Introduction: Soprano Ukulele (From a Log!)
There was a glorious old apple tree in my garden. It was right in front of my kitchen window, blocking all of our light... but it would be sinful to cut down.
October 2014 - The tree was laden by a burdensome overload of apples. It was a barely noticeable, mildly windy day, and down came the tree!
As, the clean up began, I cut the tree into manageable pieces. There was one piece, that for some reason I liked the look of, I kept it in my shed, and said, one day I will make something out of that.
Fast-forward to 2018. I had bought a cheap set of carving chisels, and started to look at this log, and imagine what fantastical shapes I could reveal, when I started to carve.
I had never made a musical instrument, at this point, though I have since had a number of adventures. As I threw my tape across the log, my mind began to wander. My daughters 4th Birthday was impending, and I had been considering getting her a Ukulele. A quick google to check the size of a soprano ukulele...it looked like there may be a ukulele hiding in the log.
It is almost impossible to write a "step by step" for this project, without volumes of text, as such the photos on each step do a lot of talking. Furthermore, this instructable is really about providing inspiration for others for future projects. The instructable is generally written in the first person, I have no doubt that there are better ways to do some of the steps. There may even be steps or advice that is just plain wrong! - Its really about inspiration ...and fun. For the most part (except for fretting!) this is simply good fun, with a happy biproduct of a working musical instrument!
A suitably sized dry log, of your choice. Note, read about tonewoods, spruce, rosewoods, koa, hawaiian hardwoods - very interesting stuff... and choose to ignore as required.
I used hardwood floor (walnut - marketed as "dark oak") for the fretboard and bridge. Really this timber, should be a "hard" hardwood.
BQLZR Chrome Tuning Pegs Machine Heads 2R2L For Ukulele 4 String Guitar Bass
Aquila Nylgut Soprano Ukulele strings (key of C) AQ-4U
Jim Dunlop Lutherie Series guitar strap button - instrument end pin
Sintoms 18% Nickel Silver Fret Wire 1.5mm. Set of 6 straight pieces
FRET MARKERS (optional - Go Nuts!)
12 White MOP Marker Dots 4mm
SADDLE AND NUT BLANKS (OPTIONAL - EASY TO MAKE THESE)
MagiDeal 35mm Nut and 53mm High Quality Bone Bridge Nut And Saddle Set For Ukulele Guitar Parts String Instrument Accessories
GLUE (I like this glue!)
Titebond 5063 Original Wood Glue
Danish oil and some clean lint free rags (I use old white vests!)
CIRCLE CUTTER (For Scribing a Rosette)
Olfa Compass Cutter for cutting circles
FRET SAW (Thin Kerf to suit the Fret Wire)
Zona SA35/500 Universal Saw
Described throughout the instructable, but essentially, you'll want the workshop equivalent of a "stocked larder" - Drill, Band Saw (Or a lot of handsaw work) , chisels, files, rasps, maybe a spoke shave etc. There are always other ways of doing things, having the right tool, just makes things less painful!
Step 1: The Plan
It's obviously impossible to make a musical instrument , that relies on specific scale lengths without some semblance of a plan.
Its also fairly impossible, without doing an amount of research. Youtube and Ukulele forums are your friends.
Ultimately, my first port of call, is to google free PDF plans. See my screengrab above. There is lots of information out there, that is completely free. I would have no qualms about paying a reasonable amount for a set of plans, if there was a specific ukulele style that I liked. However, I knew, that as this was my first, it would likely be adapted to the point of being unrecognisable from the original plan.
You need to ensure that your plans are perfectly printed at 1:1. I use Autocad , and basically scale the drawing to a figured dimension. I also use this to draw an exact 297x210 A4 box, which I can use to Tile my prints for a home printer. I was amazed at how small the soprano ukulele actually is.
One thing to note, you may be in a position where you are trusting that a free plan from the internet is completely correct. The most important thing on any stringed instrument (I think!) is the scale length and fret positions.
There is a fantastic idiot proof way of verifying things on your plan using a fret calculator.
Also fantastic if you wish to take on drawing a plan from scratch (which is another days project!)
CLEANING UP THE LOG
At this point, now that i had print out plans, I did some provisional cutting, and squaring of the log with a plane, so that it would fit in the 4 inch throat size of my small bandsaw.
I then ripped the log in half. This took me 30 minutes, and proved to me that "resawing" this log, was going to be outside of my tool range!
Step 2: Cutting the Wood / Milling the Lumber!
As mentioned, I discovered that cutting the thin strips (2mm & 3mm) was outside the range of my hobby bandsaw, which was disappointing to say the least.
After wracking my brains, including a point where I nearly gave up - I reached out to a local joinery company, who I had worked with in my job as an architect. They were delighted to help me resaw the timber - and refused to take payment for it. (Note, I would have paid a disproportionately high amount of money)
To make sure, that they were happy, I prepared a simple diagram, noting the various widths of timber that I needed to extract from the log. Unfortunately, I have lost the file, but fortuitously, I took photos of my computer screen (why on earth I did that I don't know!)
You'll see from the images above that I colour coded the thicknesses, and gave clear instructions as to what I thought could be achieved.
And just look at what I got back. I was delighted - It also gave my first proper look at the beautiful grain, tone and figuring of the Applewood.
So the lesson here is, if you cant do something yourself, ask someone else to do it, pay someone else to do it.
In my head, I felt that, having another person touching this project would effect my sense of ownership, which is nonsense really...almost all timber that we havent felled ourselves has been dimesnioned and milled.. its hardly cheating!
Now, This project was getting very real. I had no excuses not to complete!
Step 3: The Templates & Jigs (The Sequel to the Plan!)
SIDE BENDING JIG
Looking back on this, I really had no idea what I was doing! I knew I would have to use some sort of form or template, in order to get the body of the Uke, particularly the sides, correct. I decided that I would make a bending jig for the sides, that would ultimately double as a mold for the full instrument.
At this time, I did a lot of exciting reading about "wood bending", and I suggest anyone making a Ukulele has a working knowledge of the various techniques. Suffice to say I had an idea of how to "wing-it", that meant i could bend the timber to a point, that it would not get stressed, and let the jig massage the timber into its final position.
I started out with a scrap plywood template, which was basically a sandwich of 12mm scrap WBP plywood, with softwood spacers, to approximately reach the thickness of the finished ukulele. I then made a reverse mold, using the exact same method.
After this I cut 3mm off the full perimeter, realizing that I would have to allow for the thickness of the sides (3mm) if I was to bend them in this way.
I used threaded bar and wingnuts, to create what I have to describe as a "ukulele shaped clamp".
SCARF JOINT AND NECK CARVING PROTOTYPE
The last photo describes, an attempt at playing around with the neck shaping. In this project, my timber was precious and finite. I only had a certain amount, and couldn't afford to mess up. I had no more apple trees!
As such, Prototypes and mockups were incredibly useful. Basically, they are practice pieces in inexpensive wood and off cuts. I fully encourage these practice runs. It helps get the stupid mistakes, and "clangers" out of the system.
Step 4: Book Matching & Joining the Top & Bottom
Book matching the timber requires perfectly straight and true cuts, with a perfect zero tolerance butt joint. This is a daunting task for an amateur like me. The timber, as it was cut from the same log, produced beautiful "close to sysetrcial but not quite" figuring when side by side. I really love the slight imperfection of this.
In the second photo, you'll see a glass shelf with sandpaper stuck to it. My glass shelf, was my known true surface, as glass is flat right? ...This got me close. When you watch youtube videos of this process, these amazing luthiers hold the boards up to the light, to ensure not even a sliver of light coming through.
In my case, I was still getting a faint sliver of light using this method.
Ultimately, a sharp plane, run once or twice over the edges, gave me that perfect edge.
I used a combination of elastic bands, heavy planes and weights to tie the front and back together as the glue dried. The elastic bands pulled the joint together, with the weights keeping the timber from bowing.
There are many more scientific better ways of doing this. This worked (justabout) for me.
Step 5: Bending the Sides With a Can of Beans
THE BEANCAN SIDE BENDER
Get a can of beans.... or a can of anything.
Screw it to a plank of wood.
You got yourself a bean can side bender.
After cutting my sides to the required, width (they taper slightly - so be careful with lefts and rights) ... I gave them a nice spray of water, and let them have a 10 minute soak.
After that, I held my heat gun in a vice, (fourth photo) and shot some heat at my bean can side bender! I sprayed water on the can, until it sizzled off, then turned off the heat, and applied the timber , gently massaging it by eye, into an approximate ukulele shape. To be perfectly honest, Im amazed that this technique worked, but alas it did.
There is still plenty of "spring back" in the timber, so I added the pre-bent timber to the Ukulelel Clamp Jig noted earlier, and left it over night to lose its springiness.
In the end (last photo) I used the reverse mold, to glue the sides together, using some Merbau off cuts roughly shaped at the head and tail.
Step 6: Shaping the Neck
The steps to shaping the neck are reasonably described in the photos, and broadly as follows.
Note, from what I gather, the steps for shaping a neck are ultimately the same for any stringed instrument, so there is an absolute wealth of information out there.
1. SCARF JOINT
Setout the scarf joint, based on the plan, you can see the steps in the photos. Really its all about making clean true cuts. I tidied up all of these cuts with a hand-plane.
2. GLUE UP
Plenty of glue, plenty of clamps. See the little wedge I added, to stop the scarf joint slipping.
3. MARK UP
Using the centerline as starting point, I carefully drew my cutlines on. Note, that I simply spraymounted my headstock in place, to ensure i had a perfect template for drilling the holes for the tuning pegs.
4. CUT OUT
Roughly cut the neck out, to the outside of the pencil line, leaving scope for cleaning up of the cuts with sanding.
5. SHAPE AND CARVE TO SUIT.
Look at that Shinto Rasp! Get yourself a Shinto rasp & be careful of your fingers. This was my first neck, and its in no ways perfect, or precisely symettrical. I actually got nervous about removing too much material, as If I messed this up, it was end of project. My advice to anyone shaping a neck is to NOT overthink it. Be at one with the wood. Let the Rasp or the spokeshave be an extension of your hand, and then sand the hell out of it, until it looks good. Simple!
6. WET THE WOOD.
I cant resist sometimes wetting the wood a little, to have a glimpse at what could be closer to the finished article.
At this point, Almost all the constituent components are ready to be put together.
Step 7: Inlays & Sound Hole
My First Terrible Circle cutting Template. The only material I had, was some pegboard. Not ideal. In any case, this let me play around with the idea of rosette inlay.
Again, no excuse on this, I practiced it a number of times, to the point that I realized that I would require more precision and finesse. For this is used a Dremel circle cutter attachment. Basically a little router head for a Dremel tool. Again, I practiced this a number of times. I would literally only get one shot at this, and it is purely superfluous decoration. In many ways.... I was stupid to add this.
After taking the "plunge" (pardon the pun) , and cutting the recess on the actual soundboard, I cut a corresponding piece of walnut veneer, using a "circle cutter compass" (see supplies list) . I had an early attempt at glitter filled epoxy resin, thankfully I did not go ahead with this!!!
CUTTING THE HOLE
I used a hole saw, from a multi size set, the closest one to the actual sound hole size. Again, guess what, I pracxtised this 2 or 3 times, to ensure I had a methodology for ensuring no splitting or pulled out fibers. I basically sandwiched my soundboard between two thin ply scraps, and drilled through the ply scrap first. Very nice clean cut, with a minimal amount of sanding to clean up.
The headstock presented the perfect opportunity for me to personalise this ukulele for my little girl. What do little girls like.... Unicorns of course.
Print out some unicorn silhouettes, transferred it to the headstock, and some walnut veneer.
Gingerly hand chiselled out the recess, using a flat head craft knife.
Gingerly cut out the veneer
Glue and sawdust hides the rest!
Im under no illusions, Its the Unicorn that makes this instrument special!
Step 8: Assembly - the Big Glue Ups
MAKING AND GLUING THE KERFING
Kerfing, is essentially, flexible bracing which allows the sides and the top and bottom to glue comfortably together, py providing much needed glue coverage. They will also allow one, if so desired, to fit binding to the edges, as it provides the "meat" at the edges to allow recesses to be routed. No binding for me, maybe a bridge too far for my first build.
You can buy precut kerfing, but I decided to make mine, after spending hours reading how to guides. I set up a jig on the bandsaw (macguyver style - first photo) and cut the kerf slots on a wide piece of "unknown species - possibly poplar - molding wood" - There is a fine balance between depth of cut, and width of kerf, to provide the flexibility required to turn the radii of the instruments sides. The soprano ukulele due to its inherent small size, has tight radii... my kerfing just kept on breaking. I put this down to wood species (very brittle) , maybe grain direction (did i do it wrong) and lastly, the width of the kerf. I think the band saw blade was just too damned thin.
Rather than give up, and in a fit of impatience, I cut plywood kerfing, using my original mold as a guide for the size and shape. In another fit of guilt, I shaped these a little with a half round router bit, and coated them with Danish oil, making them look slightly prettier, (and removing some weight) - in the off chance that these could be seen through the sound hole. (You can kind of see them, but only the I would notice or care)
MAKING AND GLUING THE BRACING
I cut out the bracing, roughly first, and clamped on with glue. As the soprano Ukulele is so small, standard G clamps have enough girth to apply the pressure. Guitar people do this in a number of very interesting ways, and as always, it's worth researching this. Note, there is a slight bow to the base of this ukulele.
FIXING THE BOTTOM
Use every clamp you have and plenty of glue. I rough cut out the back, leaving about 15mm all around, so that it could be flush trimmed perfectly to match the sides .
FIXING THE NECK
For good or for bad, I glued and mechanically fixed the neck. I left a mortice cut out in the body, to work with a neck tenon, as shown in the photos. There is an art to marrying the slight curvature of the body to the neck. I never got the hang of that art, but got it as close as I could, with many iterations of slight sanding and filing.
FIXING THE TOP
After the neck was fitted, i fitted the top, using the same logic, as fitting the bottom.
It's starting to look like a musical instrument and that it might just work.
Step 9: The Fret Board
CUT THE FRET BOARD
I cut a ~6mm strip of walnut from a floor board. Fret board timber for me, is an important part of the visual aspect of the instrument. Classically I wanted a contrasting but complimentary tone of timber.
The strip was circa 15mm wider than the widest part of finished fret board. I then sanded both sides smooth, free of saw marks. One side ready to be glued, and one side ready to be gloriously displayed. Its pretty important that this is consistent and flat.
Mark and Cut the Fret Slots
Unfortunately I'm missing a photo of the actual cutting... suffice to say there were numerous practice runs. I put a piece of masking tape at the side of a "gentlemans saw" / fret saw - (see tool supply list) to mark the depth of the cut.
I marked all the frets on the fret board in pencil, using the plan dimensions as a guide (and double checking these with a fret calculator) .
Then, using a set square, I gently cut each fret - perfectly square and perfect depth, taking my time.
Mark and cut the Inlay Dots / Fret Markers
I got small Mother of Pearl dots, to use on the fret board as fret markers. I carefully marked and centered the holes, and after finding a drill bit of corresponding diameter to the MOP dots, drilled.
DISASTER - Look at the 7th fret, holes are completely off, I have no idea how i did this, and felt like starting again.... but at some point, in the sprit of wabi sabi beauty in imperfection, I decided to live with this!!
Install the Fret Wire
After testing a number of times on offcuts, using a variety of methods, I came up with a methodology for this. Oversize the wire by ~ 5 mm each side, offer the wire in to the slot (after clearing the slot of sawdust) - and pressing into place using a woodworking vice.
Snip The Fret wire
Trim the fret wire with a snips and file down to approximate size ( I use a small flat micro file) .
Glue the Fret Board in Place
I cut the fretboard to the approximate profile of the neck (~0.5mm each side)
I used 2 clamps, with soft velcro on the clamp faces, to ensure no marks to clamp the fretboard in place,
After the fret board is dried, I removed the clamps sand down the sides, to perfectly align with the neck sides.
Tidy the Fret Edges
I put a gentle round on the fret wire edges with a file, and then using my piece of glass shelf, checked the fret wires for levelness, and gave a few polishing rubs of this perfectly flat sandpaper beam, to ensure the frets were as level, as I was comfortable with.
Again, there is an art to fret dressing, and suggest that as much research as possible is done on this. I didn't find any part of the fret board or fret wire fitting to be fun, and was happy when it was complete!
Step 10: ALMOST THERE
SAND AND OIL
I hand sanded to from up to 240 Grit. Applied a coat of Danish oil with a clean rag. Sanded again at ~ 600 grit, and applied 2 more coats. The oil brought out the grain of the apple wood fabulously, and left a luster to the finish. Finishing is obviously an art, hence i am a fan of Danish oil, which is extremely forgiving.
FIT THE TUNERS
I put a piece of tape on a small drill bit, to ensure that I did not over drill the screw holes for the tuners.
It is very satisfying to fit tuners!!
FIT THE NUT
I purchased a pre made bone nut blank, i dry fitted, and filed some material off th base to ensure there was about a credit cards width between the theoretical string location and the fret board. I opened up the pre marked notches slightly using a triangular file, based on the string sizes.
MAKE AND FIT THE BRIDGE AND SADDLE
I carved the bridge from a piece of walnut, and when I say carved, I mean essentially CUT using my fret saw (sans masking tape). The idea here is that there's a slot for the saddle, and that there are through holes for the strings. I glued the bridge in space, using weights as compression to hold in place for the gluing process.
ROOKIE MISTAKE - - I didn't mask off the bridge space before I applied oil - More on this later.
FIT THE STRINGS
You're going to have to google how to tie these knots! - I found a video which i played a number of times, pausing throughout, ending with super neat string knots!
As I tightened the last string, the bridge exploded loose. This is why Luthiers mask this off before finishing. There was no bond with the wood, just a thin bond with Danish oil.
I solved this by placing some sneaky little screws beneath the saddle. The perfect crime.
I use the Guitar Tuna App - It is fantastic
Step 11: Epilogue - Happy Birthday
There you have it, that's how I made a Ukulele from a fallen apple tree. I trust you enjoyed reading it.
As stated earlier, this instructable is really to provide inspiration for similar projects, there are many lessons learned, but like most things, the best way to learn is by doing!
This was ready for my daughters 4th Birthday, and while she no doubt loves it, she was far more enamored with other presents! Such is life.
Runner Up in the