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“Designing and building your own instrument is almost like a treasure hunt, where it leads you never know, but it´s certainly a thrill!”
Profession: Fuel Terminal Supervisor
I came across Tero one evening while surfing around on a popular social networking site (read FB). He had sent me a friend request, I am so glad he did and that I accepted! I checked out his profile and when I enquired about the sweet looking electro-acoustic ukulele on his cover image, I was staggered to find out he had made it himself… Read on…
Tell me about your journey… Were you a player first? What inspired you to take the plunge and build?
After having built half a dozen solid-body basses and guitars over the years, I bought as a present for my daughter a tiny Mahalo soprano uke. She liked it, but I loved this miniscule instrument!
So after a few days of strumming, I acquired an old Harmony uke. This was an improvement over the Mahalo but still wasn´t what I was looking for. So instead of picking up a quality instrument from a shop I decided to try to see if I could build one myself.
In the beginning what was the building process like? Were there any unforeseen events?
My first project was to build a violin shaped acoustic ukulele body and although that didn´t come out too well, it nevertheless taught me the use of linings, braces and veneer as a building material (as I had previously been building solely solid-bodies). To make things simpler my second one was to be made to plans of a Martin-like soprano uke. I actually built two bodies, one of mahogany and one of cherry veneer.
I was rather happy with the results but still wanted to build something more unique and unconventional. So at this point I found out about the fantastic Koolau electro-acoustic ukuleles that seemed to be just the thing I was looking for. They have a chambered construction which inspired me to start designing something similar. As opposed to the rather thick top of the Koolau Ukes I wanted mine to have a top that was constructed as an acoustic ukulele.
What choices were you faced with during the build process?
My choice of wood was mahogany for the entire instrument because it was readily available and easy to work with. I had previously acquired a beautifully inlaid tenor-sized fretboard from a Vietnamese manufacturer, so that was to be the scale.
The body was hollowed out using a router to a thickness of about ½ inch, both on the back and sides. The top laminated from two sheets to a thickness of 1/8 inch with an additional strip just under the bridge and two cross braces. The neck is one-piece mahogany, with a head plate of the same veneer as the top.
I built the courage to do the binding work, even made my own glue using acetone and bits of the actual binding material. The advantage of this, is that the glue is exactly the same colour as the binding and blends in, filling any seams that need to be filled. A few grey hairs later I was quite happy with the results and the uke was ready to be finished and assembled.
What advice did you seek and where did you get it?
The internet was definitely a huge aid in finding out about building techniques, finishes and materials. There is a wealth of information readily available for every aspect of building ukulele.
What about the results of your first attempts at building? Were you delighted or devastated?
I was very delighted with how my uke turned out tonally. The structure adds mass to the instrument, therefore I tend to use light strings on it and despite not having a sound hole on the top (it does have two openings at the back) it plays surprisingly loud acoustically. The bridge has a piezo pickup of humble origins and I tend not to use that too much, but instead use it more as an acoustic. Structurally the top has had slight problems with bellying which I intend to solve by the use of a tailpiece, or by guiding the strings through the body to relieve the pull. But all in all, I’m very happy with my little instrument.
How soon after did you do it again? What motivated you?
How many ukuleles do you have to build to be content with the end result? In my case I feel I´ve learned a great deal with every build, but I yearn to learn more about this wonderful hobby. With every mistake I make comes the resolve to make something more functional or possibly eye pleasing.
Where are you now with your luthiery and what do you see for the future?
I´m currently building (at my usual slow pace) an electro-acoustic uke that is shape-wise similar to my first one but is to have Zebrano veneer top and back and a solid wood body frame. I like this type of frame for it´s easy build and that you can practically use any shape for the body that you can imagine. It´s also structurally very sound and tonally surprisingly pleasing so this is what I aim to develop even further in my future builds.
How about an insight into your luthier’s philosophy? Do you have a message to aspiring ukulele luthiers?
Designing and building your own instrument is almost like a treasure hunt, where it leads you never know but, it´s certainly a thrill!
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