussing discovered on the internet. Active in community ukulele groups, Tussing has sold his creations to antique dealers, restaurant owners and individuals. Each instrument is unique and sometimes difficult for the artist to relinquish. SN&R chatted with Tussing about his hobby, the creative process and playing the ukulele.
Why did you start making ukuleles?
I wanted to learn to play an instrument. When I was a kid my parents made me play the accordion. They watched Lawrence Welk, you know? But I didn’t like the accordion. I heard about a sing-along group in Folsom, a ukulele society. I checked it out and thought, “It’s a four-string instrument; maybe I can learn how to play the ukulele.” I bought one. And then on a trip to Oregon, a gentleman in a street fair had made ukuleles. I picked them and thought: “With my background, I think I can make these.”
What was the process first like?
I’ve been in construction most of my life. I have the aptitude that if something’s broken, I can fix it. I did a little research, looking at YouTube videos and a couple of tutorials on guys making them and thought, “I can make that, no problem.” So I started to buy the parts and pieces. You almost have to get them online because the music stores don’t carry that stuff. I can buy them on eBay; most of it comes from China.
What about the cigar boxes and tea strainers?
I went to local cigar stores, but the boxes are all beat up with scratch and nicks. You want something that’s almost pristine. Then I did a little more research and there are measurements, and you have have to get it all into place. You have to fine-tune everything to make it sound right. I want these things to be different, so I came up with the idea of putting antique tea strainers in the sound holes. They can be pricey, but it adds a certain amount of character and age. They are one-of-a-kind. A couple of them have 140-year-old tea strainers. It’s folk art, but it’s also a musical instrument.
How many have you made and what do they cost?
I’ve made 27. The most I’ve sold one for—and I really hated to sell it, but I did—was $150. That one had the 140-year-old tea strainer in it. When people look at them, that’s the appeal. It’s just not a box with a hole in it. There’s a piece of history in the box. There are no two alike.
What is the pleasure in making the ukuleles?
Did you ever make model airplanes or cars when you were a kid? I’m retired. I like working with my hands. I like fabricating. There’s a certain artistic side to it. You can’t go to the music store and buy one. I guess there’s something about it. If you want to make something decent, you have to be meticulous about it. It’s a matter of pride in the craftsmanship. I guess that’s the pleasure: I am making something with my hands.