For many years I wasn’t much for naming instruments; they were “the Les Paul”, “the mandolin”, and so forth. Then in my 40s Cecilia came about as a way to describe the desired voice of a mandolin that Steve Gilchrist was building for me; Cecilia Bartoli is a golden-voiced mezzo soprano who sings with gorgeous warmth, verve, and line. I later heard that Steve listens exclusively to bluegrass and probably didn’t know Bartoli from Madonna, but he built a spectacular instrument so it all worked out.

Now, with multiple instruments in process at once, I often name them as an amiable way to think about and discuss them with others. Watson got his name by having English walnut back and sides and a big heart.

The specs:

  • Top: Carpathian spruce. Lynn Dudenbostel describes it this way: like great Adirondack without a decades long break-in time!
  • Bracing: 3 fans and bridge patch of euro spruce, tranverses of Sitka, hide glue
  • Bridge: Macassar ebony with compensated bone saddle
  • Back and Sides: curly English walnut
  • Binding: Bolivian rosewood
  • Neck: Honduras mahogany. Ziricote headstock overlay with gold MOP moon logo
  • Fingerboard: radiused ebony, with bone nut and MOP side dots
  • Finish: oil varnish, with light shellac top coat on soundboard
  • tuners: Gotoh UPTL

This walnut is almost good enough to eat:


It’s hard to capture in a photo, but the Carpathian top has striking silking, a term used to describe the lustrous appearance of the ray cells that cross the growth rings. Their prominence is an indication of well quarter-sawn wood.


Watson has lived in a loving home, but his owner dreams of an orculele, so he is available on consignment and will be available to audition at Uke U-4 in Bend, or by contacting me to arrange a visit.

Closing in

Carving the bridge comes near the end of the build, and is a pleasure–careful work with super sharp tools, but not as stressful as some of the other steps, and an opportunity to leave “fingerprints”…traces of the hand-building process.

I will leave the subtle facets created by the carving gouge here on the back of the tie block:

while the other surfaces will be comparatively sleek.

Up to my neck

With the English walnut uke having gotten its first coat of finish…
it’s time to get busy shaping the neck. The black lines in English walnut are called “marblecake”, in case you want to work that into your conversations.
The key to good shaping for me is raking light, as the following photos show. Good or bad, the shape jumps out, and even a single stroke of a fine file makes a clear change.

It makes for cool textures too:

For complex locations like the heel, I often hold the light in one hand and the tool in the other, moving the light back and forth to examine every bit of the surface.

In this photo I’ve just cut in the facet on the right with a carving chisel–which takes two hands, so the light is on a stand nearby.

UKEtoberfest – under the hood

A few behind the scenes images as UKEtoberfest draws closer.

Record keeping. These notes satisfy the curious, but also help a luthier in the future should the instrument be damaged.

The silking on this Carpathian spruce top is lovely. “Silking” refers to the hazy gently waving lines that are roughly right angles to the growth rings, going up/down in this pic. They are the trees ray cells, and their prominence indicates nice quartersawn wood.

Next, a shout out to the good friend who ordered me back to lutherie. I resisted, but Tom was right.
Those small holes will index on pin in the neck block to align the top perfectly, and will be covered by the fingerboard. The centerline is marked in pencil because the joint is virtually invisible, a combination of preparation with an ultra sharp hand plane and the use of hide glue, which shrinks and pulls together as it dries.
This view shows how the end block is beveled to provide a bit more free vibrating surface on the all important top plate. The block itself is baltic birch plywood, a very high quality material that will prevent splitting if someone bangs the end of the instrument on the strap pin or pickup jack.
The red clamps below are mashing together (laminating) pau ferro and curly european maple, which will become bindings after I slice them with my sushi knife. Or bandsaw. It took an inordinate amount of time to find a plank that would yield bindings to compliment the English walnut and Scottish beech that establish the dominant colors of this uke. You can see in the foreground where I spot-applied finish to the plank in order to preview the color.
Coming together nicely. I love this spalted beech! Spalting (the black lines and mottled colors) comes from fungi setting up shop in the wood; as competing colonies grow and meet each other they secrete melanin “battle lines” (zone lines–see Dr. Sara Robinson’s northernspalting.com for lots on the subject). Don’t worry, the fungi are gone.
The first of the volcano ukes!
And what is this potato chip? A test bend (the tightest bend on the sides) to see whether one of the “Holy Grail” woods of the classical guitar world will scale to the more compactly curved uke.
I’m interested in this species partly because of its remarkable sustain and resonance (even this little scrap!), and partly to scratch a Lord of the Rings itch. It will be difficult to finish it by UKEtoberfest, but we shall see.