Ukulele Number 2: The Quickening

Oh, the agony of the un-coordinated perfectionist.

This past week, the Stewart-MacDonald ukulele kit arrived, along with the replacement tuners for Ukulele Number 1. The tuners went in easily enough, and they seem to do the trick – the uke keeps its tune much better now, even with brand new strings.

The Stew-Mac kit is going to be an interesting challenge. It comes with pre-bent sides and pre-rough-cut top and back, but requires building the body. The first step is to build a body assembly jig from 3/4″ plywood.

The Grizzly kit went together in about a week, so I didn’t expect to get much done this weekend, but with the missus in Portland for the long weekend, I hoped to get the body built. Didn’t seem too optimistic at the time.

The jig should be easy enough – three pieces of 7″-wide plywood: 11″, 2″, and 2 1/4″ long. Even with my rudimentary tools, how hard could it be? After seeing Star Trek on Saturday, portable workbench set up in the driveway, I planned on spending an hour cutting the pieces.

And had the most frustrating four hours in recent memory. I couldn’t get anything right. I’d measure twice, cut once, and then find that I was 1/32″ off. Consistently. It turns out my FastCap Flatback measuring tape was just a little bit off. The tang is probably not working right.

After figuring that out (and a couple wasted hours), the stupid errors set in. Like deciding that 11″ (the length of the base) + 5″ (the guide width of my circular saw) + 1/8″ (the kerf of the saw) = 17 1/8″. Unfortunately, I don’t have a safe, accurate way to trim exactly one inch off a 7″x12″ piece.

The last cut I made – the last one I could safely make with a circular saw on my stock – was for the 2 1/2″ tail piece. Unfortunately, it needed to be 2 1/4″.

Not wanting to have wasted an entire day, I used a rasp and sandpaper to work the piece down to size. Which took hours that should have been spent assembling the body. So I finally had my pieces.

Sunday, between seeing Terminator: Salvation and Flight Of The Conchords at the Greek Theatre, I assembled the jig. I was happy with how square I got the end pieces, and how flush the ends were with the end of the 7″ x 11″ base. It was frustrating, but at least I had the jig.

Only this morning I realized it was wrong. I decided to measure the space between the end pieces. 9 9/16″. Instead of the 9 1/2″ cited on the plans. And I knew immediately what I had done wrong. The calipers confirmed what I had forgotten – 3/4″ plywood is actually closer to 23/32″ thick. (It’s supposed to be 3/4″ thick, but moisture variations and sanding tend to remove about 1/32″. The sheet I have was actually a little thinner – about 45/64″)

Given that the instructions are supposedly geared towards beginners, it would have been nice for them to mention this. They do actually deal with this by telling you to measure 3/4″ from each of the short ends of the base. That way, you end up with a 9 1/2″ inside measurement. But getting the end pieces accurately lined up to the lines would be difficult.

A better solution, while I was out cutting 7″ wide plywood pieces, would have been to cut a 7″ x 9 1/2″ piece to use as an inside brace. This would get the length exactly right, and would also help square up the end pieces.

When you think about it, a slightly long ukulele body jig is a trivial thing compared to the sacrifices that our armed forces have made, which we remember on this Memorial Day. But it frustrated me to no end nonetheless.

1/16″ might be within tolerances (the pre-bent sides fit, and the top/bottom being cut rough, should work. But I want this to be accurate.

After weighing options, I decided to find some 1/16″ material to shim the jig – mostly because I was certain that in my frustration I would only screw up the cutting again (and possibly injure myself) – if I could find a lumber store open to get more 3/4″ plywood. I found a sheet of 1/16″ basswood at a hobby shop and glued it into the short end of the jig. Not the hardest of woods, but better than balsa (the other hobby store option).

So, after a long weekend and plenty of time, I have the neck and tail blocks glued into the sides and the glue is curing right now. Still lots to do to get to my goal of completing the body this weekend.

Most of my problems so far have been my own fault. But I do have some gripes about the manuals.

The Grizzly kit instructions were a bit spotty, and the Stew-Mac are definitely much better, but they are still a bit rough, and they don’t do as much explaining as I would like. I don’t know how much of this is the kit instructions being written by employees who are not specifically writers, and how much of it is that no one at the company (who didn’t design the kit) has actually built the kit.

For example, the body template is supposed to be cut out and then traced on to the aforementioned jig, and there are two lines marking the waist of the body to be transferred on to the base so that two angle brackets can be installed on the jig to hold the waist in place. But the lines are outside the body shape, so once cut out, you can’t transfer the lines to the jig. Fortunately, I extended the line through the pattern before cutting it out and was able to transfer it to the jig as intended.

Also confusing, at least for me, was the tapering of the body. It is thinner at the neck than it is at the bottom. The neck block is smaller than the tail block, and you have to angle the lining to match, but there is no picture of this. And later, you have to taper the sides down to the lining, but it took a lot of reading ahead to figure this out, and the pictures of this are less than helpful. A little explanation ahead of time would make this a lot more clear to me.

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