BY AARON KEIM | FROM THE SUMMER 2018 ISSUE OF UKULELE
For the next few installments of Gear Guru, we will focus on different aspects of ukulele building. Our first topic is carving the neck. Although the sound of the ukulele is from the body, the feel is from the neck. A neck’s size and shape—along with the setup of the strings—are vital to the tactile aspect of playing your instrument. Though a computer can carve a “perfect” neck every time, I like the feel of a handmade neck and enjoy the building process as well. While I was a luthier at Mya-Moe, I carved a neck every workday for eight years, so I was able to develop speed in the process. Going from a roughly shaped neck to a hand-sanded neck takes me less than an hour.
Let’s begin by looking at three necks in different phases of construction: 1. rough cut; 2. with fretted fingerboard, heel cap and head plate glued on and tuner holes drilled; and 3. shaped neck ready to glue on the uke. Our neck blanks (Figure 1) come to us in a few different ways: larger billets that we process into blanks, smaller-dimensioned lumber that is laminated into blanks, and neck blanks that are already 3 inches by 3 inches and ready for machining. When the blank is ready, we trace two neck outlines onto it before rough cutting the shape on the bandsaw (Figure 2).
After the neck blank has a fingerboard and head plate glued on and the tuner holes cut, I remove the excess material at the bandsaw (Figure 3). Watch out for those strumming fingers!
Next, I take the neck over to the vise and begin setting up the rounded profile using a microplane, a rasp-like tool that makes a very fast and clean cut (Figure 4). I round-over four spots on the neck—both sides of the neck at the nut and neck heel—that I will connect in the next step.
After these four rounded spots are ready, I use a spokeshave to carve away the wood in between them (Figure 5). A spokeshave is a sharp blade set in a handle that makes short work of the waste wood and connects those rounded spots. This is the true “carving” part of the process.
I then grab a sharp one-inch chisel to carve the transition from headstock to neck (Figure 6). This part is important because the player’s hand will often rest there and you want it to feel good.
I use the same chisel to carve off excess wood around the heel cap (Figure 7). This area is a combination of flat and curved areas that deserves extra attention to get right.
Now the neck is ready for the hand-held orbital sander (Figure 8). I start with 80-grit paper and work my way up to 220. This is my chance to remove all rasp and chisel marks while blending all of the curves. The overall goal is to create a tidy, architectural look that is also pleasing to the touch. This is also when I sand flush and bevel the fret ends so they are out of the way of the left hand while playing.
After the machine sanding, I work my way up to 600-grit by hand, taking a final chance to perfect every curve and angle. The final neck (Figure 9) should feel solid and substantial, yet graceful and delicate. It’s a hard combination to nail down, but worth spending the time to get right.
Now, it’s ready to glue on the body and start on the finish. It will be making music soon!
Aaron Keim is a luthier at Beansprout Musical Instruments (thebeansprout.com) and also a busy educator, historian, writer, and performer. He performs with his wife Nicole in the Quiet American. quietamericanmusic.com