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The California Ukulele Project

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So I finished grad school recently and used my extended initials to get a slightly better paying, more interesting job back in the real world. This has a few important implications:

1. I have regular paychecks again.

2. I have my nights and weekends back (well, I got married 8 months ago too so not all of that time...)

3. I'm resuming business trips across the Pacific where I spend weeks on end in factories and design offices before heading back to the hotel.

4. I'm dang ready to start in on some purely personal projects!

I've been building up plans, the reading, and the wood stash to build an acoustic guitar for a while now. The plan is to use only woods native to my beloved home of California, preferably of trees that are of personal significance to me. Here's he general list:

Top: Sinker/Salvage Redwood (LOVE the redwoods dotting the Northern CA coast where I play)

B/S: Curly Claro walnut (maybe Bay Laurel / Myrtle, which I smell on every mt.bike ride I take and even cook with. I have sets of both woods.)

Neck: Curly Monterey Cypress (hard to come by, but I know tree doctor from when I lived in the area and he hooked me up big time with some spectacular offcuts from wind fallen logs)

Fingerboard/Bridge: Apricot (also hard to come by, but my grandparents lived in the orchards that later became Silicon Valley and kept an old Blenheim in the fornt yard. When my g.pa passed this last year the house was sold and the dying tree was to come out. I took the widest portions as a keepsake and am letting it dry now)

Bracing: Port Orford Cedar/Cypress (Backpacking through the north coast mountains and sierras you'll find these lovely trees, and daaaaaang the woods smells phenomenal. The wife actually requested we keep one of the spare billets in the living room for the scent!)

Binding: Figured Sycamore (Uh, this wood grows here, is pretty, and available from LMI. Nothing to see here, folks.)

Shell Inlay: Abalone (Found on the beaches of the Monterey Bay when I lived there for 2-3 years. Any larger heart pieces I found were kept for this project)

So. that's the long term plan and why it all matters to me. Still, despite all my prep I'm still a bit nervous and wanted a quick startup project to get the jitters out with less pressure. Combined with my desire to have a travel instrument the logical conclusion was to start the...

California Ukulele Project!

Same woods, same general aesthetics, less pressure and simpler construction. A win all around.

Status Report 1:

All the materials are in house, though some have more drying to do and a lot more millwork remaining to boot. I have a rudimentary bending iron lefotover from the binding work on the semi-hollow, enough handtools to be dangerous, a drill press, and a very small workspace in the carport behind our lovely rental shack. Go time!

Woke up jetlagged after returning home from Taiwan yesterday so I dropped the wife off at work (surgical resident, she's on call for the weekend so I can work aaaalll day.) I got out the wetstones and sharped all my chisels, the plane blades, and trued up all the surfaces. Then I jointed the Back and Soundboard and planed both to thickness. Lots and lots of shavings, but it was not nearly as hard as I had expected. 3 hours of careful blade honing was worth it for sure.

It seems like everyone in the business sands their boards to thickness, which would have been fast and easy by comparison, but if Cumpiano hadn't textually encouraged the use of a handplane I might not have gone for it. It's slow, it's probably not perfectly even, but the surface is beautiful and the work is blissfully meditative. The curly walnut is gorgeous and the little sinker top is almost the same color but pinker.

All in all, a good start and I'm happy to make some wood dust again. I feel waaay less anxious about a building a uke than a small jumbo, so I'm looking forward to the next steps. I'll keep you guys posted and get some pictures up soon.



P.S. Anyone else's fingers and palms stain a strange, splotchy purple when they handle cast iron while cutting certain woods like rosewoods or walnut? Everytime I spent more than an hour with a plane, chisel, scraper, or even hand files (plus a lot of wood dust) my hands looks frostbitten! It doesn't wash off entirely, but it's not real bothersome, I just have never seen anyone else exhibit these epidermal symptoms. Just curious.

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  • 1 month later...

Slow progress getting the rest of my materials ready, delayed in part by one of those pesky business trips. Here's a progress report with some eye candy.

Lesson learned: milling and seasoning wood, at home, in a hurry, entirely with hand tools... is hard and slooooooow. I highly recommend buying wood that is dry, trued, and quartersawn. I'm taking some measure of satisfaction from milling woods that are from places that are important to me, but it doesn't feel like it's worth it at the moment.

Here's the figured Monterey Cypress, finally trued up. It was ripped from that block behind it in the shot, and the planed on 4sides till flat/quartersawn, and then oven dried (pilot light on only, a few days at 80deg) until weight stable and retrued.


Once dry this stuff cuts beautifully and has almost no discernible grain. It has lovely figuring and a light golden-pinkish hue, smells good too.



The neck has been scarfed jointed, had the heel glued on with a tenon pre-laminated, and the beginning of a volute carved in. Soon I'll inlay 2 carbon fiber rods and route it to size.


So the cypress is great, but I've been struggling to make usable blanks out of my grandfather's old apricot tree. See the next post for more pics...

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I've ripped at least 10 strips of Grandpa's old Apricot branches, starting small (not helpful) and moving to larger pieces. The wood is prone to checking, slow to dry, and very hard. After yielding a bunch of warped, unevenly shrunken, wannabe fingerboards out of these branches it became clear that the wood grew with a slight twist to it. Not. Helping.

I'm getting pretty tired of wearing down my ryboa saw with long, slow rips of wet boards only to yield useless pieces. I've only got a couple more attempts worth of goodwill in me before I start looking for a new fingerboard material and get the rest of this lumber (i.e. the nice big trunk) milled professionally.

The apricot wood, though, would be perfect fingerboard material. It's hard, close grained, a bit waxy, and rather pretty. I have a couple pieces that will serve well as the tailpiece, chunks for rosettes and inlays, and I'm hoping the pieces currently drying will come out straight enough to use as a finger board... even if I have to bookmatch the pieces to get enough stock out of marginally straight sections.


Meanwhile I've built a pair of radius dishes. I've been looking for ways to do this easily, cheaply, and with minimal sawdust for a long time. It always seemed like making a sled for a long compass, and then shaving MDF for hours in a cloud of toxic dust, was far from ideal. I've since seen 2 ways to create the curve by screwing & gluing a thin MDF/fiberboard over a thicker one with cauls or spacers of appropriate size in between.

The best explanation I've seen yet is here: http://www.ukuleleunderground.com/forum/sh...e-a-Radius-Dish

My take on this was to stack washers of known thickness and calculate the radius at which I should space them out before screwing at the thin MDF board down to them to create the radii. Here you can see see the layout for placing the washer stacks of {1, 2, 3, 4…, n-1, n} over a center-punched MDF board & ply base.


Here's the view down the side, showing the generated curve a bit. It sure looks okay, but I haven't sanded any test pieces down just yet. I'll let you all know how it works out. I've built a 25' and a 15' dish for about $25 and without any sawdust to speak of… not to bad.


Prep is no real fun, but at least it's real progress. Now I just have to build a workboard/light mold, prep neck and tailblocks, and then I can stop messing around with prepping the wood so i can start working it.

All in due time when you're doing things by hand, all in due time.


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  • 3 months later...

OK, time for an update on the Golden State Uke.

Update: it's been cold and wet out here in the SF Bay Area, I've been traveling a bunch, and I switched jobs last week. Times of transition are good, but they do slow down the hobbyist luthier guy... But that's not what you all want to hear about, is it?

Uke Update: The neck is basically done and the box materials are all prepped and ready to start building.

Here's a few shots to hold you guys over until I get some better closeups of the good-looking parts:

The Rosette - wedges of apricot wood, shown here being flycut before being inlaid into the redwood top. This was nerve-wracking to say the least. Horrible noise and thrown at least once. This was the kind of thing you do while you mind yells "THIS IS EXACTLY HOW NOT TO USE POWER TOOLS." (Please do not let my shop students know that I do dumb things at home... or my wife, the apprenticing surgeon. When I do this sort of thing I have these visions of being carted into the ER with my arm lopped off, carrie by my good hand in a bag of sawdust covered ice. Then, when she appears to put me back together, she starts berating me for shoddy work. Weird? Yes, so let's hope that never materializes...)


The Backstrip - curly sycamore inlaid in 2 strips with a break that will fall right into the waist. I think this will be a nice accent and it was surprisingly easy to do, though my execution is far from perfect. I attribute inspiration for this detail to Galloup guitars, though others have used it and I have my own interpretation.


The Neck - the neck is now shaped, the fretboard has been cut, the nut fit, and the whole thing bound and leveled. My workspace is pretty tight, but handtools keep the dust down. The flamed cypress feels great and the binding really sets it off, it looks like the necks I lusted after in Benedetto's book rom some angles - at least if you squint real hard.


The pile of materials, ready to keep moving - 90% complete neck, inlaid top and back, bracewood cut to gluing size, and neck/tail blocks. Note that I also scored the new benchtop when a local lumberyard went out of business (Boo) and I grabbed a 2" thick solid maple door panel for free. Unreal! Now I'm motivated to keep my workspace a bit tidier.


Anyhow, I'll post some detail shots of the inlays and neck shape when I have some better light to shoot in, after all the trouble it gave me the apricot fretboard looks great. Also, I hope to never cut my own fretslots again (at least, not the way I did it... clumsy), paying LMI to take care of that detail is worth the ~$10 by a mile! Gad to have the experience, though.

Ok. I swear I'l have it done by spring... I'l keep you all posted.


P.S. for Mr. BBB - The guitar you saw that got the Solomon treatment was a rather busted up old Yamaha that I got of craigslist for $30 and was unable to fix. I decided to scavenge the parts and use the body for my edification. All my life I've learned about how things work by taking them apart, so why not a guitar? I've kept it around because it's amusing and a cheap point of reference, if not a particularly excellent one.

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Looks like it's coming along nicely!

P.S. Anyone else's fingers and palms stain a strange, splotchy purple when they handle cast iron while cutting certain woods like rosewoods or walnut? Everytime I spent more than an hour with a plane, chisel, scraper, or even hand files (plus a lot of wood dust) my hands looks frostbitten! It doesn't wash off entirely, but it's not real bothersome, I just have never seen anyone else exhibit these epidermal symptoms. Just curious.

This is oxidation, caused by the oils and tannins in the wood reacting to the combination of iron and your skin.


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  • 10 months later...

Well this is sliiiightly off topic, but today I can finally talk about why this uke has been making such slow progress: Lytro.

I am the lead product designer, mechanical engineer, and manufacturing guru for a startup called Lytro that today released a camera that will change the future of picture taking. I don't drink a lot of kool aid, I used to be a Apple and I got a bit inured to the taste, but this thing really is the first step towards a totally new way we take pictures. Anyhow, the work has had been busting my buns for ~80 hours+ a week for the last year, traveling to Asia >50% of the time, etc, etc. Clearly the personal projects have suffered for it.

That said, now that we're on track to ship, my time has opened up a week bit. I've bent my sides, shaped the braces, glued in the linings, etc. Pictures of the progress being slowly made are forthcoming, but I mostly wanted to share this momentous update with you all.



(edited to fix link)

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  • 3 weeks later...

Thanks for the kudos on the Lytro camera, guys. I definitely have light-field pictures of this project but the way our files and the player works can be thought of a lot like YouTube: since we have a totally new file format we upload it to a central site and then we can embed it elsewhere in HTML 5 or Flash. The issue here is our hosting site isn't public yet! So... in due time, in due time.

Meanwhile: regular old 2D, non-interactive pictures! Taken with a camera whose battery charger died during the bending-stage!

Since I've been in the country for almost a full, uninterrupted month I've made some decent progress. First I tried to bend my first set of sides by hand witha crap-tastic bender that I used for bending rosewood bindings a long while back. Boy what a disaster. Cracked my lovely matching sides and scrapped 'em, bought new near-match walnut and planed them to thickness by hand AGAIN, cut 2 side sets from the new flitch, and then bought a fox bender with a blanket! The bender is guitar-sized, so my quick & dirty little uke jig was a bit challenging to use but HOLY CRAP is it easier to bend with a machine than by hand. Yes, skill is good to develop, but this is a hobby in which my fleeting spare time is far far most precious to me than a couple hundred bucks. Your mileage may vary, but this was a great investment for me.

After bending a practice side pretty well I got my real-sides just about perfect, glued up my head & tail blocks, and installed the linings of Port-Orford Cedar (man, does that stuff smell good).


The front and back were sanded with new, purchased radius dishes and cleaned up for boxing up. Note I chose to buy new dishes because the ones I made using the slightly experimental method shown above worked out pretty poorly as the ply I had used as a foundation was not particularly straight and bent too easily to hold the correct curvature. Then I set about bracing the plates.

I rough-cut the back plate and glued on the centerstrip and back braces, one at a time under the weight of a very very large bike lock. (I was too lazy to pickup thin sticks or fiberglass for a proper go-bar deck, let alone make camp-clamps. The weight seems to have worked fine for uke-sized braces.) The bridge patch was glued in from an off-cut of the back plate, which left a really nice accent in place. Since the walnut is far stronger than the softer cedar bridgepatch I almost used, I took some liberties with the bracing in that area to add some visual flair and showoff the inlayed strip beneath the center fan brace.


Scalloping braces by hand with a sharp, sharp chisels is very satisfying, if not a bit unnerving when it gets thin. Only a few minor nicks in the plates, and it all cleaned up reasonably well.


So at this point my box parts are all cleaned up and pretty, the next step is boxing up! It's really nice to see this coming together in a very real ways after more than a year of intermittent progress. The plates sound amazing to my untrained ears, very bright and lively response to taps; the redwood has lovely bell-like overtones that I really hope come out in the final instrument.


More soon, I hope!


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  • 2 months later...

I'm digging this project!

  • Love the California woods.
  • Really into tiny instruments lately.
  • Big photography fan.

I've been following the Lytro camera for a while now, very cool concept. I'm excited to see this stuff grow. I'm not ready to give up the control and quality of the SLR but it would be great to get this kind of functionality in a high end camera. I shoot around f/1.2-1.4 a lot so being able to finely control the focus during post production would be AWESOME.

Anyway, very nice work on the uke and Lytro, very cool stuff!

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  • 2 weeks later...

Thanks for the kind words, all. The camera is really, finally finishing up and I'm really, finally getting more time with the build.

Since the last update the uke has been boxed up, bound, and scraped. Now it's down to inlays aaaand fixing a little area where I did a dumb thing. (Note to other builders, if you think it will be easier to make a nicely fit tenon by laminating 3 identical blocks for both the neck and neckblock, you are right: it fits great. BUT, I recommend making the tenon not run the full height of the block because then you will have no material behind the heel of your neck and the binding won't work just so and you'll have to come up with a clever looking inlay/heelcap to fix the whole deal because you DIDN'T THINK THAT THROUGH VERY WILL DID YOU?!?)

Here are few shots of the body and the headstock inlay I've been working on.

The headstock logo is a play on a Chinese name seal, in my case a baiwen (red stamp with cut-away characters). The letters are from a logo I did for a custom bicycle project (too many projects!) that turned my last name EVANS into heavily blocked and attached letterforms. Here they're rearranged so the top/bottom line should read a stylized EVA / NS. Fun times, nice look, good plan. Where my plan fell apart, literally, is in the selection of materials.

In an effort to keep using local materials I decided to try and make my own abalone blanks from shells scavenged off of Monterey, CA beaches in the years I and my wife lived there. I got out 3 big shells, put on the respirator, pulled out the jewelers saws and went to work. I'd get about 1 inch into a cut and then POOF I'd have a pile of glittering dust and confetti all over my hands. What I learned about how shells "rot" is this: they delaminate and cleave across the nacreous layers. This is not easy to predict, as some layers will be pretty strong and others will explode if you look at them funny. These properties make cutting details into shell a massive, massive pain in the butt. (Note to other builders, just buy shell blanks, the process of doing it yourself is dusty, smelly, frustrating, and yield largely inferior results. I will almost certainly not do this again, unless maybe I can get fresh shells from abalone divers.)


Over 2 days of non-stop work I cut up 2 full shells, leveled the blanks on sandpaper, threw away the bursting pieces and ultimately yielded about 5 square inches of pretty shell blanks that emerged intact. I then took the backside of a piece of red abalone that looked pretty lousy from the MOP side and used the red outer shell to create the cinnabar-colored field of the baiwen "stamp" inlay. I rigged up my dremel with a tiny endmill, clamped a steel rule down as a guide, and carefully carefully routed out the channels for the design. The shell delaminated twice and was CA-glued back into place. This was not fun.


I then rigged up a makeshift shell-tablesaw by using the dremel in a vise with cutoff-wheels and a clamped scrapwood "fence" so I could cut appropriately sized strips of abalone to inlay the white centers of the stamp. I cut about half of the blanks I got form the previous 2 days of work and ALL of them delaminated mid cut, regardless of how careful I was. Demoralizing. I ended up essentially giving up and trying to use the least damaged pieces very VERY carefully reshaped witha diamond file, cut with great intensity while wearing magnifying goggles, to yield barely BARELY enough pieces to inlay into the routed shell. Many of these pieces were being held together, in layers, with tweezers while they were filed to length and dropped into place despite an imperfect fit. This was not my most rewarding weekend, but I sure learned a lot about shell and the limits of my dexterity. As an aside, if you are as lucky as I am and are married to a very accommodating surgeon, I suggest you not let her watch you fumble and mumble with such delicate operations because you will not live that down until she stubs her toe in the middle of the night and you still won't win that argument, now will you?


The reality is the results of this effort are not up my usual standards of quality and finish, but I'm happy to just be done with the thing because it was driving me bonkers. This is exactly why I'm building a uke before a guitar, to make my mistakes and test my assumptions on something I'm not as passionate about. Ultimately I'm glad for the learning experience and I know these trials will make me a better builder, improve my character, etc... but I'd still be happier if the shell looked like a million bucks!


Next week's lessons: grinding green jade from Big Sur to make a heelcap inlay that looks like a CA-1 highway sign whilst also fixing the issue I created with the neck block shortcut.

Happy building,


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  • 3 weeks later...

Almost one and a half years after starting this project the body and neck are complete and ready for finishing. I still have to carve the bridge, bridge pins, nut, saddle, and do all the fretwork & setup, but it is tantalizingly close to done. This week I'm sending it off for finishing with Addam Starck, as I did for the first guitar project. Addam does brilliant work for an exceptionally reasonable price and I am in no way setup to do world class finishing in my dusty, doorless carport in the backyard.

Here are a few teaser shots of the uke before it gets all glossed up. A recap of the final all-California native materials:

- Sinker redwood top

- Claro walnut back and side

- Apricot fingerboard, rosette, and bridge

- Monterey cypress neck

- Curly sycamore binding

- Monterey scavenged abalone inlay

- Big Sur jade heelcap

- Redwood burl fretboard markers w/ silver outline

The completed body & neck.


The tail at the body, showing the hourglass endgraft and the best purfling miters I've ever pulled off.


The neck as it meets the body. The purfling on the heelcap should properly meet the body after finishing, as the bolt-on neck will sit a little higher as the soundboard thickens.


The heel and the body, showing the completed heelcap.


A few notes on the heelcap. I had long planned to make an homage to the iconic CA Hwy 1 sign that designates the lovely road that runs the length of the California Pacific Coast. It's the right shape and a nice touch for Uke # 1, but green wood is hard to find. After looking over lovely jade work on many of my business trips to Asia I decided to try my hand at working with some California jade from the Big Sur region of the central coast. As I mentioned last time the heelcap also has to push into the body somewhat to cover up a small binding routing boo-boo, which made for pretty delicate work and careful alignment. I may have to do some more fitting work after the finish goes on, but the fit ended up well after lots of very careful sanding and scraping.

As for my first experience with lapidary work... I cannot really recommend working with jade in the same way I did: a dremel, cheap grinding wheels, and necklace beads bought from local hippies. If you are actually setup for lapidary work and have large pieces of rough then you can ignore my advice and continue doing what you do.

Basically I first tried crushing the stone and inlaying the dust & pieces the way some builders do with turquoise. This looks like crap, the jade turns a clearish, greenish, yellowish color that does not return to its deep lustrous green when wet... it's wrecked. To combat this I tried to grind out puzzle-pieces of jade to fit around the abalone "1" and fill the cracks with the dust. This is OK, but the stone cracks under the heat and vibration dry grinding and the flaking layers make it hard to work confidently. The seemingly fraying edges start to have the same ghostly look the crushed rock does. This effect is easy to see in the final piece. All lapidary sources I read implied the proper way to do this is either really, really slowly as the ancients did, or with wet fine-grinding wheels. The pieces that are intact look beautiful, but the overall effect of the final piece is not working as I had hoped. Add jade work to the doing-it-the-hard-way list with the aforementioned scavenged abalone shells. Experience, character, and learning... I've learned more things on this project than I could possibly have imagined when it was started in July of 2010.

Final beauty shots to follow when finishing is complete, probably in a month or two as it takes a while for real nitro to cure. So close, sooooo close.



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  • 2 weeks later...
  • 3 months later...

Well, finally the uke is back from finishing and I'm happy to say this thing is, for all intents and purposes, complete. Will I be tweaking action and intonation for another month? Sure, but at least now I can play it and I've put away most of the tools.

Man, though, scraping up finish to glue on that bridge is danged nerve-wracking. I'm not 1000% stoked on the bridge carve, though I do like the shape. I think whenever this thing gets transmogrified into a full-size acoustic for the next big project, it may be tweaked. Also, I do wish I had means to make bridge pins from the apricot, as the bone pins look strange to me.

All in all, I'm pleased with how it ended up and glad to wrap up 2+ years of dalliances so I can flipping build something else for a change. I may post more thoughts at a later time when I'm a bit less consumed with work, but I did want to share pictures with you all.


:: Dave





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I do wish that my first instruments have been this good and I'm really looking forward to see you buidling a full size guitar now. You should enter it in the GOTM competition

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