Using CNC To Build Ukuleles - Good or Bad?


Well-known member
Oct 22, 2014
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Little River, California
I don't mean to start an argument here, but am curious about how ukulele builders feel about using CNC ( maybe CAD/CAM/CNC is better- I don't know that much about the nuts and bolt of these things). I do not use it myself, but I'm thinking about it. I can see how it might be useful for a large production shop. For the smaller shop maybe not so much. I also see the utility of producing parts that are reproducible and of extremely fine tolerances. For instance, I have struggled over the years making the perfect neck block with the perfect radius at a perfect 90 degrees. Inevitably the blocks turn out as small works of art taking way too much time to produce. I could definitely see using CNC tools to get the perfect neck and tail blocks over and over. All this takes valuable time and time is money in a lutherie shop. It is your labor you getting paid for in the end. Also your craftmanship.

Where I begin to have a problem with it is with inlay. To me inlay is an art in itself and not just shell or wood and just flipping a switch seems... I don't know, cheating perhaps? It always looks too perfect to me and inlay done with CNC is always too much inlay to my eye. Over the top inlay? Or maybe using CNC is also an artform.

I know a number of posters here use it to produce their ukuleles and this thread is not meant to denigrate them. They produce some absolutely gorgeous instruments that sound great. Maybe it is just another tool to use in the shop just like bandsaws and routers?

1. pocket slots for frets
2. logo inlay

Except for these uses, I prefer to handcraft my instruments.
Really nice, clean looking instruments. I think if you really want to look like a pro, CNC might be the way to go. Also, you have not overdone it with the inlay. By the way, I was not aware that MOP is a regulated substance in certain countries. Abalone maybe, but not MOP. Live and learn.
As a buyer I am fine with CNC, if it helps improve quality and reliability so be it. Some folks use CNC to add a ton of bling and then charge more than what folks doing only hand made bling charge, some folks might like that, no right or wrong here but I am not into that.
To my mind CNC is just an additional tool that the builder has at his or her command, it is how the tool can be and is used that matters. There’s doubtless a lot of automation goes into the mass manufacture of Ukuleles and I’m fine with that: it’s part of what makes the product affordable and I can only play Uke because it Is affordable. However, with automation the crafts-person becomes distanced from the material that’s being worked and so (compared to traditional hand tools) becomes less or even unable to learn from and react to variances/features/defects within it.

Overall I think the pluses of CNC outweigh the minuses and particularly so when it’s used in ways that enable the builder to produce ‘better’ work at more affordable prices. What is ‘better’ work? That’s such a broad term but say: more accurate, more highly finished, more detailed, un-constrained by manufacturing processes and more thoughtfully designed for optimal performance. Traditional tools have their place and strengths, they are the foundation of skills but not the limit of them.
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Jigs and fixtures are just as accurate and much faster to use, I can make dozens of accurate dovetail neck blocks or bridges with in an hour with jigs and standard machinery ....CNC is OK for making Jigs and fixtures and templates , same with 3D printing...CNC is OK for fancy inlay and odd shaped soundholes tho' :)
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As someone who has built using hand tools, power tools and now CNC technology I think I can say, or rather ask, 'Why, when the topic of using CNC to manufacture musical instruments is neck carving ALWAYS mentioned?" It is the most redundant way to shape a neck; neck carving can be done quickly and easily with hand tools. The other trope is the 'stifling' of creativity when considering 'inaly work'. Inlay work must be defined because for me, I do 'inlay work' on my fingerboards and head plates, I don't do 'art work'... Chuck, Larry, Carl, the superstar set when it comes to putting images on instruments do not want the formality of a machine to neutralise the spontaneity of their work. I want my 'formal' and 'stylised' inlay work to give homage the the work of the 20's and 30's that graced many a banjo... It took me a week to draw and program the vine inlay I use on my fingerboards and one hour to cut, inlay and slot the fingerboard. The result is spectacular but it is different to art on a uke!

RTLK 5 UU.jpg

Simply arguing that 'hand made' is somehow better than 'machine assisted' really misses the point. Without hand skills and a thorough knowledge of the design and construction of the ukulele and bench tools used to make it you will never be able to harness 21st century technology to its full advantage. While I am hand sanding my bodies and necks, my CNC router is cutting 6 fretboards with pocket frets and 6 very complicated inlay pockets that could not be done using a chisel and scalpel or dremel and scalpel. I can make bending forms to to enable precise fits of sides into forms without the use of windlass cauls. My CNC router makes short and very accurate work of symmetrical flat headstocks with accurately positioned tuner holes and the ubiquitous slotted head stock takes just 3 minutes to profile machine prior to the 30 minutes it will take to integrate this for it the entire process of neck making, It's use and usefulness is thoroughly embedded in my workshop practice and I have yet t have someone say, "...and I want it all done by hand please."

Inlay UU.jpg

After 4 years using a CNC router I cannot recommend highly enough getting a 4060 machine for ukulele making. The skill is knowing when to use it. Like all forms of making, Artisans like myself, Craftsmen like Beau Hannam, Engineers like Ken and all you gifted amateurs will know that you use the best tools most suited to your skill set and the job in hand.
I have two vintage ukes, one luthier made uke, and a high end guitar with hand carved necks, as well as three guitars and two ukes where I assume the necks were machine made. I find the hand carved necks much more comfortable to play, though I really can't tell why. Though all these instruments have very different neck shapes and sizes too, so the hand carved characteristic may be spurious.
I think what sometimes gets missed in these discussions is what the purpose of building ukuleles is in the first place. Namely to build an instrument that makes good sounding music while being easy to play and sturdy enough to hold up over time. Everything else is just adornment. If using CNC helps make a better sounding instrument than it is a valuable tool. If one makes a beautiful looking instrument by only using hand tools and it sounds like crap, what was the point? Same goes for a CNC made instrument.
The CNC is good for making it easier for the builder to do certain things and to save time, which should mean lower costs to the builder. I wonder how much of the savings are passed on to the buyer. I have yet to see an instrument go down in price.
No, it is not a lower cost to the builder! Where on earth do you get that idea? Typically, builders are lucky if they get $25 an hour for their work while the mechanic, handyman even can charge $100 an hour. All the CNC does is allow you to more readily take a living wage from your business.. Not everyone is like me building 4 - 6 instruments a month - 4 of those instruments pay my costs, the other 2 are my 'profit'. It takes a long time to get ROI with CNC which is why I am trying to develop a course that offers a way to purchase and get going with this technology in the small maker's workshop.
I got that idea when I went to the Schimmel piano factory in Braunschweig, Germany and the production manager told me that was why they bought the CNC.
In case there is any doubt, Pete knows what he is talking about. Consider the possibility that a piano factory with a staff of employees and higher production numbers might present a very different situation as compared to an artisanal craftsman. The idea that costly CNC hardware and software should lead to lower prices may hold water for a piano factory but it certainly doesn't for me. I use the CNC to do a few things with a higher quality result, but at considerable cost to get into the game and not necessarily much, if any, time savings. And the costs don't stop once the machine is sitting on the bench. A top quality bit for cutting clean fret slots is a "consumable" and can cost as much as a conventional fret saw that lasts much longer. You may be correct that an instrument built in an automated Asian factory can be built for less so you should be able to buy it for less but that has nothing to do with the question that "sequoia" asked in the context of his carefully handcrafted instruments.
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As a hobbyist, I've used a cheap desktop CNC to do a few things like cut peghead routing templates, wood inlay pieces, and bridges. It did some of those things with more precision than my meager skills are capable of producing, especially cutting saddle slots. As I build ukes to satisfy my own desire to create and with no need to generate an income from doing so, I don't begrudge the extra time setting up the machine. There are many other steps I still complete with hand tools or more conventional power tools.
And I am not defending a position... this is a FORUM where people can express their views without upsetting anyone because it's THEIR view. What I have learned works for me. Just don't dismiss something out of hand or repeat the tropes that are clearly not my and many professionals' experience and have an open mind to change.
Sound hole on my lute a lele was done by a computer. Not sure it that qualifies for CNC or not. There is something about a hand crafted instrument that is special. Technology is always going to try craftsmanship aside, but I don't think it ever will.
I love CNC's and lasers. I don't have either or use them, and doubt that I ever will, but everyone and their cousin is getting them here in hawaii. That has created a great way for me to make good money from wood offcuts that I previously could not use. These new computer tool owners, if they are working with wood, have no way to resaw or sand to specs for their machines. I get several requests for those services a month. If I accumulate some extra offcuts, I can also market it on Craig's list. Easy, mindless, lucrative $ to mix in with the more intense not so lucrative luthier work.
The way I see the handwork vs. CNC use in craftwork is this. If it matters to the craftsman or consumer, then it matters. Outside of that relationship, it does not matter what the rest of us think. I personally much prefer high quality handwork, for no particular reason that can be supported rationally!
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I had no idea that CNC would even be an option for a small shop. When I toured bigger bigger factories they gave me the impression that CNC is a big investment that also needs ongoing technical and programming support and maintenance. And their machines were doing about four necks at a time with several batches per day. I think it is a great option for some jobs even in small shops, if there are small affordable machines and the skill to operate them can be learned in reasonable time. My local luthier won't consider it at all.