Continuing Education Blog
In Fall 2013 Continuing Education offered for the first time a course in building a Ukulele. Taught by BFA instructor and avid ukulele builder Frank Irby, the each student in the class builds an instrument starting from a set of koa wood. Luthier Max Sipe co-teaches and brings a wealth of professional experience to the classroom. The course itself was designed to not only enable students to build a ukulele but it teaches woodworking and wood-finished techniques that can translate to other projects. I documented the Fall 2013 course on the Continuing Education blog. Thursday, October 3 was the first class of Ukulele building. After quick introductions and getting to meet the Instructor, Frank Irby, and Teaching Assistant Max Sipe, we got down to the business of ukes. Frank and Max showed us their own handcrafted ukes and Max's handmade inlays. There are four sizes of ukuleles that are common: soprano (standard), concert, tenor, and baritone. In this class we will be building a tenor uke. Frank brought ukuleles of of all the sizes to see, hear and feel the differences. We talked about what made good instrument wood, including where it comes from, what makes the rings tighter and how the wood selected and harvested. Our ukuleles are being constructed out of Koa wood for the soundboard and body, mahogany for the necks and rosewood for the fret boards. We talked about how bracing effects sound, how we can create the best sounding uke and what you can do to add some personal style to your creation. After learning about the power and hand tools we are going to use for the class (and the safety demo) we chose our bundles of body wood. They was an incredible variety in the looks of the bundles of koa, from reddish, marbled looking pieces to rich yellow. We went over bookmatching and laid out our pieces for our soundboards and backs, finding the best looking combination and headed back to the shop to plane down our pieces to 3mm. Next class we start cutting out the body and moving forward. Week 2
Blogging a CE class-second class of Ukulele Building
We arrived to class on Thursday ready to do some joining and bending. Half of the class started on cutting, measuring and bending the sides of our Ukes while the half began working joining the soundboards and the backs together.
Last week we found the best book-matched combinations and moving from there we first ran the edges of our boards through the planer to get them as evenly matched as the machine allowed. Next we used the sandpaper levels to get the sides perfectly straight.
After much testing and re-sanding it was time to move on to gluing the two pieces together. For the class we are using super glue and an activator to make it harden and dry quickly. The two pieces are laid out, roped together and glued.
Bending the sides
Moving on the sides, we measured and using the table saw, cut the sides to the proper shape. This involved clamping the sides to the a guide board to ensure the angle was true.
Now the nerve-wracking bit, bending sides to shape. The first part of this process was laying the heating blanket on the side bender (built by Frank) and the wet wood on top of that. While the wood heated and the molds were pressed slowly in to place we sprayed the wood down with water. When we got the wood clamped down completely it was left on the heat for 10 minutes.
Following ten minutes of heating and spraying with water, the sides were transferred into the molds to sit overnight and have their shape for good.
Next class we move on to cutting the soundboard and backs out.Week 3
Class three focused on three parts of the construction-the decorative rosette, cutting the soundboard and back out, and adding the head and tail blocks to the sides of body.
The class began the process of adding the rosettes by tracing the finished shape on to the soundboard and finding the center of the sound-hole and measuring out where our rosettes would be. Choosing from scrap strips of wood, plastic and paper we sorted out what would make up the rosettes and measured that thickness. Max got the drill press with his circular cuter set up with the blades of the cutter matching the thickness of rosettes.
Now the materials were laid into the groove and glued into place. Followed by a run through the drum sander to smooth everything out and the back and soundboard cut into shape.
Tail and Head Block
The sides were placed back into the mold, measured and trimmed so that they lined up exactly. Each of the blocks was sanded to match the curve of the bottom or top and epoxied into place. While this was the step that required the least direction, the exacting nature of the fits made it more time consuming than expected. It was great to see the ukulele starting to take shape and gave us even more incentive to move forward.
Next week- kerfing the sides.Week 4
Class four was all about the interior structure-the kerf binding and bracing, both the back and soundboard.
With the sides in the mold, we added the kefing pieces, which were pre-cut from mahogany. Using water and a heat gun, the were formed into the approximate shape, glued along the edges of the sides and clamped into place. The reverse kerfing will give the uke a solid structure and help it hold its shape.
While the kerfing dried, work began on making the bracing for the back.
The bracing is made from 1/4 inch strips of spruce. The majority of the rest of the class was cutting and shaping the bracing and thickness sanding the soundboard and back in preparation for gluing in the bracing.
Next week- Gluing the bracing, sanding the body and more.Week 5 This week's class focused on making the bracing, preparing the sides and attaching the soundboard and back. The bracing is made from pieces of spruce. These pieces were cut down to size and glued to the soundboard (supported on a flat surface) and the backs (supported on the 25 foot radius sanding disk, the braces for the back were sanded into this shape prior to gluing). The back will have a slight dome shape giving the ukulele a stronger sound. The front is flat and you can see on the image below the patch to reinforce the bridge. After the glue dried, mini planers and chisels were used to give the braces an arched shape and sloping toward the edges. This allowed for a lighter weight with plenty of support. After completing the bracing we started working on evening out the sides of the uke, getting ready to add the soundboard and back. This involved an incredible amount of hand-sanding. The back on the 25ft dish and the front side on a flat surface. Notches were cut in the kerfing to allow the bracing to sit flush. The soundboard and backs are glued on using a go-bar system to hold the pieces together. Next class: preparing the neck and fretboard. Week 6 I this week’s class we worked on preparing the neck block and a bit of catching up with constructing the body. The first step of the neck was gluing the neck piece together at the scarf joint (which were pre-cut, thanks to Frank). We put glue on and and allowed it to dry on the exposed joint to provide a tackier surface when they are glued and clamped. To clamp them a jig was set up on the table and the neck laid on its side. The jig prevented the two pieces from sliding apart. After drying the heel was added to the neck. This was much simpler glue and clamp job. Next week we finish the neck shape and fingerboard. Week 7 Week 7 was a busy a busy week in the woodshop. On Thursday we started working on shaping the heel of the neck, adding the bolt to connect to the body and adding the head laminate. The first step in shaping the heel by roughly cutting it out on the bandsaw. Followed by using the oscillating sander to shape the curve. The front of the headstock was made square on the belt sander. Next we used the jig to measure and drill the hole for the bolt in the body and the nut in the neck. Saturday! Max lead the open work time in the woodshop on Saturday where work began on cutting the banding. This involved using a router mounted to a guide arm. This was a nerve wracking experience with the possibility wrecking all of the work on the body. After this was finished the binding was glued into the notch that was just cut. Next week, getting toward the end. Week 8 The eighth class and extra session concentrated on adding, leveling and shaping the frets. Hammering them into place was the quick part of the job, the leveling (through sanding flat) and shaping took the bulk of the time. We also cut the bridge out rosewood and epoxied it to the body. The shaping of the head was finished, the nut shaped and the saddle was added to the bridge. The lacquering process which took a couple of days and a lot of spraying, waiting and sanding was completed at home. To complete the process the holes for the strings were drilled through the bridge and body. Using beads tied onto the strings, they were strung through the body and wound on the tuners. After a bit of adjusting the nut and saddle it was good to go.