These plans are to make a basic ukulele out of simple materials and using a book as the main body. If you are familiar with cigar box guitars (or cigar box ukuleles), it is very similar. You can use fancy tools and make your ukulele more complex, but this Instructable is for a basic uke using mostly basic hand tools.
It is worth noting that I made this ukulele specifically with the idea of become better at using hand tools - especially a basic handsaw. This project was also done as part of a Makers & Makerspaces class within the Master of Library and Information Science Program at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Step 1: Stuff You Need
- Hardcover Book (Needs to be of decent size, especially in thickness - mine was 9L x 6W x 2D)
- Body Frame - The length & width depend on the dimensions of your book, but the thinner the thickness the better (gives better sound to the finished uke body). Thinner wood for the sides of the ukulele, like .25 inch worked well for me. For the top and bottom I used 1 inch thick wood. You will want to at least use thicker wood at the top where the neck attaches to make a strong connection.
- Neck/Head - A long piece measuring .75 in x 2 in (most likely will have to rip down a 1in x 3in board (which is actually .75in x 2.5 in)
- Fretboard / bridge assembly / bridge support - 3/16th inch x 2 inch oak hobby / appearance board (found at Home Depot)
- Wood screws
- Wire / Bicycle Spokes / Wire Hangers (to make the frets)
- Ukulele strings
- Geared Guitar Tuning Pegs
- Wood Screws
- Small Beads (or other small objects to thread on the end of the ukulele strings)
- Small Foam Brush
- Utility Knife
- Wood glue (I used Titebond III)
- Super glue
- Flat Metal File
- Mod Podge
- Wood stain / sealer (optional)
Step 2: Prepare Your Book
Measure the dimensions of the pages of the book you are using for the body of the ukulele. (Note: do not measure the cover, but measure the length, width, and depth of the pages.) This will be the dimensions of the body frame.
Example: My books pages were 9 Long x 6 Wide x 2 Deep.
Next, remove the book jacket from the cover. You can either discard the book jacket or keep it to cover the finished bookulele (I do not provide those instructions however).
Next, carefully cut the pages out of the book. Start with the front cover. Between the inside of the cover and the stack of pages, there typically is just one thick piece of paper. With a utility knife, carefully cut through this strip of paper. You DO NOT want to cut through the spine of the book’s cover. Do very small shallow cuts one at a time. Little by little you will cut through the paper and not through the spine. Once through the paper there may be a bead of glue. Like the strip of paper, take your time and do it slowly. Repeat the process on the inside of the back cover.
Step 3: Plan Out Your Ukulele
Using these general ukulele dimensions, decipher the model size of your ukulele based on the dimensions of your uke body (the dimensions of your book’s pages). Additionally, you will want to figure out your scale length and the size of your sound hole. Half of the scale length will be from the nut to where the neck connects to the body (or the 12th fret) and the other half is from where the neck connects to the body to the bridge.
Example: The book I used fell basically in line with the dimensions for a soprano ukulele. I planned for a 13.5 inch scale and a sound hole with a diameter of 1.75 inches.
Step 4: Make the Body Frame
Using the the dimensions of the book’s pages, make a frame using those dimensions. I made a very crude box, butting the ends and sides together and holding with glue. Also, I used 1in x 2in for the ends and some 1/4in scrap fiberboard for the sides. If you have more advanced tools or better materials, feel free to use more advanced construction for your body frame.
Example: My 9 inch x 6 inch x 2 inch box frame.
Step 5: Construct the Neck
Construct the neck / head. Cut the .75in x 2in wood to length. The length will be half the length of your scale length plus the length of the head. (The head dimensions are personal preference but should be at least 4 inches long.)
For the head portion, measure out the length of half your scale from one end of the neck and make a mark. Measure down a 1/4 in and mark. Saw out this portion. (If it is very rough, sand down the sawed portion to make smooth.)
Step 6: Drill Holes for the Tuning Pegs
Next prepare the head for the tuning pegs.
I cannot go into great detail as far as the positioning of the holes for the tuning pegs, as that will depend on the exact tuners that you have. For the holes however, (most tuning pegs) will require you to first drill a 1/4 inch hole. Then with a 3/8 inch drill bit, enlarge this hole - only a 1/4 inch down. This enlarged portion will be for the tuning peg bushing.
Step 7: Make a Neck Support
Cut a 1.5 inch long portion of the .75in x 2in wood stock. Glue and screw this to the body end of the ukulele neck on the underside (on the opposite side and end of the head cutout). Use two screws to attach the support piece, placing each screw 1/8 inch from the side edge.
Step 8: Sand the Neck
Round the top and bottom edges of the neck (top and bottom as if you were holding the neck playing the ukulele) using sandpaper. Additionally, sand round the edges of the neck support. Do not sand the edges of the head portion. This may remove too much material and not leave room to attach the tuning pegs.
Step 9: Construct the Bridge Assembly
Using the 3/16th inch x 2inch oak hobby board, cut out a piece that is 4 inches long x 1.5 inches wide. This will be the bridge assembly base.
Using the same oak hobby wood, cut out a section that is 2 inch x 1 inch. This piece will be the back piece of the assembly that has the holes for the strings and helps support the bridge.
Again using the oak, cut a small piece that is 2 inches x .5 inches. Cut this so that the grain of the wood runs the length (the 2 inches) of the piece. This will be the bridge itself. Using the hacksaw, cut four very shallow slots into the bridge - only a 1/16th inch into the wood. Make these cuts at the .25 inch, .75 inch, 1.25 inch, and 1.75 inch marks. These small grooves will help hold the strings evenly spaced.
Lastly, cut a piece from the oak hobby wood that is 2 inches x 3/8th inches. This piece will be the front of the bridge assembly, also helping to hold the bridge in place.
Glue the back piece of the bridge assembly to the bridge base. Make sure their back edges are aligned and then clamp.
(If you are staining / sealing your ukulele, stain the bridge assembly and its pieces once the glue has set.)
Note: At this time, you do not want to glue the bridge or the front bridge piece to the assembly. When the time comes to string your ukulele, the bridge will simply be held by the string tension. This will allow some for any adjustments you may need to make. Long-term, you may choose to not ever glue the bridge or the front bridge piece onto the assembly.
Step 10: Make the Nut
To make the nut, cut a piece from the oak hobby wood that is 2 inches x 5/8 inches. Cut this so the grain of the wood runs the length (the 2 inches) of the piece. Like the bridge, use a hacksaw to cut 1/16th inch slots into the piece at the .25 inch, .75 inch, 1.25 inch, and 1.75 inch marks.
Step 11: Make the Fretboard
Construct the fretboard using the oak hobby wood. Cut the wood to the length of the scale plus an extra 1 1/2 inches. Using a fret calculator (like this one), find the measurements for your frets.
First, mark out the fret positions with a pencil and then using a hacksaw cut out initial slots for the frets. Depending on the thickness of the wire (or other fret material) that you are using, you may need to widen the slots with the file. (If you are staining or sealing your ukulele / fretboard, do that now before proceeding to the next step.)
To make the frets, cut 2 inch sections of fret material. Add a small bead of superglue in each fret slot and place in a fret. Follow the instructions for your glue, giving enough time for the glue to set.
Using the file, smooth down the ends of each fret. Without doing this, the fret ends will be sharp and you may poke hands constantly while playing.
Step 12: Attaching the Neck to the Body
Laying out the book cover face down, position the body frame on the inside of the front cover of your book. Once it is positioned with the cover more or less evenly sticking out from the sides (like a real book’s cover would), trace its position with a pencil.
Flip the body frame and book cover over, so that the front cover of the book is now facing up (or the playing side of the ukulele is facing up). If needed, realign the book and body frame with the traced outline. Hold the ukulele neck up to where it will connect to the frame body. The top of the neck needs to be flush with the front cover of the book. To do this, a bit of the cover’s edge needs to be removed. Make some rough marks on the cover as to the dimensions of the cutout section and cut that out with a utility knife. You may need to dry fit the neck to the body frame periodically to check the size of your cutout. It does not have to be perfect as the fretboard will cover this section.
Next glue the neck to one end of the body frame, holding in place with with clamps. Once set, place screws through the center of the neck/neck support inserting the screws from the inside of the frame. (Note: This may be challenging. Depending on the size of your body frame, your drill / screwdriver may not fit inside. Thus, your screws may be slightly off-kilter. (But it will be inside your frame, so who will know!)
(If you are staining / sealing your ukulele, stain the neck at this point.)
Step 13: The Sound Hole
Plan where you want the sound hole on the cover of the book. With the neck now attached, mock up the placement of your fretboard, aligning the nut ends of the neck and fretboard together. Additionally, measure in half of your scale length from where the neck connects to the body frame (or from the 12th fret) toward the opposite end of the book. This measurement is the location of your bridge. Your sound hole can be located anywhere between this point and the body end of the fretboard. Keep in mind however to not make the hole to close to the bridge, as you will have the bridge support that takes up additional room.
Mark the location of the sound hole and mark the correct measurement for the diameter. Use a compass (or trace around some item) to make a circle. Cut out the sound hole with a utility knife. Be patient and take your time. You will have to make several passes with the utility knife to finally cut completely through.
Step 14: Constructing and Positioning the Inner Bridge Support
Cut a piece from the oak wood to the length of the inner walls of body frame. Laying out the book cover face down, position the body frame on the inside of the front cover of your book. Once it is positioned with the cover more or less evenly sticking out from the sides (like a real book’s cover would), trace its position with a pencil.
Place the inner bridge support that you just made against the inside of the frame on the bridge end of the body. You may need to do some additional cutting to make it fit perfectly. Additionally, if the inner bridge support is covering the sound hole you will need to cut it down.
Step 15: Gluing the Front Cover, Inner Bridge Support, and Spine
Apply glue to one side of your body frame and using the traced outline you made earlier, glue this to the inside of the front cover of your book. Use clamps to hold them in place.
Now apply glue to the the inner bridge support and, using the inside of the body frame as a guide, glue this to the back of the book’s front cover. Clamp this down if possible or use a weight of some kind to hold it as the glue cures. (A brick worked well for me).
Once the glue on these have set, you can then also glue the spine of the cover onto the body frame. Do this in much the same way - apply glue and then clamp.
(Note: DO NOT apply glue to the back cover and the corresponding side of the body frame. This side will be unglued and able to be opened and closed.
Step 16: Attaching the Fretboard
Position the fretboard on the neck matching all the edges. Especially make sure that the nut edges of the fretboard and neck are aligned. If needed sand down the edges of the fret board or the neck to make the transition between the two smooth.
Apply glue to the back of the fretboard. Again align it with the edges of the neck and clamp in place.
Step 17: Attaching the Bridge Assembly
Again check the measurement of your scale. Measuring from the where the nut will be at the end of the fretboard, the bridge itself must be exactly at your scale measurement. To make the placement accurate, first measure out your scale from the nut end of the fretboard and make a mark where the bridge should be placed. Next, place the bridge in the bridge assembly and measure the exact space from the front of the bridge to the front of the bridge base. (This should be ⅜ inch - the width of the front of the bridge assembly that you made in step. However it is better to be safe and measure.) Now transfer that measure to the bridge mark on the cover. Measure that distance from the bridge mark forward toward the fretboard. Make a mark. This will be where the front edge of your bridge assembly needs to be placed.
Apply glue to the bridge assembly and place on the cover. Ensure the piece is straight and the front edge is on the corresponding mark you made in the last step. Clamp in place while the glue cures.
Step 18: Drill the String Holes in the Bridge Assembly
Once the glue is set on the bridge assembly, measure .5 inch from the back of the back piece of the bridge assembly and make a light pencil line across the piece (in parallel with whee the nut will be). Make light pencil marks at .25 inches, .75 inches, 1.25 inches, and 1.75 inches.
Using a 1/16th inch drill bit, drill holes at these marks. Make sure you drill through not only the bridge assembly, but also the cover and the inner bridge support below that.
Step 19: Install the Tuning Pegs
I won’t go into great detail for this installation as it will greatly depend upon the specific tuning pegs you are using. Regardless however, you first will want to install each bushing on the front side of the holes. Next you will want to dry fit each tuning peg (the correct orientation is for the gear on the back of the tuning peg to be facing the body) and then mark the holes of the tuning peg flanges. Drill appropriate size holes for the flange screws. Lastly, install each tuning peg using the provided screws.
Step 20: Stringing the Ukulele
Using these instructions from Hawaii Music Supply on YouTube, string your ukulele. (As a beginner I can’t begin to instruct on how to string as well.) Make sure you have the proper strings for your size of ukulele - soprano strings for a soprano size ukulele, tenor strings for a tenor and so on.
Additionally, you will be anchoring the bridge end of your strings differently than in the above video. Using a double knot, tie a bead onto the end of each individual string. Thread the string from the inside of the ukulele and out the string holes you created in step 14. Follow the steps in the above video as a guide for the remainder of the stringing process.
You will only want to tighten your strings halfway initially. With each string straightened but still loose, put both the nut and the bridge in place. As you tighten the strings further, you may need to periodically reposition the bridge and nut back into place. They will stay in place once the tension is high enough.
Additionally, once the strings are tightened, you will need to tune each of the strings. You can purchase an electronic tuner from a music store if you would like. There are many free online tuners available that play the correct pitch of each string (such as this one), allowing you to use your ear to match the pitch of your instrument’s strings.
Step 21: Giving the Book Ukulele Pages
To hide the wood body frame, use paper and Mod Podge to cover the these edges. Cut out three strips of paper - two for the short ends and one for the long side. The long piece can be cut exactly to size. For the two short pieces however, make them .25 inch longer than needed.
Apply Mod Podge to the body frame on one of the shorter ends and apply one of the shorter strips of paper. Wrap the extra .25 inch of paper around the corner to the longer side of the body frame. Glue this portion down with Mod Podge as well. Repeat this process with the other short end of the body frame.
Now apply Mod Podge to the long side of the frame and apply the long strip of paper. Make the edges flush with the corners of the frame, cutting any overhanging paper if needed.
Lastly apply Mod Podge over all three paper strips to as a seal and protective coat.
Step 22: Securing the Back Cover
Apply the hook side of hook & loop fastener tape (or Velcro) to the edges of the body frame. Use a product similar to this - where each the hook side and the loop side of a sticky backing. Once you have applied the “hook” tape to the body frame, apply the “loop” tape on top - matching together the hook and loops. Remove the backing of the “loop” tape and close the back cover. Apply pressure around the edges of the book to ensure the adhesive backing of both tapes are sticking to the body frame and the back cover respectively.
Congrats! You now have your very own bookulele!