Back from death: The brighter side

This is part two of a two part series that examines the reconstruction of a destroyed ukulele as a metaphor for a reconstructed life.

The point at which I knew it was going to work

It doesn’t take a lot of stuff to build a ukulele, but it has to be the right stuff at the right time and in the right place. When I opened the box that contained the smashed Martin soprano uke, I knew right away that the timing was bad, the parts were wrecked and not many of them would be in the right place.

Kind of like with me.

My brain had been wrecked by a persistent and aggressive bacterial infection following what was supposed to be a simple procedure, and just when that was over, I was hit by a heart attack that left me dead for eight minutes and in a struggle to recover for many weeks.

So, a smashed ukulele someone sat on and a smashed life, too.

Could they both be reconstructed? The answer on the life question was certainly yes, with a lot of work and very strong support from my family and a very sharp medical team at St. Francis Hospital in Evanston and great cardio therapy at Evanston Hospital.

I don’t want to dwell on that because most of that story played out in part one of this package. Suffice it to say I am fine now. The uke is not fine yet, but as you can see, it is no longer just a bag of parts. In her sincere effort to monitor my spontaneity, my wife asked, “Why would you do that?” when I told her I bought the smashed Martin, as though I had committed one of my occasional Visa card offenses.

I told her it was a metaphor for me, a damaged man working to repair himself.

A revival, if you will.

In this segment of the story, I am going to tell you how that happened.

On to the instrument.

By their very nature, soprano ukuleles are little, the smallest in the ukulele array, which includes Concert, Tenor and Baritone options in addition to the soprano. Because they are so small, the tolerances, inside and out, are not very forgiving. Things have to be just about right because there’s not much room for adjustment.

Yes, I could buy a beautiful new Martin soprano like this one. But where’s the fun in that?

The bigger instruments are much more forgiving. Lots more room for straightening things out and smoothing out the many bumps that are going to take place when you start applying razor sharp tools to mahogany, which is a softer hardwood, if you can get your head around that.

The only power tools I am using on this instrument are the thickness sander and the occasional battery operated drill. I gave my bandsaw and my jig saw to my son because it made everyone nervous when I used them given my hospital experiences over the last two years. Instead, I use Japanese pull saws, which are sharp as razors but require some thought for use, so accidents are less likely.

I had to conduct a pretty exhaustive inventory on the smashed uke to see what I might be able to salvage. The neck could be saved for sure, particularly the part that has the Martin logo on on the crown. Don’t get me wrong, this uke is only ever going to be for me, so I’m not taking advantage of the Martin name to sell it. I just respect it and want to keep it.

Measuring the cracked side of the Martin that had to be replaced.

The back was smashed across the point at which it mated with the head block, and smashed in a way that would not allow it to be repaired. Even careful bending to try to get the parts back in place and flat would not work. But about a quarter of the back was in good shape, so it seemed a good candidate to harvest parts from.

I could harvest the top and back braces and use them again. I could cut a little piece to insert at the back of the rebuilt one, just as a little remembrance. Beyond that, a lot of this old instrument would have to be new.

I really wanted to save the top because it was so distinctive and important to the look of the instrument.

The top of the smashed Martin

I decided to try some tricks. I had a good deal of mahogany from the back so I decided to square off the damage on the front then cut a piece from the destroyed back that would slip right into that slot. I planned to use the bridge (where the strings hook on) to cover the troubling seam that would be created by mating those two pieces. I fixed it to the point that it looked like this:

The plan I was using to complete the top. How it would have looked.

So, nominally, if you assume a trim of the clunky bottom, this looks okay. The bridge does indeed hide the seam and the insert, while not actually square like I wanted it to be, could be fixed in finishing.

Except it couldn’t.

You would always be able to tell someone spliced a big hunk of something on the bottom of that front. Even though it is from the same uke, the back doesn’t match the parts beside it. They came from different parts of the mahogany tree. The other problem is that the bridge covering the seam is way too heavy for a soprano uke. That is because it came from my drawer of tenor uke parts.

Another problem would present itself later, something I did not foresee. Even restored to its original shape, the old top would be too small for the frame I had used to build the uke body. How that happened I don’t know. One possibility is the frame was never for a Martin uke. It worked, but it produced a frame the old top just fell down into. The other possibility was that it was so worn it no longer remained true. To get it right, I would have to climb into a time machine and go to Nazareth, Pa. and convince the good brothers and sisters of Martin circa 1940 to let me see if they had ancient frames I might use.

Short of that, there was no way I could think of to fix that problem.

I was going to have to build a new top.

I have many, many pieces of mahogany for that. It would require thinning to the right size, then cutting a ring for an inlay of some kind (I decided to use layers of thin wood strips) just outside the sound hole, which would also have to be cut.

A confession.

I have all the equipment I need to get that done, but I have never been very good at doing it. I watched luthier Bruce Roper cut slots and circles and trenches and whatever with perfectly square sides. You need that so the inlays fit. Bruce was so good he could fashion inlay from the handles of old purses. No fancy stuff for him. Very effective and lovely. He even used baking soda and superglue to make inlays. Again, very nice.

Using the same equipment, I usually wreck about three pieces of mahogany just to get one that close to works. I end up supergluing baking soda to my fingers or getting superglue on myself and inadvertently spraying myself with a juice that makes superglue dry faster. Get those two things on a finger and it really hurts.

I don’t know why these things happen because I know all about them.

More patience?

Could be.

Or maybe I just need to rebuild 100 more ukuleles someone sat on to get it all down right. I am determined to learn it in time. But for now, I just have to be forgiving of my own lack of skill at this task.

I finally got the new top thinned to the right dimensions.

Next, side bending.

This is a delicate task.

The bending iron looks like an oval chunk of steel that comes out of a maple block. It gets hot as hell. You put the side in water overnight to soften it. You also need to get some steam going to make the bend a little more dependable. I found the perfect way to do that was soak an old pair of Duluth cotton underwear then put it wet on the heating iron and bend over that.

Then you need to take the sides, bent but still wet, and slip them into the frame used for building the actual uke. They clamp in there to dry. You keep a spray bottle at hand to keep them supple. Some people can just bend the sides so that they fit, but I haven’t done enough of that to do it that way. This way works just fine.

Uke sides clamped into frame for drying

After they dried, I took them out of the frame to check them. There was a little break on the inside of one of the waist bends, but it was on the inside. You never worry about things on the inside, where no one will ever see them. Next you clamp them in the frame and trim the ends so they match up. That is because the head and tail blocks will be glued where they come together. Then it all goes back in the fame again for the gluing of the kerfing (that little edge around the top and bottom you use to glue the top and bottom to.)

Then the head and back blocks are glued in.

My most dramatic revival picture, a vertical of the actual body in the frame

Then it was time to start lining it up for a look at the fingerboard.

As you can see from the picture below, the fingerboard sits too high on the top. If you imagine all of that glued down, there would be a bump at the end of the board, unsightly and perhaps a problem when it came time to site the bridge. The strings need a clear passage up the neck. Any kind of a bump could get in the way of that.

There are two ways to address this. One is to plane the fingerboard, which is a big ass pain and again easy to screw up. Or you can simply sand the end of the new top down until the fingerboard sits flat on it. I chose that option. The little disc, which is the cutout from the sound hole, has been glued inside in a tribute to my friend Dennis.

Rough fitting the new top.

I sanded the top by hand, which took a while but allowed me to be careful about the thickness. I cheated a little with my Mouse hand sander, but not much. Mostly it was done with 80 grit sticky on a sanding block, followed by 20 grit for the surface finish.

They came together very well.

All off this meant the fingerboard would ride flat on the surface, where it would be glued down and also reenforce the neck, which was another challenge because of the way Martin originally constructed it.

It was like a tiny Martin guitar, with a dovetail joint holding the neck to the body as it sat in a v-shaped slot in the head block. I know that’s a lot of technical talk. Let me put it this way: It did not work for me.

Typically, you drill some tiny holes, then introduce steam to the joint, which softens and then can be shifted out without damage. Not in this case. I don’t know what they used to put that neck in the block, but it wasn’t coming out, no matter how much steam and water I applied.

I had to saw the neck off. Using one of my razor dozuki Japanese pull saws, that took just a few seconds. You had to be careful so the cut stayed flat. I succeeded with that. All it meant was I had to make a new head block with a bolt in it instead of a dovetail joint.

This took some doing. I had to plant the female end of a nut in the neck, then drill a hole in the headblock so the bolt on neck would fit right. My way of handling that challenge was to make the hole for the nut oval, so I could move the neck up or down just a little before I tightened the bolt.

As a precaution, I ran a little superglue around the female receptive to keep it from popping out of the mahogany neck under tension. That all worked and the neck hooked up fine. I tightened it on the inside with an Allen key, not too tight, just snug enough to hold it in place.

Then it was time to glue the top on and use a router to cut away the excess wood. I had used the same process on the back.

That all worked well and left me with two challenges before I could string it up. The first was placement and glueing of the bridge. It had to be on center with its protruding piece of ivory, rounded to accept the strings without breaking them, exactly 13.5 inches at center from the nut at the top of the fingerboard. It would also have to be tall enough to give a very slight slant to the strings so they would not buzz on the level frets of the fingerboard.

The fingerboard also would have to be glued on, with a protrusion of exactly 1.5 inches over the top, a lip, if you will, to glue firmly to the top so nothing can move.

I glued the fingerboard on and, fuck-a-duck, (as they say in the Dutch navy, I am told, but in Dutch) the neck itself was damaged when the instrument was sat on. Because the fingerboard was flat as could be and the neck was not, there was a gap between the two. That’s okay from a playing perspective because the fingerboard is flat, but it is unsightly, an aesthetic problem.

Fortunately, I had a whole cup of magic dust from years of sanding mahogany, just what I needed. You put glue in the gap then spread magic dust all around, let it dry, sand it down, and gap be gone! Here’s what THAT looks like.

Using magic dust saved from mahogany sanding to fill a gap

Then back to French polishing to make it all pretty.

It all came out well.

And so did I!

It took a lot of conniving and cutting and bending and planning to put this little box back together, but the lesson to me is that I could still do it. Believe me, a year ago I feared I would never be able to do anything interesting again. In the process of reviving this old smashed uke, my brain got stronger and my affection for music and the tools you use to make it only became deeper.

And there is the object lesson.

You might not remember Stan Rogers, the Canadian folk singer and song writer. But I do.I wrote his obit for The Tribune when he died in a fire on an Air Canada plane. He wrote a champion of a song about a boat that sank and rose from the depths because its crew loved her and worked hard to save her. It takes a while to get to it in this clip, but the sailor’s story before it is worth a listen if you are thinking of giving up, and the song is well worth the wait.

“No matter what you’ve lost, be it a home, a love a friend, like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again!”

Here is the finished project:

The rebuilt Martin soprano ukulele/Wed. June 29, 2022

That’s the end for now!

Thanks immensely for watching this happen.

2 thoughts on “Back from death: The brighter side

  1. This is OutStanding!! Timely for me, and with a lesson – “But for now, I just have to be forgiving of my own lack of skill at this task.” Thank you. And “Mary Ellen Carter” for song-in-my-heart encouragement. I played the video outside and – this is true – two doves then two more landed nearby a-chirping, not keeping time, just answering, I think. The video over, they kept chirping; a female’s nesting on a ledge beneath our roof.


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