Ukulele Build


JohnG
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I've mentioned this project in passing a few times and received some interest so I'm making a journal for this. This post is just some background and info, the pictures will come in later posts.

A relative of mine has made 15 or so ukes which always fascinated me. I used to live near him, but unfortunately that was before I was woodworking. While I've always wanted to be a musical person, I simply am not- I know a lot more about musical instruments now than when I started this project, but I still can't name more than a couple parts of the uke. Once I got into woodworking, I thought it would be fun to build a uke but I knew I wouldn't take the time make all of the jigs needed or spend the money to buy all of the specialized tools, so I figured this would be something I would make in a couple decades or never.  I recently was back in the area for a wedding (his daughter) and proposed an ambitious plan of trying to build a uke in the few days on and around the wedding.

The true goal was to complete most (or all) of the steps that require a lot of specialized jigs and tools. We did some prep work in advance. He found a nice piece of cedar for the soundboard, roughed out a neck from sapele, and did a bit of layout and marking on those. I selected the material for the sides and back, and cut those to rough size. I have some interesting walnut from my dad's property and wanted to use that. The material I wanted to use for the back was highly figured and was giving me trouble in bringing it down to size, so I brought a backup piece for the back (which was used).

Obviously with the wedding and me wanting to see some old friends/coworkers from when I lived in the area, time was tight. This was like a class, he would give me instructions on the next few things that needed to be done, and I'd crank away in his shop while he did other things (prepare for wedding, visit with family, etc). When I needed help or was finished with my tasks, I'd find him and he would give me advice or the next few steps. When he could, he would come out and help me. He provided most of the materials needed for this project, which was incredibly generous of him (cedar soundboard, sapele neck, ebony parts, abalone parts, binding strips, frets, tuners, and much more that I'm forgetting at the moment). He also gave me free reign in his shop, which was also very nice of him. (we stay in touch regarding woodworking projects and he knew that I can safely use the tools).

I ended up having most of a Friday (except for a few hours mid-day), Saturday, a couple hours Sunday, and most of Monday to work on the uke. We did complete most of what needs specialty tools and jigs before I left, and I was able to safely transport it back home. My rate of progress after leaving town has slowed to a crawl, as I've had to order some tools and supplies to continue on. I also stalled for a while on some steps, nervous about ruining all of my hard work, but eventually overcame it at moved forward. We have a baby coming within the next couple weeks, so I'm motivated to make more headway before my shop time will be nonexistent for a while.

Pictures and some further explanation to come. I have a bunch of photos saved in an album but need to go through them and pick out the good ones.

 

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52 minutes ago, wtnhighlander said:

Man, that"s coming along quickly! Surprised to hear the components are only 2mm thick.

It was the most productive shop time I've ever had!

They do seem way too thin! I was always nervous handling the cedar soundboard, worried I would accidentally snap it in half. It's all pretty flimsy until you add the tone bars and glue the body together.

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After returning home, progress has slowed to a crawl.

Next step was to cut the soundboard and back flush to the sides. I don't seem to have any pictures of this. I was afraid to use a flush trim router bit for this since the back isn't flat and the soundboard is prone to tearout. I ended up using a small saw to cut as close as I dared and then used chisels to get mostly flush and then sanded the last bit. This took a while but I felt more comfortable going this route.

Next up was the binding- I tried contacting a couple local luthiers to see if someone would help me cut the binding channels. I didn't want to make or buy a bunch of stuff to do this and was very nervous about the operation. One replied and said they would do it for $200, which I thought was a bit steep. So I ordered a StewMac dremel attachment for cutting binding channels. All-in it was about $75.

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After it arrived I avoided committing to making the cut for a while, but eventually worked up the nerve. It went rather uneventfully. I ended up with some shallow areas, so I tried to even those out with a chisel and sandpaper glued to a block.

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Then the binding was cut to final length. This was another series of sneaking up on the perfect fit, which I missed. :P

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At the top I had to shape the binding to fit around the neck.

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I also cut a groove at the bottom to receive a piece of binding.

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The binding was glued in place with a lot of tape and a couple clamping blocks at the waist.

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I am currently at the stage of using a card scraper and sandpaper to make sure the binding is flush everywhere. It'll need some work where the binding intersects. I didn't end up with the perfect fit I had imagined.

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I shaped the bottom end of the fingerboard. Rough cut on the bandsaw and then spindle sander refined the shape. Also doing some finish testing.

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10 minutes ago, K Cooper said:

I’ve never seen so many jigs used on one project. This is really a neat deal! 

There are a lot! Probably not all necessary, but they certainly help. He had many more jigs and templates than I have in the pictures, and I'm sure there are many more he would like to have!

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Just remembered - Also done on the 3rd work day of my trip was rough cutting the bridge from ebony, routing a groove in it for the bone, and sizing the bone for the nut. I don't have any pictures of those parts, but will take some when I continue to work on them.

I may go back and add more explanation to the earlier posts, but feel free to ask any questions before then.

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2 hours ago, wtnhighlander said:

Did you make the fingerboard, or purchase it with frets and markers already installed? As I recall, fret layout requires a lot of math, or a significant investment in gauges / jigs.

Or both.

He already invested in the jigs and tools, so I was able to make it. Started with rectangular ebony stock, drum sander to bring it down to final thickness. Then cut the fret slots with a special blade and jig from StewMac. The jig and blade makes it pretty easy. He had a pin set in the fence of the crosscut sled about 3/8”or so off the surface. You double stick tape the jig to the fingerboard stock, flush on one side. The jig has notches cut in it, and the pin registers in each notch. You just work your way down the jig and it takes care of the spacing for you. After the slots are cut, I cut the tapers on the fingerboard so it is just narrower than the neck itself. Then drilled for the 5mm abalone dots and glued those in place and sanded flush. I cut fret stock to length and I used his fret press to install the frets. Lastly flushed up the frets to the edge of the fingerboard and filed the edges at an angle. 

Super thin blade, just barely sticking up above the sled.

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Heres the spacing jig and index pin on his sled. I only cut 17 frets.

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All fret slots cut. Pushed through the blade and then fingerboard is picked up before returning sled to avoid wider cuts.

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No pics of drilling the holes for the abalone dots, but after-

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Pressing frets. Here you can see a test hole on the end of the fingerboard to make sure the drill depth was correct. This part was to be removed later anyway. Fret press made it easy to install the frets, though I’m sure it wasn’t cheap. It was pretty beefy and heavy.

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All frets installed. Piece behind was to test fret slot depth and test fret install before cutting the real fingerboard.

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Shaped the end of the fingerboard after determining final length. 

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Mostly finished the bridge today. I got the 5mm drill bit in the mail, so I drilled a hole for the screw. The screw will go through the bridge, soundboard, reinforcement plate, and into the tone bar. 

The head of the screw will be hidden by a 5mm abalone dot, like the ones on the face of the fingerboard. 

Just needs final sanding and holes for the strings. 

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I wasn’t satisfied with my fix on the bottom, so I decided to turn the mistake into a decoration :P (with a little mineral spirits to make it pop)

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I sanded everything up to p600 in preparation for finish. I’ll be using Tru Oil.

I also found the final location for the bridge and taped off a slightly smaller profile of it. I’ll apply a couple coats of finish before gluing the bridge in place.

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Along with the other supplies, he gave me a set of Grover tuners to use for this. However, I have been very pleased with how it has come out, so I treated myself to some nicer Waverly tuners. :D

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That looks great!  My current project is an electric bass guitar for my daughter, but as I was researching it I realized that the neck in particular was more than I wanted to take on for my first one, so all I'm really doing is the body.  I just bought all the electronics and a pre-made neck.  I'm making the body out of walnut, so my biggest challenge will be making it fairly light.

Anyway, I've enjoyed your journal, and it's inspired me to build the whole thing for when I build her a second one.  Thanks for posting.

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So if you saw my post in the ‘What did you do today?’ thread, you know that our son was born yesterday so progress will probably be slow for a while. 

However, before we left for the hospital, I was able to apply one coat of Tru Oil to everything except the back. I’ll try to oil the back tonight. Then for future coats I’ll focus on either the body or neck and apply all the coats I need and then do the other. 

When we returned from the hospital I had a few goodies waiting for me- the Waverly tuners, strings, and an electronic tuner.

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47 minutes ago, wtnhighlander said:

Man, you must have one very understanding wife!  :D

I certainly do! Though at the time of me applying the oil, we were just waiting around for it to be time to head to the hospital. Her goal was to spend as little time at the hospital as possible, so we waited until it was really really time to go. But she is generally very understanding and supportive of this hobby (addiction).

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