Introduction: How to Build a Tahitian Ukulele

Picture of How to Build a Tahitian Ukulele

Unlike the high tech Hawaiian Ukulele, the South Pacific Tahitians used the tools available to create a completely different instrument more akin to the Banjo than a guitar. This 8 stringed Uke can be made without any laminating or wood-bending. That's because it's made from one solid hunk of wood. It will take more than fingernails and spit, but the end result is satisfying to the eye, ear, and soul.

It should be noted that this Instructable is best enjoyed when read in the voice of Ron Swanson. (shameless judge pandering, I know.)

Step 1: Go to Tahiti

Picture of Go to Tahiti

First, get married at the courthouse so you can afford a honeymoon in Tahiti. There, you'll meet Andre and his authentic Tahitian Ukulele. He'll teach you how to play it and let you copy its dimensions. If this is not an option, skip this step and go to step 2.

Step 2: Wake the Neighbors

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Time to cut the plank. If a job is worth doing, it's worth doing with excessive noise and gratuitous horsepower. Introducing the Stihl Magnum 880 Chainsaw with 36 inch bar attached to an Alaskan Mill. If you're going to build a ukulele, for the love of the Lord, do it like a man. This is a great way to cut planks in the field. The aluminum frame of the Alaskan Mill slides along a flat surface (like a piece of 2" thick milled lumber) and the attached chainsaw will make a perfect parallel cut at the desired depth.

Step 3: Plank You Very Much

Picture of Plank You Very Much

The resulting plank will be the blank for this one-piece ukulele. There is no joining or laminating in this project. The head, neck, body, and fretboard are all one solid unjoined hunk of mahogany. This hefty Uke will not be lifted by pasty pencil-necked crooners or dainty wallflowers.

Step 4: Give Her Some Hips

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Draw the shape of the Uke onto the wood. The body shape is purely aesthetic. As the only hollow part of the Uke will be contained within the circular soundboard, let your imagination run wild on the outline.

Step 5: Roughing It

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This angle grinder chainsaw attachment and power carving head are great ways to rough out the basic shape. But take care-- I'm not talking about technology when I warn you about becoming "digitally challenged."

Step 6: Tilt Her Head Back

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Normally, the head of a uke or guitar is a separate piece joined at an angle to the neck. In this case, you just need to start with a plank thick enough that you can cut it from one piece. Use a planer and belt sander to achieve the desired angle. This angle will make sure that the strings are pulled down against the nut for a clean sound.

Step 7: Sound Bowl

Picture of Sound Bowl

Unlike a traditional guitar or ukulele, the Tahitian hole is in the back. A thin wood drum head will remain on the face and act as a soundboard over which the strings will vibrate. This makes it like a banjo. First draw a center line down from the neck. Drill a small hole through the center of the entire body and out the other side. This will mark the center of the bowl. On the front of the Uke, use a router to cut a lip around the edge of the circle. This will hold the sound board in place. The lip should be the exact thickness as the soundboard you are able to find or make. In my case 1/8" deep.

Step 8: Hole and Bowl

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From the back of the Uke, find the center hole that you drilled all the way through. Drill a 2 1/2" hole at least 2" deep in the back and centered on that pilot hole. Then flip the Uke back to the face up position and dig out a bowl until the hole is visible. The power carver works great for this. Make sure and leave the routered lip in place to hold the sound board that will re-cover the front.

Step 9: Let's Face It...

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This is the only piece of wood that I purchased in the project. Looking back, I realize that it can be done from scratch, but in this case, I just bought a small sheet of 1/8" teak plywood. Glue it in place over the sound bowl, fill the gaps with wood putty, and sand it flush. Uke players are all about humility, so there's nothing worse than a proud sound board.

Step 10: Drilling Holes in Your Head

Picture of Drilling Holes in Your Head

Finish shaping the back of the head so that there are flat sections to mount the tuners. Drill eight tuner holes from the front with the Uke clamped in place. This eight stringed beauty is actually made up of four pairs of strings. You will always be holding two strings at a time to make them play one note.

Step 11: Cut the Nut

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Draw a line at the top of the neck that is perfectly perpendicular to the center line of the Uke. Saw two grooves and chisel it out. This is the crucial line from which all of the next cuts will be measured. If you don't get it right, there's no need to fret. No seriously, if you mess this up, your frets will be out of tune, so forget it.

Step 12: Don't Sweat the Fret

Picture of Don't Sweat the Fret

Look online for a ukulele fret calculator. This will tell you exactly how far each fret should be from the nut (the first line between the head and the neck). Definitely measure each fret from the nut and not from the last fret. If you are just a butt hair off from each previous fret, your mistakes will add up over the distance of neck. Once you've marked them all, just go for it and saw those fret lines right into the neck. Unlike traditional ukes and guitars, there is no separate fret board on which to practice until you get it right. Separate fret boards are for non-committal luthiers who live in fear. Once you're done, hammer in the fret wire (bought online) and file down the edges.

Step 13: Apply the Danish

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When it comes to pastry and oil, I prefer Danish. Danish oil is the perfect way to protect the wood and bring out the grain. Rub in, buff off, Repeat until satisfied. Use the natural or clear oil so that the wood will look like mother nature intended. Leave the stains for your white shirt on spaghetti Sunday.

Step 14: Tuners and Bridge

Picture of Tuners and Bridge

Purchase ukulele tuners and don't be cheap. The rest of the instrument was free so at least get some good tuners. This will help keep the 8 strings in tune so you're not constantly making your audience wait while you adjust. The bridge is a free floating piece that holds the strings in place which, in turn, hold the bridge in place. It's a symbiotic relationship. This one was cut from teak and has four pairs of grooves for the strings. Its distance from the nut will be shown on the fret calculator you downloaded earlier but don't glue it in place. The strings will be tied to a two-sided tack nail, which seems kind of primitive, but if it's good enough for Andre then it's good enough for you.

Step 15: String It

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Believe it or not, all of the strings are the same gauge and are sourced from your local fishing store. In a Tahitian world that thumbs its nose at Hawaiian technology, 30 lb fluoro green monofilament fishing line is the perfect solution. It also gives the Tahitian Uke its characteristic banjo twang. The tahitian style of play is known for its super fast strumming. Start by tying each string to the nail at the bottom and then to the corresponding tuner at the top. Tighten each one up and saddle it on the bridge and nut. Each pair of strings represents one note. You won't need to throw away all of your Hawaiian ukulele repertoire because the Tahitian is tuned to the same four notes: G, C, E, A (from left to right in these photos). The difference however is the octaves to which they are tuned which are different from the Hawaiian uke. Be careful and tighten slowly on that high E string. It puts more tension on that 30lb test than an angry baby trout. Fishing line will stretch for the first week so you'll keep finding yourself flat until the strings reach their happy place. Get a little guitar tuner and see embeded video at the end for tuning.

Step 16: Bask in Your Glory.

Picture of Bask in Your Glory.

You'll notice that I did not give a whole lot of measurements in this Instructable. That's because no one gave me any. I believe the spirit of this instrument is forged from the gut and not from a precise manual. That's how the Tahitians did it. That's how I did it. That's how you'll do it. The only crucial measurements are that of the nut, frets, and bridge. Everything else will depend on you.

After many requests, and realizing that someone could and should want to try out this project, I would like to post some basic dimensions of my particular ukulele. But don't stick to these. They are just guidelines:

overall length 31"

thickness of original plank 2 1/4"

final width at the widest point 10"

width of neck / fretboard 1 3/4"

finished thickness 1 7/8

sound hole front 6 1/4 "

sound hole back 2"

distance from nut to bridge 15"

And now, if you'd like to hear what it sounds like....

Step 17: Tune It and Strum Like You Know What You're Doing

I said I could build it -- not play it. But here's a video of the string tuning and a li'l Tahitian ditty that can only be appreciated by Canine ears. Did you see the dog's disapproving look?

Author's safety note: One person already commented on the missing safety guard on my angle grinder and he is right. ALWAYS use the safety guard -- especially with the chainsaw attachment. Be safe! Thanks for reading this instructable. Despite sounding like an expert this was my first attempt at a musical instrument, so You Can Do This too! Go for it. And don't forget to vote for all your entries in the woodworking contest!


jholst (author)2014-11-25

Stupendous! Amazing! Best 'ible I've read so far!

I will certainly give this one a try, although I may go for a 6-string version, tuned similar to a standard guitar. This also is feeding my recent desire to carve something from wood using only sandpaper and elbow grease. Granted, it will take much longer to complete, but this sort of determined dedication to creating an instrument appeals to me.

Blake15trans (author)jholst2016-09-09

That would be really cool to make one like a guitar, and I do have an obsession with projects that annoy my parents... I know what I'm doing christmas break this year.

Ken Russell (author)jholst2014-12-04

That would be a smart way to not have to re-learn all your chords. Go for it. The fishing line and the smaller sound chamber don't make for much resonance. That's why they double up the strings ... to double the volume. But definitely use the fishing line. It makes the sound true to the islands. Thanks for the positive feedback!!

Ken Russell (author)2014-12-16

Some have asked how my instrument sounds, so I thought I'd post this video of the Tahitian Ukulele in the hands of someone who knows more than I. This gentleman sat down at the Fairchild Tropical Gardens Annual Ramble where I was diplaying some pieces and appropriately played Norwegian Wood.... Although technically it's Cuban Mahogany and a Tahitian Ukulele. But I didn't want to press his "wood" related repertoire.

bricobart (author)2014-11-24

This is the reason I'm clicking this site at least once a day. Beautiful project and a really nice piece of art. Great craftmanship, I hope you're going to make it very far in that contest!

The Rambler (author)2014-11-24

This is incredible. All of it. The process of the build, the humor of the write up, and mostly the beauty of the instrument; both it's sound and appearance. I tip my hat to you sir. Your dedication on this project has most certainly paid off.

MarcosN22 made it! (author)2017-01-29

So...I made it... and I am a cavaquinho and an ukulele player, so I would say that the result is somewhere in between...and still I like it! Your project is great and it was really helpful, although I am no longer on time to marry a Tahitian woman, nor I have a small Tahitian friend to advise me. But my Polish woman inspired me and appreciated the outcome as well. My son told me that if I am able to do a ukurere, I should be able to make him an electric guitar as well...I ran out of excuses!

This was a test, so I made it of pine wood. Next time I will make a bigger investment, as I really enjoyed doing it and I would love to repeat the experience. However, I would like to ask you how thick should the strings be: fluorescent green and able to resist 30lb is good enough for Tahiti reference, but after visiting 12 fishing shops in Cracow (Poland), I have concluded that all the fish around here must be quite small (I´m a Portuguese used to the ocean). Could you please tell me the measure of the nylon strings you are using? If I don´t loose an eye with the nylon I am using, I might order something better from a country with sharks and merlins.

Thank you indeed! Now I would love to play with you! Let me know if you come to Poland or to Portugal!

Marcos Vilhena

Blake15trans (author)2016-09-10

I just started one but the only lumber I have is a bit smaller than this, so I'm making it turtle shaped and using the scale length of a mini soprano.

dstoker51 made it! (author)2015-06-26

Great instructable! Thanks!

Blake15trans (author)dstoker512016-09-09

That is beautiful!

dougmizell (author)2016-05-05

I may try to do this project

jamie1304 made it! (author)2015-07-31

Great project, having just finished one. No hard available at the time so used a cut off from a building project in Pine, 9" wide, 35" long and 1 3/4 " depth. Great fun to build, thanks for the inspiration

Volker410. (author)2015-05-11

Thanks! Well done! :-))
Which sort of wood can I use?
I live in Panama, what means I have only some tropical wood.

cannondalian2010. (author)2015-04-07

Hi Ken,

Once I made a Pacific Uke, but I can't remember where I got the fret calculator.

There are plenty, but they seem to be a bit different from each other.

Which is the best?

Regards Peter

tlp801 (author)2015-02-05

Hey, Congrats on winning the Grand Prize!! You did a great job!! :)

mikecraghead (author)2015-02-05


mikecraghead (author)2015-02-05


Porda (author)2015-01-29

Awesome ukulele! I like your step names too.

scottcozen (author)2015-01-26

Awesome! Bonus dog!

jim.e.johnson.39 (author)2015-01-12

Outstanding !

lamking (author)2015-01-12

Brilliant Ken!

christel.brion (author)2015-01-12

wonderful! the finish is so beautiful, you just want to touch it!

Dr. Joe (author)2015-01-12

You are an inspiration. This is jaw dropping wonderful. The writing and project are stunning. As a non musician I still love it and want one.

Ken Russell (author)Dr. Joe2015-01-12

Thanks Dr. J! Glad you enjoyed it. Wish me luck and please vote for me in the Woodworking contest!

throbscottle (author)2014-11-25

I love your style, and your "Man" woodworking! Voted!

But, I know you deliberately gave no measurements, however I'm musically completely ignorant, but might have a go at making one of these for the Uke player in the family, so, as a starting point, what are sensible minimum and maximum widths of the log?

Ken Russell (author)throbscottle2014-12-04

Thanks! This was my first instructible, and I think I underestimated how helpful actual measurements are to people. So I may ammend and include them. For you, I'll list here the following:

overall length 31"

width at the widest point 10"

width of neck / fretboard 1 3/4"

thickness of original plank 2 1/4"

finished thickness 1 7/8

sound hole front 6 1/4 "

sound hole back 2"

distance from nut to bridge 15"

Let me know if you need any other numbers.

throbscottle (author)Ken Russell2014-12-12

Thanks! Now I just need to find myself a log...

loompiggytutorials (author)2014-12-09

I love this Instructable! Great humour and wonderful ukulele! I've never seen a Tahitian ukulele, but you've convinced me this is, in fact, an authentic ukulele=P

CJA3D (author)2014-12-07

Wow!! this is cool .. Watched the video and it also sounds great!! Great Job.

IamGutter (author)2014-12-07

Great Instructable!! Very well documented, good pictures and video (dog leaving was priceless) and very humorous. Kept me interested and entertained all the way through! Beautiful Uke too, BTW. Thanks!!

Fine craftsmanship. You should be very proud of your work. Thanks for taking the time to document your work and putting on here for all of us to enjoy. I like your sense of humor too. :-)

kenyer (author)2014-12-06

Really great first Ible!!! This is your first instrument, so there is more to come?

Dani78 (author)2014-12-04

that 's great man. i voted for you.

Wired_Mist (author)2014-11-24

wow, that's beautiful ! Got my vote!

Still having issues believing this is your first insturment :P

Ken Russell (author)Wired_Mist2014-12-04

I have since made one other instrument, but it was percussive. (Tongue Drum). I've wanted to make another uke, but am worried that my beginners luck will have run out. I'll definitely do it again.

DIY-Guy (author)Ken Russell2014-12-04

This "Tongue Drum" is beautiful.
Do you have a source for the theory and measurements for this?
Or is there an 'ible for this beautiful drum?

brandt e (author)2014-11-24

That is beautiful! Is it a mandolin or a uke?

Ken Russell (author)brandt e2014-12-04

It is a Tahitian Ukulele. fingerings and strings are similar to the Hawaiian Uke, but the sound is very different. Very twangy banjo style of sound. Biggest difference from Mandolin or traditional uke is that the hole is in the back. Thin soundboard in front.

NathanSellers (author)2014-11-24

You are a wizard! That is a beautiful work of art. I hope it plays as good as it looks.

Thanks! You can hear it here:

wobbler (author)2014-11-25

Brilliant. The is the grandmother of all ukes, a definite nuke uke Big Bad Boy! But what else can you expect from a uke birthed by a chainsaw and forged into a devil's own instrument by the hands of a madman?

i can see the dog was impressed and you got my vote too.

Ken Russell (author)wobbler2014-12-04

Wobbler! Thanks for the comments. It's definitely heavy and heavy duty. Doesn't even need a case because it can take a beating. Roger Daltry would wear himself out trying to smash this at the end of a concert.

EddieWouldGo (author)2014-11-25

The Tahitian ukulele is my favorite and one has been on my build list for a while to add to the two I already own. It's cultural roots, simplicity, and sound certainly help make it approachable and unique. Unfortunately it's never really gained much popularity outside of the islands but your Instructable just might help it along! Great project build instructions and documentation. Thanks.

Ken Russell (author)EddieWouldGo2014-12-04

About a year before I went to Tahiti, I had ordered a Hawaiian Ukulele construction manual. It was way beyond my skills and tools so I put it aside. I had never even heard of the Tahitian version until I saw it on my honeymoon. The second I held it, I knew it was very possible. I do hope that this instrument gets more air time. It's a very unique and fun with such a cool sound.

thedarkside92 (author)2014-11-25

What was the size of the hole on the front for the sound board?

Hi darkside. The hole on the front was 6 1/4". The dug out bowl was exactly 6" with a 1/8" recessed lip running all the way around to rest the plywood disc. The hole in the back is 2"

Great project, awesome write up, and a cute dog! It's the trifecta!

Hey you forgot the cat! (hiding behind the dog). Thanks for the ups.

little.g.ban (author)2014-11-30

Very impressive! I may have simply missed it, but approximately how much did this project cost? You have my utmost respect!

Ken Russell (author)little.g.ban2014-12-04

Thanks Little G! The most expensive part of the project was the honeymoon to Tahiti. Other than that, the wood was free. The fishing line was about $5. The only pieces I had to buy were the tuners $20-$30 and the fret wire $5. Of course, the tools aren't cheap, but the big tools I used aren't necessary.

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