Famed ukulele craftsman in U.K. racing against the clock

Snowdonia in the United Kingdom looks as majestic as its name sounds, a Welsh landscape of jagged peaks and cascading waterfalls where visitors are first greeted by curious sheep. It's also where, on the second floor of a former church inside a small workshop, a man and his apprentice make music.

Sixty-year-old Pete Howlett is not a professional musician, but the ukuleles he handcrafts have put him on the map -- 8,000 miles away -- in Hawaii. The volcanic islands are the birthplace of the ukulele. Adapted from an old Portuguese design, ukuleles have been Hawaii's signature musical instrument since the late 19th century.

In the Pacific state, Howlett's ukulele is considered one of the best.

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Ukulele craftsman Pete Howlett
CBS News

"What goes on in your mind when you think about your name and your instrument showing up halfway around the world?" CBS News' Jonathan Vigliotti asked Howlett.

"Well," he said, laughing, "I just think it's bizarre."

Bizarre maybe, but when you look at his finished product you'll understand why.

"There is something about making a ukulele that you've either got it or you haven't," Howlett said. "You've either got the mojo to do it or you haven't."

Howlett's mojo begins in the wood room, a treasure chest of rare species from around the world. This wood will be molded, chiseled, sanded and polished to perfection. Each piece fetches up to $3,000.

But 30 years ago, Howlett struggled to make ends meet.

"I ran a furniture-making design business for eight years, sold insurance for five years. ... It wasn't until 1994 when I lost a business and a local guitar maker said, 'Come and have some therapy, make yourself a guitar,'" Howlett said.

That guitar would later catch the eye of a Hawaiian ukulele dealer.

"He said, 'Can you make a ukulele?' And I said, 'Well, I've never seen one,'" Howlett recounted.

But Howlett was a quick study and soon outpaced Hawaiians.

"Had you ever been to Hawaii prior to making ukuleles?" Vigliotti asked.

"No. I've never been," Howlett said.

It was performances like "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by the emerging Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain that would increase popular demand for ukuleles and make Howlett a name beyond the islands.

"Suddenly people thought, 'I could do that,' and there was ukulele groups popping up all over the place," Howlett said.

"And you have Nirvana to thank for this?" Vigliotti asked.

"Yeah! I have a bunch of old farts playing 'Smells Like Teen Spirit,'" he said.

Howlett has made 725 ukeleles so far and had the goal of 1,000 by the time he's 70. But in December a shaky hand and a visit to the doctor changed everything.

"I went to see a specialist who in five minutes diagnosed me with Parkinson's," he shared.

Howlett was told the neurological disease would eventually rob his hands of their craft.

"There's two ways of approaching it, isn't it? You ought to give in to it and then just become a miserable old man, or you say, 'OK, so this is an opportunity for me to do something completely new,'" Howlett said.

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Howlett and his apprentice, Tommy
CBS News

That's where Howlett's young apprentice steps in. Two years ago, Tommy came to the workshop from Germany to intern with the master craftsman.

"When was the moment that you knew Tommy was the one?" Vigliotti asked.

"The day I cried when he left after his internship," Howlett said.

After Howlett was diagnosed, he asked Tommy to come back and help him with his race against time. Tommy's hands will not only help Howlett reach 1,000, but they will also eventually inherit the business.

"I am really happy to be here, the chance he gave to me and gives me at the moment," Tommy said.

"Is finding someone to carry on your legacy like a marriage?" Vigliotti asked.

"Yes, it is," Howlett said.

When Howlett does finally hand over his tools, you'll still find a piece of him in each of his ukuleles -- a silhouette of Snowdonia's tallest peak adorns every single headstock. Howlett and his music play on.

Making his 1,000 ukuleles and teaching others how to do so is his way of taking control of Parkinson's, he said.

"When I can't do it, I will be able to show people how to do it, and that way I've won. I've really won," Howlett said.