By Maci Lee Martell
San Francisco is known for its wealth of creative souls. Most artists in the city dream of seeing their paintings on display in an upscale gallery, or playing indie rock music for a sold-out crowd at The Fillmore. But Toni Maloon is not like most artists.
For 61-year-old Maloon, creative pursuits are more like hobbies. She’s in it for the challenge, but once it involves money and notoriety, she gets bored. This was the case for her ukulele business, a chapter of her life that was long in the making.
The seed was planted many years ago. As a child, she knitted with her grandmother, she did oil painting, she built model cars from the hobby store. Later on, she dabbled in stained glass, pottery, soap-making and whatever else she could craft.
“I was always making things with my hands,” Maloon said. “That’s kind of the basis of who I am.”
Maloon is now semi-retired from manufacturing ukuleles while in pursuit of other interests and goals. Yet she feels that many moments throughout her life culminated into her joyful uke-making phase.
She spent time in Hawaii, where ukuleles were popularized, and studied tropical plant science at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa. However, it was childhood singing and harmonica lessons at the famous McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, California, that first sparked her interest in music and handcrafted stringed instruments.
Once, while browsing the guitar shop in 1982, Maloon saw hanging on the wall a beautifully crafted dulcimer, an elongated, fretted stringed instrument. Its detailed rose inlay intrigued her so much that she had to buy it on the spot, along with instructions on how to play it. Accompanying the instructions were photos of stringed instruments the author had designed herself. “I was just like, ‘Oh man, I gotta do that.’ It was the next thing I wanted to build.”
So she bought a kit that came with all the fully formed pieces to make her own stringed instrument, but it seemed too simple. She wanted to build it from scratch. “The kit just sat in the garage. I never touched it.”
Maloon kept busy with crafts and attending school. After getting divorced and feeling the need to get away, she took her children, Amy and Roy, to Hawaii, where they soaked up the culture and fell in love with the islands. This trip would end up being the nexus for her ukulele-building.
When her daughter graduated from high school, Maloon felt like life was going by too fast and she wasn’t doing just what she wanted to.
“So my son, out of the blue, just goes, ‘Mom, go to Hawaii and learn how to build a ukulele,’” Maloon said, filling up with emotion at the memory of her son’s encouragement that led her to her dream. “I went ‘What!?’ and he said, ‘Just go and figure it out, just go do that,’ and I said OK.”
Maloon returned to Hawaii in 2005 for a two-week course at a ukulele-building school called Hana Lima ‘Ia, taught by master luthier Michael Chock.
The students had to make a label to put on the inside of their handmade ukes. She looked up the Hawaiian spelling of her full name, Antonette: Anakoneke. She drew up an orchid design with the title “Anakoneke’s Ukuleles” wrapped around it — for her, a symbol of pure joy.
“I drew it and glued it in there, and tears, I mean just this flood of tears. I was like, ‘Oh my God! This is what I’m supposed to do! That never happened to me before.”
Maloon noted the difficulties at first as she began building ukuleles at home, saying that figuring out how to bend the sides was the hardest. “I wasn’t a woodworker, first of all,” she said. “It took me months to build a side bender, then there’s a million jigs you have to make. It took me maybe a year to finish all those jigs.”
To gain inspiration and tips, she attended a ukulele festival where she met Michael DaSilva, a member of the Guild of American Luthiers and owner of DaSilva Ukulele Co. Maloon apprenticed at DaSilva’s shop, where he guided her.
“She took to it quite readily,” DaSilva said. “She was definitely talented, it was obvious. She was a quick study, she learned right away, she did everything.”
Maloon mainly learned how to do inlay design online, though Larry Robinson, master inlay artist, supported her pursuits.
“I remember liking what I saw and being impressed by her sense of design and use of color,” Robinson said regarding her inlays, adding that it’s not often he’s impressed by a newcomer to the craft.
Before she even considered selling her creations, Maloon received a request that landed her first client: an Oakland woman who wanted a cat-themed ukulele. She made the uke out of gabon ebony, complete with paw prints scampering up the fretboard and a white cat at the top made out of iridescent nacre shell, also known as mother of pearl. From there, news of her ukulele business spread through word of mouth. Before she knew it, she was constructing the instruments out of her cramped, Parkmerced apartment that was teeming with jigs, tools and wood pieces.
Her graphic designer son made a website, business cards and pamphlets for her emerging business. “I have to really give him credit. I would not be selling this if it wasn’t for him.”
According to a Voice of America article on the revival of ukuleles, the National Association of Musical Merchants stated U.S. ukulele sales rose to nearly $90 million in 2015 — a figure that’s twice that of the mere $42 million in 2010. “Between 2005 to 2015 there was this mad, ukulele rebirth,” Maloon said. “I just got in at the right time.”
She said the ukulele is ideal for people who fear they cannot play another instrument. “The ukulele is so simple and fun that it takes that stress away from playing ‘great.’ It’s a nice, fun, little instrument.”
After years of traveling to conventions and promoting her business, she no longer wanted to deal with overwhelming, bureaucratic elements coupled with the hassle of building ukuleles by herself, which takes up to 50 hours for each one. “I have to say that I’m not an entrepreneur. Once you start doing the business…for me it’s just not fun anymore.”
So in 2016, Maloon brought an end to that chapter of her life. She no longer designs ukuleles regularly but still does so upon special request. “I love a challenge, and that’s what the ukulele was — a challenge that I completed.”
Her next challenge? To become a stenographer and take notes for deaf students at universities. She’s been practicing now for three years so she can pass the state test of 225 words a minute for 10 minutes; currently she’s up to 180 words per minute.
Maloon’s advice for people aspiring to do what they desire is the same as her philosophy on life: “Just do it. Don’t hold back. No fear!”
Note: To read more San Francisco-based work from this author from Fall 2017 semester or more recently, visit https://www.linkedin.com/in/maci-martell-a171b8133/