Stay in Tune vol # 81
By Luthier Patrick Podpadec
In the last article of the Voice I had mentioned that I was going to start building instruments this winter. I have been selecting woods, making drawings and getting all of the materials lists and figuring out the pricing. I decided to start on the smallest one first.
I have got a good start on the ukelele that I am building for a friend of mines daughter. I have decided yo build a concert size uke. This is the next larger size next to the original soprano shape, which is the smallest size of ukulele family. The scale will be 15' which gives it a little bit more volume and I believe is a little easier to play because of the larger fingerboard.
I decided to build this instrument with woods that I have harvested right here in Madison Ohio over the past 10 yrs or so. The top is the only piece that was acquired from some where else. It is a beautiful straight grain piece of Redwood. It came from a 2' x 6' wine barrell stave that a friend of mine salvaged from some huge barrels from California. Some of the same wood is on the deck of the back patio at the old Flying Burrito restaurant. ( now called Compadre's). I helped build the deck and saved a couple of cutoffs from the larger beams underneath. They were way too nice to throw a way
The back and sides are from a tree in my neighborhood. A very large sycamore tree was cut down yrs ago and I cut a couple of pieces about 2 ft long and about 20'' in diameter. I then quartered each log and let them sit outside for at least 6 yrs. The wood started to “spalt”. This is a process where the wood is actually starting to rot. It produces some beautiful coloring and striping in the grain of the wood which if you can mill the wood at the right time and dry it properly you can end up with some very pretty pieces that the cell's structure is still stable in the wood. I cut and dried my wood just in time.
I used a 1/4” wide black diamond inlay strip down the center of the back to add a little bit of character and to separate the book match perfectly. One of the things that I believe in is laminating the neck material for stability and aesthetic. I have a lot of cherry that I have saved over the years and I added about a 5/16th inch thick piece of Birdseye maple down the center to give it some character. I chose not to put a truss rod in this instrument because the nylon strings of the ukelele doesn't produce enough tension on the neck to do much damage to it. Plus along with the lamination it is plenty strong enough to hold up for many, many years. It is very important to arrange the grain of the wood in the proper orientation so the the forces of nature work for you instead of against the string tension. The grain should be running straight from north to south and straight down the entire length of the neck from head to heel in order for it to be stable when the instrument has tension on it.
For the fingerboard, bridge and headstock overlay I used walnut. I had a pretty large piece of quartersawn walnut that I actually salvaged from a stack of firewood about 5 hrs ago. Most of the time firewood is only about 12 to 18 inches long. That's too short in most cases to use it for instrument building. It's also very rare to find a piece in a stack of firewood that has the straight grain running down the length so that it can be used for anything. I knew I could use it for something some day.
So now that the wood selections have been made and the general shape of the body and headstock and bridge have been designed and all of the dimensions for a concert size uke have been established, ( a little research on the internet is where I found most of the critical measurements.) it is time to start bracing the top and back, bending the sides and creating a form so that the body can be assembled with a certain amount of accuracy. The forms will be created from various scraps of plywood that I have left over from other construction jobs. I'm doing the best I can to use materials that I can reclaim so that the total cost of the build will be as low as possible. So far I'm doing a good job of that. The only thing I have no control over is the cost of fret wire, tuning machines and strings.
What I like about the size of this ukelele is that the scale lg. is 15''. That means the body shape is very close to the size of a mandolin. Mandolin scale length is about 13-14” . It won't be hard to adjust the neck and fingerboard to this size and be able to produce a mandolin too. Of course the bracing would be completely different and the neck would have a truss rod and it would have 8 strings instead of 4, but at least I probably wouldn't have to build a new form for the body.
I will be posting pictures and explanations of the building process on my website at www.liamguitars.com so please feel free to visit anytime. Until next time...... “Please Stay in Tune”
Patrick from Liam Guitars/ Wood-n-Strings