Introduction: A Cardboard Ukulele Case

Why make your own ukulele case? Well, because:
  • inexpensive ukuleles usually come with flimsy cloth cases that offer barely any protection
  • secondhand ukuleles often come without a case at all
  • good protective cases can cost a bundle, and—
  • not all ukuleles fit manufactured cases
In my case (pardon the pun), there was a combination of these situations. My vintage Camp Uke has a non-standard shape that wouldn't work with most figure-8 cases, and I wanted better protection than cloth could provide without breaking the bank.

So I followed the advice of entertainer Ralph Shaw, whose song How to Build a Ukulele Case, is something of a musical Instructable. Consider this a fleshing out of Ralph's excellent how-to.

Making a case is not particularly hard, and it doesn't even have to take that long if you work steadily and have all the tools and materials gathered in advance. I basically made an enclosed cardboard box, covered it, cut it open, and added hardware and lining. But if you're thinking of making your own case, please read my notes at the end about what I would do differently next time.

Step 1: What You Need

  • cardboard: the thickest, biggest, cleanest pieces you can find
  • 1/2" foam: about a yard for a soprano-sized uke
  • 1 yard durable covering fabric
  • 1-2 yards soft, non-scratchy lining fabric
  • (not pictured) 1/2 yard of 1" heavy duty nylon webbing
Adhesives and solutions (left to right)
  • Super 77
  • white or carpenter's glue
  • wood hardener
  • Mod Podge
Hardware (counterclockwise from upper right)
  • luggage handle
  • purse feet (optional)
  • hinges (2)
  • draw latches (2)
  • ring hangers (2, for adding a shoulder strap—I did not end up using these)
Tools (from top)
  • box cutter
  • fabric shears
  • foam brushes
  • disposable bristle brush (for hardener)
  • (not pictured) paper cutting scissors

Step 2: Making the Pattern

The first step is to get an accurate pattern. You'll need to draw around your instrument. I used a 1/2" wide marker which left allowance for the 1/2" foam I planned to line the case with. If you don't have a wide marker, you can trace the exact outline of your instrument and add 1/2" (or better, 3/4") to this line.

Use this shape as a starting point, modify as necessary, and cut it out with paper scissors—you don't want to ruin good dressmaking shears on paper.

This shape will probably be a little wobbly. You can even out the symmetry by folding it in half lengthwise, tracing around the widest point of both halves onto another folded piece of heavier paper, and cutting this new, symmetrical pattern out. This will be your working paper pattern.

Step 3: Making the Cardboard Form

I lucked into some amazing 3-ply cardboard through Freecycle, but any large, sturdy cardboard box can be deconstructed to make your case.

Use the paper pattern you've made to cut out identical top and bottom pieces, then saturate these with wood hardener.

Note: wood hardener has a very strong, paint-thinner-kind of smell, so be sure to use it outside where there is lots of ventilation. You may also want to use a mask and latex or nitrile gloves—it's that noxious. Leave the pieces outside to dry until no odor remains.

For the side piece, you'll measure the height of your ukulele, plus 1 to 1-1/2" of extra depth for foam and fabric (assuming one layer of foam on top and one on the bottom), plus the thickness of your cardboard top and bottom combined. This will be your height measurement.

The length measurement is simply the perimeter of your pattern piece. If your cardboard isn't long enough, you can piece it together as needed with white glue.

Because this piece needs to wrap around curves, extra thickness is not helpful here. I peeled off one layer of cardboard, then wrapped the remaining 2-ply piece around with the smooth side out. Save the layer you peel away—you'll need it later.

Glue your form using white or carpenter's glue and let it sit overnight. It should be a completely enclosed box at this point.

Brush on more wood hardener.

Step 4: Covering the Outside

You can use the paper pattern to cut out your covering fabric. Just add 1/2 to 1" around the outside for some overlap. As you can see, my pieces were cut pretty loosely from the legs of an old pair of jeans. 

White glue and a foam brush are good for attaching the covering. I glued the top on first, then cut out notches around the curved portions and glued those down after fitting. Finally, glue a piece to cover the sides and trim to fit. The same box cutter that you used to cut out the cardboard actually works pretty well for trimming fabric, too. Just run it carefully along the top of the box, shaving off any excess height.

When the box is completely covered, brush a coat of Mod Podge over everything and let it dry completely. You can also use white or carpenter's glue. I tried both, but found that white glue sometimes dried opaque, and that carpenter's glue had a yellow sheen to it. Mod Podge is more expensive, but produces a very hard finish that dries clear.

Step 5: Finishing the Outside

Now you have to decide how deep you want your lid. I settled on an inch, but an inch and a half would probably have been better considering the combination of foam and thick fleece.

Mark your lid, and cut open the box. A table saw is ideal if you have access to one, but a good hand saw should work just as well. Just be careful to make a straight cut so that the lid opens and closes well.

Don't do what I did and add things out of order. Although my photos show me prying off the lip to screw in my hinge, the smarter way would be to put the hinges in first! So do that next.

Remember that single ply you peeled off in Step 3? Here's where you'll use it again. Cut it down to 1" wide. Wrap it in more fabric, Mod Podge the outside, and glue it securely to the top lid only. This makes a little lip to cover your opening.

Feet are added next, though this is an optional step. They are inserted like brass paper brads, and folded open on the inside to secure.

Step 6: Placing the Draw Latches and Handle

Some things are better measured without a ruler but with your body.

You want to place the draw latches, for example, not X inches from each end of the case, but in the places your hands fall when you open it. The best way to find these places is to put the case down and go through the motions of opening and closing the lid. What feels most natural and comfortable? That's where you want the latches.

Similarly, where you place the handle will be critical in as to how the case feels when you pick it up. You want it balanced both side-to-side and end-to-end.

The side-to-side balance point is straightforward: it will be the midpoint of the width (what I've previously been calling height) of your case. I used a piece of blue painter's tape with a line on it to mark this center.

The end-to-end balance point is a bit trickier. You want it balanced for weight, not length, and since the case and instrument are wider at the body than at the headstock, the weight midpoint will also fall toward that end.

My very unscientific method of finding this point is to temporarily pad the still-unfinished case and put the uke inside. Then carefully pick up the case balanced between thumb and one finger so that it swings freely.

In this position, the case will tilt in the direction of more weight. You can move your hand up and down its length until it hangs horizontally. This will be your center weight point. Mark it as such on the blue tape, and you can center and attach the handle.

Step 7: Lining the Case

It's hard to give directions for this part, as every case and instrument combination will require a different interior. But here are some thoughts:
  • You can use white glue, fabric glue, or Super 77 spray adhesive. You can even use hot glue and a glue gun. But most glues dry hard and make the fabric feel more like paper. Super 77, on the other hand, is almost invisible in feel. It is also a spray adhesive and very sticky and messy. I ended up using a combination: white glue to put fabric around the opening of the case, Super 77 for almost everything else.
  • it would probably be simplest to cut a single piece of foam for the bottom, using your trusty paper pattern. Mine is in pieces because I had a piece of scrap foam, and because I wanted a deep compartment under the neck. You definitely need foam support under the body and head, though.
  • Do a dry fit before covering or gluing anything. As the photos show, I ended up re-orienting my cardboard divider and also reworking how I wrapped it around the body of the uke. It's a lot easier to make these changes before glue is involved!
  • The lid support is made from 1" nylon webbing, glued to both the bottom of the case and the lid before most of the lining goes in (see photo).

Step 8: Future Revisions

There is something special about creating a custom case for an instrument you cherish.

And as happy as I am with this project, I would make some changes the next time around:
  • First and foremost, I would cut the box apart before covering it in fabric. The denim could then be brought over the edges, which would make it easier to line the inside. It might also allow the elimination of the lip (see below).
  • As mentioned previously, I would put the hinges on first, instead of wrapping the lip on, having to pry it back up, and screw at an awkward angle (see step 5, photo 5).
  • The lip cause several unexpected complications. It didn't wrap well around the thick jeans leg hem I'd left on, and it made it harder to add not only the hinges, but also the draw latches. So I would consider removing the lip entirely, making it of thinner material (uncorrugated cardboard, perhaps), or finding different latches.
  • I also failed to account for the thickness of the fleece fabric itself. Although a single layer was negligible in terms of measurement, many pieces of fabric added up. Next time I would add a little to the calculations.
Still to come: a lid for the center compartment. Most likely this will be a pressure-fit clear acrylic piece cut from a cracked poster frame that's been sitting around. Cardboard and fleece would raise the compartment too high for the neck to sit well, so I'm thinking about options.

I've also considered decorating the outside. Should I add stickers (see corny photo simulation) or patches of some kind? Draw on it with markers or paint? Or just leave it to weather like a trusty old pair of jeans?

If this has been helpful, I'd love to see your own homemade ukulele case and hear about modifications or improvements you come up with. And let me one last shout out to Ralph Shaw here. Thanks for reading. :)
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