Handmade Ukulele

October 16, 2011
By Rebecca Boudreaux BRONZE, Fort Worth, Texas
Rebecca Boudreaux BRONZE, Fort Worth, Texas
1 article 0 photos 0 comments

“Ker plunk” was the sound my handcrafted ukulele made the first time my fingers strummed its strings. I had spent the past six months constructing this family heirloom with my grandfather. Playing the ukulele became a passion of mine at the beginning of my sophomore year. While I found learning new chords and songs to be satisfying, it just wasn’t enough. I wanted to build a ukulele with my own two hands. I enlisted the help of my paternal grandfather whose hobby is woodworking. Our hours spent working together brought me closer to my seemingly gruff grandfather and gave me a better understanding and appreciation of his attitude and personality.
Expecting to build a ukulele from a cigar box or a cookie tin, I told Paw-Paw about my idea for our project. He wanted to do something much bigger and better. We were going to build nearly everything from scratch. We drove for hours to a special lumberyard to choose the perfect piece of wood. I picked out a beautiful piece of maple with iridescent spots scattered throughout the wood.
I would be considered by most to be a very girly-girl, so I surprised all of my family and friends and even myself when I learned to control a variety of power tools. The vibrations from the electric sander would make my arms numb and tingly for hours after I used it. The loud buzzing sound of the band saw rang in my ears. The smell of sawdust would settle into my clothes. I only had one minor accident while building the ukulele. On the last day that required a power tool, I bragged to Paw-Paw that I had not hurt myself at all during our project. I spoke too soon. I was using an electric polisher for the frets when I got too close. The polisher grabbed the small amount of hair that was hanging down and spun it into a tightly-wound knot. I had to go home with part of the polisher still attached to my head. After spending some time with a comb, I was able to loosen the knot and remove the piece of the polisher entwined in my hair. I was able to laugh at the situation even when some of my hair broke off. My only resulting injury was to my ego.
Six months—that’s how long it took to build my ukulele. Beginning in the middle of a hot Texas summer and ending in an especially cold winter, Paw-Paw and I would spend hours in un-air-conditioned tool shed in his backyard. We worked hard to be able to call ourselves luthiers. While we worked, he would tell me stories from my dad’s childhood or from his own life. He told me about how he took my grandmother to their senior prom and how my dad ran his car into a ditch in high school, which my dad would never admit to me. Because my grandfather is so quiet and gruff, I felt very special hearing his stories. I knew that by building the ukulele together, I was hearing stories that I would not have heard otherwise. Our time spent together led to the relationship I had always wanted with my grandfather.
It was a bittersweet moment when I was finally able to string up my new ukulele after six months of hard work and patience. Our project had ended, but the excitement of a new instrument had just begun. The strings went on. I tuned it. As I set my fingers in the position for a g-chord, I looked at Paw-Paw with anticipation. “Ker plunk.” “What could have gone wrong?” Paw-Paw was thinking the same thing as he snatched up the ukulele to inspect it. I giggled nervously. Had all of our hard work been in vain? Sure, I enjoyed the process of making my ukulele, but an instrument needs to be played. “Wait!” I saw the saddle that we had forgotten to put in place sitting on the table. This important piece of wood goes in-between the bridge and the strings. I picked it up and asked, “Is this our problem?” Paw-Paw’s countenance changed from stark horror to pure relief. “Ah, Sha!” He exclaimed, using his nickname for me. “I was getting worried there!” We slid the saddle into place, re-tuned, and I began strumming. Our work had paid off.
I learned many lessons from my experience with building my ukulele, not only how to keep my hair away from the power tools. My relationship with my grandfather strengthened. And I also learned a lot about myself. For example, I can do anything I set my mind to. Hard work and diligence will get me where I want to go, more often than not. The hand-written tag inside the ukulele sums it up: “Made with blood, sweat, and love by Rebecca and Raymond.”

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