This project was borne from an ongoing dispute between me and my three year old daughter over the ownership of MY acoustic soprano uke. The advantages of an electric ukulele are:
1) I can play it unplugged, so not upset everyone in the street
2) My daughter won't hear me playing it, thus prompting another "incident"
3) Ownership of the soprano can pass to the next generation.
I opted for a baritone because I'm used to a guitar and there's only room for one of each chord in my head.
When I started I had a small collection of tools, but where I found I had no alternative, I bought new ones. The tools I used for the build were (* were bought specifically for this project)
* Router with template and trimmer bits
* Files - flat, round and half round
Jigsaw with wood and metal blades
Drill with wood and metal bits
* 250mm long drill bit
* Razor saw with changeable blades
Several grits of sandpaper and wet and dry paper
Sash clamps and G cramps
Centre punch (wood screw)
Lump hammer and pin hammer
Rubber mallet (the persuader)
There were tools I didn't buy, but would probably buy next time:
Specialist nut files
Fret crowning file
Step 1: Materials
After some googling, I opted for a natural wood finish as thought I'd have a greater chance of messing up a paint finish, and I really like a good wood grain. For this build I went for American black walnut which is a lovely looking wood and is often used in instruments. To save cash, I steered clear of buying a guitar blank and looked around for a decent sized piece I could laminate into the body and eventually chose this lovely beam that will make a three piece body for this build and should leave enough to make a smaller soprano next time....
The neck will be formed from a large piece of sapele, and I went for an ebony fretboard.
All the other components were bought online and with the exception of the bridge, neck plate and scratchplate are new guitar components.
Step 2: The Design
I sketched out the design by hand and drew it up in AutoCAD. I love CAD and built a 3D model of the uke from which the 2D drawings were produced. The design was chosen as I have only limited tools and workspace so a simple design was preferred. This asymmetric design looks nice, I think.
As a baritone it has a 508mm (20") scale length and the strings are spaced 11mm at the bridge down to 9mm at the nut.
I'm particularly proud of the headstock. I'd have liked it thinner, but the size of the machine heads and the string path dictated the dimensions, especially as I didn't want string trees or guides all over it, hence the raked headstock. The CAD model here is of the first iteration of the design with a flat Fender style headstock which was changed to a raked Gibson style.
The eagle eyed among you may have noticed the CAD is left handed. I have no idea why this is, must be a ploy to upgrade to pro "pro users' drawings don't mysteriously change orientation"
Step 3: And So It Begins - Building the Body Part 1
I laminated the three body pieces together with lashings of wood glue and left clamped up for 24 hours. Once dried I got busy with the planes and shaved the blank down to a nice smoothish surface. I left the blank at about 43mm thick. I was planning for about 40mm finished thickness, but having measured up against the neck screws, I thought that may be too thin, so 43 was enough for this stage as a little more will be taken off in the final sanding.
I used a smoothing plane and a block plane to get the blank flat and to thickness. There was some chatter from the plane but luckily the worst of it was in the areas that would be trimmed, like the neck pocket.
The key point here is that you must keep your planes nice and sharp, spend a little time on it and they'll repay you in the quality of the finish.
I gave a first rough sand with 80 grit paper, and onto the next stage - the first real challenge of cutting out the body...
Step 4: Body Part 2
I printed out the template on A3 and stuck it to the front face with double sided tape. The plan was to cut round it with a jigsaw, then plane and file to shape. I don't own a router, so this is the first real challenge.
An it turns out, my jigsaw skills are more suited to recreating pictures of kittens and mountains than building ukuleles and I managed to cut the sides at all kinds of crazy angles. Never mind, there's nothing here that a good, sharp block plane can't cure!
Halfway through the 2 day shaping process I woke up in the night with a fantastic idea! So I drilled some holes in the side of the body.
Daunted by the sheer effort involved in the build and opportunity to ruin the uke, I have also relented and bought a router as there's no way I'm going to risk messing the whole thing up with a chisel when it comes to the cavities.
Next time, the template would be a must. Paper is good, but a little time spent on the template would save a lot in planing and filing. The various cavities and screws would also be lined up nicely.
Step 6: Neck Part 1
While I don't have a neck, I'm reluctant to start cutting out the neck pocket, and until the alignment of the body and neck is perfect I don't want to start on the other body parts, so let's start on the neck.
I'm sure you were marvelling at the magnitude of the sapele plank I'd bought, and here is the neck profile template laid out on it for cutting. The plank is wide enough for the width of the neck so it'll be easier to cut around the profile now, right?
Seeing all this empty wood gives me an idea for the next build - a through neck using the walnut offcuts... I'll see how this turns out first before I get carried away...
My initial plan for the neck is to cut the profile with the router to keep nice straight edges,
Step 7: Neck Part 2
I've left the body behind and started on the neck. I didn't want to risk destroying the neck wood so I opted for a template this time. I printed off the pattern and selotaped it to a piece of MDF.
Once the outline was drawn, I jigsawed the template and clamped the rough version to the bench, lining it up with the edge of the work bench and routed it using a trimmer bit. A little bit of filing and sanding and the template is finished. It's a little oversized to accommodate faults in the final neck that can be sanded out in the shaping. I've bought a template bit for the router. Next time I wouldn't take this approach, but clamp straight pieces to the top and rout using a template cutter as I think this would be easier to align.
Step 8: The Bridge
so, I forgot to take any pictures during the bridge build, but here is the (almost) finished item. The saddles are standard Fender style saddles and the bridge is cut from a length of extruded aluminium angle from the DIY shop. Unfortunately they only had anodised ally in the right sizes so I've had to waste time sanding off the anodised finish and it's not yet finished, but this is one of those jobs that might go on and on...
Anyway, I'm pretty pleased with the way the bridge has turned out - it's the first completed part of the project!
You can probably see that the saddles are slightly off-centre. If I were to build more of these, then a set of callipers or a scribing tool would be worth investing in.
Step 9: The Fretboard
the fretboard has taught me a few lessons; most importantly, don't buy the wood unseen on the web. The fretboard I received was knotty as anything which caused loads of breakout when planing. I eventually got it down to 4mm thick using the router plane method, a smoothing plane, block plane and file. As you can see, I lost some wood, but as the blank was for a guitar I had room to manoeuvre. There are some rough patches still, but if they're not fixed by sanding then they'll add to the character!
The fret spacing was calculated using the widget on stewmac.com. The positions were measured and marked out, then checked several times before I went at it with the sharp stuff...
I did the actual cutting with a junior hacksaw as the kerf is very fine, so a narrow cut. I kept it straight using a block of wood clamped over the board as a guide.
The nut slot was cut using the saw and the excess material removed using one of the blades from a vintage Stanley no. 50 plane. I went for 3.2mm.
The fretboard is now done. Watch the crooked frets... If it makes it too unplayable, then I'll try to fill them with a mix of wood glue and ebony dust and re cut them.
Next time I'd only buy this element having actually seen the wood if I was to use ebony or rosewood. When buying a fretboard blank you only get enough wood for a fretboard, so there's little room for wastage. I'd probably buy a better saw as well. I saw a few pages where makers use Japanese style pull saws, and I think I'd invest in one for the next build. I'd also think about a jig for fret cutting. Again, a little time spent preparing makes for a much better job.
Step 10: The Neck Part 3
The neck and fretboard were built at the same time. The neck is from a single piece of off cut of a sapele shelf. This was a much cheaper way of buying the wood and leaves plenty to do it again when it goes wrong. Or make another instrument. Maybe a mandolin...?
Anyhoo, the neck profile was cut from the timber using a jigsaw, then the edges trimmed using a router. Perhaps foolishly I didn't make a template for the side profile of the neck and instead relied on clamping a straight edge and using a template cutter bit. As the neck is a series of straight lines this worked out well.
My template bit isn't long enough to do the full depth, so I planned to rout one side in two goes, then flip it over and trim the other side using a trimmer. My trimmer bit is even shorter so I ended up planing off the wide flange with a smoothing plane and block plane.
I had to use the router for the transitions between the neck and the raked headstock, but as it was a short length and I managed to do it in a few stepped passes.
My plan at this stage is to get the fretboard and neck glued up the cut them to the correct size as one piece. Once the neck is shaped, I'll rout the neck pocket and measure up for the bridge position.
I've marked out the machine head locations and checked using the ones I bought and they should work after some re-spacing.
Next time, obviously, I'd use a longer trimmer bit in the router as this would have saved me time.
Step 11: The Neck Part 4
Here was another departure from plan. I decided not to rout the neck and instead plane it to shape. This was fairly easy as I only had a small amount to remove and all the edges are straight. I clamped the blank down with a spacer underneath and a guide rail above and with the smoothing plane and block planes on their side I planed away. This was quicker than I expected and I would recommend this route if you're a novice routerer (like me) as you'll have to plane the edges once routed anyway. Make sure your blades are nice and sharp though.
So the neck is now square cut. There's a little more to shave off but I'll fix the fretboard next, then I'll do the final shaping of the neck.
I would adopt this approach next time as you get much more control from planes than a router on this delicate operation. For a more complicated headstock design then the router option might be the only way.
Step 12: Body Cavities
In a remarkable departure from form, I actually made and used a crude template for the body cavity. To do this I sketched the shape for the cavity onto the template paper still stuck to the body. I then cut this out and transferred it to a piece of 10mm MDF which I cut out with the jigsaw. I wasn't too fussed on the shape or dimensions as long as the side wall was thick enough to take the pot stems (remember the holes I cut post epiphany?), otherwise I would have chosen a less, erm, well you know, shape.
The template was nailed to the body at the neck pocket (which will be cut out), swivelled into place and the whole lot clamped to the bench. I took out the router with the template bit and started the rout. Because the template cutter only follows the template near full depth I carefully took out the middle of the cavity in 1-2mm passes to full depth, or as deep as the router will go, then worked my way back to the template. The new cavity meets up with the pick up cavity and should allow room for the gubbins. Note the lug at the bottom of the cavity, this is for a scratchplate screw later on.
Once I'd taken the router as deep as it would go I took out the rest with a chisel, hence the rough finish. It's deep enough, but I hate to think how thin the wood is now!
Next time, more of the same - a proper template planned in advance for the whole build, and a longer set of router bits.
Step 13: Wiring Cavity
So now I have a piece of wood with a jack cavity at the tail end, and a wiring loom cavity at the neck end. And nothing in between. Had I been blessed with the gift of foresight I would have routed a channel through the timbers in the body before I glued them. But I didn't. I also don't have a massive long drill bit. So, the best option I thought would be to rout a channel in the back and drill diagonally into the cavities.
To do this I clamped a straight piece of timber to the body and used it to guide the 1/4" bit to about 10mm depth and judged by eye where to finish. I then drilled though to the cavities and cleaned it all out. Lovely.
By now I'm thinking I'll have to paint the body to cover all the dings, and now this, so I wasn't overly concerned with the finish. Now, what to cover this channel with...? I opted for a pine fillet using one of my many bits of scrap wood, when my eye should fall upon all that ebony. Oh, you don't know about that yet, well, more on that later.
So I cut a sliver of 4mm thick, well planed ebony and trimmed it to fit using the side block plane technique and rounded the terminals with 80 grit, testing all the time until it fitted. Then I slipped on some glue and pressed it into place using the persuader. Finally I planed it flat with the back of the body and tested it by running a cable through.
Now I think I this looks quit nice, so I'm going to try and salvage the timber finish...
Next time, I'd rout a channel before gluing the body together, or buy a long drill bit.
Step 14: Neck Pocket
The final cavity was the worst - the neck pocket. To do this I again turned to my trusty template bit. This time I lined up the neck on the body and checked the alignment, then clamped some offcuts around the neck checking the alignment all the time until I was satisfied it was right. Adopting the same approach as in the main cavity I slowly dug away to full depth (19mm) then worked back to the template. This went very well. Except the alignment was wrong. Now the line of the neck is off by a fraction of a degree so the bridge will have to move south. Luckily the shape is all my design, so I planned it that way didn't I? You can't prove different, it's not like you've seen the plans is it. Oh...
Anyway, it still works.
Next time, yes, a template.
Step 15: Machine Heads
Have we talked about machine heads yet? I had planned to have two rows of pegs both slightly off centre but when I came to set out and drill I changed my mind and went for all four along the centre line. I'm sure this will work. It might be tricky to tune, but it looks pretty boss, I reckon. We'll see how it goes...
Step 16: Fixing the Fretboard
Now the neck is to shape, the time has come to glue the fretboard on. I marked the centre lines of both the fretboard and the neck, and lined them up. I slapped on a load of glue and clamped it all tight overnight.
After drying, I took the neck out and it looks pretty good, except there's a bulge at the third fret on the down side (when played right handed) which I tried to get a picture of. I think this is fixable as the fretboard is pretty thick and can accommodate some additional planing.
So, back to the ebony. The more observant will have noticed the fretboard changed colour. I decided the ebony fretboard was too bad to use, so I made a new one out of walnut. This is probably too soft, so I'll superglue the frets in when the time comes and give the whole thing a good coating of Danish oil for protection. It's not like I'm a professional uke player, so durability is not really an issue, but if it doesn't work I can always make an ebony or rosewood one later.
Next time, I think it's all about the preparation, and even the slightest deviation in the neck will be amplified by the fretboard, particularly if the board isn't perfect.
Step 17: The Electrics
To wire the electrics I did a google image search for single coil wiring and used one for a precision bass.
The electrical components are:
250k log (vol) and linear (tone) pots
0.75 microfarad Sprague Orange Drop capacitor
I dusted off the soldering iron, solder and flux, and stuck it all together. Much to my amazement, when I plugged it in, it worked!
Here it is all in place!
Step 18: Bridge Part 2
I set the position by measuring the scale length (508mm) from the nut slot. To allow adjustment to the intonation with the bridge saddles I set the middle of the range at the scale line and marked, then drilled and screwed. I later found this was not far enough back and had to reposition the bridge by 10mm.
The final step was to drill the path for the earth. I relented and bought a long bit and drilled through from the neck pocket. I used an old scrap of wood to protect the neck pocket and drilled...
I was nervous about using this bit as the only one I could find in the shops that was long enough was 10mm, and was too close to the top of the body for comfort.
Anyway, through being slow and steady I got the hole to depth and using a 4mm bit at an angle from within the bridge footprint I drilled until I found the large hole. Running a wire through confirmed it was all good.
Now the body needs a final sand and smooth, and we can move on to the finish...
This approach worked very well and I don't thing I'd change anything next time.
Step 19: More Neck
So, fixing that fretboard... I set up the neck to block plane as before to trim away the excess material and glue.
Once that was done I turned my attention to the wonky fretboard. As the bulge is small and I didn't want to knacker the whole thing I set the block plane to its smallest cut and set to work. After a few minutes I was satisfied I'd trimmed it down enough, and I think I salvaged that one.
I have now lost some depth on the fret cuts and nut slot but I can easily sort that one out.
Step 20: Back to the Neck Pocket
Now the neck is planed and trimmed to its final dimensions I can fabricate the neck plate and drill the holes. This operation scares me as I have no drill press, so all the holes must be by careful measuring and judgement.
I cut a piece of the extruded angle I used for the bridge and trimmed it down to a flat plate measuring 36 x 40mm. The dimensions were chosen to fit the 40mm neck width with enough cover to the threads and the length was based on what I thought looked right.
Anyway, to locate the holes I marked out lines 7mm from each edge and where they intersected that's where the screws go. I centre punched each location with a wood screw and hammer as I didn't want the drill skidding all over the show. I started with a 2mm metal bit to make a guide hole and reamed the hole with a 4mm bit to fit the Fender neck screws I'd bought. I then used my largest bit to countersink the holes. Again, the ally is anodised so I spent some time filing and sanding away the coating. I'll finish the metal one day when the wood treatment is drying.
Once the plate was done I could start on the terrifying holes in the wood. To do this I marked the centre line of the plate, labelled front and back and squared it in the neck pocket. Then I measured from the front edge, 15mm, and transferred the same line to the back. I also marked the centre line inside the pocket to make sure the screws were evenly spaced and transferred this line to the back of the body. I placed the plate in what I thought was the right place and marked the holes. At this stage, as the plate is hand made and probably not equal all round it's important to put the plate in the pocket upside down or the holes may not line up properly.
I used a 3mm bit and carefully drilled though the body from the front, then flipped the body over and went from the back. Luckily my measurements were about spot on and all the holes lined up, one was a bit out,but not too bad.
I screwed the screws into place and they all look pretty straight, so I was happy to drill the neck. To do this I took the screws back out, popped the neck in and used the body holes as a guide to drill into the neck. Once done, I tested it and the whole thing worked!
Next time, I think I'll invest in a drill press or drill stand.
Step 21: Ferrules
Galvanised by my success with the neck screws, I thought I'd tackle the string holes and ferrules. With the bridge in place I drilled pilot holes into the top through the string holes and took the bridge off. I marked the line through the holes and using a set square, took the line over the body to the back. I used the joint between two planks as a guide, and measured the distance to the joint from the top hole and the distance along the joint line to the back of the body and marked out the hole on the back. To check this I took a measure from the front edge of the neck pocket and transferred that to the back, using the joint line again. This location was about 2mm different to my first location, but I thought it looked more convincing, so that's what I used.
I went to the final 3mm bit and slowly drilled from the back before flipping over and going from the front. As hoped, the holes lined up perfect! I used the same method for the second hole, which also lined up. For the last two I drew the line through holes 1 and 2 and measured 11mm to each location. All the holes lined up perfectly.
Finally I drilled out the recesses for the ferrules. I reamed these slowly by 1mm increments to the final 7mm. Only part way through did I decide that a metal bit would be better as the conical shape of the bit would help to centre each drill, which it does.
Only one is slightly out of line, but I think it's ok.
Next time, maybe a template using the neck holes might make it easier, but this method was quick and effective. I would use the conical metal bit earlier though, this would have kept the holes perfectly lined up.
Step 22: Shaping the Neck, Part 1
I decided to rasp away the corners of the neck. I marked the centre line along the back, and the approximate transition curves and got busy with the rasp.
The rasp strips a frightening about of wood, so it didn't take long to get the approximate shape. I tested it every few minutes to see how it felt. When I was happy, I switched to the file to smooth it over, going with the grain. There were some errant rasp scratches that took some filing, but I got the worst our before sanding.
I worked up through the grits, 80-100-150-240-400-600 and the end result was very nice and smooth.
Step 23: Jack Cover
As you will have noticed, I made a bit of a dog's dinner on the jack cavity, so I thought I'd try making a cover from the old ebony. I measured out the maximum diameter using compasses, then measuring out a circle large enough to cover the mess. To fix, I'll have 2 lugs and the whole thing will be rebated into the body.
The lugs were measured 10mm beyond the circumference of the circle on opposite sides and lines marked tangentially to the circle.
The cover was cut out with the coping saw then filed and sanded to shape. I then placed the cover over the hole where it would cover the offending area and allow cover for the screws. I drilled 3mm holes in the lugs then swapped for a 2mm screw for the body. The cover was secured using scratchplate screws and using a Stanley knife I traced round the cover to cut the wood fibres and allow clean chiselling.
Taking the cover off the excess material was chiselled away, checking with the cover the whole time, until it fitted in, only a little proud of the body.
Once the fit was OK, I planed the surface to a fraction of a mm over the body as the pressure of the screws will pull it flush. The screw holes were countersunk and the whole thing screwed down. I'm no craftsman, but it does look better than it did.
Step 24: The Scratchplate
To do the scratchplate I took a piece of scrap paper and laid it over the assembled body and electrics. I roughed out the pick up and took the paper off and cut it out. This I trimmed until it fitted snugly over the pickup. I then repeated the process with the neck and sketched out the edges.
Once I was happy I traced the pattern onto a piece of card, and fine tuned it. Card is easier to trim using a Stanley knife to file and shave the edges.
The scratchplate will be made from steel, I bought a sheet of 1mm steel from the diy shop and drew around the template onto the metal before cutting it out using a jigsaw.
I forgot to take any pictures of the process, but I'm sure you can imagine it...
I then filed it down, all the time checking the fit on the body and neck. Eventually it was good enough, so I marked out the screw locations and centre punched to stop the drill skidding over the surface. I used a 3mm bit for the plate with a 7mm bit to grind the countersinks. I placed the plate in place, and using a 2mm bit I drilled the body holes. The whole thing will be secured using scratchplate screws. I had to buy these specially as no shops seemed to sell anything that looked similar.
I sanded the steel using 240, 400 and 600 wet and dry so it now looks like brushed steel.
Step 25: Fret Markers
I had originally decided not the have any fret markers, but I once again changed my mind. To match the single line of machine heads, I opted for a traditional dot arrangement for a guitar.
I drew diagonal lines from the ends of the frets to find the centre of area and drilled a 6mm hole into the fretboard.
For the markers I'm using softwood dowel from the DIY shop. I'm hoping the subtle contrast will be quite understated.
I cut small lengths off the dowel and glued into place.
I decided not to go beyond the 12th fret as the fret spacings get too narrow and might look daft.
Having left the plugs overnight, I sawed off the excess with my trusty junior hacksaw (fine cut, didn't want to tear away at the softwood plugs). I used some scrap paper to protect the rest board from the saw and cut halfway through from each side to prevent the plug splintering when the saw broke out of the dowel at at the side leaving a gap.
Usng the block plane I took the plugs closer to the fretboard and finished off using 80 grit and then 400 to get the fretboard ready for its Danish oil treatment.
Step 26: Finishing the Neck
The neck was always going to have an oil finish. I like the feel of natural wood, not lacquer or varnish and I've found in the past that a lot of friction builds up between my hands and a varnish finish. I regularly sand down my varnished guitar necks to make them nice to play, so on this build it had to be a low gloss finish. Oil finishes, I've read, allow the feel of the wood and still provide protection.
I took the neck to 600 grit sanding and dusted it off. I'm using Colron Danish Oil which is what they sell in B&Q, no other reason for this brand.
Before I started on the oil I washed the neck down using damp kitchen paper. This brought up the grain and revealed all the nibs and fibres that would have spoiled the finish, so I went over it again lightly with 600 and dusted off.
I built a stand of scrap wood screwed to the neck screw holes, and clamped the neck upright to the bench. I then liberally applied the oil with a lint free cloth until the wood was gleaming and the oil was sitting on the surface without getting soaked straight up.
I then took a piece of 400 grit wet and dry around a block and sanded the neck with the grain. The idea of this is to create a paste of dust with oil which will then be rubbed into the pores and will allow a smoother finish.
I carried on sanding until it all felt smooth and stopped sounding like sanding. I took this to be the neck getting a glossier finish and therefore the pores were mostly filled. I left the neck for about 10 minutes, than wiped off the excess oil and dust with the grain.
After about 8 hours I applied the second coat, again until the neck was wet and left it for about 20 minutes, then repeated. After 20 minutes I wiped over the neck with a dry cloth to remove any excess oil (there wasn't much) and left it for about an hour. When I came back to it, the neck felt almost dry, but a bit slick. I gave it another wipe of with the dry cloth and left it overnight.
24 hours later, and the neck looks finished to me. I certainly don't to make it any darker, and it's lovely and smooth and ready for frets and nut. Nearly playing!
Step 27: Finishing the Body Part 1
Now all the holes and cavities are cut and drilled I can get the body ready for its final shape and sand.
Over the past few weeks I've handled the body quite a lot and the wood needs a good sanding to get it back to its best. There are also some dings, marks and scuffs that need filing away or filling so this will take some time.
Where I've been careless about handling the body it's accumlated a few dings, so these will be filled. There was one big ding in particular I thought I'd need to sort out near the volume pot where the router guide passed over the pot hole.
I sanded over the body with paper, going from 80 through to 600 grit, and almost all the filling was taken care of. Even the router scuff was mostly gone, so I decided not to fill anything. There were still a couple of dings on the back, but not worth the hassle of trying to raise or fill them. I thought the potential for disaster was far greater.
Once it was all sanded I gave it a brush off then went over it with damp kitchen towel to raise the nibs.
Step 28: Finishing the Body Part 2: Danish Oil
I recycled the clamp stand I'd used for th neck oil, and fixed the body upright ready to oil. This time I didn't use the wet sand method, but sanded off the nibs with 600 before I started. After just one coat it looked great, but the tin said at least three, so three it is.
After the second coat I noticed the surface was a bit rough and nibby, so I gave it the once over with 600 and slapped on the last coat.
I left the last coat for 48 hours before applying a coat of wax and buffing.
Step 29: Fitting and Trimming the Frets
Where I've been shaping and tuning the fretboard, most of the fret slots were too shallow and needed to be re-cut. To do this I opted to buy a new saw, a razor saw I found in Hobbycraft. This tool has a very fine kerf, and as it's a backsaw it's nice and rigid. Re-cutting the slots is an easy process with the right tools, and there are no worries about the fret tangs flopping about.
I nipped the first fret with pliers and dabbed a couple of drops of superglue onto the tang before fitting into the slot. Here's where I noticed that I'd introduced a slight radius to the fretboard by sanding and the straight fret did not want to sit in the slot. The radius isn't much and is almost invisible to the eye until you offer up a straight edge (or fret), then it's apparent. To seat the frets I used a block of wood and a pin hammer, cheaper than a fret hammer and achieved the same result.
To get around this I needed to introduce a curve to the fret wire. It doesn't need to be much, and it can be a tighter radius than the fretboard as the curved fret will only try to keep its shape, which will hopefully push the ends into the slot.
You can buy or make all sorts of fret benders, but I opted for a pair of pliers. You don't want to bend the frets, but introduce a curve. By taking the end of the fret, or wire, in the pliers, apply gentle pressure in the direction you want the curve. Don't let it bend or you'll end up with a kink that you definitely do not want. Slowly work along the metal until the middle, then repeat the operation from the other end. Bending the longer wire is easy, but if you've already cut the frets it still works, it's just more fiddly.
Once the wire is bent, the frets sat nicely in the slots. The process was repeated along the neck.
To trim the frets, I nipped off the ends with the pliers then took the sharp ends with a file, going right back to the wood. I then bevelled the ends with the file to about 30 degrees, and I smoothed over the ends with 600 grit to take off the file marks and get rid of the last edges.
Finaly, I went over the fretboard front and edges with a good coat of wax.
Step 30: Levelling and Crowning the Frets
Now the frets are on it's time to level them. No matter how carefully you put the frets in, they're always going to be out of level with each other, and this could be through a variety of reasons: undulating fretboard, frets hammered too far into the wood, frets flattened etc etc. The result is that when the string is played, it will buzz on some frets or some frets may be so high they dominate other frets around them, so you lose the ability to play all the notes.
To get around this you need to level the frets. This is a simple task, but looks scary when you see all your carefully placed frets disappearing.
To do this you'll need 400 grit paper, double sided tape, a permanent marker pen, tape to protect the fretboard and a straight edge with a broad face and longer than the fretboard. For this I turned again to the extruded ally angle I'd used for the bridge and chopped a length off.
Firstly, tape over the fretboard to keep it safe. I used black electrical tape as it's all I had to hand. Keep the frets exposed, and when all the wood is covered, use the marker pen to colour the exposed surface of the frets - this will be your marker to show which frets are still high.
Cut the sandpaper into strips and stick it to the straight edge. Then place the edge on the frets and sand slowly, making sure all the frets get equal treatment. I did it in small circles. What you should see straight away is the marker pen coming off the high frets. You need to keep doing this until every fret has a solid line of exposed metal along its full length. It doesn't matter if some are thick and some thin, what's important is that every fret is at the same height. Do not be tempted to work on single frets if they're taking too long!
When you're happy with the levelling, you need to put a new shoulder on the frets and re-crown them. You can buy a fancy file specially for this, but used a half round file and carefully took the corners off the frets. After that I used 400 grit just to smooth them off. You might also want to go over the bevelled ends just to take any burrs off.
When you think you're done, take off the tape and admire your levelled and crowned frets, you luthier, you.
Because of the tools I used the finish could have been better, and some of the frets are really wide compared to others but at least now there's not going to be any buzz. If I was to make a few instruments, I would invest in fret protectors and a crown file just to get the best finish possible.
Step 31: Cutting the Nut
The nut - possibly the most overlooked part of the instrument, and one of the most important.
I started with a blank of Corion which I planed and sanded down to the right length and thickness. Bone is apparently better, but as a vegetarian I thought Corion more appropriate.
I marked out the string locations and using the razor saw and a Stanley knife I started to cut the slots. This is a long job to get right, so don't rush. You need to end up with slots deep enough to hold half the string diameter, too high and the strings might bind to the nut, too low and the strings will pop out. I cut the slots to the correct depth then trimmed off the excess nut over the top.
Setting the correct string height is crucial for the instrument - too low and the strings will buzz on the frets, too high and the intonation will never be right making your pride and joy unplayable.
A good estimate is to string the ukulele, then working on one string at a time press down on the third fret. The string will touch the second fret and there should be a gap over the first fret. You want to set the nut slot at a height to have a similar gap over the first fret when the string is open and still. This will take several iterations to get right but it's essential you do.
The right tools are also essential. I used what I had, but in future I would definitely invest in a set of specialist files.
When you cut the slots, they need to match the string thickness - too narrow and the string will sit too high, too wide and the string will rattle around like a pea in a cup and sound horrific.
I found that the D string slot was cut far too narrow at the bottom, so the string was sat in a V shape. To fix this I sanded off some corion and mixed it with some glue and pogged it into the V to brig it up to the correct depth.
Once the nut is to the correct dimensions, give it a sand to make it look nice and glue it in position.
Step 32: Setting Up the Instrument
If you're building a uke, then by this point I know you'll have strung it and tried to play it, and if you're lucky it worked fine, but you probably need to spend some time setting up the action and intonation.
The intonation must be right or the instrument won't play. You can tune it open, but any chords will sound dreadful. This is because as the string is shortened (when you press on a fret), it should change length at set steps which you carefully measured out. When the strings are fitted, though, there are variables which must be compensated for, such as the position of the saddle and the cutting of the nut, both of which will change the string's length by a small amount. Unless all the strings are perfectly seated, then as you move up the fretboard, some notes will sound flat or sharp depending upon the string being longer or shorter than the 508mm scale. As each string is different, then they will sound out relative to each other the further you move along the fretboard.
So, to set the intonation...
You will probably benefit from a tuner. I use a clip on one that attaches to the headstock. Tune all the strings to the correct open tuning (DGBE) using the tuner, not the 5th fret method. Then, working on one string at a time you need to check the 12th fret harmonic. To do this, rest a fingertip on the string directly over the 12th fret and pluck the string. It's best if you take your finger off straight away and you should hear a sustained ringing note which should be the same as the open note. If it's not, then tune the string to the 12th harmonic. Then, check the tuning at the 12th fret which as it's an octave higher than the open string, should also be the same as the harmonic note. If it is, then the intonation is good and you can move on. If the fretted 12th is higher than the harmonic, then you need to lengthen the string, so adjust the saddle at the bridge to move the saddle further away from the nut. If the fretted 12th is lower than the harmonic, you need to shorten the string by moving the saddle towards the nut. Keep doing this until the 12th harmonic and the 12th fretted are both perfectly in tune.
So, your intonation is now set. Give it a go, does it still sound out of tune? If it does, it's probably because the nut slots are still too high, so bring them down a shade and go through the intonation setting again. This might take some time - I spent several hours getting it right.
If at the end of it you still can't get it set, are you sure you put the frets in the right places?
This is a painstaking and tedious process, and you might feel like you'll never play the lump of firewood you've spent weeks working on, but persevere - it's worth all the frustration when you get to play a decent chord halfway up the neck.
Step 33: Finished!
By the time you've got here you've built a new instrument from scratch, learned a load of new techniques and probably bought some new tools. It may have cost you more to build than to buy the thing, but wasn't it worth it? Now you can plug it in and play!