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Building a ukulele is a fun little project that can give you a little taste of being a Luthier or it can just be a fun DIY project. It makes an excellent project for a parent and a child as it will create a lasting memory of the process as well as a finished heirloom that will last for a lifetime.
You can certainly buy a ukulele already built for the same price but you’ll just end up with a commercial, cookie-cutter instrument that has no character or story behind it. Not that there is anything wrong with doing this but building your own just gives you a sense of accomplishment and gives more meaning to the instrument in the end.
You can personalize it and create something unique that is high-quality and looks exactly how you want it to look. First, you’ll need to purchase a ukulele kit. In this article, I’d like to share my experience of purchasing a StewMac ukulele kit and the exact steps and roadblocks I ran into during the building process.
Choosing a Kit
StewMac makes ukulele kits that are among the best on the market. These kits feature all solid wood parts except for the sides and back of the body. They also offer kits in all sizes of ukuleles including soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone. The only choice you need to make is which one to go with.
For this review, I have chosen a Tenor kit from StewMac as this is my favorite size. The concert and soprano are a little too small for my taste and the baritone is a bit bulky. The tenor provides the perfect sized instrument that’s easy to play for most adults.
I ordered the tenor kit from StewMac and as always, they delivered in only a couple of days. Their delivery times are super fast in my experience.
The kit comes with everything you’ll need except for a few tools and finishing products.
All parts that came with my kit were in great condition and the body pieces matched well. I have read a few reviews of people getting some damaged parts. This is bound to happen from time to time but StewMac will take care of this if anything is wrong with your kit. Fortunately, everything was perfect with my kit and I could begin the fun assembly of it.
The instructions are included and you can also watch their series on Youtube for building and finishing the ukulele. Even the most novice person can follow along and accomplish this project.
Below, I will lay out some of the steps I took to get through the build. These are the main steps but don’t include everything I did. There are some things that are just self-explanatory and no need to make mention of. My hope is that you’ll see how simple it is to end up with an awesome little ukulele!
Step 1 – Installing Body Bracing
This is probably the easiest part of the entire build which is good because it lets you ease into the process. The bracing went on perfectly except for one little hiccup. The bracing for the bridge was not large enough to fit correctly. I’m not sure if this is how it was meant to be or I just got a piece of bracing that was too small.
Either way, it didn’t matter. Being the DIY guy that I am, I created another piece to do the trick. To create this, I used a paint stirring stick and chopped a piece off of it, shaped it exactly as needed so it would fit perfectly.
I glued the bracing in and clamped each one using squeeze clamps and clothespins. I have a ton of squeeze clamps so I used them quite a bit during my entire build. Once the bracings were all installed, I let it dry overnight, and then I continued onto the next part of creating the body mold.
Step 2 – Building Mold & Assembling Ukulele Body Sides
The mold that StewMac has you building is very useful. Not only is it needed to put the body together but it comes in handy at other times throughout the build as well. The mold is simple to put together and once that is done, you can begin assembling the side pieces of the ukulele.
The sides are a little challenging to fit together perfectly. You’ll need to make sure everything is square and level and butted tightly against each other before applying any glue. It’s good to do a lot of testing with dry runs before committing to any glue.
Just follow the instructions and you’ll have no problems. They have done a great job at walking you through the process.
Step 3 – Installing Body Linings
The linings of the sides are installed after the sides are glued together. I tried to make use of everything that the instructions call for which was clothespins and rubber bands for this particular step. These were simple to install and only required some glue and to be held in place with the clothespins overnight.
Step 4 – Assembling Body
I used a different solution for applying pressure on the top and bottom of the body while gluing. I didn’t care for the big green rubber bands for this step. I tried to use them but found that they made the body move a little as I was trying to get the rubber bands in place. Instead, I used a different method for applying pressure.
It’s probably not the best solution but I used about 30 lbs of dumbbells and a large book to help distribute the weight. This gave me a lot of pressure holding the wood together and closed a few gaps that the rubber bands couldn’t handle. I left it like this overnight and felt comfortable with the amount of pressure on it.
Fortunately, everything worked out great with this and the top and back were securely held into place. At this point, you’re left with a very rough ukulele that has an overhang that you’ll have to sand off. I used an Exacto knife rather than a router because I didn’t have a good router solution. The knife method worked fine but be sure to go slowly and follow the instructions on doing this. You will damage the wood if you try to go in a direction opposite from what they suggest.
Once the body was done, I rough-sanded as I did numerous times throughout the build. I took my time with this in order to get the edges rounded and smooth as I wanted them.
Step 5 – Installing Frets in the Fretboard
I found the frets easier to install with a squeeze clamp and a solid piece of wood. Rather than tapping them in with a hammer, I placed the fret into the groove and then pressed the fret into the groove with the clamp and wood. I found that I was able to get even compression doing this and it seated the fret in much better. I tried the hammering method at first and was unable to achieve this uniform tightness across the fretboard.
This method worked great for me and I used it on all the frets. It was a makeshift fret press that worked great.
I never used super glue under the frets but I did use a little wood glue for this. I realize that wood glue is not going to hold metal frets but I hoped that the wood glue would dry around the fret material making it more difficult for them to pop out. I haven’t had any issues with it yet after finishing the ukulele and playing it for a while now. It all seems tight to me.
Once all the frets were installed and dried after a few days, I worked on sanding the fret overhang. I used a file at first but once the frets were close to flush with the fretboard, I moved on to using coarse sandpaper. It took a while to get them all flush and I continued sanding even more with finer sandpaper once they were flush.
I also used a file to angle the ends of the frets and then sanded once again with fine sandpaper to make it all smooth.
Step 6 – Attaching Fretboard to Neck
When attaching the fretboard to the neck, I did not use the rubber band that came with the kit. Instead, I used my trusty ole squeeze clamps along with a few flat pieces of wood to give consistent pressure down the neck.
Everything that I glued together like this, I let dry at least overnight. Even the body that was assembled earlier was allowed to dry for a week or more before I continued. I took my time with this kit. I wasn’t just interested in getting it knocked out as soon as possible. I wanted to have fun with it and create something that I would truly be proud of.
Once everything was glued together and allowed to dry for a few days, I sanded everything smoothly as the instructions tell you to do.
There comes a point in the process when you need to locate the bridge location and center it. I found this part difficult to do before the neck was glued on. Instead, I worked on getting my neck centered and attached to the body first.
Step 7 – Attaching Neck to Body
This was a nerve-racking step because it required drilling holes into the body of the ukulele. Getting this part exact is crucial because once you drill holes, you can’t go back. I measured numerous times to make sure I was correct before drilling. I finally bit the bullet and drilled and fortunately, they came out perfectly where they needed to be.
In my opinion, it’s easier to determine where the bridge needs to go after the neck is glued on. You are able to work with a neck and fretboard that are set permanently now. This worked best for me but your results may vary. It’s best to follow the instructions from StewMac unless you are sure you have a better way of doing it. I’m only sharing what worked for me.
Since I wasn’t planning on staining my ukulele, I put it all together before finishing it. After the neck was glued on, I used a little Filla-In-A-Bag wood filler to fill in the tiny gap. I used a mixture of Mahogany and Natural to create a closely matched color.
The last thing I did before finishing it was to add a logo onto the headstock. For this, I wanted a silhouette of my dog that I created. I built this ukulele in honor of her and as a memento for her life. She is a senior dog and I wanted to honor her life and how much she has meant to me. With this ukulele, I will always have a memento to remind me how much she means to me.
She’ll live on forever in the music I play with it and I’ll see her silhouette each time I pick it up to strum it.
I achieved this by creating a silhouette from a photo in Photoshop. I then made a PNG file from that and then used a Cricut to cut it out on sticker paper. Once cut out, I stuck it to the headstock and used it as a stencil in which I painted it using darker brown acrylic paint.
Step 8 – Finishing with Polyurethane
I used the wipe-on polyurethane offered by StewMac and proceeded to wipe it on in hopes of getting a nice glossy finish. I used a small bristled brush rather than what they suggest in their instructions. In the end, I ended up putting six coats on and sanded lightly after the first three coats so it would be smooth.
In the end, the finish was very smooth but not like an instrument that comes from a factory. I also own a Kala ukulele and it has an extremely glossy finish on it. However, I prefer the finish on my StewMac ukulele because it doesn’t look like a cuttle-cutter, assembly line instrument. Mine looks handmade like a well-crafted instrument should.
I let the finish completely dry and cure for about two weeks before touching it again. You don’t need to wait this long but I had other things going on and just set it aside until I was ready to work on it again. Once it was dry, I had one final nerve-wracking thing to do; install the bridge.
Step 9 – Installing Bridge
I already had this marked off with tape but I was scared to mess up the finish with tape or glue or end up gluing the bridge on crooked. In the end, this went as planned with no issues. I built a custom caul like the instructions call for and used a Kregg clamp to clamp it down tightly.
I made a few dry runs to make sure it would end up straight before gluing it. Once glued, I waited a few days before unclamping it. Again, this amount of wait time is unnecessary but it’s how I roll.
Step 10 – Installing Geared Tuners
I didn’t use the chrome tuners that came with the kit. Instead, I used Grover open-gear tuners. I wanted this ukulele to have more character than just the standard chrome tuners and open geared tuners are a great way to achieve this. If you go this route, you’ll also need some 10.5mm Round Conversion Bushings to complete the installation. The holes drilled in the headstock are designed for the chrome tuners and are too large for the vintage open-geared tuners.
Once installed, the only thing left to do was install the nut and strings. Having a finished ukulele after all that work was so satisfying!
In my opinion, this ukulele kit build was well worth it. I ended up with a ukulele that looks great but not only that, it sounds great! It sounds better than the Kala I have and I see it as an instrument that will be in my family for many years to come. With the meaning behind this ukulele and the personal touch of my best friend’s silhouette being on the headstock, this build means more to me than just having a standard ukulele. The only thing I would like to see different is the entire ukulele being solid wood.
This StewMac kit was impressive! For the price, it would be hard to find anything comparable. I haven’t seen any other kits on the market that has a similar quality to this. It was a fun project and I was sad when it all ended. I was anxious to end up with a working ukulele but was sad when the project was over.
I enjoyed working on this and it was fun from start to finish. I had no major issues along the way. If you take your time and follow instructions, it should be no problem for you to piece together an heirloom that can be handed down and played on for many years to come.