A Story

Gather around, young’uns and I’ll tell you a tale. First you must acquaint yourselves with the Ken & Eileen Ukulele Saga. It all starts here:


I finished Ken’s uke and it looked stunning.

Unfortunately, there was one small problem – the cone collapsed from the pressure of the extra strings and the extra long scale. D’oh! I was crushed (no pun intended).

I called National Resophonic Guitars (the maker of the cone) in California and they were very helpful. The owner, Don Young, even sent me some thicker, stiffer cones to try. We thought that might solve the problem but those collapsed too! I was getting frustrated. I considered learning how to spin aluminum so I could make my own cones. I even turned some cones out of wood on the off chance that that might work. They held up but were too quiet. Here is a poplar cone on the lathe and the finished cone next to the original.

It was a cool idea but it didn’t work.

I was slowly coming to the ugly realization that a 6″ cone just wouldn’t do AND I couldn’t fit a larger cone in the body I had made. I called Ken and admitted defeat. He was quite magnanimous and took it completely in stride when I told him I was going to have to start over from scratch. We decided that a wider body with a larger, stiffer cone would solve our problem and I made plans for a building a new model.

Towards the end of that phone conversation, Ken asked me if I could salvage the ukulele and turn it into a ‘regular’ uke – not a resonator. I told him I’d try.

My resonator ukuleles are different from my other ukes in that the neck angle is much steeper. The resonator sits high on the body and therefore the neck has to be canted to allow for that height. If I turned this uke into a regular uke I was going to have to address this problem. It dawned on me that an arch top might work. Arch top instruments have a carved top that sits up high in the middle. Think of a violin or a mandolin and you will understand. I talked to Ken and he told me to go for it.

The worst part was having to take a router to that beautiful maple top.

I also had to remove the fretboard which wasn’t too much of a chore since I use hide glue.

I glued up a thick, white pine top and got to work. With arch tops, you have to chisel, plane and scrape as best you can in order to make a domed top of relatively equal thickness. The below drawing gives an excellent representation of what the arch top should look like in cross section. Brad Donaldson drew these plans and was kind enough to share them with me. Relatively few people have built arch top ukes so information is scarce. You can check out Brad here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r9_NHjZsTdE

It’s always satisfying and fun to make your own tools. I made these miniature planes to help me shape the top.

Here is the inside of the top after shaping.

Here is another tool I built. This is a thickness gauge. It will tell you the thickness of the top at any specific point. You slide the top between the jaws and move it around to read how thick the top is.

Spruce braces are glued in.

Here you can see the old sides and back ready to receive the new top. I had to add another layer of lining to provide adequate gluing surface. Notice the three-ply binding is still in place.

Gluing up.

Finally finished! Notice the bridge I made out of ebony.

Planetary tuners with ebony knobs

I installed dots on the top as an aide to placing the bridge.

I mailed it off to Ken and he says he likes it “100 percent”! He says he would change nothing. Whew! It was a long haul but definitely worth it. Eileen contacted me and said she wants the same thing done so I am finishing up on hers.

Here is Ken enjoying his new arch top.

Published in: on July 22, 2012 at 12:13 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Great post, little brother! That is one good-looking ukulele and the story is well-told. I need for you to come to my school sometime and have a story-telling, ukulele-playing event with my 2nd graders. They would love it. Also, that Big Rusty label is perfect and makes me smile. Love you, Mef

  2. Great work, of course! Love the woods, love the planes!


  3. Since you tried spinning your own cones…did you try it out of brass? It is much more hardy than aluminum… Also checkout http://www.cigarboxnation.com/profile/OldLowe he spins them out of brass for Cigar Box Guitars, in 6 inch…I know you worked on this in 2012 and it is 2014…but never give up. BTW beautiful workmanship.

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