Notes on a StewMac Ukulele Kit

I bought myself a StewMac kit last Christmas and it’s finally warmed up enough to go in the garage and put it together. I got the tenor size with optional spruce top. My aging fingers won’t cooperate well enough to play smaller versions and besides, tenors were on sale. Their kit includes pre-cut, pre-surfaced, and pre-bent components. The neck is shaped and the fretboard is slotted in the correct positions. You can download a copy of the assembly manual from their web site. They use the same manual for all their ukulele products. Dan Erlewine appears in a series of ten YouTube videos showing a typical StewMac assembly.

Stew Mac Kit as Received
Stew Mac Kit as Received

StewMac has gone to great lengths to make their kits practical for people with a limited set of tools and they succeeded for the most part. I used tools I have on hand that fit the task, in some cases deviating from their recommendation. This is the result and it sounds really good.

Stew Mac Tenor Ukulele
Stew Mac Tenor Ukulele

There were a few issues with the supplied components.

  • Neck and tail blocks were too tall. Fixed with my table saw.
  • Two of the braces were bowed slightly, fixed with a hand plane.
  • The bridge support plate was smaller than it needed to be.
  • Curved edge banding broke when forced around the body curve.
    Fixed by wetting, heating, and re-bending strips to fit better.
  • Curved sides did not fit the template. Fixed with a hacked together clamp.
  • The shaped neck had twisted. Fixed with hand planes and sandpaper.
  • Dowel holes in neck were off center. Used dowel centers to mark the holes.
    The dowels themselves were too small I used 1/4″ dowels from the Home Center.

Assembly begins by gluing braces to the inside surfaces of the top and bottom plates. Carbon paper was useful for transferring the pattern to the wooden plate. I used the plywood scrap I found for the body mold as a support and glued the braces on in pairs allowing the Titebond III to set up an hour between pairs. Weight and cauls worked well.

Rehersing the Brace Gluing
Rehersing the Brace Gluing

StewMac’s body mold is just plywood with six angle bracket stanchions around the periphery of the body. The pasted on drawing has the final outline as well as the outline of the top and bottom plates. There is about a quarter inch difference to allow for small deviations in the body shape. It wasn’t enough.

Stew Mac Spec Body Mold

Stew Mac Spec Body Mold

Some notes on the body mold. Several Internet posts I read recommended making a full body mold e.g. a plywood template with the entire shape cut out. I found the StewMac method to be adequate.

Side stanchions would work better if they could be adjusted a bit. I think leaving out the screw on the “L” bracket tails would allow the bracket to swivel enough to fit better.

I used a “T” plate at the large end to save room. This turned out to be an advantage later as loosening the screws there allowed the body to be inserted or removed more easily.

The eight large cup hooks were straightened a bit with vise grip pliers to allow them to position closer to the body.

Waxed paper was taped over the template to repel glue.


Here the shaped body sides have been glued up. The two sides are mainly held together by glue on the neck and tail blocks. The ends of those blocks have to be flush with the side edge for a successful glue up later. Bracing is finished on the top and bottom plates in this photo. Note the wide part of the body overhanging the edge of the paper template. I could have added two more stanchions to fix that but see the following photo.

Sides, Top, and Bottom Assembled
Sides, Top, and Bottom Assembled

Banding is applied to the top and bottom edges to add additional glue surface for the top and bottom plates. This will strain your supply of small clamps. StewMac recommends using clothes pins, but try to find old clothespins, the Chinese pins you get in the stores today have weak springs. Note the curve at the body waist where the larger orange clamps are. That’s where the first band broke. My remedy was to mark the bandings where that curve would be, spritz with water, and heat with a heat gun. In a minute I could recurve the banding to fit the body better.

It’s very important to get the banding flush with the body edge or it won’t do it’s job. I had one spot where the banding was low. If I had used hide glue I could have repositioned it but Titebond is unforgiving

Also in this photo you can see the remedy for the too fat body. Two strips of plywood lashed together at one end and a big clamp at the other. With that I could squeeze the wide body to fit within the template. When the banding glue was set, it was good.

Gluing the Linings
Gluing the Linings

When the banding is fully dried and flushed (quality time with a big hand plane and sandpaper) and the bracing trimmed to fit per the StewMac spec, the bottom is centered and glued. StewMac’s supplied giant rubber bands worked well, though I helped with a few iron weights. Note the tape applied to the body edge to help keep squeeze out under control. I used Old Brown liquid hide glue here because of the longer open time.

Bottom Glued and Clamped
Bottom Glued and Clamped

The top and bottom plates are larger than the final body outline and will not fit in the body mold without being trimmed flush with the sides. I used a flush trim bit in a router table for this operation. It left a one tape thickness ridge around the plate which was sanded off later.

Flush Trimming Bottom on Router Table
Flush Trimming Bottom on Router Table

The previous operations were repeated to glue on the top. I heat the glue to about 140 degrees in a tea pot. A small amount at a time is squirted into the heated white dish where the brush can pick it up.

Preparing to Glue the Top
Preparing to Glue the Top

And the same rubber band and weight technique clamps on the spruce top, followed by a session on the router table to flush the top plate to the body side. I had one small chip out with the router, there are four areas where it’s going against the grain. Have to take several small passes. Move quickly or the wood will burn DAMHIKT.

Top Glued and Clamped
Top Glued and Clamped

At this point the body is complete. When the body sanded to suit, it’s time to assemble the neck.

StewMac supplies a Walnut fret board already slotted. The “T” shaped fret wire comes as a single length which you cut to individual fret lengths with dikes, leaving a small amount sticking out the sides to get filed down later. The StewMac instructions are to hammer the fret wires into the slots. I found hammering dented the frets so I switched to pressing them in with the bench vise. Start the fret by tapping with the hammer straight in the slot, place a scrap of Oak over the protruding fret, then squeeze the sandwich down in the vise to seat the wire. It worked perfectly.

Driving Fret Wires Home
Driving Fret Wires Home

My first eyeball inspection of the pre-shaped neck showed that it had a significant twist which would really screw up the fret board. So I could have complained to StewMac and gotten the neck replaced but Hey, I’m a woodworker. I have a drawer full of planes. I used a #5 to remove the twist, pretty sure it’s true now. I glued the fret board to the neck per the StewMac directions using liquid hide glue. Later I had trouble getting the fret board flat and true, some of that problem I believe was due to using glue that has water as a solvent. Water causes the wood to swell which makes the neck curve slightly. I saw a YouTube where a professional luthier used only marine epoxy between the fret board and neck to avoid that problem. My neck’s curve is slight and improving with time as moisture dissipates.

The fret board is a bit wider than the neck so at this time the board and the frets are evened with files and sandpaper to be flush with the sides of the neck.

The neck is pinned to the body with dowels. I found one of the dowel holes in the neck was off center, possibly caused by the blank twisting before it was drilled. So I made a jig on my drill press. Drilled the top hole first using a dowel center to locate, then used another dowel center to locate the second hole. Positioning the jig against the body allowed the drill to make accurate holes. I did not use the supplied dowels as I thought they were too loose in the neck. I used compressed wood dowels from the local home center, sanded a couple of them down to use during the test fits.

Fitting the neck to the body took quite a bit of time. It has to be trued and centered on the body at the correct angle for the strings to work right, and that angle is not obvious. You adjust by selectively removing wood from the foot of the neck. StewMac’s instructions and videos do this by sliding strips of sandpaper under the foot. I used sandpaper, also chisels and gouges.

Location Jig For Neck Dowels
Location Jig For Neck Dowels

Once the neck is assembled and trued to the body, take a deep breath and glue it on. I used extensive blue tape to minimize squeeze out, though hide glue washes off easily. I used a small “F” clamp to capture the high end of the fret board, StewMac instructions help here as you have to work around the internal bracing, and I used a long parallel jaw clamp to apply horizontal pressure. This did put a dent in the point of the neck but the dent came out with my standard home remedy, spit on it.

Gluing Neck Assembly to Body
Gluing Neck Assembly to Body

I don’t have any photos of installing the bridge. That required the one C clamp I own that is long enough to reach through the sound hole back to where that blue tape is in the picture above. That clamp also has to work around internal bracing.

Applying a finish is straight forward. I applied two coats of Formby’s Tung Oil Varnish which is what I had on hand. StewMac recommends wipe on Poly which I tried with poor results. Everything is finished except the fret board, which later will get a coat of lemon oil.

Fret Board Masked Prior to Finishing
Fret Board Masked Prior to Finishing

The only thing left was to install the four tuners and tie on the strings. But then several hours of fussing the height of the bridge and nut to get a good action.

This was a rewarding project. Not quite as easy as Stewart MacDonald makes it out to be, but in the end looks great and has a nice ringing tone. Part of the tone quality is the thin spruce top. All the body pieces are an eighth of an inch thick, the whole thing weighs only 20 ounces ready to play.

I also made a three-quarter scale guitar stand for the Uke but that’s a story for another time.

Folding Stand
Folding Stand
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