Building a soprano

Smallchewbacca

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Hello everyone. I’ve started on my first ukulele build and I’m going to use this thread to document it and share my progress.

Im a software engineer for my day job and an amateur woodworker. I have an open back banjo under my belt and I’m excited to build my first ukulele. Check it out below. It’s a piccolo banjo with an 8” rim made of walnut and rosewood. My goal with this build is to increase my overall precision and hopefully get something playable. I plan to move slow and spend a lot of time on jigs and fixtures with future builds in mind. Im also the father of a 2 year old girl, so time is hard to come by, but I try to get a few hours a week to move things forward.

I recently moved across the country and had to sell off my wood shop before the move. I’ve slowly been rebuilding my shop but it’s got a long way to go. I’ve been on Craigslist and Facebook marketplace non stop looking for used equipment. Most recently I saved a table saw from a cabinet shop that was closing down. It needed a lot of clean up, new arbor bearings, rust removal and squaring up the table and the fence.

For this first build I’m going with a soprano. I don’t want to splurge for nice tonewoods on this build so I’m using what I can find locally for cheap. I’ve sourced some poplar for the back and sides and some cedar for the top. I’m fine with the chance this wood combo sounds bad. That’s not really my goal for my first attempt.

I’ve made a few high level decisions already. I plan to build the body and neck separately and do a bolt on neck. I’m not sure if I will do a mortise and tenon in that joint or not. I may just go for a butt joint connection. I plan to add a rosette and at least front binding. It’ll have 12 frets to the body. And I’m thinking I want the strings to tie on under the sound board via a pass through bridge. Other than that I will figure it out as I go.

Please share your thoughts and feedback! I want to learn from everyone else’s experience as much as I can. Thanks for following along.
 

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Like I mentioned in my first post. I recently added a table saw to my shop. Here are some photos of before and after.

I think they must have had it sitting below a leaky roof or spilled something on it because the cast iron was pretty rusted. There was also some seriously questionable electrical work done to it. They had added two junction boxes for some unknown purpose that were powered by the on/off switch but had been cut since it was last used. They also wired it for 220v and had it directly wired to the wall. I don't have 220 in my garage so I had to convert to 110. I added a new power switch and majorly simplified the wiring. I also had to disassemble the blade raising mechanism to pull out the arbor and replace the bearings, the rust had locked those up as well. I took the opportunity while I had it flipped over to do some major cleanup and lubrication. I'm happy with how it cleaned up. And I don't regret buying one that required so much work to get up and running because it was a total steal. I live in a fairly humid climate and the garage where I'm setting up my shop has zero climate control. So all the cast iron surfaces of my tools are getting paste wax applied to slow the rust. It runs super well and quiet now.
 

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Improvements will be made iteratively (as you likely know ;)), and for that you need a quick feedback loop. Build, judge, change one variable, repeat. But unfortunately builds take a while unless you're building 40 hours a week. For us amateurs, it's probably more like 1 month to completion each. I found that keeping a journal is useful, so you can remember what to do and not do next time. The "next one" will usually be better.

Good call on the wood choices. Do you mean western red cedar, or the "aromatic" cedar? WRC sounds good, not sure about others though. Poplar is fine.

One last bit - just starting out you might want to consider a spanish-heel neck joint. It's not especially popular around here for some reason, but I personally think it's a fool-proof method to getting a good connection and everything lined up correctly. The Hana Lima Ia book in particular makes doing this joint crystal clear. Do you want you want though!
 
I have considered the spanish heel pretty seriously. I follow several builders who use that method and make amazing looking instruments. I recently saw a video from the Anuenue factory and they were using a spanish heel as well. I've been mentally planning this build for a while now and to be honest I've already forgotten the reason I opted to not do a spanish heel. I think I have some ideas for jigs to assist in the build that don't work if building on a solera. I'm not committed to anything yet, so I may change my mind along the way.
 
I remember now. I decided not to do a spanish heel because I would prefer to attach the top with the same kerfed lining as on the back instead of using the tentallones method for the top. This gets me a little bit more simplicity in the process.
 
The spanish heel can be troublesome during finishing and final sanding, due to that interior angle. For this reason, I've moved on to dovetail joints, so the neck and body can be finished separately. The same advantange is there with bolt on and butt joint. However, getting the neck angles (pitch and yaw), plus the "gap" between the neck and body are some things that make these joints trickier. Anyway - some other good advice I've received on this forum.... don't overthink it. Just do it.

(Also -you don't have to use tentallones for spanish heel - the lining type is not dependent on the type of neck joint.)
 
I build both ways, they each have their advantages but the spanish heal is definitely easier. The spanish heel makes binding the top harder though. I second what hoji says about linings, they all can be used on either method. For the spanish heel build I offer up the unlined sides on the top, mark where they meet the heel block and tail block and then glue the linings on as flush as possible on my bench. You then true them up using your sanding board.
 
Here are some things you might want to look at: a bracing plan for a soprano build and a free video series from StewMac. I've never watched the building series, but it is probably pretty good.


 
Just one small question for the OP: have you decided on some standard plans to build to/follow? If not then I think that you’d be wise to and wise to seek suggestions (of what plan) here too.
 
I’m cobbling together the plan from tons of online sources and the Graham McDonald book that was recently suggested to me in another thread.
 
I’m cobbling together the plan from tons of online sources and the Graham McDonald book that was recently suggested to me in another thread.
Fair enough, your decision, though it seems to me like a case of re-inventing the wheel. I’d be more inclined to go down a ‘well trodden path’ - road even - with known positive outcomes, but it’s a hobby activity and the outcome isn’t crucial so picking what pleases you is surely fine.
 
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I’m cobbling together the plan from tons of online sources and the Graham McDonald book that was recently suggested to me in another thread.
I've leaked some soprano plans by Scott Antes on this thread the might help. And I have the neck plan to go with it if you are interested.:)

 
Buying a drum sander is out of the budget. And the idea of thicknessing the top back and sides with a handplane is unappealing to me. So some internet research and a little time later I've come up with a simple DIY drum sander. This is about 1 month in the making.

I mentioned I'm a software engineer. Because of that experience and mindset, I would firmly fall into the CNC = good camp. If time and money allowed I'd already own one. What I do own though is a small-sized 3D printer and enough knowledge of CAD to get myself into trouble. I decided to fabricate the drum portion of the sander on the 3D printer. The rest is constructed of 3/4 inch plywood. I know that I could have also made the drum from plywood as others have done online, but this way I was able to get my little robot to make it for me while I was at my day job. The drum is rotated by a drill. In the video below Im using a small hand drill. For now this works but in practice, I plan to use a much larger drill I own and eventually buy a small used motor to set up as the dedicated power source for this.

I made the drum out of 4 interlocking sections that slide onto a 10mm rod. The drum is sized to accept a standard 9x11 sheet of sand paper so no trimming is needed. The paper gets locked into place by the screw-down channel running the length of the drum. It's all held in place with some additional fasteners I ordered online. The plastic parts are made using ABS plastic. This is the same plastic that Legos are made from I believe. It has a very high strength and temperature tolerance. Where all the connections to the plastic parts were needed I added heat-set threaded inserts. These are inserted with a heated tool, a soldering iron in my case, and become embedded in the plastic. If this construction is going to fail, it's at these locations, but the failure wouldn't be dangerous, the drum would simply begin to spin freely on the central rod.

The last step of this is to build an enclosure around the drum with a vacuum port. The dust is terrible.

I already have other ideas on how to incorporate the precision of the 3D printer and CAD tools into this project. For example, I've already created a fretboard slotting template (think stewmac template for a table saw sled) and bridge placement layout in my CAD software that I plan to send to a local CNC shop to have it cut into an acrylic template to use. I will happily share these files when they are completed. You can have these things cut for you at a fraction of the cost buying them from stewmac or elsewhere would.

Here is a short video of the sander in use.
 

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I said I wouldn’t be using any high quality wood for this first build. And that’s still the case. But I just scored a whole lot of mahogany for basically free. It’s an old table top that I was told was shipped to the US from the UK. Unsure of age or specific species but seems pretty nice.
 

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