View Full Version : Oak & spruce soprano

08-29-2017, 04:15 AM
Hello everyone,

I've been an avid reader of this forum for the last three years since I started playing uke. I also bought a uke here recently from some nice folks. I currently have three good sopranos in mahogany, Australian blackwood and mango, which all have their individual and distinct voice. I like them all. For a while now I have been looking for a spruce-topped instrument for the sake of tonewood diversity, as I've heard a few really nice ones being played by other people.

Long story short, instead of buying one, I decided to build one myself :cool:. On my kitchen table. Step by step. I have no prior experience in this, so let's see how it goes. I have to add that basic woodworking chops exist, though they have been dormant for many years.

I have a pretty limited tool selection available at the moment as seen below, no major sawing possible and no fret work. So I went and bought some pre-cut wood sheets, blanks and strips, a prefab neck (okoume?, needs some reshaping) and fretboard (rosewood) and an inexpensive very simple electrical bending iron.

This is how far I've gotten in the last ten days (an hour or so a day in the evening). The top seen in the image below is 2mm spruce, which will be thinned down a little later on. The sides were bent from 1.5mm thick White Oak sheets cut to size. Bending was easier than I thought, I guess oak is a 'friendly' wood for bending. I just quickly splashed some water on the wood and bent it step by step, rewetting frequently until I got the shape right. The bent sides were rested and dried in an improvised cardboard mould to keep the shape for 2 days.

Neck and tail blocks, braces were cut from spruce and shaped. Bridge plate is a piece of bamboo (this is what I had available and it looked just fine for the purpose ...). The lining is basswood.
The curved back is also oak, which I've already cut, glued and braced. Currently I'm waiting for some basic white ABS binding material, that I've ordered, so I can bind the front before glueing on the back (therefore the offset lining, hope this will work out ...).

Most used tools so far have been utility knife (used to cut wood sheets, instead of sawing them, slightly tricky for hard oak but doable), mini plane, and scraper. Slow-paced manual woodwork with sharp blades has something satisfying to it, especially if you see your endeavour taking shape gradually.
BTW, my work bench size is 20 by 40 cm ... :D.
Will keep you posted on the next steps.


102634 102633

Vespa Bob
08-29-2017, 05:21 AM
Well done, so far, given your limited tools! I presume your method of off setting the linings to accept the binding is due to not having a router? Certainly an interesting concept. I'm looking forward to seeing how your work progresses.


08-29-2017, 11:30 PM
Yes, that's right Bob. I don't have a router, or any power tools for that. Cutting the binding channel entirely by hand with a chisel seemed daunting to me, regarding the required accuracy. The idea with the offset lining is to use binding material that has the same thickness as the sides and then scrape everything to a flush fit. I have no idea if this will work well or not at all, but will give it a go when the binding material arrives.


08-30-2017, 06:09 AM
a few more images ...


08-30-2017, 06:13 AM
and for people interested in tools ...


Vespa Bob
08-30-2017, 02:32 PM
Keep at it, you're doing great! What glue are you using?


08-30-2017, 07:42 PM
You don't have to put binding on an uke. Plenty of classic ukes have no binding at all and have survived for a hundred years. Basically if you ask me, binding is mostly bling and an opportunity to really screw things up. Still, I do it cause I like the bling. Don't feel like you have to do binding.

08-30-2017, 11:16 PM
The glue is a standard type PVA wood glue, white color, dries clear, easy to scrape off the wood surface for clean up. Brand I'm using is Selley's. Might not be the best choice, advice appreciated ...

08-30-2017, 11:22 PM
The binding was a conscious choice. I also don't like bling in ukes, but a simple binding without purfling and without rosette seemed appropriate for this one, as the woods are very straight-grained. It adds a bit of contrast, lines out the body shape and gives your eyes a grip, if that makes sense ...
I chose simple white ABS because I also have white fret dots, white bone bridge and saddle, and white Gotoh friction tuners to go with it. Ties it up a bit, hopefully, into a coherent whole. Also white is not too strong a contrast with the wood colors, as for example ebony would be in my case.

08-31-2017, 12:48 AM
I meant to say white bone saddle and nut ... bridge is rosewood.

Vespa Bob
08-31-2017, 05:06 AM
Most builders use Titebond for general wood to wood gluing. So long as the brand you use states that it's meant for wood, you should be OK.


08-31-2017, 06:30 AM
"Where there's a will, there's a way." It's always good to see someone having a go at making an instrument even if they are limited in workshop space or tools.

As Bob says, many on this forum use Titebond, the original sort which comes in the Red Top bottle seems to be what's preferred.

Don't expect your first instrument to look or sound fantastic, but I hope making it gives you some satisfaction. Many of us get bitten by the bug and spend our time trying to make that perfect uke.

08-31-2017, 07:03 AM
Yes, that's right Bob. I don't have a router, or any power tools for that. Cutting the binding channel entirely by hand with a chisel seemed daunting to me, regarding the required accuracy. The idea with the offset lining is to use binding material that has the same thickness as the sides and then scrape everything to a flush fit. I have no idea if this will work well or not at all, but will give it a go when the binding material arrives.


I thought about this approach quite a bit this morning, because it sounded like a good idea and something that I would try if it would eliminate the routing operation. But then I realized that I have no idea how you would make the top fit snuggly inside of the binding. I'm curious to see how it all works out. Good luck!

Vespa Bob
08-31-2017, 09:52 AM
I'm curious about this, too. Cutting the top to fit inside the binding would be a real challenge. Maybe I'm missing something here?


08-31-2017, 06:42 PM
I think you have it backwards. The binding is cut and fit into the top and sides and not the top fit into the binding. That really would be difficult if not impossible... Personally on my first uke I would skip the binding step. As Robbie O'Brian said in one of his videos: A really good build can be ruined by a sloppy binding job. If you insist, go slow and nibble with sharp router. Use a file to even out any imperfections. And remember: sawdust and glue is your friend.

Vespa Bob
08-31-2017, 06:56 PM
I thought of that, too, but then the binding would not show on the top, would it?


08-31-2017, 07:45 PM
You guys are serious messing with my mind.

08-31-2017, 08:49 PM
Maybe this helps:


Side, top and lining are already in place, as you can see in one of the previous images. I still need to trim the edge of the top back a little though to make a flat surface to accept the binding (top sticks out a little sideways at the moment). That's the plan.

09-01-2017, 11:53 AM
So you cut the binding channel before you glued the top on and then you trim back the top to be flush with the binding channel? Interesting way to do it I suppose and that will work, but why not just glue on the top and then cut the channel in a single operation? There are many ways to skin an uke...

Michael N.
09-01-2017, 12:18 PM
Is that forming the binding channel by creating the step with the lining? If that is what is meant then it makes perfect sense, especially if you haven't got any power tools. I've been using that method for around 5 years,

09-01-2017, 03:37 PM
Yes, Michael and sequoia, that's the idea. Good to know that this can work and that someone else has done it like this before.

Michael N.
09-01-2017, 10:01 PM
It is a known method, not well known but there are a few people who use it. I thought I was the only person doing it that way until I came across another maker who mentioned it. The big advantage that I've found is that you get a very tight joint between binding and the sides. I never get any gaps, not even the slightest. You still need to make sure that the lining projection is pretty even all the way around the side and clean out any glue overspill.

Vespa Bob
09-02-2017, 05:39 AM
OK, this method still intrigues me. What method do you use to accurately square up the edge of the top with the lining?


Michael N.
09-02-2017, 07:39 AM
Chisel (very carefully) takes off the majority. Thumb plane, file and 'nail file' - bendy abrasive. I glue abrasive to very thin ply.

09-04-2017, 02:19 AM
Today, while I'm still waiting for the binding material, I made the bridge. I noticed something that I had not paid much attention to before - string spacing at the saddle. Looking at my other three sopranos, they are actually quite different, I measured 40mm, 45mm and 46mm. Now that I know that, I can actually see the strings fanning out more from nut to saddle on the two instruments with larger spacing by looking at them.
Is there any consensus on this? 6mm difference at the saddle are 3mm difference at the 12th fret, considering that the string spacing at the nut is the same. That's significant in my opinion from a players perspective.
How does this compare to classic soprano designs from Martin or Hawaiian made instruments like Kamaka? Opinions and insight is appreciated.
BTW, my bridge has 40mm string spacing and is currently 2mm higher than it probably needs to be, will adjust this before I glue it on later on.

09-04-2017, 08:11 PM
I have also pondered this question before I cut my string holes in the bridge. From what I gather, it is not critical and a matter of taste in string spacing. Not critical of course within reason. The one thing that would be bad is to set the spacing so wide that the string slips off the side of the fretboard while playing. Not good! I just copied standard sting spacing off of tenor ukes and I forget what it is for a tenor. I just have a little square piece of wood with 4 holes drilled in it as a jig. Works great. Below is a diagram from Stew Macs site reproduced without permission that gives some idea. I don't use the suggested spacing for tenor, but that is just me. A place to start.


09-15-2017, 11:46 PM
Alright, the binding is on. Took a looooong time doing it by hand. Roughly 2 hours cutting top and back edges back and cleaning the binding channel with chisel, then 2 hours taping on the binding with masking tape and glueing it in with superglue. Finally, 2 hours scraping and sanding it flush.
While not perfect, it looks good I think. No gaps.


Feels fairly light and when tapped it sounds like a uke. :D:D

09-16-2017, 06:20 PM
Looks pretty darn good from what I can see. I have never done binding channel cutting by hand, but I can appreciated the time and elbow grease it would take. Two hours sounds pretty quick to me. I could spend an entire afternoon sharpening, setting, cutting, etc... Even with a router it takes me time. I go slow with a lot of nibbling and looking. By the way, this is one operation where things can go bad in a hurry with a router if you are a hobbyist or don't do a lot of it. Has never happened to me yet. Yet. I can see the potential though for mucking things up majorly. The pros can do in minutes with no anxiety. Zip, zip, zip. What's so hard?

Good on you for doing it by hand. Now go out and get yourself a router. Much less work. Probably cleaner too.

09-16-2017, 08:34 PM
Thanks for the kind words sequoia.
I think that the overall time for the binding work by hand could be less with more experience and probably better suited tools, I already know a few things now that I would do differently next time. In any case, I'm not in a hurry.
Out of curiosity I put the uke body on my kitchen scale, this is what I got:


09-22-2017, 09:01 PM
In the last days I prepared the prefab (not that great actually) neck for joining to the body. Work done includes flattening the profile to my liking, producing a flatter profile and also a flatter taper to higher frets, removing 3mm off the back of the headstock (9mm thick now at pointed end), narrowing headstock by 6mm to make it less heavy, removing edges close to the nut position to produce smooth feel, planing width to fretboard width, shaping curved heel end where it joins the uke body, and making heel shape much less clunky.
Making one from scratch would have taken almost the same time, I think.


Added some new tools to the box, a few f-clamps and a half-round/flat rasp with no handle. Works a treat for neck shaping.

Today I glued the neck to the body with a simple dowel joint using two 6mm dowels.


09-23-2017, 07:08 PM
Looks good, but I can't make out what is going on in the last picture with the butt end.

09-23-2017, 10:27 PM
My guess is that the clamp serves as an improvised stop.

11-07-2017, 12:36 AM
Hi guys,

It's finished !!! ;):D
I've finally found the time to complete the uke.
Here are some images. A classic beauty, I think.

104208 104209

Finish is pure tung oil, 7 coats, took me 3 weeks ...
The grommets of the Gotoh UKB's were too small for the predrilled holes in the headstock, had to find a work around, mixing and matching parts from a couple old tuners I had lying around - works well. Total weight strung is 267 grams, it is lighter than all my other ukes and very resonant. Sound is really nice. The spruce makes for a very immediate and precise response with good dynamic range.
It's currently strung with d'Addario black nylon with a Fremont fluoro low g string. My favorite combo I have on two other ukes.
Total building time I estimate at 35 hours or so. Worth it? Yes, absolutely, in my opinion.

Full specs:
Model: JBS 1 uke
Construction: spruce blocks, basswood lining, bamboo bridge plate, 2 dowel neck joint
Body size: soprano ukulele
Bracing pattern: standard soprano
Brace material: spruce
Back and side material: white oak
Top material: spruce
Neck material: okoume
Neck profile: flat D shape
Nut material: bone
Nut string spacing: 28mm
Headplate: khaya
Fingerboard material: rosewood
Scale length: 346mm
Number of frets: 15, joined at 12th
Fingerboard width at nut: 34mm
Fingerboard width at 12th fret: 43mm
Fingerboard position inlays: 5th, 7th, 10th, 12th, 15th
Bridge material: rosewood
Bridge string spacing: 40mm
Saddle material: bone
Binding material: white ABS
Finish: tung oil
Tuners: Gotoh UKB friction tuners with white buttons
Strings: d’Addario black nylon strings, Fremont black fluorocarbon low G string
String height at 12th fret: 2mm
Weight: 267g

Vespa Bob
11-07-2017, 05:33 AM
:cheers: Well done!


11-07-2017, 09:44 AM
Inspiring! Any chance we could get a sound sample from your new baby?

11-07-2017, 05:34 PM
A sweet, honest looking little soprano... Now onto a tenor!

11-07-2017, 09:09 PM
Thanks guys.
I greatly prefer the special sound and humble attitude of a good soprano (I only have sopranos), so no flashy tenor for me.

I'll see if I can somehow record it, maybe side by side with my KTS-7 for comparison.