Introduction: Backpacking Ukulele
A couple years ago we decided to go on a backpacking trip for new years. we wanted to bring some ukulele's with us but didn't want them to take up too much space in our bags. after thinking about this for a while we came up with a plan to make some ukulele sticks! the idea was to make them as small and as sturdy as possible. In the end we only had 2 days to actually make them. They're pretty easy to make and a good introduction to instrument making I think!
not having a body makes them nice and quiet for practicing or using while camping but if you're somewhere with more background noise they can be a bit too quiet on their own. You can use just about anything as an amplifier for them though! old bean cans! tables! chairs! boxes! all you have to do is hold the ukulele up against something and it vibrates it! It can be a lot of fun finding things to amplify it. more than once after I've shown it to people it's become a quest to find the best thing in the room. I've had sing-alongs using it with two metal french fry bowls :)
I made a quick video showing how it sounds by itself and using some household objects. I used our kitchen table, a small can from tomatoes, a large can from beans and an enamel camping mug.
Step 1: Gather Materials and Tools
wood: you need something to make the bulk of the ukulele out of, something around 1.5"x0.75"x 18" or so. I used a length maple trim that was 1.5"x0.75" that I bought from the local hardware store. it was more than enough to make 2 ukuleles with lots left over. additionally if you want to add a separate fretboard you'll need something to use for that, 1.5"x8"x0.25" (a bit more than half the scale length of the instrument you're making long so you can put 12 frets on it) I used some cedar from a fenceboard, a harder wood would be better but the cedar worked ok. I also used some generic dowel to make fret markers.
nut/bridge material: something hard is good to use. a hard wood such as maple or purpleheart works great. I had some leftover bone I'd bought before that I used.
tuners: I used a set of cheap mandolin tuners, cut each set of 4 in half and used them to make two ukuleles. you could buy ukulele tuners or guitar tuners too if you wanted
fretwire: to make a ukulele with 12 frets you'll need just about exactly 18" of fretwire if your fretboard is 1.5" wide. I bought two 2' sections of the thinnest fretwire they had at my local music store. you don't need big wire for a little ukulele.
strings: ukulele strings! you'll need some ;)
you can go as crazy as you want with the tools. at a minimum you'll need a saw, chisel, drill and sandpaper. I also used a router to form the hole in the head stock and round over the back, but it's not necessary.
Step 2: Prepare Your Body Blank
The first step is to get your blank prepared to make the ukulele. Since we bought a piece of trim that was already 1.25" x 0.75" I just had to cut it to length, about 18.5". Since we wanted the ukuleles to be very robust and be able to cram them into backpacks we were a bit over-cautious with the thickness of the ukuleles. I'm sure you could go down to 0.5" or even less on the thickness and still be ok. you might need a different solution for mounting the tuners then though.
Step 3: Headstock
The next step is to make the slot in the headstock for the tuners.
my original plan, as shown in the above illustrations, was to drill some holes along the center line of the blank then use a chisel to trim out the parts they left behind. I've never had a lot of luck with this method, and after a bit of trial with the first ukulele I came up with a different method I prefered using a router.
1) Drill one hole in the center of the slot, slightly larger than your router bit of choice. if you have a 1/2" router bit use a 5/8" drill. this is not necessary if you have a plunge router (I don't). It's just a place you can put the bit through so you can start cutting the slot
2) route out the slot!
if you're amazing you could free-hand route out the slot, but I've never been good at that. Since the workbench we were using had a vice on the front it was easy to set up a fence:
measure how far it is from the edge of the hole you drilled to where you want the edge of the slot to be,
clamp the blank in the vise so it's flush with the top of the workbench, set the router down on top with the bit through the hole you drilled so the cutting edge is pepindicular to the center line of the blank and touching the side of the hole closest to the workbench,
use the measurement you got for the hole-slot distance and put a fence that distance from the edge of your router, you can just clamp a long thin piece of wood to the workbench. (sorry this is confusing, we were on a time crunch to make these and I didn't take any pictures of this process)
you can now route the edge of the slot closest to the workbench. it's best to do multiple passes, I did two. one with the bit half way through the blank, then the whole way through. it just makes it easier.
This will give you a straight edge to your slot, but you'll have to stop at right beginning and end points unless you add stops to your fence. you should be able to just flip the blank over and route the other edge of the slot without moving the fence if you set it up properly, though I would double check your measurements before doing the second slot.
once you have the slot routed out you can sand a matching curve around the outside of blank, we used a handheld belt sander with a 80 grit belt to quickly sand it down. you could also use a bandsaw or even just sandpaper/files
Step 4: Tuner Holes
Next is to drill the holes for the tuners to go into the headstock slot. I included roughly what my tuners were, but this will really depend on the tuners you have. just make sure you only drill through one side of the slot, the tuners need to be offset from one another on either side.
Step 5: String Retention System
The next step is on the other end of the blank. it's basically the area where you tie the strings to the ukulele. I modeled it off a commercial ukulele bridge, but don't worry about matching it exactly. there's lots of ways you could do it. a router/fence method like the headstock slot (but with the router bit not going all the way through), you could use a dado stack in a table saw, or just use a hand saw to cut down to the correct depth, then a chisel to take out the material.
finally, drill 4 evenly spaced holes big enough for a string to pass through from the end of the ukulele into the slot. basically the string will go into the hole from the slot side, then wrap back around and be tied to secure the string in place.
Step 6: Roundover!
next I used a 1/4" roundover bit in the router to smooth the back of the blank to make it nice to hold. don't put the roundover all the way to headstock slot since it might interfere with your tuners. I had to stop it before the tuners and just round over the headstock area by hand. you want the whole area where the tuners sit to be flat. you could do this easily without a router, using sanpaper, a belt sander, files or even a spokeshave.
Step 7: Fretboard
next is to make the fretboard.
there's lots of tutorials on how to make fretboards. I included a picture from my cigarbox ukulele instructions. since these have straight sides they're fairly easy since the frets are at a right angle to the edges of the fretboard, it also means all the frets are the same length so you don't need to keep track of which goes where. the basic steps are to mark/cut the frot slots, cut the frets to length, then hammer them in. ideally you can then level/dress them but it wasn't necessary for these ukes, so you might be lucky too ;). you will need to file the edges of the frets though so they're not sharp.
remember if you want fret markers to put them in before you put the frets in. we just drilled holes and put dowels in then cut them to size/ sanded them flush before putting the frets in.
we made 2 ukuleles. on one I had a separate fretboard made out of cedar that I glued onto the blank. for the other the frets were placed directly onto the blank. each method has advantages.
Separate fretboard: gets the strings higher from the body, makes strumming a bit easier. higher angle from the nut to the tuners for the strings, helps make the strings stay in the nut slots. if you have a separate fretboard you can also have a separete nut/bridge, for the integrated style they had to be recessed and you couldn't move the bridge to adjust the intonation
Integrated fretboard: thinner overall size, harder fretboard material (maple vs cedar), integrated nut/bridge makes intonation difficult but since they're recessed they won't move around if they get bumped. lower height of strings may mean you need to remove more material from by your headstock slot so the strings have a clear path from the tuners to the nut.
Step 8: Nut/bridge
next is to make the nut/bridge their dimensions can be almost the same since the strings are the same distance from one another at either end. I made a little purpleheart "saddle" for the bridge to sit in to support it more. I glued the bridge into the saddle, but not the saddle to the body. once you have them shaped you can use files to notch out where the strings will sit.
Step 9: Assembly
next is to put it all together. glue your fretboard to the body if you have a separate one, put on the tuners, place the nut and bridge then string it up! tie the strings to the body just like you would with a normal ukulele bridge.
when you're placing the bridge start with it about 13" from the nut. To get it placed exactly you want it so the note for each string is the same tuning when you strum it open and when you play the 12th fret. you should be able to wiggle the bridge a bit to get the right intonation. the bridge doesn't have to be straight across either, it can be angled. you might have to make a bit of a compromise between strings, but try and get them all as close as possible for optimal sound.
now you're done!
they're pretty quiet since they have no resonating body. it's great for practicing in an apartment or in the silent wilderness. if you need a bit more volume though there's lots of options. since the whole body is resonating you can simply hold the ukulele against just about anything and the resonance will transfer. you can use old cans, a table, anything!