gourd ukulele

If you thought my other ukulele blog post was long, take a deep breath before reading through this one. Also, this one is super delayed. I finished this project early March of 2016…

Around Thanksgiving (the one in 2015…) a friend of mine gave me a gourd as a gag gift.

this is a gourd dressed as a llama, obviously.

Of course, everyone thought I threw it away after the party (but I know better than to throw anything away, ever). So a few days (maybe weeks…) later, I cut it open, scooped out the slightly rotting innards and let the shell dry. This probably isn’t the best way to dry a gourd, but because we drilled the leg holes, I didn’t have much choice.

After it was dry, the lip of the shell wasn’t flat anymore and I had to avoid an old llama leg hole (as you can see in the image below), so I used tape to lay out the edge of the new lip.

I used tape to determine where to saw
Then I sanded to get the lip flat.

Next I started on the neck. I wanted to try making a traditional headstock with a scarf joint, so I started by cutting a pretty steep angle on a piece of scrap. Then I tilted the angle jig back 15 degrees (the angle of the scarf joint), double-stick taped the neck material, and cut the scarf joint.

cutting a steep angle maximizes the surface area that the neck material can rest against as it is being cut.

Next begins a crazy Frankenstein process of building out the neck. Basically, all the scrap wood I had was just barely too small. And I miscalculated and made the head stock too short. My preferred solution was just to glue on another block of wood.

scarf joint was glued previously. Here extra blocks are added to increase width

The neck piece is extra long so that it extends the full end of the instrument, from the head through the entire gourd. The gourd itself doesn’t feel all that structural, so I am expecting this neck piece to take the tension of the strings.

here a block is added where the neck will transition into the gourd
while everything is still square, I cut the slot for the nut with a table saw sled
after some very coarse roughing, the neck starts to fit the gourd

At some point I forgot that the surface of the neck that the fret board glues to actually has to be taller than the edge of the gourd by the thickness of the sound board. So in the picture below I use a fine saw to make a step down in the neck where it goes under the soundboard. The resulting thickness of the brace is less than I had planned, but I think it will still be enough.

sawing a step for the part of the neck that goes under the soundboard

After some work, mostly with a block plane, chisel, and knife, the neck piece that extends into the body starts to take shape. Most of it is carved to curve away from the sound board so that it doesn’t prevent the sound board from vibrating.

neck taking shape
neck piece curves away from soundboard

Before shaping the transition from the neck to the gourd, I glue the neck to the gourd with epoxy.

tape forms a dam so I can build a small epoxy puddle to join the neck and gourd

Very slowly, mostly with a chisel and knife, I slim the neck down to match the gourd. This neck will be quite thin all the way through, which should make it quite comfortable to play.

slowly shaping the neck to match the gourd

Around this time I also start shaping the volute.

shaping the volute

It soon becomes apparent that I made the head too short and the tuning pegs won’t fit.

not enough room for tuning pegs 🙁

I amend this situation by gluing on yet another block and sand flush.

a collection of wood chunks glued together

Next I turn my attention to the sound board. This time I actually got a piece of spruce, which is a very popular sound board material. This ukulele only required 1/4 of a guitar front.

drilling holes for the sound hole

I chose an organically shaped off-center hole so that the neck piece that runs down the inside of the body won’t be easily visible.

sound board with sound hole

Next I cut strips of kerfed lining to give the soundboard more surface area to glue to the gourd body.

a table saw sled is really useful for kerfing
clothes pins hold the lining as the glue dries
because the gourd walls are not perpendicular, the top of the lining will take some trimming (mostly by Dremel) for the sound board to sit flush
slather on the glue
wrapped in an assortment of string and webbing while the glue dries
rough sanding the edges of the sound board flush to the gourd
a final bit of sanding on the top of the sound board ensure it is flush with the neck so that the fretboard bonds to a continuous surface. I guess sometimes you don’t want the fretboard to be fixed to the soundboard since that will dampen it, but I don’t think that will make much of a difference in this case.

Right before gluing on the fretboard I also glued a small piece of maple veneer to the front face of the head, just to hide the surplus of glue joints…

gluing on the fretboard

I worked out the tuner spacing on a scrap piece of wood.

tuner spacing

And then used the same scrap piece as a drill guide when drilling the actual holes.

drilling out the tuner holes

Next I made the nut and saddle using a lamb bone that came from my roommate’s dinner a few months earlier. I had boiled it for a half hour or so after receiving it just to get it as clean as possible. Then it sat around drying for quite some time.

cutting bone for nut and saddle.
a nut is born
bridge and saddle in-progress

I didn’t know exactly how high to make the bridge, so I started with one that was extra high. Then I slowly sanded it down until I felt it was right. Shown below, I used a straight piece of wood rested on the nut and saddle to help me visualize where the string would be. If the string is too high, you have to push it down really far to get it to touch the fret, and this can be tiring and slow (assuming I ever learn to play any faster). If the strings are too close to the fretboard, it can touch the fretboard even when you don’t want it to, and this may cause buzzing.

checking the string action

I used maple again to make a piece that the strings will eventually tie to .

the bridge  and the thing the strings tie to in their roughly final positions

Since the piece on the right is holding all the string tension, I wanted to make sure it was well secured to the part of the neck that runs the entire length of the instrument. To match the black fret markers on the fret board, I decided to use ebony to make a black dowel pin.

making an ebony dowel
rounding the ebony dowel on a lathe (drill)

To commemorate the origins of the gourd, I decided to try my hand at inlay. I started by sketching and then cutting out a small llama shape in a thin piece of walnut. Then I double-stick taped it to the head and traced around it with a razor blade. Finally, I used a combination of little chisels to remove all the extra material. The fact that I had faced the head with a maple veneer earlier meant I had a really convenient depth gauge to make sure the inlay pocket depth was even.

llama inlay
flood the inlay pocket with glue
generous clamping pressure
sanded flat. All the edges came out great except for the circular arc around the legs. I’ll have to work on cutting the grain more crisply on edges like that.
finally, the finishing process begins! I used Tru-oil again.

After a couple coats, I used tape to mark out where the bridge pieces would go and used a small sharp chisel to scrape away the finish in those areas.

scraped away the Tru-oil where the bridge will glue down

I left the tape on during gluing to help clean up overflow and also to help align the parts, since the glue can create a bit of a bearing surface that causes the parts to slide around.  Below you can see how I used that ebony pin to pin the tail piece through the soundboard into the neck brace below.

bridge glued and pinned

After a bit more Tru-oil, assembly can finally begin!

marking screw holes for the tuners

Here are some shots of the finished product.

the finished product
inlay close-up
volute and back of head close-up
gourd transition close up. A bit of a gap, but okay for first try.
bridge close-up. I went with a low-G string on this one

As someone with little credibility in this field, I highly recommend gourd ukuleles. This one sounds fantastic and its a lot less work to make since the gourd only leaves one face unfinished.





9 responses to “gourd ukulele”

  1. Ian Roberts Avatar
    Ian Roberts

    Amy, that is outstanding. It’s my project for the Christmas break. Thanks

    1. aqian Avatar

      awesome! thanks for reading. please send pics!

  2. Jeff Katzer Avatar

    Wow, nice job on the build and the story of the build. Very interesting!

  3. […] Amazing! See a lot more step-by-step photos and read all about this project over on Amy Qian’s blog here. […]

  4. Digit Woutat Avatar
    Digit Woutat

    Yay! I built a number of gourd guitars and Ukes a few years back, and at the time couldn’t find much online about other folks doing the same (with the exception of a woman from Australia)
    Kudos! I’d upload a photo here but it doesn’t seem to be an option.
    Keep up the good work!

  5. World's Tiniest Woodshop Avatar

    Hi Amy,

    this turned out beautiful! The inlay in the headstock is awesome! I’m just getting started in woodworking and playing uke myself.

    I built a Backpacker’s Travel Uke (concert) last month. I’m just starting tenor size electric version. I’ll put a piezo rod at the bridge and solder it to an endpin jack.

    You can find my post on the first uke on my site. I used a design from Circuit & Strings’ blog.

    Connie from World’s Tiniest Woodshop

    1. aqian Avatar

      Connie, your uke turned out pretty sweet! Looking forward to seeing the tenor electric one!

  6. […] the soundboard, which used leftover material from the spruce soundboard I originally bought for my gourd ukulele. The X-brace is made from what I’m pretty sure is mahogany and the sound hole brace, probably […]

  7. Baba Brad Avatar
    Baba Brad

    I know I’m late to the party, but that truly is beautiful. I made one form a cigar box, and it is no where near as nice looking as your’s kudos. I think that may just be my next uke project.

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