A vintage ukulele can be tricky. There are some that are worth quite a bit of money but that were never really serious instruments in their day. Some models from the turn of the 20th Century, however, were made for real musicians as these instruments enjoyed a surge of popularity during those years, particularly with vaudeville performers. Discerning a good instrument from a novelty instrument, however, doesn't necessarily help you discern a valuable instrument from one with no value at all.
There were some very big names during the turn of the 20th Century and the first few decades of that century that bear watching out for. For instance, Barth, Lutchen and Feinberg is brand that quite a few people would like to get their hands on. Ludwig & Ludwig made banjo ukuleles and these can be valuable, if they're in good condition. Kumalae, Dias, and Nunes ukuleles, are also a rare vintage ukulele find.
Harmony is another name to watch out for. Their ukuleles from certain eras can be worth picking up if they're available at a good price due to the history of these instruments. They're typically not the highest quality ukuleles around, but they have some appeal to collectors. These were among the mass-produced brands.
Washburn is also a name to watch for. Some of these instruments were very pro-level ukuleles and were made of high quality wood and other materials.
One thing you can watch out for are wooden pegs. The ukulele was already well-known and popular during World War 2. During that war, there were severe restrictions on materials that could be used by manufacturers and, because of that, some ukuleles of the era have wooden pegs on them. If you have such a model, it might be worth it to have an antique dealer or a professional ukulele player take a look at it to see if it's an uncommon specimen.
There will be cases where the name on your ukulele isn't the name of the manufacturer. Many vintage ukuleles were made by one company and distributed by another, which oftentimes affixed their name to the instrument. This is something you'll need an expert to clear up for you.
One area you can look to when you have a ukulele that's unbranded is the headstock. Many ukulele manufacturers have somewhat distinctive headstock shapes. Sometimes, you can get good answers on Internet forums. If you post pics, be sure that you post a pick of the front and back of your headstock so the experts can weigh in.
If you have an old ukulele, it's worth it to go to an instrument shop and to ask them how to care for it. Depending upon the wood, you may have to keep it at a certain humidity or take other precautions to make sure that it's in good shape. Some of these instruments have quite a bit of historical appeal so, if one is in a condition that doesn't seem too sturdy, it may be better to just display it rather than to try to string and play it.Return to Ukulele Manufacturers