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November 21, 2013

We are always interested in people who are doing things never-before-done and pushing the boundaries of sustainability and innovation. Blackbird Guitars, a small San-Francisco based maker, has been creating high performance, light weight instruments built for the road out of carbon fiber since 2005 and while we love the modern design of these sleek black beauties it's the release of Clara, the world's first natural-fiber ukulele, that has us really excited. Everyone loves the rich full sound of classic wood instruments but they are subject humidity and water warping. Founder Joe Luttwak and Director of Operations Paul Janowski at Blackbird are making history with a bio-composite concert ukulele that stands up against some of the best wood instruments and will also stand the tests of time and the elements

Dwell was invited to attend Clara's release party for a demonstration of the making process and live performances by local Bay Area musicians Madeline Tasquin, Maria Marshall and Roem Baur.

Clara Ukulele

The Clara is made from Ekoa, a name paying homage to Acacia koa which is a nearly endangered native Hawaiian wood traditionally used to make ukuleles. Ekoa is a proprietary, first-of-its-kind, renewable, plant-based material that provides the warm sound and feel of vintage old-growth wood with the toughness of carbon fiber. Founder Joe Luttwak explains "Blackbird takes a holistic approach to maximize sound out of a box." The Clara was designed with sound first and sharp looks second.

Photos by Jeremy Ota.

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Alan Miknis places the prepared top onto the body

The evening at Blackbird Guitars started out with a great demonstration of the making of a Clara ukulele. Here, composite/molding technician Alan Miknis places the prepared top onto the body.

Photos by Jeremy Ota.

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Alan Miknis clamping the body/top assembly on the granite surface plate.

Here, Alan clamps the body/top assembly on the granite surface plate.

Alan explaines that from start to finish it takes almost an entire day for just one Clara to be born. 44 Precisely interlaced pieces of Ekoa are mixed with a bio-resin adhesive and placed in a custom aluminum mold to be cured. In local small manufacturing fashion, Blackbird has used part of an old cotton candy machine to build their "glorified griddle, with added temperature controllers."

Photos by Jeremy Ota.

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Jimmy applying epoxy to the body in preparation for the headplate

Luthier in training Jimmy Tran applys epoxy to the body in preparation for the head plate.

Founder Joe Luttwak originally set out to make professional-quality acoustic travel instruments with carbon fiber but his first passion is sustainable design. It became increasingly important to find a material that was not only eco-friendly but one that could stand up to 100 year old wood instruments warmth and power of sound with the durability of carbon fiber.

Photos by Jeremy Ota.

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Jimmy Tran applying epoxy to the headplate.

Jimmy applying epoxy to the head plate. Each step of building the Clara takes precision craftsmanship.

Discovering the plant-based fiber ultimately used to make Ekoa was a happy accident of late night internet searches. There were many bio-composite materials online but none that had the right tolerances for the instrument Joe had in mind and most were only in lab stages. He finally found and partnered with a company also producing a bio-resin. Six years in the making, Ekoa and the Clara came to life.

Joe sees many uses for the light, durable, and renewable Ekoa in the future. From paneling to furniture or anything that needs to be stiff and strong with the look of wood grain, he thinks the possibilities are endless.

Photos by Jeremy Ota.

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Founder Joe Luttwak presents a completed Clara Ukulele

In a moment of triumph Founder Joe Luttwak presents a completed Clara ukulele to the filled room of fans and the celebration begins.

Photos by Jeremy Ota.

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Madeline Tasquin plays the Clara Ukulele

Local Bay Area musician Madeline Tasquin entertains party-goer's on the Clara Ukulele.

Madeline had completed a Bachelor’s Degree in Architecture in Sydney, which brought her to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006 for a short stay that turned into love, immigration and a return to her musical roots.

Joe mentions that he feels making musical instruments and the practice of architecture are not so far apart.

Photos by Jeremy Ota.

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Blackbird Guitars line up with Clara Ukulele

Clara now takes her rightful place alongside the other beautiful Blackbird instruments and the pioneering luthier's return to their craft.

Photo by Jamie Freedman.

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Clara Ukulele

The Clara is made from Ekoa, a name paying homage to Acacia koa which is a nearly endangered native Hawaiian wood traditionally used to make ukuleles. Ekoa is a proprietary, first-of-its-kind, renewable, plant-based material that provides the warm sound and feel of vintage old-growth wood with the toughness of carbon fiber. Founder Joe Luttwak explains "Blackbird takes a holistic approach to maximize sound out of a box." The Clara was designed with sound first and sharp looks second.

Photos by Jeremy Ota.

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