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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, June 6, 2001

Strung to high standards

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

In Sonny D's one-man 'ukulele factory, each day he focuses on a single aspect of instrument-making. On this particular day it was sanding.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

Sonny D Ukuleles

94-164 'Awalau St., Waipahu


In Waipahu, near the corner of Farrington Highway and 'Awalau Street, stands a mom-and-pop 'ukulele shop — a tiny little factory that makes tiny little 'ukulele with rather large sound holes.

Sonny D Ukuleles occupies three dinky rooms on the second floor of the light green building hidden behind Tammy's Polynesian Bakery. The two-room factory has a cutting room and a drying room. The third room is the retail sales outlet.

Sonny D, 60, whose full name is Sonny Dahlin but who is known universally as Sonny D, has been making 'ukulele since he was 22. It has been his profession for more than three decades. Aggie, Dahlin's wife, takes care of the room where folks can buy instruments and accessories, strings and picks.

Whereas larger 'ukulele manufacturers, such as the world-famous Kamaka factory on South Street, can turn out hundreds of instruments a month, Dahlin is able to turn out just a few.

"The factory is a one-guy operation," Dahlin said. "I'm da guy."

From start to finish, it takes Dahlin about a week to complete a 'ukulele. Of course, he doesn't make them one at a time.

"Each day I do a different task," he said. "One day I glue fronts, one day I glue backs, one day I make necks, one day I glue necks, one day I glue fret boards, one day I glue the bridges. And then I start all over again."

The finished products can sell from $350 to more than $1,000.

The Sonny D soprano instrument, among the smallest on the market, is often on back order. Kids snap them up as fast as he can make them, Dahlin said.

"Right now I'm all out of the little ones because the keiki want them," he said. "Their hands are too small to play the concert ukuleles."

He makes smaller 'ukulele because the smaller size gives the instruments a slightly higher tone, he said.

"Hawaiian songs are mostly high-pitched. So the 'ukulele better matches the sound of the song. The tenor is my trademark 'ukulele, but even it is about an inch smaller than other tenors."

Into these small instruments, Sonny D incorporates larger sound holes, so as to allow greater volume — more from less. "The larger hole gives the instrument more power," he explained.

Dahlin also makes such oddities as concert 'ukulele with tenor necks, and, although most of the wood he uses is koa from Kona, he makes instruments of spruce, Italian mahogany and numerous other hardwoods as well.

Dahlin is aware that some musicians consider his instruments too exotic. They prefer a more traditional 'ukulele look and sound. To each his own, he says.

One entertainer who prefers Sonny D instruments is virtuoso Troy Fernandez, who featured a Dahlin-made black koa tenor on the cover of his "On Fire" CD, and who plays Sonny D instruments on all his recordings.

"Sonny makes really good ukuleles, and I've played 'em all," Fernandez said.

Fernandez has introduced Sonny D 'ukulele to other entertainers, including Sistah Robi Kahakalau and Kaua'i professional 'ukulele player Darrell Rapozo.

"The quality of the 'ukulele and the sound is what I like," said Rapozo, who also plays Kamaka and Kaimana instruments, but favors his Sonny D tenor.

"The sound is different, but I like it. I also like the action. And you can play all the way up the fret board and never lose tone quality. Not all 'ukulele can do that."

When Dahlin finishes a 'ukulele, he plays it to listen for sound quality. Several times a year — a half dozen or so, he estimates — he doesn't like what he hears. When that happens, he cuts the offending instrument into two pieces with a power saw.

"It makes me angry when one isn't good because of all the hard work," he said. "But if it's not good, I get rid of it. Because, like good news goes around quickly, so does bad news. I don't want a bad Sonny D 'ukulele going around."

What does end up going around is a 'ukulele that's as good as he can make. As for comparisons to other brands, Dahlin says it's really no contest. And there shouldn't be.

"Who makes the best 'ukulele?" asked Dahlin, before answering his own question. "I make the best Sonny D 'ukulele. Kamaka makes the best Kamaka 'ukulele."