Introduction: 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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...
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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!
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