Tuning up two passions under one roof

The Webb Family in the workshop. From left: Phyllis, Dale, Ben and Josh Webb, and project manager Hannah Schiffer.

Natalia Zukerman

Tuning up two passions under one roof

Magic Fluke Ukulele Shop and True Wheels Bicycle Shop are not only under the same roof in a beautiful solar powered building on Route 7 in Sheffield, but they are also both run by the Webb family, telling a tale of familial passion, innovation and a steadfast commitment to sustainability.

In the late ‘90s, Dale Webb was working in engineering and product design at a corporate job. “I took up instrument manufacturing as a fun challenge,” said Dale. After an exhibit at The National Association of Music Merchants in Anaheim, California, in 1999, The Magic Fluke company was born. “We were casting finger boards and gluing these things together in our basement in New Hartford and it just took off,” Dale explained. “It was really a wild ride, it kind of had a life of its own.”

For the first few years of business, Dale and Phyllis Webb were making and shipping 3,000 to 4,000 instruments a year. They soon moved out of their basement and into an old, abandoned service station in New Hartford where they were also fulfilling orders for books written by Phyllis’s brother, Jim Beloff. “He was a guitarist, songwriter and performer,” said Dale of his brother-in-law. “He picked up a ukulele at a flea market and he never went back to guitar.” Beloff established Flea Market Music, which published the wildly popular Jumpin’ Jim’s Ukulele Songbook series. Beloff’s songbooks, instructional books, DVDs and the Webb Family’s Fluke and Flea ukuleles have contributed greatly to the popularity of the instrument.

Developed in the 1880s, the ukulele is based on several small, guitar-like instruments of Portuguese origin that were introduced to the Hawaiian Islands by immigrants from Madeira, the Azores and Cape Verde. In the Hawaiian language the word ukulele roughly translates as “jumping flea.”

Since its first shipment of concert Flukes in three distinct color options in June of 1999, the product line has expanded exponentially with a diverse array of offerings. From the traditional Soprano, Concert, Tenor and Baritone Uke Banjos to the more contemporary solid body Electric Uke and Timber Bass, Magic Fluke has carved out a niche in the world of stringed instruments. Said Dale, “Our niche has been the nontraditional look, which, I think, has served us well. We have an iconic, unique headstock and then we do a lot of customizing with either laser engraving or printing. We can print anything on a face, and we do that in-house. People send us their pictures or artwork and we can put that right on the instrument.” Recent additions, such as the five-string violin introduced in 2021, signify the company’s ongoing commitment to innovation. A short-scale electric cello is slated for release later in 2024.

With a keen eye for locally sourced materials and a commitment to eco-friendly practices, Magic Fluke stands as a testament to the power of conscientious craftsmanship. This ethos of environmental responsibility has been proudly passed on to the three Webb boys: Josh, Ben and Sam, who are not only continuing the family ukulele business, but expanding to include their own interests and areas of expertise. Ben Webb is building an inventory of furniture and home objects, “highly functional, very simple forms that are made of local hardwoods,” he explained. “The whole idea is to build something of quality and put it in the hands of as many people as possible. I feel like it’s often one or the other. It’s like, build something of quality and put it in the hands of people that can afford it or put it in as many hands as possible but compromise on quality.”

The Webbs do not compromise on quality, while forging deep relationships within all their various networks. “It feels really good to be able to sell something that is made with dignity and has a really thoughtful environmental impact,” Ben explained.

This careful and skilled craftsmanship doesn’t end with ukuleles or handmade home objects: enter True Wheels Bicycle Shop.

Led by Josh Webb in partnership with his younger brother Sam, the foray into bicycle rental and repairs seamlessly intertwines with Magic Fluke’s mission of creativity and sustainability. Said Josh, “The whole family has been into cycling from a young age and then in college I did some competitive riding and found out about this company called Seven Cycles in Watertown.” After studying mechanical engineering in college, Josh went to work for Seven Cycles for a time before returning to the family business.

“I guess in the back of my mind since then it has been a goal to have some kind of a bike shop, just because I enjoy repairing bicycles and keeping things rolling for people.” Asked how the skills of instrument building and bike maintenance are related, Ben offered, “It’s the same, really. It’s attention to detail, understanding how things work and having the fine motor skills to do anything.” He laughed, “You know, sometimes I think if I wasn’t so queasy, I could go into surgery.” Josh added, “I’m reminded of a quote that I stumbled on recently that talks about how the Shakers and the Native Americans both shared a love of craft without materialism. They were not materialistic people, but they had a love of craft. And that for me, is something I strive for.”

As the workshop buzzed with creativity and production, Phyllis Webb reflected on the 25 years of the family business as she and Dale prepare to take a step back. “I think we never expected to have our kids in the business. We never wanted anybody to feel obligated, so we wanted everybody to go off and do their own thing and feel like they had wings to spread. The fact that they’re here is wonderful.”

In an age of mass production and disposable consumerism, Magic Fluke and True Wheels stand as bastions of authenticity. “My brother Jim coined the phrase ‘uke can change the world,’” Phyllis mused, “and I feel like we have changed the world in our way.”

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