I’ve never been a particularly handy person. My friends know better than to ask for my help with home improvement projects, and my instrument repair skills are mostly confined to string changes. But after building Stewart-MacDonald’s soprano uke kit, I have a new found confidence in my abilities.
The kit sells for $99, but I needed to tool up a bit before I could get started. I spent an extra $63 at the Stew-Mac site on fret cutters, a special fretting hammer & two types of glue. I spent another $71 at Home Depot on things I imagine most handy people already have around the house: sandpaper, super glue, clamps, files, a chisel, a plane, a hobby knife, a square & a small sheet of plywood.
The kit’s materials are top-notch and the most intimidating parts are already done for you. The neck is carved into its basic shape, the fretboard is slotted and the sides are bent. The woods are quality all the way around and only the tuners leave something to be desired. In general, I’m not a fan of friction tuners, although I’m sure these would have worked fine had I used the included cheapo strings. Instead I used the fantastic—but much higher tension—Aquila strings.
The instructions are mostly excellent—logical, clear and concise, with patient explanations of terminology. I especially liked that they include the why and not just the how.
For example, they recommend lining the jig with waxed paper “to keep from accidentally gluing to the jig.” Which is exactly what happened when I skipped that step. I didn’t have any waxed paper in the house and thought being extra careful would be a good substitute. It wasn’t. I ended up splitting the side wood and having to make a repair. After that, I made it a point to follow their advice more closely.
The only real hiccup in my uke-building adventure came when trying to attach the neck to the body. The instructions told me I should tape a piece of sandpaper to the body and then rub the neck on it to get a nice tight fit between them. This is a great idea; it just didn’t happen to work. Because this step comes after gluing the fretboard to the neck, I was only able to sand side-to-side. Had I been able to go front-to-back, it might have worked better, but as it was I only managed to make the fit worse.
I ultimately caved and bought a Dremel tool and then spent entirely too long crafting a decent point of contact between them. And even though I was happy with the final strength of the joint, the side-to-side sanding left some unsightly gaps at the edges. I managed to conceal them by creating a binding from some black plastic material leftover from the rosette. Given the chance to do it over, I would definitely sand the joint before attaching the fretboard.
Aside from that, the build went smoothly. I learned a great deal about the hows & whys of repair and building, and I find myself willing to tackle projects that previously would have gone straight to my repair guy. Since completing the uke, I’ve installed an undersaddle pickup on one guitar, shimmed the saddle of another and now I’m planning to refret my Strat. I also bought a book on building a tenor uke from scratch.
Although I have nicer ukuleles that cost less than I spent on the kit & tools, I must say that playing something I built myself is incredibly rewarding. The final product sounds good—indeed better than most sopranos—and plays in tune.
For the novice woodworker or the avid uke enthusiast, it’s hard to beat this kit.