View Full Version : How do you learn to make ukuleles? Do you just study guitar books??

11-04-2011, 01:03 PM
I have been trying to learn luthiering for the last year, by reading books on guitar making and trial and error. I came into the adventure with limited wood working knowledge. I am sure if I could spend time with other luthiers I would figure out how to sharpen my chisels better or get my plane cutting the pretty curls I see in the videos, or how to pipe bend well enough to have it actual make a symmetric uke.
I have learned a lot from the 4 ukes I have made so far. But, it seems like it would be easier to learn from someone versus re-inventing the wheel.
Are there luthiers for ukuleles that let people apprentice under them, and if so where are they located?

I know there are some awesome luthiers that read this site that I am amazed by their work and honored to post on a place they might read. I guess, I am trying to figure out how get to the point where I can make ukes I am proud of, that play responsively with good volume, and that can sell for a profit versus the cost of materials.

Speaking of which do you resaw all your own wood, or do you buy materials for guitars have lots of extra material? I need to figure out how to reduce my costs for materials.

Sorry for rambling

11-04-2011, 03:17 PM
I can only tell you how I have learned so far with #12 in progress: this forum, You Tube, frets.com, Hana Lima manual, Cupiano bible, etc. But most of all just getting busy with building. Lots of mistakes along the way, each one an education. I resaw some of my own wood from billets bought from ebay, but I found my best deals on guitar cutoffs from the tonewood suppliers at the Woodstock Luthiers Showcase (http://www.woodstockinvitational.com/), held in the historic Bearsville Theater (Dylan, the Band) about 1.5 hours from where I live in New York State.

Pete Howlett
11-04-2011, 09:50 PM
I went to college and learnt some rudiments there then after 18 years trying to figure out what made me happy I started building guitars and one day at the Arlington Guitar Show in Texas 1994 I saw the light. I then embarked upon a journey of building as many ukulele as I could possibly have a go at...

For me, an autodidact, reading everything and believing nothing, doing and doing again and again and agian was and still is the only way to learn. Noone showed me how to make a ukulele. I measured a tenor Kamaka and went from there.

Many kind people have praised my videos and my work and this has been very encouraging- however I am still revisiting my processes, rebuilding my tools and watching my fair share of other builders' videos on YouTube.

Working with a luthier will help; so will reading all those misinformed and dreadful guitar making books that you get from your local library for the hidden 'gems' in them - do not waste your money on buying them. My advice - YouTube! It's free and there is nowhere to hide when you are doing a demo. You get a good idea of the sincerety and skill of the builder and you learn very quickly that there is a hundred ways of doing the same thing.

Look at other makers work and be inspired. Bottom line - continue doing and after 100 or so you may start to realise there is more to this than meets the eye :) Keep on truckin'...

11-05-2011, 02:57 AM
First thing I did was have a good look at one, to see what it was made of.. how it was put together..what the sizes were etc:... then I obtained a copy of the "Scott Antes Martin ukulele plans".. And I built one from reclaimed material with dovetail neck joint and all...That was almost four years ago..I still have it on the wall ..it's not up to the standard of my latest builds..but it plays and sounds ok but not very loud co's i made the top and back too thick....Here is a link to the thread I posted about the build back in 2008. http://ukulelecosmos.com/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=9&t=6839&p=77484#p77484

Rick Turner
11-05-2011, 06:17 AM
Get your hands on as many good ukes as possible and study them.

I'd been a guitar maker for over 40 years before I started making ukes, and I was fortunate in having a friend, "Ukulele Dick", who has over 250 ukes and a wealth of knowledge. I was able to look at a whole lot of instruments, assess how what I already knew might adapt to them, and then it was "off to the races".

The basic skills are all there in the guitar making books. Just don't overbuild. You won't believe how thin tops, backs, and sides are on guitars. They're too thick for ukes!

Allen in Australia, and I here in the Bay Area both teach a quickie "Build a Uke in Four Days" course, so that's another way to slide into it.

And yes, I resaw a lot of my own wood, and a friend just brought me a stack of large quarter log sections of a black acacia tree that came down here in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It's the same species as Tasmanian Blackwood, Acacia melanoxylon, the trees having been introduced into California in the 1800s. This was a big tree, about 36" in diameter. The quarter faces are 18" across, and while there isn't any flame figure, the color and straight grain is just beautiful. I'm going to start cutting this weekend. I'll have nine or ten billets to work with, and I'm going to get dozens and dozens of guitars and ukes out of this stuff. I do have a pretty major horizontal band resaw, a Baker AX that can do a nearly 14" cut.

11-05-2011, 07:52 AM
I took a class from a local builder. Before I went, I studied woodworking books to get some basics on the tools and techniques. I never intended to keep building after the class - I intended to build my own only.

While taking the class, I went through Cumpiano's book, and since have read the other `ukulele books out there, which Mike Chock's is probably the only one worth anything (except I don't do classical necks, yet). David Hurd's, well, that's another story. The `Ukulele Guild of Hawaii is good, but I think once I started finding peers like Paul and Joe, as well as doing what Rick did (study other `ukulele), that's when I moved from Blue Belt to Green Belt.

I was fortunate that I have a Hot Rod background, so I was already walking when I started finishing. I crawled through my Tru-Oil phase, but when right into spraying with #4.

Most of my initial profit went into tools for the shop, and now I start from lumber. Inlay was an entirely different skill set to learn. I cannot put a price tag on the 45-minute conversation with Larry Robinson in person, one on one. Engraving the Inlay was another entirely different skill set to learn - Laskin's book helped a lot.

One of the neatest part is the jigs. I love that my clamps are hand made.

BTW, I'm still learning -I'm only a decade into `ukulele building so I have a ways to go.


11-05-2011, 10:57 AM
25 years in the cabinet making trade helped. And that was in a number of different environments because I have a tendency to rub people the wrong way, especially bosses! ;) After a few years doing other things I found myself pretty much crocked medically and had a couple of years on my BTM doing nothing. Fixed a couple of guitars for folk who said they were unfixable and went from there. Still haven't read a book or plan, but have watched a few vids on U-tube.
Cutting my own timber by talking nicely to a couple of local Tree Surgeons and using machinery belonging to a firm I used work with 30 years ago. (They still remembered me!)

11-05-2011, 11:29 AM
Your already on the right track by getting out in the shed and putting glue to wood. There's nothing like experience as a teaching aid. I see far too many people agonise over making them "the best instrument ever" right off the bat, and never actually getting anywhere. Continue to do this. Be critical of your work. Don't get discouraged by mistakes. Learn how to fix them. And try to work out why they happened and determine a way to eliminate the possibility of them happening again.

Read and study all that you can. As the others said, there are heaps of ways of doing the same thing, and you'll change the way you do some things as you go along and realise that there is a better method suited to your billing style.

Ask lot's of questions on forums like this one. There is a huge amount of very talented people that frequent this forum and others like the ANZLF that are only too happy to help out.

There are quick courses out there that will teach you some of the basics. Rick and I do a similar course but mine is a bit of long way for you to go unless you want to have a brilliant tropical holiday in Cairns next July. I also take students on in small numbers for intensive scratch builds, but these are really only suited to someone that is local or going to be around for a while, as it just doesn't happen in a week.

Pete does courses but again a bit of a trip for you to Wales.

I do both in sourcing wood. I've got a really big stock pile of both guitar and ukulele wood, plus always have an eye open for raw material that I can resaw. I'm rather fortunate in that living in Australia there are countless species here that are suitable candidates for tone wood. We do suffer from a non existent supply of Spruce though, so that has to be imported.

If you don't build all that much, processing your own wood isn't much of a savings, as the time, effort and waste not to mention the machinery required to do a good job can quickly take the shine off of what seemed like a good idea.

The one advantage of ukuleles though is that you can often find suitable pieces in the firewood pile. Don't discount local woods. Almost everywhere that a tree will grow will have a wood that you can make a uke out of.

11-05-2011, 12:55 PM
In the end there's no substitute for trial and error. Building a musical instrument is not a matter of following a recipe and getting the desired results - it's much more about learning your piece of wood as you work with it, and persuading it into becoming part of the instrument. As an example, there are regular threads askng how thick the top/back/sides should be, and the considered answer of all the experts is "It depends ..." (I'm not at all an expert, but it's my answer too).

Until you've tried, failed, and worked out why and how you failed, I don't think you can make progress. When I carved my first uke neck I watched (many times) a Pete Howlett video called something like "Three minute neck carve" (I think Pete has since removed it). I followed it carefully and ended up with a square neck with the corners rounded over. A dozen necks later, I now manage something more like what Pete showed in the video, though vastly slower and still nowhere near as accurate. I needed the experience of making misshapen necks to enable me to understand Pete's explanation of how to make a shapely one.

So keep reading the books, watching YouTube videos, reading posts here and in other fora. They will all give you ideas which you can try out, fail at, and learn from.

Allen writes about your building (or possibly billing) style. Around no. 10 I began to get some idea of which techniques feel right for me, and which are not worth attempting given the way I like to work. At some far distant point (no. 50?) I might actually have a style that's mine. That will be a composite of the things I've learnt which work, the kind of uke I want to build, and the working methods I enjoy (and negatively, the absence of those I don't). This inevitably can come only from carrying on building.

From my naive, hobby builder perspective it seems to me there are three targets when building: 1 Sound; 2 Playability; and 3 Appearance. I struck lucky on sound with my first build, wobbled a bit on the next few, and then found it again. Playability I'm still working on - I think I'm consistently "adequate" now, though always with quirks which the player would have to work round. This is what I currently work on. Appearance is low on my list because I'm not making ukes for sale - if anyone receives one as a present they'd damned well better smile and ignore the blobby finish and the sanding marks. Of course, if I were selling I might need to make appearance my priority.

Probably none of this is useful except the first sentence.

Moore Bettah Ukuleles
11-05-2011, 01:52 PM
I see learning to build split up into at least two distinct phases. It seems that the first few years are spent learning the craft of building. That is, learning the limits of your tools, your skills and your materials. During this time you will be making a lot of (what Rick likes to call) Ukulele Like Objects. If you are pursuing this as a career I usually recommend that during this period that you not attempt to sell any thing. Feel comfortable cutting 'em up, giving them away, learning through your mistakes. You'll appreciate that advice ten years from now.
After you've become proficient with the craft, your joints are tight, your work is clean, your ukes don't fall apart, and you still have most of your digits, then comes the art of building. If you are paying attention, this phase usually lasts a life time. You've become comfortable with making pretty boxes and may even have gotten bored doing so. The fun begins when you study the dynamics of what you are trying to accomplish. If you have any free time at all it is spent combing the Internet looking for tiny clues that might apply to whatever you're working on at the moment. Or, you may even ignore what others are doing preferring to try things on your own. You stop copying other people's work because it no longer impresses you like it used to. One day people will stop commenting on how pretty your instruments look and will instead be impressed with the sound. That kind of feed back encourages you to pursue the tonal aspects even further. You realize you are traveling down a one way road where nothing but building a better instrument is important. Before you know it, you've ignored the lawn, your bills, your health, your friends and most of your responsibilities. Congratulations, you've given your life over to lutherie!
I'm still hoping my kids find real jobs.

11-05-2011, 02:17 PM
I'm learning from a friend who has years of experience building guitars. He's learning from me that an ukulele isn't a small guitar. I'm making mistakes. He's helping me fix them. We're both assessing the results and making decisions about how to make the next one better. It's a fantastic way to learn if you can find someone to mentor you.

While I've also read a few books, apart from my friend, I've learned the most from the contributors to this forum. Since they have responded to this thread and I know they are reading it, I can take this opportunity to thank them, again. Thanks.

11-05-2011, 07:42 PM
Enjoy! building music is an honor! Keep it simple....
Learning form a master will save you years of error, if you have the chance take it!

11-06-2011, 04:57 AM
Thank you all so much, it is overwhelming to see the number of replies. I am also honored by seeing some of the names of the builders who took the time to reply. I have seen some your work and it is amazing and hopefully in a decade or two I will be able to make work of that cleanness.
I have been trying to watch the youtube videos like Pete suggested, in fact most of the time it has been Pete lately. I love the sound of some of your instruments that were made out of nontraditional ukulele wood, like your yewkulele was awesome.
And Chuck I am always in awe of the cleanness of your work, and the detail you can do in your inlays. I have seen most of the reviews of your work that was posted on youtube, and the sound and appearance are amazing. Oh, and I wish I didn't have to try and sell my ukes as I am learning to build, but I need to be able to buy the supplies to make new ones, and the extra goes to getting more tools. So, I don't expect to live off of it, that won't be for a long time if ever, I just need to be able to support my hobby.
Thanks again for every one that posted, I am just sorry that I do not know all of you yet, but I will definitely take the time to view all your hyperlinks to your websites later.

11-06-2011, 10:42 AM
Lots of good advice here. The one thing I would add is if you are serious about this, Join the GAL, buy a couple GAL Red Books and if at all possible, attend the GAL conventions.


11-06-2011, 01:36 PM
Thanks Brad. I joined GAL this last year. I was unable to attend the convention this summer, but I hope to be able to go next year. But, yeah, I have loved receiving their quarterly magazine.

Moore Bettah Ukuleles
11-06-2011, 01:48 PM
Lots of good advice here. The one thing I would add is if you are serious about this, Join the GAL, buy a couple GAL Red Books and if at all possible, attend the GAL conventions.


Agreed. The red Books are a gold mine of information and worth every penny.

11-06-2011, 04:31 PM
The last two GAL conventions were in 2008 and 2011. The next one will probably be in 2013. If you attend, be prepared to buy wood.