Using the same techniques as the ones employed in building classical guitars, Hart’s Guitars is excited to introduce its debut Classikulele!
I’ve dabbled in ukulele playing before when I bought one for $50 fresh off a beach trip, wanting my life to have a little bit more tropical je ne sais quois. There was a songbook as well, Crazy Jim’s Ukulele Songbook, or something to that effect. I learned a song called Chasing Rainbows and it was a lot of fun to play and probably the first jazz-standard feeling song I ever learned. Typical as with most obsessive impulsive hobbies, the ukulele ends up collecting dust and I later loaned it out with the book to a girlfriend and then never saw it again.
Since beginning the study of lutherie, I’ve wanted to build many types of instruments (like the Oud, for example) and on top of that list or near so has been the uke. After finishing up with a recent student and with a few days of downtime to recover from a Guitar Building Intensive, I decided to build one.
I got online to order some plans. Then, I thought. Do I need any plans? I don’t need any plans! So, as with my first guitar build, 001, I decided to simply design my own. I did not need to spend $30 on any plans from the Guild of American Luthiers! So, I sketched my idea for this classikulele in the morning of Thursday, July 2nd and started working on it. A week later I was finished except for the frets, which were somewhere in the USPS backlog.
Do you wanna build your own ukulele? Hart’s Guitars will be offering workshops soon. In the meantime, there is a book you must have if you’re seriously contemplating the idea of taking the plunge into the world of building a ukulele. Here is my book review of The Uke Book Illustrated: Design and Build the World’s Coolest Ukulele. I have to contain myself from a tendency to overhype things I love. But, this book is the sh!+! Let me explain….
Sarah Greenbaum is an artist. John Weissenrieder is a luthier. His shop is in the historic part of Florence, Italy! Sarah went to spend time with John, to observe him working, and paint illustrations of all the steps of the process and over cappuccinos they collaborated in this way to make the coolest book of lutherie you’ll ever see. Don’t be fooled by the picture book feel of the cover because this little tome is full of incredible information including: how to make jigs and tools of various sorts, Pythagorean math as a way to create the perfectly radiused arch in the instrument’s cross struts, and how to flush fret endings to the fingerboard and give them a 60° bevel, what!!?. There are paintings, watercolour paintings, that illustrate these things!
I’ve owned this book for nearly two years. I’ve consulted it often as it is an invaluable resource of information and inspiration for guitar builders. I loved it from the moment I opened it. It was only a couple of weeks ago when I decided to build a ukulele that I decided to read everything in the book, beginning on the cover, reacquainting myself with the author’s and illustrator’s name, and then flipping over and starting with the introduction to the book and that’s when I learned something that cemented a perpetual top 5 spot in my favourites for this little textbook.
Before The Uke Book Illustrated was finished, John Weissenreider passed away from pancreatic cancer. In 2015 he received the diagnosis. At the time, he and Sarah Greenbaum were a year and a half into the project. From the moment of his diagnosis until his passing, Sarah Greenbaum writes that he spent countless hours devoted to this book, “making sure there were no gaps left unfilled.” He wanted to pass on to the world, through this book, all of his knowledge. This is the sort of learning one gets through apprenticeships. This book is his legacy, a key into seeing the beauty and details in the handmade. I imagine they were more than collaborators while they worked together on this. The art of watercolour and the secret teachings of lutherie come together. Who new. Even if you have no inclination to get into the world of lutherie, this is a book you could fall in love with.
My first ukulele build.
Thanks for stopping by to read my post.
Coming soon, an article about my experience building Guitar 012….a little bit of tragedy but with a happy ending?
Only days after we began our journey together, it became clear that Corvid-19 was no longer a warning but a guarantee. Billy and I decided we’d continue to do the class. I had some hand sanitizer and we kept our 1 Joey Ramone distance 90% of the time. Last night he took this beautiful instrument to show to his wife and kids: a Spruce top with Limba back and sides and a Brazilian Rosewood fretboard. The guitar was built from plans from the Guild of American Luthiers of an 1869 Francisco Gonzalez classic.
I can’t believe we made this. Thank you so much for this amazing experience.
A bit of a recap on our work together
Over the course of the first week, Billy and I accomplished a TON of items on the list to make his guitar. Then, I had to go home to Greenville, SC to take my mom to the doctor and spend a couple of days up there. When I returned, I fell ill for several days (not with Covid-19) and only days before the Coronavirus became an inevitability. After some delay, we were able to get back to work. Seeing the near future clearly in front of us and the disruption to modern life that was shaping up, we decided to just be casual with our approach, in no hurry. I advertise my guitar building intensive as a 7-day course. That flew out the window and we added to our projects the process of French-polishing our instruments. So, this also added a but more time to the process.
As we worked, we realized there was a lot of common ground in our life experiences. Days flew by quickly. Billy said he’d picked up so many skills that would be useful in his daily life and other projects. That is such a gratifying thing to hear as it’s what has been my wish all along from the beginning, when this hole business was just a daydream.
With the soundboard voicing, we really took our time and did things right. Those tonebars are very important in determining the character of a guitar’s sound. Some have said they could listen to a classical guitar played while blindfolded and name the luthier who built it. Billy and I decided to take an online course together on guitar top voicing.
Then it was time to bend the sides. It was the first time I had ever worked with Limba. I made a form to bend our sides. Heat is applied to the thin piece of wood using a thermal blanket with a temp controller.
With the sides attached, and glue drying, Billy now has to carve more cross strut braces for the back. The back will be entirely domed in a 25′ radius dish. It’s a process of sanding which involves pushing and pulling the back all around the dish until it takes on the domed shape.
Attaching the back……
Attaching the back is always a nerve-wrecking endeavor, at least for me. This time I decided to make some new spool clamps to aid in the process. Normally, keeping the back tight to the body while the glue sets is done using a number of clamps. That number is every clamp you have available in the shop. Plus rope. And a cinderblock on top. Here’s how a made the new spool clamps.
With the back in place, we move on to routing out the channels for binding, which is used to protect the edges of the top and back. Binding is also an area where some luthiers give a special touch, their own signature in the way they pick colours and textures.
Making the fretboard
Making the fretboard is a task. First, usually the piece of wood you plan to use is in the form of a short and slim board, called a “billet.” This particular billet was locked away in a special closet at Carlton’s Rare Woods and Veneers. It has been sitting in that closet since the 1970s. It’s a special collection of Brazilian Rosewood, which is now prohibited from being imported. There are many legal issues surrounding this wood including travel restrictions. Here is a good article on the endangered wood, Dalbergia nigra.
Early on in the process, Day 1 I’m sure, we planed this beauty down to be trued and squared in two adjoining sides. This way, it will be cut with precision by the bandsaw. Otherwise, it comes out ugly because the bandsaw will make it wavygravy. Not groovy!
So the final stage was a lot of sanding, pore-filling, sanding, pore-filling, and. Billy was a great student, a sponge for valuable and pertinent lutherie information. He was eager to learn and do a French-Polish finish for his guitar, which is not normally a part of the guitar building intensive. But, with nothing but time on our hands, I was more than happy to learn it with him. He ended up being my teacher in some moments. Here’s a slideshow.