Harmony Uke Project

March 5, 2009

harmony soprano

harmony soprano

I started this post a while ago – it has been lounging in the draft pile.

A coworker, Kathy, found her family ukulele during her most recent summer visit. It’s an instrument that she remembered playing with as a small child. The uke recently turned up in the attic of her parents house after a 30 year or so hiatus — living with the unmatched socks or wherever family heirlooms hide undetected for 30 years.

Anyhow the uke is back.

There is a bit of a story here. The uke as found was in pieces. Dry as a bone. The top and back had the graceful modern curves of a Pringle.  The sides were still connected but the shape had bowed out to half way between a pineapple uke and a standard uke silhouette.

Kathy brought the parts in to show me. She asked casually how one would go about re-gluing the uke. I gave her the 2 minute explanation of how I would attempt it. Flatten the top, draw the outline of the flat top on a piece of 3/4″ plywood. Add a zillion brads around the outline. Soak the body and stuff it behind the brad fence. Let it dry for a while then glue/clamp the top to the sides as best as possible, then repeat with the back. I offered her clamps and glue.

Little did I know…she was actually going to re-glue the uke (!!)

not too bad

not too bad

It’s not perfect, but it’s a pretty damn respectable job considering that she didn’t have any clamps.

So here it is.  My task is to get a bridge and some tuners on the uke and make a new nut – At the least make it into a decent wall-hanger.

Yeargh!…The dilemma.  What now?

Please don’t tell Kathy, but I may take the top off again.  I went ahead and made some one-off bridge clamps, but a closer look reveals what appears to be a healthy crack in the top. I originally thought I wouldn’t have to take the uke back apart.

Closer look #2: It seems that the strings won’t clear the  top where the neck joins the body. That with the fact that there is no bracing gives me visions of loud pops followed by hail of splinter shrapnel if I tried to string the uke in this condition. I can’t imagine that the book-clamped glue on the top taking  take the strain even if the crack didn’t fly open.

I have never seen a Harmony uke up close. They are surprisingly rough – especially considering that they command decent prices when they are found in good condition.  The wood seems to be dyed birch. The top and back are solid wood, but a fairly clunky 1/8″ thick. The sides are the same thickness. The teeny holes on the pegboard make me think that it originally was outfitted with scrawny ancient  tuners on it at one point. Not sure what age range this puts the uke, later than the violin-peg tuners, but still with a wood fretboard.

so where did the pegs go?

so where did the pegs go?

The frets are that old thin gauge brass – pure unobtanium, so I can’t replace the 13th fret (there were 13 frets?!?!?)  The 12th fret is present and accounted for – so close enough. The fret markers are paint dots. The neck is pegged into the body with a single dowel. The nut looks like it was made of rosewood.


No-Name Ancient Mahogany Uke

September 30, 2007

no name front and back 

Another Ebay treasure.

I think I lucked out on this one. This uke is in good structural shape overall. It looks like it hails from the 1920’s, but this might be wishful thinking. There are no markings, no clues that I can find to identify this uke. I’m a novice though, it’s probably some super-common factory-uke, but I don’t know. If anyone out there can identify this puppy…any help would be greatly appreciated.  

It arrived pretty much as it appears here. Before I took any pictures, I started soaking the old glue off the body where the bridge was attached. Its a bit cleaner in that area, but the otherwise the uke is as found.

no name side

I have been looking for a uke that is more or less “original” – original tuners, original finish etc. A uke that is as close to original as I can find. Most of the older ukes within in my price range on ebay are fairly sad looking.

It is made of paper-thin mahogany. It has the original tuning pegs. There is a dark seam strip on the end – I have no idea what wood this is made of, but its dark. The uke has an oddly off-center back-bow. You can sort of see what I am talking about in the first picture.

This uke is a petite 13″ scale. A lot smaller and more delicately made than any uke I have had before. I really like the shapely and graceful lines. It is several steps above most of the clodhopper ukes coming out of Asia at the moment. From my small experience bending uke sides, the deeper the bend, the more difficult the bending. This uke is very carefully made.

Repairs should be fairly easy (insert sound of knocking on wood here). Probably fabricate a new bridge – the chip out of the top plate was still firmly attached to the old bridge.  So that will be easy, I see one closed body crack on the back, one closed side crack, and a 1″ section of seam opening on the back. One brace is loose inside – fabricating a clamp for this spot will be harder than actually gluing the brace.

The hardest operation will be making a decent 12th fret. I think this size of brass fretwire is totally unavailable these days. I’ll either make it from sheet like a bar fret, or fool around with model railroad track that is about the same size.

No name 12th fret missing

The finish is decent (looks like it was refinished long ago). The scratches look like they can be rubbed out rather than slathering the uke in new varnish.

The bridge is puzzling – it seems as if it fell off at some point and was reglued with something like Duco cement (?? whatever it is, the stuff is still pliable and pops off the old hide-glue like it was stuck on wax-paper). It was probably at this point where some madman (or madwoman) attacked the top around the bridge with sand-paper. Pity they didnt manage to actually sand any of the old glue off – just scratched the heck out of the finish.   

 no name bridge area

So there is something funny going on here…either the bridge was reglued 1/4″ to 1/2″ too far back on the top? Or this is the wrong bridge. I see some evidence of the bridge being up about 1/8″ higher on the body than the most recent location, but not enough far enough to make sense of the measurements. I think that this uke lost its original bridge and had a replacement (the wrong replacement) botched onto it, by the mysterious sandpaper bandit.  

 no name bridge and pegs

The bridge that came with this uke has a built-in saddle. Dead-on 1/4″ tall. The string notches are tapered holes drilled into the end of the bridge then opened with saw cuts. I think I remember seeing this style on several different brands of older ukes.

The bridge is a good match to the uke in color and age, but I can’t make the measurements jibe. For this uke to be tuneable…this bridge would need to be placed on the top in a space where there is strong (original?) varnish.    

I have not finished puzzling-out this uke yet, but there seems to be no way I can think of that this is the right bridge for the uke. This bridge came with the “original” strings still attached. One gut and two nylon and one unaccounted for. Who knows?

no name replacement bridge

Last minute pic of some replacement bridges I am working on. All are from an old Honduras Mahogany scrap I had lying around. The bottom is not quite finished being shaped and is still raw mahogany. I treated the other two with dichromate to see if I can get a decent match with the color of the original wood. The center is the dichromate, the top has a single coat of dark seedlac over the dichromate. The color match looks good. Sorry about the dark shadows in the photo.

Koa Tenor Uke Build

July 8, 2007

My Koa tenor Uke is coming along. This is my first tenor with a “spanish-style” neck.

The first Uke I ever made, a few years ago, was a frankenstein concert-size with a Spanish neck. Not very sucessful. Probably not a great idea to tackle a Spanish neck for a first uke. I had just finished reading Guitarmaking Tradition and Technology by Cumpiano/Natelson. I was fired up. 

…that first uke really looked like crap but it had a redwood top, a dead-straight neck and sounded great.

So somehow I associated the uke’s looking like a train-wreck with the Spanish neck (rather than the 400 other problems that the uke has). I then build a few butt-jointed soprano ukes. I liked the simplicity of the idea of the butt joint, but after I ruined three or four perfectly good uke necks and bodies with bad butt-joints. I was ready for something new.

The problem was my not being able to properly clamp the butt joint between the body and the heel of the neck.  I’d get the neck angle a degree or so out of square. Usually in the worst possible direction. Lots of work for iffy results.

I never was truly comfortable with the butt joint. I used a plywood spline between the neck and the head-block, but I still didnt think that this was quite right. Gluing endgrain of the neck heel to the sidegrain of the top?! The entire weight of the strings would be bearing on the tiny surface area in the plywood spline. Seemed like a uke that would need to be rebuilt in a couple of years. 

 The other option is to do the Martin style dovetail neck. That idea seemed to combine all the inherant problems in the Spanish and Butt-Joined methods. Insanely complicated and lots of room for problems. On the upside that method is adjustable and repairable.

I shelved dovetails for now. 


I thought of doing a faux-Spanish neck – Making a butt-joint neck with a long heel, drilling through the end of the heel for 3 dowels then sawing off  the end of the heel – to create the headblock for the body (the holes ideally matching perfectly) this seems to be the costruction method used on a Loius Gaspar uke from the 1950’s that I have. More on that uke later.

More to come….