To make a ukulele you need a lot of things, including some quality wood, a set of good ukulele strings, and a lot of skill. Building the uke is no easy task and if you want to get an instrument that sounds awesome, this is probably not the way to get it. But if you just want to feel the thrill of making your instrument, here’s how to do it.
What you’ll need
First of all, you need the main material, wood. Of course, manufacturers use different kinds of tonewoods and some of them are better than the others. You will use what you can find, most probably. However, if you have the chance to find some quality mahogany, make your ukulele out of it. It’s one of the most used tonewoods in the industry.
Mahogany is a good choice because you can use it for every part of the uke’s body. It has its advantages and disadvantages – a top made of mahogany sounds a bit too thick. If you can find some exotic types of wood, Koa is an alternative to mahogany and it’s the wood that was initially used for making these instruments.
Spruce, cedar or redwood are good choices too, but these ones are mainly used for the top and not for the entire ukulele. After you decide what type of wood to use, you’ll need different-sized pieces of wood, most of them being thin slats.
You should also know that you need a large and thin sheet of chipboard, and a stick that’s about 3 feet long and 0.4 inches in diameter. Of course, you also need the ukulele parts and these include 14 frets, 4 machine heads for the strings, and the 4 strings.
Starting the body
That already seems like a lot of work to do, but if you want a good uke, you need to do your best. Wood is usually bent in a steam box, but if you’re not a carpenter, you probably don’t have one lying around in your garage. The next alternative is to use your bathtub for that.
Put the pieces of wood in the bathtub and fill it with water. Add some weight on top of the wood so it sinks. The process will take several hours, but after that, you will have wood that can be manipulated easier.
You will start your ukulele by making its sides from a single piece of wood. You can easily bend that wood if it’s wet, but you also have to keep it in place for a long time. And that’s why you have to construct a piece holder. Fortunately, that’s an easy step, for which you need a flat piece of wood on which you draw the shape of the instrument.
Next, you drill holes on the outside of the shape and in those holes you’re going to stick pegs that will hold the shape of the piece of wood. That will give the outside pressure that the wood needs to keep it in place. But you also need pressure from the inside, so you should place some sticks on the inside to push the wood outward toward the pegs.
Adding more to the body
After the wood that makes the sidewalls has dried, add some pieces of wood to its edges to increase the structural integrity. These wood pieces should also serve as places where the top and bottom boards will be glued. You will also need another slat to close the shape of the body and make it stable. The measurements of this piece need to be precise, so take your time.
Once you have the complete shape of the body and you have also added the supportive pieces to it, you should be able to get it out of the shape holder without it changing the shape. If that unfortunately happens, you’re back to the drawing board.
The next step is adding the top board. For that, spread a lot of glue on the edges of the body shape you’ve just built and on the supportive pieces we were just discussing. You need the top board to come in contact with a large surface, so it stays glued in place. Simply position the piece of wood you will use as the top board on the edges and add as much pressure as possible without bending the wood. You can use clamps for this.
The connection between the neck and the body needs to be a sturdy one, so you will need to work carefully when building and connecting the neck. You should start things with adding a block of wood that will act as a supportive piece where the neck connects. This piece has to touch both top and bottom boards, so cut it precisely and fit it perfectly on the uke.
Furthermore, be sure to place the block exactly in the middle of the body, where the neck will be placed. Put a large screw going from inside to outside through the block, so you will later screw the neck on it.
Making the neck itself isn’t a hard task, but you’ll need to be patient and work with care. Take a long, strong piece of wood and chisel it until it resembles the shape of a neck.
The dimensions aren’t exact, but keep in mind some basic rules. First, the end result needs to be sturdy. Then, make sure the end of the neck has the exact width as the width of the body you’ve just built. Keep in mind that the neck isn’t finished yet and we’ll add more to it later.
Finishing your uke
Making the nut that sits on the neck is an easy task. It’s a round stick cut in half that goes horizontally on the neck. The bridge is more complicated, however. You’ll need a rectangular stick as wide as the neck and it also needs a gap in it and 4 holes for the strings. Place the bridge about ¾ of the distance between the place where the neck starts and the end of the body.
Once you’re done with that, make the soundhole, a circle drilled in the middle of the top board that should be between 1.5 and 2 inches. After that, take a piece of wood similar to the one you used for the top board, and stick it on the opposite side, so you make the bottom board.
You also need to add the fretboard to the neck. Glue a thin slat on top of it, and if you can, use a harder wood for that. The slat should go from the top all the way to the soundhole.
Make 14 small straight cuts horizontally on the neck and check the distance between them using an online fret calculator. You will be placing the frets in those cuts. The rest of the details are up to you. Once the neck is ready, stick it to the main body using glue and the screw you’ve placed there earlier.
The woodwork is now ready. You only need to sand the instrument, add some paint to it and make it look exactly as you want. But let’s not forget about the machine heads and the strings. Simply screw the 4 machine heads on the end of the neck that you’ve just built. Then put the strings through them and through the bridge as you would normally do. And that’s it, your ukulele is done.