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13 May 2012

How to make a ukulele neck - Part 1

Welcome to the next part in the story of my adventures in Electric Ukulele Land. I've been busy. 

Do not fear the Router!

Regular readers of this blog will know that I'm currently making an Electric Ukulele. In this post I'm finally talking about shaping the neck. Previously I've dreamt, worried, plannedgot sidetrackedannoyed, designed and shaped the body. I also took the time to record a Flight of the Conchords song... but that's something else entirely.

You may recall that this particular part of the build is the bit that was giving me nightmares. And to be honest... it still is! But I am pleased to say that I am making progress and I haven't made any mistakes so far that have been fatal (that I know of). Let's begin..

Here's what I started out with... some dusty old maple blocks.  I had a lot of problems
sourcing maple. There was a point where I was going to get some shipped over from the
US, but I persevered and finally came across this bundle. By my reckoning I've got
enough left over to make about 600 necks!
I took my mdf template, traced an outline on the block and cut close, but
not up to the line with my jig saw. I did this on purpose knowing full well
that the jig saw wouldn't cut perpendicular. The only thing I discovered
here was how hard maple is! I had to fight the jigsaw round and was
reminded of how out of shape I am... very out of shape...

The block was way too thick for what I needed so I took a rusty old saw
 to it to take off as much as I dared. That took a while! Then using a rasp
I brought it down to the depth I was looking for. All this was done by
hand and whilst hard work, I enjoyed myself doing it. I guess I needed
time to steel myself for picking up the router again, but don't worry,
I'll be talking about that soon.

Here's a picture of the unfinished neck squeezed into the body. Whilst
there is science behind my design regarding the dimensions, I'm finding
that I'm measuring twice and double-checking that things are going
the way I want them. I'm trying to stick as closely to my original plan as
I can, but I remain very wary of the King Uke-factor creeping in...

Check out the jig I've set up here to allow me to mill the neck flat on the
back and the head flat on the front. I did this using my router and a
wide flat-bottomed straight plunge bit. The tricks here were to ensure that
the base of the jig was as flat as I could get it and that the jig 'walls'
were straight and close enough together such that the router didn't
fall off it. Yeah, you guessed it, my router fell off.
Everything's fine here... move along... move along...

I shaped the neck using various rasps and files. The profile dimensions are close to those
of my Arbor Strat but I have allowed myself to tweak this to try and get a good shape
for my hand. I like to use my thumb to fret the top string, so I was keen to make sure that
the neck would allow me to do this, but to be fair, it mainly boiled down to simply
making sure that I didn't make the neck too deep.

Here's an fantastic lesson I learnt. See the scratches in the wood above.
I'd got the point where I was wondering if I'd ever get rid of them;
Everything I did seemed to introduce more. Luckily for me, Eric at
New Wave Ukulele was on hand with some expert guidance. His advice was
to "take a piece of cloth backed 60 grit and make a 2 inch wide strip.
then sand it as if you were polishing a shoe... if you have ever polished
a shoe before. work your way thru 60-80-100-120-150 at 120 start
sanding with the grain rather than across... then and only then
will you remove the marks from your rasp."
I followed Eric's advice almost to the T and it works! Thank you Eric!

At the same time as working on the neck I was also worrying about the
fretboard. My concerns here weren't just about shaping it, but more
whether  I wanted a fretboard as dark as this. I've taken the plunge and
committed. We shall see! Using similar techniques to the main neck, I cut
this to size and milled flat. The difference here was that I flattened one side
by hand first before milling the other. This blank is ebony and I really
wasn't sure how easy it was going to be to shape. Actually, although
a hard wood, this was easy to route. I think the problem I'm going to have
with this wood is that it is prone to chipping and I'm pretty ham-fisted.

This is slightly out of chronological order, but here you can see the
rough cut fretboard placed on top of the neck. I still haven't worked the
surface but I'm expecting to smooth and round ever so slightly before
fitting frets. I'm having nightmares about frets at the moment! A problem
for another day!

I finish with a bit of controversy. The question is: do you fit the frets
before gluing the fretboard to the neck or afterwards? The jury is hung.
I can see the pros and cons to both approaches and on balance for this
build I've elected to glue the fretboard first. The main reason for this is
that I'm not confident that I'm skillful enough to shape them
independently and for it to come together seamlessly. Also, since I've
made the neck head the same depth as the heel I figure that it will be no
harder to work on the fretboard glued as it would be unglued. One thing's
for sure - I'm going to find out the hard way!

And that's it for the moment. I should be able to remove the clamps today and figure out my next steps. I have been working on the body some more, but I'm waiting for the pots to arrive from Hong Kong before I commit to cutting the cavity. Expect another post on the body. And of course there is the horror of fitting the frets to come. I am sooooo not looking forward to this bit. Expect a part 2 neck post to cover that. How fun is this!


  1. I saw the result on my search on the web for electric ukes and i may say it's beautiful. i'm starting up similar projects, and i was wondering what hardware you used. not easy to find pickups for instance. o and i'm curious wether you reinforced the neck with steel, like in the big strats. thanks for sharing your creation. mmoose

  2. Thank you for your kind words mmoose. Yeah - I'm pretty pleased with how it has all gone. This search should bring up all the posts I did on the build with some sound checks too You'll find mention of the hardware in there. I used a guitar pickup. I didn't use a truss and here's why: And if you are an electric uke builder then you might also want to check out another blog that I contribute to: There are some great uke builders there for inspiration and tips. And if you want to share your build... then you can do that too! Ha ha. I'm getting all excited again. What are you going to build?

  3. and.... if you want a whistle-stop tour of the whole build you could do worse than watch this video...