“Quintessentially Central Oregon” is just one way to describe Outdoor Ukulele—a local company making stringed instruments that can weather any kind of wild.
Outdoor Ukuleles have sailed the Arctic Ocean, paddled down the Amazon River, hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. They are not only waterproof and indestructible, they have a remarkably rich tone rivaling that of wooden instruments and are, according to musicians, a dream to play. Plus, they are simultaneously playful and works of art, with colors drawn from beer and saké bottles: Deschutes Brewery brown, Japanese saké blue and Stella Artois green.
Outdoor Ukulele, the only company making composite polycarbonate instruments through injection molding, is the brainchild of Bend residents Scott and Jennifer Seelye. In the early 2000s, these native Oregonians built the world’s largest online skateboard retailer (Nowadays). After selling that company, Scott watched a CNBC story and learned that 90 percent of all ukuleles were being made overseas. Lightbulb moment! Their next manufacturing venture was born with a typical Bend twist: instruments for the outdoors.
The company’s tale is one for the entrepreneurial textbooks. Making polycarbonate instruments through injection molding—something that hadn’t been done before—was a vexing challenge requiring Scott’s inventiveness and patience. “We lost a year working with one manufacturer trying to get it right,” Scott said.
Early days also found Scott tweaking the design. “I had to balance technology with tradition,” Scott said. “While the software indicated a square neck would be stronger, most performers wanted a round one.” Buyers from different cultures had preferences, too. While Americans didn’t want solid-friction tuners, the Japanese preferred them. Today, the company uses custom-made precision tuners.
Today the instruments are molded at 600 degrees Fahrenheit under 420 tons of pressure by a manufacturer in Albany, Oregon. The materials—polycarbonate reinforced with carbon fiber strands—give the instruments a natural grain structure that greatly increases strength and acoustics. The instruments are assembled, customized and shipped from Outdoor Ukuleles’ offices in northwest Bend.
Outdoor Ukulele makes soprano and tenor ukuleles and also banjo ukuleles (or “banjoleles”), an instrument popular in the 1920s. A sleek, black guitar was added to the company’s lineup eighteen months ago. During the first year of the pandemic, when all the world was looking for something new to do at home, sales at Outdoor Ukulele doubled. Twenty thousand of the Seelyes’ instruments have been sold since 2015.
“We’ve very lucky to have something of a cult following now,” says Scott.
Several modifications and advances now create instruments that sell all over the world. “The dealer’s store in Beijing looks like Tiffany’s,” said Scott. Ukuleles are especially popular in China and Japan, he surmises, because of residents’ smaller homes. About 1.2 million ukuleles are sold in North America each year—and about 2,500 of them ship from Outdoor Ukulele.
The indestructible nature of the instruments makes them popular for children, and Outdoor Ukuleles are used for music education in schools across the country, including Bend. When the roof on the gym at Bend’s Kenwood Elementary collapsed in 2017, video showed that the Outdoor Ukuleles survived. “They were lifted right out of the wreckage, still on the holder, completely intact,” Scott said with a laugh.
Scott and Jennifer are the definition of “makers”—those who use their hands and their wits to make beautiful products. Jennifer, a passionate knitter, is also developing a vineyard, orchard, olive grove and farm in the Willamette Valley. Ironically, neither are musicians, which Scott feels is an asset. “We are not bound by tradition or playing habits.”