A Sheffield ukulele company draws interest far and wide
Dale Webb examines a ukulele in his Sheffield shop, the Magic Fluke.
Photos by Scott Barrow
In a solar-powered timber home overlooking mountains and fields in Sheffield sits Magic Fluke Company, a ukulele-manufacturing business. Inside, an immediate perfume of freshly cut birch, walnut, maple, and other woods fills the space around you. A white, mild-tempered chihuahua greets customers at the front door, giving them a once-over before carrying on happily within this shop filled with hundreds of ukulele parts lining its walls.
In one room, a worker is sanding down the neck of a “uke” as a stream of sawdust is captured in sunlight cascading through large, open windows. There is a creative energy to this place and a home-like environment that welcomes musical curiosity.
Dale and Phyllis Webb moved their family business to the Berkshires in 2010 after expanding to a much larger space than the one in the basement of their New Hartford home 11 years prior. Dale, the engineer behind the designs of Magic Fluke, began the company when he was “fortunately” laid off, as he says. His brother-in-law, Jim Beloff, convinced him that the ukulele was on the verge of a comeback and wanted him to come up with a quality instrument made in the United States. After years of what felt like just trying to hang on to the business, the ukulele did in fact make a resurgence. To date, Magic Fluke has built and shipped over 60,000 U.S.-made instruments.
Bette Midler also gave the instrument a good push toward renewed popularity. The entertainer, a Hawaiian native, wanted to reconnect with her roots and learn how to play the ukulele in her shows. Beloff, who received a lot of attention for his uke books, was asked to give Midler lessons. She was hooked and started using some of Magic Fluke’s ukuleles in her shows. In the front of the shop, there is a poster of Midler in her showgirl outfit holding a pink-pineapple ukulele that was crafted by Magic Fluke.
Dale and Phyllis are committed to keeping their instruments locally crafted. But competition from China is strong, with imported instruments selling at a cheaper price—though oftentimes of lesser quality. Phyllis explains how difficult but important it is to do everything locally. For instance, she says that finding “Made in the USA” tags for the company’s merchandise were hard to find—even those labels were produced overseas. On the other hand, some of the harvested ash, cherry, maple, and walnut come from the couple’s own trees or in surrounding locations. The time and energy that goes into the instruments does not go unnoticed. Despite their apparent fragility, ukuleles that are made well will last a long time, says Phyllis, noting that their ukes in children’s hospitals have stood up to being wiped down by bleach every day.
Dale and Phyllis continue to expand their instrument repertoire, which includes the ukulele and electric ukulele as well as the violin/fiddle and banjo uke. They can barely keep up with orders of their newest creation, a travel-size electric bass, called a timber. For the couple, there is no better place than the Berkshires, and they regularly give back to the community while keeping their business as authentic as when they started. Phyllis sees their Sheffield location as a creative, casual space where people can walk in, find a seat, and strum a ukulele. And so the Magic Fluke is yet another example of the dynamic music and arts vibe found in the Berkshires, with endless possibilities to explore and share.