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Making a Travel Ukulele

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  • Total cost for parts and tools: $64
  • Time: 2 weeks
  • Emotional damage: minimal

The Motivation

So I really like the look to the Risa Solid Uke. However, it’s a little too rich for my blood at this point. One day I’ll buy one. In the meantime, I thought it might be cool to try to build my own poor man’s version (which ended up costing more than I expected). Mine lacks a pickup for plugging into an amp, but it’s great for quiet practice and travel.

The Build

Beginning by drawing the basic outline on a piece of walnut. The fret length is 15”, corresponding to a concert ukulele, but the total length is only ~17.5”. The board was the most expensive part of this project (\$16), so if you made it out of an uglier piece of scrap wood you would probably bring the cost down a lot.

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My work bench. Just kidding. This is the shitty computer desk that I use as a table in my tiny apartment.

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Lacking the proper tools mean making a lot of weird decisions. Here I drilled holes in a curve, then used the jigsaw to cut over to them. Then I used an off-brand dremel to smooth the jagged bits. They did burn a little, but I think it adds a rugged appeal to the final product. Thanks to Joey Porter for letting me borrow a lot of his tools.

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Cutting the fret slots. I didn’t have a fret saw or a (mitre box?) so I used a thin hacksaw and an almost straight block of wood. Note to anyone thinking of doing this: it’s really really worth using a straight piece of wood. Some of my frets are curved a little. That’s life I suppose.

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Sanding, rasping, drilling. I set down a towel to catch the dust. It mostly worked, so that’s great.

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Putting the gear tuners and the turn around on to see if all the measurements I made were correct so far.

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I couldn’t resist putting a string on and testing if it will hold tension. It does! This was very exciting.

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Next up, installing the frets. I didn’t take any pictures of this, because it was extremely frustrating. I used these tools, and a dremel to (poorly) wear down the edges that stick out over. I laid the fret wire in the slot, and measured out the amount for that fret. Then I cut that amount with some large nail clippers. Then I laid it out again, laid the stick of wood on top, and carefully hammered the shit out of it with the hammer. This mostly worked.

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So now to apply the finish! I used one layer of mineral oil, then one layer of tung oil finish, then I sanded it further, then I applied a final layer of tung oil finish.

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There is a little cosmetic damage that really became more apparent after finishing…

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Now I’m glueing on the 3D printed nut. It ended up needing a little cutting to get the strings to all sit perfectly.

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My first makeshift bridge… a cutoff 15mL conical tube. It works, but it deforms a little sometimes. It seems to have stabilized now.

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Finished!

Finally, I was done. Here are some shots of the final product:

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The back.

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Here is a small video of me playing it. I’ve made some changes since, but it gives you an idea of how quiet it is.

Testing the travel ukulele.

Next, I might add a 3D printed backplate in order to amplify the sound a bit.

UPDATE: 2016/2/10

I have finished the 3D printed bridge! It works great, and only took 6 iterations. Fortunately they were only ~50 cents each to print at the library.

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