View Full Version : Build Blog of Ukulele for my Nephew

Koa Soprano
12-25-2010, 08:15 AM
I'm building a Soprano Ukulele for my Nephew. This was all posted on another forum and I am reposting it here. I started building November 2, 2010.

Here are the materials. The large block is Spanish Cedar and will be the neck and the neck & tail block. The two strips under it are the sides, then the top and bottom. These are AAAAA flamed Hawaiian Koa. The small piece is the headcap, also Koa, a pre-slotted African Ebony fingerboard and binding strips. I have some scrap Ebony I will use for a bridge, and Spruce for internal bracing.


Here I am planing the sides down. The brass bench dog at the end keeps it in place.


This is how I gauge the thickness, I made this years ago when I made violins. I thicknessed them down to around .074".


Bending the sides here. One half is done. The sides soaked in water as the bending iron heated up, and I use a spritzer to add more water when needed. The form of the iron is my own custom design I had CNC'd from a solid block of aluminum at my work years ago. I designed it for violin rib bending but it worked okay for a uke.


Koa Soprano
12-25-2010, 08:16 AM
Here they both are roughly trimmed. There are a few tiny cracks and a rather large one going half the width of one of the sides. I should be able to glue them up without issue. I stuck a wedge across the middle at this point and will leave it for a day or two to fully dry to the mold shape.


More work done this week. I planed down the top and back halves, they will be one piece, and a book-match of each other.


The top is around .060" and the back closer to .064". The sides should have been thinner, but info about ukulele construction seems to be hard to find on the net.


Here are all the Koa shavings from the sides, top & back. This is a 5 gallon pail.


Koa Soprano
12-25-2010, 08:16 AM
Fixing the cracks on the sides.


Making the neck & tailblocks from Spanish Cedar. The end grain is on the sides of the blocks so I am not gluing to it.


I used a blockplane in a vise to rough shape the blocks, then sanded them with a piece of sandpaper held in the mold to get the exact shape. Here they are all trimmed and glued. The instrument begins to take shape.


This is a sanding board I made to level the top and back surfaces. Note the black strip of wood at the bottom, this raises the end giving a slight curve to the surface. I wedge it in more to curve the back surfaces even more.


Koa Soprano
12-25-2010, 08:17 AM
Here are the linings cut and ready for bending, made from Sitka Spruce.


Bent on the iron like the sides after soaking, then clamped in the mold overnight to fully dry.


And finally gluing begins.


I trimmed the linings with a knife then sanded them smooth a sanded the inside of the sides and blocks smooth.


Koa Soprano
12-25-2010, 08:18 AM
I also added my trademark stamp to the neckblock as I have done on other instruments.


Back braces roughed out, made from Sitka Spruce.


Here I am adding a curve to them to help give the back a slight bowl shape in addition to what was sanded into the frame itself.


Here they are clamped, using lead for weight.


Koa Soprano
12-25-2010, 08:18 AM


Here I have notched the side assembly for the braces. This makes it much less likely a brace will pop loose under force if the end is tucked under the lining and side.


This is a clamping fixture I quickly made. Typically a "go-bar deck" is used to glue the back and top to the frame, as well as braces too, but I didn't want to make one as this is a one-off. My thinking was the soft plastic hose would give enough to yield an even clamping pressure.


Clamped with lead again.


Koa Soprano
12-25-2010, 08:19 AM

Here it is with all the glue squeeze out removed and everything nicely sanded.


Now to the top. After cutting it out I glue on the rosette backer, also made from Sitka Spruce.


Here is the rosette slot cut.


Koa Soprano
12-25-2010, 08:19 AM
This will be the rosette, it is from a strip of Ebony. I will also be using Ebony for the binding on the body.



After gluing it got trimmed, a few areas will also need to be filled with Ebony sawdust and superglue.


I then cutout the soundhole, now it's really starting to look like a uke.


Koa Soprano
12-25-2010, 08:20 AM
Here are the roughed braces for the top, also Spruce. The bottom piece is the bridge plate and it sits under the bridge. The brace next to it will also get the slight curve like the back braces, and the top will be left flat.


I glued the two upper braces first, here the bridge plate is being glued.


And after that everything got nicely trimmed.


Once again I cut the slots in the frame for the braces. Prior to this I resanded the top gluing surface of the frame on the sanding board with a slight wedge on one end to give a curve near the tailblock.


Koa Soprano
12-25-2010, 08:20 AM
And finally the top gets glued into place. Due to the curve both the back and, to a lesser extent, the top have I couldn't just clamp the top on the same way I did the back. I pulled out a set of clamps I made for gluing up violin bodies and they seemed to work quite well.


First I start by making a binding cutting jig for my router table. My original is long gone so I made this up. I start by making a flush cut to trim the excess of the top and back overhang.


After trimming I then sanded with blocks and dowels to get the sides nice and smooth and flat, and sand out a few problem areas.


Then I switched the bearing on the router bit for one that is 1/8" smaller than the diameter of the cutter, giving a 1/16" binding channel depth, and adjusted the jig.


Koa Soprano
12-25-2010, 08:21 AM
Here the binding channels are cut into the top and back edges, as well as a filler slot on the bottom, which was cut with a saw.



Unfortunately I wasn't paying attention while doing a cleanup pass on the channels and the bit grabbed the top and did this.


Here I am attempting to graft a cutoff into the area.


Koa Soprano
12-25-2010, 08:22 AM
The result, not too pretty. The ruler is in place of the fingerboard.


After that I bent the Ebony binding.


While that set I glued in the filler piece on the bottom.


Here the binding is clamped with a crap load of tape.


Koa Soprano
12-25-2010, 08:23 AM
The results. They are oversized in both thickness and height so next will be trimming them. I think a contrasting binding adds alot to the look of an instrument.



Here is the Ebony binding trimmed flush. I once again used the router and jig with the flush trim bearing I started with as the grain orientation of the Ebony allowed me to do so. Lots of sanding still required after however.



Koa Soprano
12-25-2010, 08:24 AM
Next I started on the neck. A big block of Spanish Cedar with crappy grain orientation. These are advertised as "quartered" which looks like this "||||" in a board but it came rift sawn which looks like "////". The grain also goes on a slight angle along the length of the board, highlighted in my picture by pencil lines.


This is what I had to do to get one usable soprano sized neck, even though these are advertised as enough for two tenors.


After that I spent a bunch of time designing my headstock. It's based on one I designed years ago for a couple ukes I made but I never kept a copy of it so I had to go by memory. I also made some scanned copies.


Here I planed the fingerboard gluing surface and a squared side for cutting, as well as rough cut the headstock face to 15 degrees.


Koa Soprano
12-25-2010, 08:24 AM
Finally I thinned down the Flamed Koa headstock overlay to 1/16". I also sanded it extremely smooth as tomorrow I hope to laser engrave my logo in it at work.


So here is the laser engraved headplate. It's my name in Hawaiian. I did a few test pieces and filled one with Ebony sawdust and superglue then sanded it but prefer this look. The label will be dedicated to my Nephew.


I then planed the rough cut 15 degree heastock portion of the neck, marked out the centers and relief cut the back area for clamps and glued it on.



Koa Soprano
12-25-2010, 08:25 AM
Next I began work on the fingerboard. Here I setup my straight edge in my vise to cut the edges square.


Here it is trimmed. It is pre-slotted for a 13.5" scale length. I have slotted my own boards in the past but didn't want to bother this time.


Here I am aligning the neck for fitting. I forget how I did this on past ukes so I hope it works. I placed the body on the neck where it will sit and traced it's profile.


Then I cut it out and cut away most of what will not be present in the finished neck.


Koa Soprano
12-25-2010, 08:26 AM
This is how I fitted it. 60 grit sandpaper taped to the body and I carefully, with small forward and back movements, sanded the end of the neck to a tight fit with the body while checking for alignment constantly.


Next I cut out the side profile of the neck.


Notice the nice straight quartersawn grain, all that work with the neck blank paid off.


Here I am planing the back of the headstock to it's final thickness of 7/16". There are easier and faster ways of doing this but I enjoy using handtools.


Koa Soprano
12-25-2010, 08:26 AM
I finished it off with a sanding block and checked on my thickness gauge I earlier used for the top, back and sides.


Next was gluing the fingerboard. I learned this tip of using alignment pins in the fret slots from a luthier I worked for years ago. Takes all the aggravation out of something very important sliding around on the glue. The holes will be touched up later.


And finally clamped.


Next I layed out the headstock profile and drilled the tuning peg holes. I drilled a hole on the waste area to test fit the tuner bushing as shown.


Koa Soprano
12-25-2010, 08:27 AM
I then marked and drilled for the inlays. The side dots will be solid white plastic and the front dots are abalone.


I then cut out the neck and headstock profiles. The neck profile is cut on a slight angle toward the back. It's based on the width of the toe, the end point of the neck at the base where it attaches to the body. I am making it half the width of the fingerboard at the body which is 1-3/4", so in this case it's 7/8" wide and 7/8" deep. It's shape will be an arc, the same arc I used for the back of the heel and the base of the headstock.



Here is the headstock's profile planed and rasp'd smooth.


Koa Soprano
12-25-2010, 08:28 AM
Now I am shaping the back of the neck. I start by nocking off the corners, then I take the side profile down to meet up with the fingerboard. I then make a couple facet type cuts and blend it all together.



At this point I realized I haven't finished the toe cap so I stopped to trim down the toe area and glue it on.


That's it for now, I will post an update probably tomorrow with the neck shaping finished, neck glued on and fret work done as well as work on the bridge.

Ronnie Aloha
12-25-2010, 08:50 AM
This an awesome walk through. I can't wait to see the rest of it!

12-25-2010, 08:50 AM
This is awesome. I just read the whole thing. Can't wait to see it when it's all done.

12-25-2010, 09:46 AM
Hay thats grate!!! :) Man I love it!! Hope to see the finishing product.

12-25-2010, 09:57 AM
Dear Koa Soprano,
thank you for posting your building journal.
That is so nice to read it in the Christmas morning.
Thank you..

12-25-2010, 07:20 PM
Thanks so much. Four of the pictures didn't completely download but I can say this step to step explanation has been the most helpful in understanding the process. Anxious to see the rest of it.

12-25-2010, 07:44 PM
I do remember seeing some of these pictures previously when you had the incident when routing the binding ledges. Great pictorial documentation.

12-26-2010, 02:12 AM
Excellent blog. Its very inspiring to get the new year started. Its great you were able to plane down to thickness, for those who don't have a thickness sander. Thanks for posting it.

Koa Soprano
12-26-2010, 05:19 PM
Thanks guys.

So here is the toe glued on with it's profile sketched out.


I then marked out the angle from the fingerboard to the toe and planed it flush to the toe width.


Roughing the profile of the heel area with a rasp.


Here is the chin area.


Koa Soprano
12-26-2010, 05:20 PM
And here is everything sanded together with 120grit.


Gluing in the fingerboard dots and filling the alignment pin holes with epoxy and Ebony sawdust.


Here I am getting ready to glue on the neck. All this masking tape prep makes cleaning off the glue squeeze out as easy as peeling off the tape.


Here it is gluing. Before I have used just the one C-clamp and belt strap but this time it looked like it need more so I added the large F-clamp and held the whole thing in the vise.


Koa Soprano
12-26-2010, 05:21 PM
And finally glued on. (I took this photo after fretting)




Koa Soprano
12-26-2010, 05:22 PM
Sanding the fingerboard in preparation for fretting. It is completely flat. On guitars a radius is sanded into the fingerboard for more comfort while playing. Some ukuleles have a radiused board but not this time.


Here I am installing the frets. These are a gold colored "Gold-evo" fretwire. Typically a Nickel/Silver fretwire is used, and sometimes Stainless Steel. This fretwire is in between those two in hardness and ease of workability.

The frets are curved so that the ends can be hammered in first, then you work down the middle area. This brought back memories of how much I really HATE FRETTING.


I then use an old jig I made years ago to file the ends on the frets to about a 40 degree angle.


Next I ran a flat file across the frets to level them. Darkening them with marked allows me to see the low spots more easily. I also check with a straight edge.


Koa Soprano
12-26-2010, 05:23 PM
I then have to dress them at this point as due to some frets being high and therefor flatter, or wider on the top surface, they will cause the strings to not be intonated properly. The surrounding fingerboard surface is masked off and the sides of the fret filed until a small flat area remains on the top surface of the fret.


After that I moved to the bridge. Here is my design sketched out. The curve on the back is a radius from the center of the soundhole.


Thicknessing it with a blockplane. I lay a straight edge across the fingerboard at this point as it is done to check to see how high the bridge needs to be. I also take into account the saddle while doing this.


Here I am ATTEMPTING to cut the 3/32" wide saddle slot with a thin curfed saw. It looked like crap so I ended up making a second blank and at work using an industrial milling machine and 3/32" bullnose cutter. The slot is awesome, and I will use the first blank as a test piece for the next few steps.


Koa Soprano
12-26-2010, 05:24 PM
Here are the nicer slots. I wasn't happy about the bullnose feature at first (it's all I could find) but after thinking about it the thin front aprt of the bridge will be stronger not having a sharp corner to take the focus of the stress due to the saddle leaning on it.


Here I drilled the string hole through the back.


I then cut the string slots, which are on about a 45 degree angle to the back.


And here is the shape roughed out.


Koa Soprano
12-26-2010, 05:24 PM
I then had to widen each slot to fit the gauge of string. I initially adjusted each slot to fit each string but it then occured to me my nephew may be left handed so I made it ambidextrous.


The bridge still needs a profile on the top rear edge but I will do that once it is glued to the top as better clamping pressure will be achieved if it remains flat.


Koa Soprano
12-28-2010, 09:08 AM
Its great you were able to plane down to thickness, for those who don't have a thickness sander.

It's really not that difficult, with a good, properly setup plane and SHARP blade, that is. Using a large sanding block after evens out any funny-ness and my thickness across the boards can be only a few thousands difference.

12-28-2010, 07:25 PM
I like it when I saw no gap between the neck and the body after you glued them together.
How did you get such perfect fit?
Great work!!

12-29-2010, 04:38 PM
this thread is amazing! Thank you for all the effort!

Koa Soprano
12-29-2010, 07:57 PM
I like it when I saw no gap between the neck and the body after you glued them together.
How did you get such perfect fit?
Great work!!

Just the method I showed. Others use something similar.

It's nearly done, started finishing today.

Started the week with attaching the bridge. Once it's position was plotted I masked off the area around it so I could position it perfectly and clean up the glue easily. The magnets on either side are holding a clamping caul inside in position.


Here it is clamped with an F-clamp.


I then shaped the top of the bridge to a nice curve and sanded and buffed it.



Koa Soprano
12-29-2010, 07:57 PM
After that the finish sanding process begins. Here I am working on the body with the neck covered, I then switched this and did the neck. I started with 180 grit, then 280 grit, 400 grit and finally a fine grey abrasive pad to burnish the surfaces.



As well and sanding all the Ebony binding edges and the headstock edges round I added curves to the corners of the headstock profile.


Koa Soprano
12-29-2010, 07:58 PM
And finally ready for finishing. I am using a Polimerized Tung Oil for the finish, three coats. I have used this on a number of my instruments and it turns out very nice.


One coat so far, the other two will be tomorrow morning and evening, then Friday I should string it up.


12-30-2010, 03:50 AM
Beautiful design man. Simple and classy yet totally unique details on the headstock, fingerboard and bridge. It all really works well together. That will definitely get passed on to your nephew's kids someday
I love that laser cut headstock

12-30-2010, 08:28 AM
Nice blog & nice work. Thank you for posting.

12-30-2010, 11:42 AM
Gonna be a beautiful uke. Can't wait to hear it.

Koa Soprano
12-31-2010, 05:27 PM
Thankyou guys.

I didn't take any photos during setup but here are shots of what I did.

I started by installing the tuning machines. The bushings are first pressed into the front then the tuners are aligned and holes drilled and everything is screwed into place.


I then began work on the nut. The nut and saddle a cow bone, very hard and durable material for this purpose. Smells like crap however while sanding it. I again thought of my nephew being left handed so I made the nut slots ambidextrous just like the saddle. A new set of strings would simply be fitted in reverse to make the uke left handed.



Koa Soprano
12-31-2010, 05:28 PM
Before finishing the nut I began working on and finished the saddle. Fitting the bottom to the bullnose slot was harder than I though, but I think it looks cool, nice and curved like the rest of the bridge.



Koa Soprano
12-31-2010, 05:29 PM
Then it was time to string 'er up!


Koa Soprano
12-31-2010, 05:29 PM
Everything seems fine, strings are still stretching but it sounds great when I play the few chords I know. Tomorrow is the big delivery day.




Thanks for tuning it!

12-31-2010, 06:14 PM
That is a grate uke I hope you are have a good time strumming...

God Bless. and a happy new year!!!!

12-31-2010, 10:09 PM
Fantastic walk-through and write-up. I really am taken back by just how much work, time and precision it takes to build an instrument, It really is a labour of love. I'm sure your nephew will love it and what a great way to start the new year. Speaking of which, have a good one!

01-01-2011, 09:05 AM
That looks pretty awesome man! really appreciate the walk-through, VERY impressive. keep it coming

Koa Soprano
01-01-2011, 04:40 PM
Thanks guys. I delivered it tonight, here are a few shots. :cool:




01-01-2011, 06:56 PM
aw...cute pictures.
thanks for sharing.
Your nephew is so lucky..

01-01-2011, 07:16 PM
Something to really smile about. Great pictures. Beautiful uke and baby. Thanks for sharing it all with us.

01-01-2011, 10:20 PM
Thats a great looking Ukulele Koa Soprano, thanks for sharing the blog.
It's given me some kind of idea for how to do mine, and if my Ukes come out half
as good as yours I'll be well happy.

01-01-2011, 10:28 PM
So cute! Just curious, is http://www.makaioukuleles.blogspot.com/ your website? Cuz if it is..The ukes look really really awesome!

Koa Soprano
01-02-2011, 06:38 AM
So cute! Just curious, is http://www.makaioukuleles.blogspot.com/ your website? Cuz if it is..The ukes look really really awesome!

Thanks guys.

That is not my website but I did come across it in a search earlier when I came up with the headstock engraving idea. I figure because it's a one off it wont matter.

02-08-2011, 03:49 PM
Hi! Makaio..
I just reviewed the entire building blog again. Very nice work and journaling.

I noticed that the neck was simply glued to the body.
Do you think it is strong enough?

Koa Soprano
01-13-2013, 08:56 AM
That's how others appeared to be done, at least on sopranos, when I searched. I've also done at least for other ukes with a simple butt joint neck many years ago. Two years later and it is still fine.

01-13-2013, 09:55 AM
Really enjoyed this thread and the "punch line" - your nephew turns out to be smaller than the Uke and it'll be a while before he gets his fingers on his fine instrument. Still, I'm sure such a fine instrument will be around for him to give to one of his children one day.

Keep on building! :cool:

01-13-2013, 10:50 AM
This was fascinating. Thanks so much for sharing.