BY AARON KEIM | FROM THE FALL 2018 ISSUE OF UKULELE
In this installment of Building a Ukulele, we’re going to look at what goes into making a fretboard. The fretboard of a ukulele is easy to take for granted. As long as your ukulele is set up properly, you may never really notice it or think about the work that went into making it. The fretboard we are working on today is in a lovely pinkish pistachio wood from an orchard in the Central Valley of California. Pistachio isn’t quite as hard as rosewood, but it is a nice, sustainable, and beautiful domestic hardwood that works well for the job.
First, a rectangular fretboard blank is stuck to a template with double-sided tape and offered up to a sliding jig on the table saw. The normal saw blade has been replaced by a very thin blade and thick stiffeners. The jig has an alignment pin that slots into the template to cut thin slots across the blank to take the frets. This system quickly creates accurate slots that ensure good intonation. Fig. 1, Fig. 2
Second, the taper is cut on a table saw jig that adjusts to cut each side accurately. Fig. 3
I think a bound fretboard gives a cleaner look and is stiffer than an unbound one. Two pieces of pistachio binding are glued in place in the next step using tape and an old-fashioned wooden clamp. A thin hooked knife clears any glue that squeezes into the fret slots. Fig. 4
Next, I mark centerlines and drill holes in the fretboard to take 1/8-inch black plastic inlays. I prefer dots at the 3, 5, 7, 10, 12, and 15 frets. Superglue holds them in and the excess is clipped off. Fig. 5
I prefer fretboards with a 12-inch radius, so after I make sure the top and bottom are flat, I use a hand plane and curved sanding beam to introduce the radius, which makes for easy playability, especially on barre chords. After using the beam, I hand sand up to 600 grit to make a fine surface for your fingers. Fig. 6, Fig. 7
Next, I add small black plastic side dots to the side of the fingerboard using superglue. These are even more important than front dots, as the player should be able to easily see these from her viewpoint. Fig. 8
Before I can fret the fingerboard, I’ll need to prep the frets. I cut one fret for each slot, nipping and filing the end of the tang off so the finished fret hangs over the binding. Fig. 9
After lightly tapping in one edge of each fret, I use a small arbor press to seat each fret all the way down, making sure to not over-press. Fig. 10
The overhanging fret ends can then be nipped off with a flush cutter and the board is ready to glue on the neck. Final fretwork will wait until the instrument is ready to string up. Fig. 11
Aaron Keim is a luthier at Beansprout Musical Instruments and also a busy educator, historian, writer, and performer. He performs with his wife Nicole in the Quiet American.
If you learned something new here, will you leave us a tip? We're asking you to give just $2 (or whatever you can afford) to support this site.