Ukelele build - anyone help with obtaining plans/advice etc?

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1 Nov 2017
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The Edge
I have rashly promised to make an acoustic ukulele for my daughter's birthday, she has one but it sounds as good as the price we paid for it i.e. not much. Can anyone recommend plans, books, websites etc? I've done some stringed instrument building before so I have a good idea of what's involved, but advice from someone who has made ukuleles would be greatly appreciated.

Tara a bit,

Have a look at they're based in the USA but have everything you need. The stewmax membership (£30) is worth while for free delivery for one year. Just remember that any order over £15 is subject to VAT and over £135 import duty. Royal mail or Fedex charge a handling fee over £15 - £8 & £12.50 respectively. Also some woods such as rosewood cannot be exported due to the CITES laws but you can source in the UK. A good place for tonewoods in the UK is Robert the proprietor is a nice chap and knows his onions :)
The Grellier plans are pretty good, and a free download - Grellier soprano ukulele plans

But it's generally agreed that the top bracing is far too heavy, and I'd certainly make the bracing narrower and reduce the height a little.

You might find some useful thoughts in this thread of mine: Making a Ukulele But bear in mind that there are many other ways of doing everything I did!
Thanks for the replies, I will investigate the links.

Profchris, thanks for the link to your ukulele building thread - not sure how I missed it!

Is it common practise to use a hardwood for the soundboard?

Thanks again,

You'll want to use whats called a tone wood rather than a "hardwood" as in most tonewoods are hardwoods but not all hardwoods are tonewoods.

If your doing this to save money, don't, you can buy a really nice uke for fairly small sums of money (cheaper than you can most likely make), if your doing this because you can, then crack on. No advice on plans I'm afraid, most of my stringed instruments have involved a plug. only thing I can suggest is to keep it simply, they can prove themselves to be complicated little things. good luck.
novocaine":94oi3nxo said:
You'll want to use whats called a tone wood rather than a "hardwood" as in most tonewoods are hardwoods but not all hardwoods are tonewoods.

But don't be fooled by guitars, which mostly use softwood tops.

If you want the traditional uke sound you must use a hardwood top. The first ukes were all koa, then when they began being made in the US (late 1910s), mahogany. But most non-dense hardwoods can be made to work - I've used oak, for example, and that one is played by a professional musician. Mahogany is good to work with, oak is awkward. Sapele is rather dense and can make neck carving hard, but sounds good if you get it right. Don't ask how much koa costs!

Spruce or cedar gives too much sustain for strumming a soprano or concert. It works on a tenor if you plan to play mainly melodic runs and sounds like a small guitar.

I forgot to say earlier that soprano is the hardest size - even a little overbuilt can make it very quiet and full sounding. Concert is more forgiving and only a little bigger.

Of course there's no money saving here. Something like a Kala KAS is very playable and around £100. But a uke built by your Dad - priceless!
Other woods which I know work well:

Meranti (But splitty)
Maple (can be a bit shrill though)

Lots of possibilities.

Make sure the grain for top and back at least is near vertical (see my thread for why).

Rosewood is too dense for tops, though can make nice backs and sides.
what he^ said. :) he knows better than me (this is not meant in a bitter way, I've built a handful of instruments, Chris has built considerable more, I will always defer to his knowledge).

Sapele has been used in the UK for a long time for furniture making and can be gotten in offcuts pretty reliably.

MIL redwood c58 was playable out the box, a set of aquilias and it sounds great. 50ish pounds. now she wants my travel uke because it's tiny. :)
One final thought ....

If your daughter is the right age (impressed by shiny and/or sparkly), you can build a surprisingly decent uke using only 1.5mm birch ply for the body.

Here is one I made as a raffle prize - a "camp" uke shape, floating bridge which removes the big challenge of getting it in the right place, and in one direction ("cross" grain, because two of three plies go the same way) 1.5mm birch ply will bend around that shape without needing to use heat. How to keep it round? A cake mould!

I was very pleased with how it sounded - not very complex, but a pleasant and cheerful noise.

The raffle winner is a very good player and he still plays it quite a lot, but only when his daughter allows him (she has adopted it).

However, don't go for black (even if your daughter is a Goth). It's utterly unforgiving as an instrument finish - the tiniest defect glares out. Use automotive lacquer (and if you can, dye the body something like that colour) - you want the thinnest possible coat on the top, back and sides you can be more generous.
Another good place to buy tools for luthiery is Crimson Guitars in the UK. It will avoid import costs.
On the other hand, I don't know where "The Edge" is but you could borrow tools for your first build. If it turns out to be your only build you will easily spend more than £100 on tools you won't ever use again.

At the risk of being a damp squib, there's a very high possibility of spending more than the cost of a good Uke on making something almost as good as the cheap Uke.
But then again Brian May and his Dad built his famous red guitar.
I'm going to say something that rubs against the grain a bit. be warned.

there are no specialist tools required to build a ukulele that you can't make yourself or that there isn't a replacement available in the world of woodworking.

you don't need a nodged straight edge (only of use if you are leveling a premade neck)
you don't need an expensive leveling beam (a 16" length of hardwood and a quick swipe with the plane)
you don't need a fret dressing file (you can grind a safe edge on any file you wish)
fret snips, a pair of side cutters
sawing a nut can be done without special saws and files
fret slotting saw, 0.72mm kerf, or pretty much any gents or Japanese saw.
fret rubbers, emery board for filing nails.
you do need decent wet and dry.

the 3 tools I made to do my electric uke build

a flat ground set of side snips for cutting the frets
a rolled save edged jewellers file for fret dressing (I'm making a bigger one for guitar work)
a piece of pine as a levelling beam, I knew it was flat, I'd planed it that way 2 minutes before using it.

if you find you like doing this sort of thing, then you invest in the tools, till then, you make what you need.


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Thanks once again for the replies - I'm not quite sure where to start!

Thanks for the various tips on suppliers - you can never have too many!

In general I'm doing this for the satisfaction of making something for my daughter and to save money as I should only have to buy strings, tuners and fretwire. I have some experience in building stringed instruments so I already have some tools or am confident of finding workrounds. I've made quite a few zither based instruments, some with necks, and a mandola type instrument. Normally I'm interested in unusual sounds so this is the first time I'm attempting an instrument that someone might actually recognise.

Novocaine - you are absolutely going with the grain regards home made tools etc - I would say that you are a man after my own heart, except you seem to have bound yourself to the devil with that modern plug-in lecky stuff!

profchris - thank you again, I'm used to tops being made of spruce/WR cedar so I will defer to your expertise - especially having done some googling! I've read your WIP a little more closely now and am examining my timber accordingly. I considered birch ply, mostly in case she sits on it or something, but I'd have to buy that and TBH I fancy doing it as properly as I can.

A couple of questions - is there a side-to-side curve on the top? and is the Spanish heel the usual method? How small is your rebate plane for the bindings?

Well, that's all for now, I will report back with timber choices, updates are likely to be erratic and slow unfortunately - with a possible flurry before her birthday!

Tara a bit,

tops are normally flat.
radius on the fret board is your call but I'm fairly sure the were flat traditionally.

the devil did indeed come down to Warrington looking a soul to steal.
StraightOffTheArk":anlvt1wr said:
A couple of questions - is there a side-to-side curve on the top? and is the Spanish heel the usual method? How small is your rebate plane for the bindings?

You can choose whether to put a small dome in the top, and if you do the easiest way is just to put a slight curve on the main transverse brace. A rise of maybe 2mm is all you need. Such a curve helps with humidity changes - if the top gets wider the dome rises, if it shrinks the dome flattens rather than the wood cracking (up to a point!). But in the UK this isn't usually a problem if you don't keep the uke next to a radiator, and so flat tops are very common. I'd go flat for a first attempt.

Spanish heel is one of many ways to attach the neck. The good part is that it locks the neck plane and the top plane into the correct alignment, plus it's quite easy to do. The bad part is that the neck is in the way for binding and finishing.

There are several other alternatives, but the easiest is to bolt on the neck. I showed this in my Oddball Guitar thread. I used a mortice and tenon to keep the neck aligned, but you could leave that out and just butt the neck to the body. A single bolt is fine for uke. The hard part here is getting the neck lined up on all three axes, and still having a nice fit to the body.

With a hardwood top you don't need to bind at all - the Martin Style 0, whose 1920s and early 1930s examples are one of the benchmarks for soprano ukes, has no binding.

If you do decide to bind the top, most of the work is done with a 1/4 inch chisel. My little rebate plane is by Veritas, a gift from a kind friend, and is I think about 1/4 inch wide. You don't need one (it won't do inner curves or work near the neck if you use Spanish heel) but it's nice to have. Probably a bigger one would work just as well.

And finally, use spruce for the top if you want. Some people like it, even on sopranos, just be warned about the penetrating high frequencies! If you look at my video, the second half shows a fun build (by someone else) made from veg boxes, with the broccoli stencil still on the front. In the end, the choice of wood species is less important than how you build it (light as you dare, then a deep breath and lighter still :D ).
Are Ukulele backs and sound boards always made with a single piece, or can you also use book matched pieces as with guitars?
Well thanks once again, I've had some thoughts on timber, but I'm away for a couple of days so I'll be incommunicado and obviously won't be able to take photo's - one more question on timber selection; is it usual/desirable to have the same wood for front, back and sides? I do have some spruce, but as I'm making a soprano instrument I'll try and follow its conventions.

Custard - I believe they are bookmatched, but the prof will know for sure!

Novocaine - My father was born in Warrington to good Christian parents, but they didn't stay long, now I know why - they'd obviously heard that the devil was headin' to town..... Although I've only dabbled in making acoustic instruments, I do have a certain fondness for the devil's music.

Have you read Fafhrd and the gray mouser?

Tara a bit,

Backs and soundboards are usually book matched, because vertical grain wood the right width for a single piece is hard to come by. And if there is a pretty figure in the wood, then book matching can make it even prettier.

Top and back from different woods is increasingly common - there really are no rules! If you've got spruce and fancy binding the top, then ignore me and go for it. Oak could make lovely backs and sides if you've got some with a little figure in it.

I like reclaiming wood - I've practically finished off wardrobe no. 1 and am well into no. 2. There's good, flat-sawn mahogany in some Victorian wardrobes, but vertical grain stuff for the top usually has to be bought in.

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