Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Ukulele Smackdown: Mainland vs. Collings Round 3 - Appearance & Workmanship Part 2

Before we continue on with the physical comparison between the Mainland and Collings concerts, I would like to briefly discuss the setup of each ukulele. I personally do not consider setup as a characteristic of a particular brand, since it's something that is usually user adjustable and not everyone has the same tastes. I've also personally seen great variations in setup from the same model of ukulele, and I don't think that's a reflection on the builder. The two ukes I have here came with good setup, with identical string height at the 12th fret. I do believe both Mainland and Collings do setup work before shipping out their instruments, so in most cases you should get a fairly playable instrument when you buy one of these ukuleles.

Continuing on with the Ukulele Smackdown between Mainland and Collings concerts, let's take a look at the body. The Mainland features a solid mahogany body with gloss finish. A matte finish is also available from mainland, but I opted for the glossy finish because in my experience, parts of the matte finish usually shine up when handled a lot. Since I knew this uke may be a candidate for future contraction of my collection, I went for the finish that would keep a better appearance. The mahogany used on this ukulele is relatively dark, similar to the Collings. The grain looks good on the front and sides, where it is pretty straight and does not really have the ribbon appearance common to many imports (a plus in my book), but kind of strange on the back, where it doesn't have a uniform straight appearance. I would have preferred that the front and back look a little more similar. Both the front and back are one-piece construction, which is considered a plus in that there is one less joint that can potentially fail. The Mainland's weight seems to be about average, maybe just a little bit on the heavy side.

Front of Mainland.

Back of Mainland. Notice the random grain pattern.

The body of the Collings features a dark mahogany with what I consider pretty attractive grain pattern. There is no ribbon effect to be found and the grain appearance is very uniform. The front and back are bookmatched, but because the grain pattern is so uniform, it's actually kind of hard to see the joint without looking very closely, especially on the front. My UC-1 has a matte finish. I did not have a choice on the finish as at the time of purchase, there are no UC-1's with glossy finish. I'm not sure if there are now, but I'm pretty sure it would cost more and I would still be getting the matte finish since it's already a very spendy ukulele. The matte finish looks really good but as with all matte finishes I've encountered, it shines up with use. The upper bout on my UC-1 has already acquired several shiny strum marks, and the neck appears to be a bit shinier than when I first bought it. This wouldn't be a problem if you do not have any plans to sell the ukulele later on. But if you do, the wear that shows on this finish will likely decrease the resale value, if that's of any importance to you. As of now I do believe I will be keeping the Collings for the long haul, but I'm certainly aware of the the hit it will take if it's ever put up for sale. The Collings is feather light and clearly lighter than the Mainland despite having a slightly thicker body. Collings probably tried to mimic old Martin ukes and built them as light as possible.

Front of Collings.

Back of Collings.

The Mainland features white plastic body bindings with a rope pattern purfling. I can't tell what kind of wood made up the two-color rope purfling, but it is a very light colored wood and a dark, almost black, wood. I suspect the black colored wood is dyed as some of the black color seems to have "bled" onto the surrounding wood a little bit. The rope purfling generally looks good, but I believe the rope binding found on various Pono models have a higher quality appearance. The rosette is the exact same rope design as the purfling.

The rope purfling & rosette of the Mainland.

The only decorations on the body of the Collings is the rosette. It is a simple b/w/b/w/b ring around the sound hole. It does not have any body bindings or purfling. The Rosette looks very well crafted. I think the ukulele would have looked just fine without the rosette, but it doesn't hurt the appearance.

The Collings rosette.

Looking around the inside of the Mainland's body reveal signs that it is a mass production instrument. The body is held together from the inside with solid kerfing as opposed to the more traditional individually cut kerfings. I don't believe there are any big structural differences in using the solid kerfings compared to individual kerfings, but I'm pretty sure it costs less to use the solid kerfings. I'm fairly certain of it because a Kelii tenor I had also had this type of Kerfing, and Kelii is able to offer their ukes at a lower price compared to the other Hawaii "K" brands. I suppose there is a possibility that there are more internal stress in those solid kerfings, but probably not enough to make much of a difference to the structural integrity of the instrument. The workmanship is fair. You can see some glue seeping from the joints in some areas. The bracing I can see does not appear to be sanded. Of course, one would not expect expert craftsmanship from this ukulele, and it doesn't really impact the player.

Inside the Mainland. Notice the solid kerfing and the small amount of glue seeping from the joint.

Mainland soundhole label.

The interior of the Collings is very nearly perfect. It is very clean, with no glue residue that I can see, and everything looks very well sanded and crafted. It uses the individual kerfings that's found in most ukes for gluing all the body pieces together from the inside. This is probably the cleanest interior of any ukulele I've owned with the possible exception of the Honu XXX concert I had. A clean and well executed interior may not mean all that much to the ukulele player, but it does convey a sense of high craftsmanship and I think it can be considered an indicator of the caliber of the instrument. I mean, if a builder is taking the time and effort to make sure something that most people don't even see is nearly flawless, it stands to reason that they are putting in the work to make sure it sounds good too.

The interior of the Collings. Looks almost perfect to me.

Collings sound hole label.

Moving back to the outside of the body, we have the bridge & saddle. The Mainland has a rosewood bridge with bone saddle, which is the same as the Collings. The Mainland bridge is a classical guitar style tie-bridge, where the Collings is a traditional ukulele style slitted bridge where you tie a knot on the string and insert the string into the slits. I don't really have a preference between the two types of bridges. Both work and look good. Neither bridge feature any wild KoAloha-style designs and are rectangular in shape. The Collings does feature a compensated saddle. The compensated saddle is a fairly fancy feature on ukuleles, but in my experience, I can't really tell much of a difference a compensated saddle makes. I do like them though.

Mainland bridge.

Collings bridge. Notice the compensated saddle.

So I've gone through the exterior and interior appearance of the two ukuleles. While it's pretty clear that the Collings hold the workmanship advantage, I would like to point out that the Mainland isn't necessarily bad in that regard. It's pretty solid in most cases and if you're not closely scrutinizing it, it certainly looks very attractive. Below are a couple more side by side pictures of the two ukes.

Backs of the Collings (L) and Mainland (R).

Body thickness. Collings (R) is a little thicker than Mainland (L).

This concludes the appearance & workmanship portion of this Smackdown. To summarize, I think both ukuleles look very good from a distance, but the closer you look at them, the strength of the Collings workmanship becomes clearer. Based on this ukulele, I can see why Collings has earned the stellar reputation it has enjoyed in the guitar and mandolin world. The Mainland, being a budget instrument, does well for itself, especially the overall exterior appearance. Some of the small details that it is lacking such as better tuners and cleaner interior, isn't something that anyone who buys a Mainland is going to be overly concerned about. From my personal point of view, I'm happy with the workmanship of both ukes given their price bracket.

Up next will be some sound comparisons. Stay tuned!

1 comment:

Chuck Wilson said...

One thing that bothered me about my Mainland slotted head concert was that the matte finish on the headstock was substantially lighter than the body. I applied a beeswax finish to the headstock, and it made the overall finish more integrated.

Which uke should I bring on my next trip to Oahu???

What's the maximum you'd spend on a ukulele case for your best uke?

If you could steal one of my ukes, which one would it be???

How curly do you like your koa? (preferably on a uke)

What's the maximum number of ukes a perfectly sane person should have???

Poll: How often do you play the ukulele???

Poll: Which guitar company's approach to ukes do you prefer???

Poll: What's your favorite type of headstock???

Poll: The new basic Collings concert uke (UC-1) sells for about $1k, your reaction is: