June 3, 2013

Gourd Ukulele, Part 1

Being at home for a couple weeks before working on awesome robots for the rest of the summer means it's time for another woodworking project.  Probably because I heard my neighbor Nick playing his handmade stringed instruments all last year, I decided to make a stringed-thing for myself.  This should be interesting, as I have never made an instrument before, and also do not know how to play any stringed instruments.  But hey, summers are for learning all the things you didn't learn during the school year, right?

Something roughly ukulele sized seemed appropriate for a two-week timeframe.  The wood used for the neck was cannibalized from my desk at home, and the body of the instrument is made from a dried gourd.

I started out by pulling these two mahogany two-by-fours from underneath my desk, and gluing them together:

I sketched out the rough design of the neck on two sides of the wood:

Here's what the profile should look like with the body:

I shaped the neck with a drawknife.  To make it easier, I sawed down the center of the neck's arch. When making deep cuts, wood likes to split when the slope of your cut changes sign (a the bottom of the "U" shape) Making this cut let me remove material much faster without worrying about the wood splitting.  Here it is with one half of the curve roughed out:

Here's the drawknife.  The lighter colored board on the left had much straighter grain, and was a lot easier to shape.

The body is made from this dried gourd:

To prepare the gourd, I first lobotomized it; I sawed it open with a hacksaw and miter saw, and used a hooked knife to scrape out all the soft bits.

Brains... I mean seeds

The more precise sawing (craniectomy?) was done with a coping saw.

I hollowed out the head with a chisel and mallet, and cleaned up the slot with some smaller hand chisels:

Later, I'll bore four tapered holes through the sides of the head, for tuning pegs to fit into.

This is what the rough neck looks like:

I removed most of the extra wood at the gourd-end of the instrument, but some mahogany goes all the way through the gourd to support the string tension.  I cut the neck to match the curvature of the gourd, and epoxied the gourd in place.

Here's the instrument's profile.  The neck still needs a little work where it meets the gourd, but I really like how the shape turned out.

Since mahogany is not especially hard, I used something harder for the fret board.  I split this chunk of oak in my back yard:

After some thinning down, it looked like this:

To make it a bit more interesting, I lightly burned the surface with a torch.  The softer ridges in the grain blacken much more quickly than the harder ones, giving this nice zebra-like pattern:

The pattern really pops out when the wood is wet.  This should be more representative of what it will look like once I've applied some sort of finish to the wood.

I still need to find wood for the soundboard, make tuning pegs, attach and shape the fretboard, add frets, a bridge, sand and finish the wood, string the thing, and learn to play it.


  1. I really love the shape of the head you made in conjunction with the violin pegs. How are the violin pegs working out for you in hind-sight?

    1. The violin pegs have worked great, despite the imperfectly reamed tapers.