HAWAII AT WORK
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
KoAloha Ukulele senior apprentice Benjamin Sacro knows how to put together a ukulele from beginning to end. Above, Sacro checks the finish of one of the instruments.
From ukulele fan to ukulele creator
Benjamin Sacro loved his first ukulele so much that he hung around KoAloha Ukulele until it gave him a job
Benjamin "Ben" Sacro
Title: Senior apprentice
Job: Applies the varnish coats to ukuleles made at KoAloha Ukulele
Benjamin "Ben" Sacro was 21 when he decided he would like to learn how to play ukulele. He had been working at the McDonald's
in Manoa after obtaining his graduate equivalent diploma from McKinley High School, and was inspired by the music of local ukelele master Jake Shimabukuro. Not long afterward, Sacro was working for the very company that made the ukulele he had bought -- KoAloha Ukulele
, based in Kapalama. But by then he had become more interested in building the instruments than playing them. He has since gained experience in virtually every facet of their production, his job these days being to apply the varnish after they have been constructed.
Sacro has high praise for the people he works with at KoAloha, saying they're like family to him. The company was founded in 1994 by Alvin Okami, who runs it with his wife, Pat, and their two sons, Alan and Paul.
Sacro's own family includes his significant other, Janice Bautista, their 2-year-old son, Brian, and her son from a previous relationship, Jason, age 10. Sacro, who will be 26 in July, is a resident of Manoa.
So how long have you been working at KoAloha Ukulele?
Benjamin "Ben" Sacro: I'm going on my fifth year now.
Q: Do you have a job title?
A: I'm like the senior apprentice. I'm right under the management position.
Q: What is it basically that you do?
A: My main job here, as of the moment, is that I actually spray the ukuleles. I finish them. But previous to that, I used to do the bodies.
Q: Did you start out doing that?
A: Yes. When I first joined the company, I started as the helper, but I soon became the main guy, because the guy who taught me, he left.
Q: Who was that?
A: That was Todd Saiki. He was with the company for quite a few years, and he had a dream to be a graphic designer, so he's doing that now. He actually does some graphic stuff for us.
Q: Are you happy doing the painting or would you rather go back to doing the building?
A: Well, it's satisfying in a different sense, because I get to see it at its final stage, and pretty much make it look nice, because it gets glossy and shiny.
I'm very into details. So if little specks of dust get on it, I have to take it off. And with the finishing, you kind of have to be that way, because you represent the company with the final product.
Q: What is the coating and how do you apply it?
A: I use a spray gun.
Q: Is it varnish?
A: It's a called a high-solids conversion varnish.
Q: What kind of protective equipment do you wear?
A: I have to wear a spray suit and a mask.
Q: A space suit?
A: A spray suit. But it does kind of look like a space suit. And it's hot to wear it all day. But it's for my health.
Q: You do that in an enclosed room?
A: Yeah. There's filters and stuff like that. There's a big vacuum that sucks the air through the filters.
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Benjamin Sacro's workday always starts with a staff meeting. Among those at one of the meetings earlier this month were, from left, Brian Benevente, Grover Tagama, Paul Okami, Sacro, manager Pat Okami and founder Alvin Okami.
How many coats of varnish do you have to apply?
A: There's a base coat that's sprayed four times. Then I wait for awhile. Then I sand that down and I spray again. Then I wait again. Then I sand that down. I do three separate coats: the base coat, the mid coat and the top coat.
Q: Is it always a varnish or do you also use colors?
A: We have done that in the past for a couple things, but mainly varnish.
We have some ideas of doing stuff like that (using colors), but it takes time to get our feel of it, because whatever we put out here, it needs to be pretty much the best, because we don't want to put something out just to make money. We want it to represent our company.
Q: How long does it take to finish your part of the job for each ukulele?
A: It takes almost a whole day, because of the waiting time. I just have to wait for it to dry. So while I'm waiting, I go and help the other guys with whatever they're doing. And in between that, I have to clean the spray gun, to make sure there's no globs of old varnish that's left in the gun.
Yeah, it takes quite a while, because there's a whole lot of waiting sometimes.
Q: What happens if you make a mistake, and what would you consider to be a mistake anyway? Like a glob comes out or it's runny?
A: Yeah. That I would either sand it down and respray, or we do actually sell what we call our factory specials, that have a cosmetic imperfection. Either the finish isn't up to par or there is, like, a scratch or a small thing on there. It doesn't have anything to do with structure or sound. It's just a small blemish.
Q: About how many ukuleles does KoAloha Ukuleles make each day?
A: Well, every week we set a quota of about 60. So around 250 a month.
Q: Do you have a favorite model of the ukulele that you guys make?
A: Actually, I pretty much say that for the price, I like 'em all. Actually, the customs are my favorites. It takes so much longer to make a custom, and to just mold and shape something for that particular customer. It's fun and its challenging, because with each custom, something new comes up.
Can you play the ukulele?
A: I know how to play. I can't play play. But, yeah, I know how to.
When I started working, I really enjoyed playing, but now I'm so busy with work that I hardly have time to pick one up. I've actually fallen in love with making them. It's nice to craft something and see somebody on stage playing something you actually made.
Q: Who are your favorite ukulele players these days? Do you have any?
A: (Laughter) Well, I like everybody, what everybody does with the ukulele now. It's taking off.
Q: How many people work at KoAloha Ukulele?
A: There are the four main family members: Alvin and Pat (Okami), and their sons Alan and Paul.
And then you have me; my cousin, Alan Tagama -- we call him Grover, because it's just confusing, yeah? Because we have two Alans here.
And we have Brian Benevente. He used to work for the Ukulele House at Ala Moana Center. He's a great uke player and he knows customers, because he used to sell ukuleles, so he knows what customers like. He's the guy we depend on to sell. Before him it was me. I used to always talk to customers, besides everything else I had to do to get the bodies out.
And then we have this guy from Japan, Mac (Makoto) Harada.
Q: What's he do?
A: He's pretty much like the floating guy. He can pretty much do almost every thing in the shop.
Then there is Orlando Benedicto, who designs the company's Web page and is like our media guy. He takes all the pictures of our ukuleles, and some video, and stuff like that.
Q: So how did you get this job?
A: For my 21st birthday I bought myself a ukulele at Harry's Music. I just wanted to learn to play. There was a resurgence of the ukulele going on, and I liked how Jake Shimabukuro played. So I went to Harry's and they had just one KoAloha left, and I really liked the design. So I bought that, and after awhile, I would just sit down and stare at it, it was so beautiful.
So I came down here and ordered a custom, and eventually I would just go down the shop and hang out.
I was young then. I never went to college or anything. Never really liked school, period. So I would just come down here and hang out.
Finally they asked me, "You want a job?" And I said, "Yeah." So I quit McDonald's and came to work here.