April 11, 2012

Toffee Tin Ukelele

We always love hearing from readers and creative tinplate users. Many thanks to reader Vance Bass for sending us photos and words describing his latest creation in tin, a toffee-tin ukelele. Read on for the innovative and well documented details of this build. (All photos courtesy of Vance.)

“I had been making plans to build a cigar box guitar, so when we were given this toffee tin, my immediate thought was “this is the body for a ukulele!” I think it was the traditional Hawaiian snowflake motif in the lithography that triggered the thought.

“So I began gathering the other materials I’d need. In my scrap wood pile, I found a piece of walnut and a piece of bubinga (I think) that I had pulled from various dumpsters, and a bit of 1/4” thick oak molding left from a bathroom remodeling project. I had kept the tuning pegs from a guitar I had overhauled (a couple of them were bent when I got it, but that still left four I could use for this!) So, all I really had to buy was fret wire, and I also bought the bridge to be sure I got one that works (though I realize now that I could have made one easily myself).

Uke neck made primarily of salvaged wood scraps

“I began by gluing up the neck blank from the walnut, bubinga and oak. I shaped the neck with a wood chisel and a coarse rasp file, then progressive sanding. The string length is 15″ (a Concert size uke). The position markers were made by drilling a 1/8” hole in the fretboard and then filling them with the filler I used on the neck joints: a mixture of walnut sawdust and Titebond III glue. The frets were tapped in and leveled with a piece of sandpaper on the table saw surface. The notch in the heel, under the fret board, is to fit over the lip of the lid, and also let me put in a shim to adjust the angle of the head to match the height of the bridge.

Front of toffee tin body with reinforcing aluminum angle inside

“The only modifications to the tin itself were holes. The soundhole was cut with an adjustable circle cutter. I chucked it into the drill press, laid the lid over a piece of sacrificial pine and turned the chuck by hand (even the machine’s slowest speed, 250 rpm, was much too fast for this thin metal).

“I also drilled several holes for the button-head screws I used for various functions. After installing the bridge and putting some tension on the strings, it was obvious that the tinplate top was going to need to help. The V-shaped rows of 3 on each side hold down the bridge and two pieces of 1/2” aluminum L-angle underneath, which serve to stiffen the top and resist the pull of the strings.

Fruit-can tailpeice and spice-can strap lug, with walnut reinforcement block inside.

“A couple more holes in the tail of the instrument hold the lid down tightly, so it doesn’t rattle, and attach the tailpiece. The tailpiece was made from a fruit can which was prepared using the Tinplate Girl tips. The lug for the strap was bent up from 18-gauge galvanized wire, my signature material, with a retainer made from a strip of a spice tin. Inside the sound hole, you can see the 5/16” shoulder bolt and walnut reinforcing block that attach the neck to the body. I just drilled a tapping-size hole in the heel of the neck and let the bolt cut its own threads.

The back of the uke, showing the button-head screw that holds the block to the bottom of the tin and helps reduce flexing when the strings have tension on them.

The finished ukulele.

“I stamped my initials on the front of the head with a rubber stamp and acrylic paint, and impressed my initials, the date and serial number (001) on the back with letter punches. The neck is sprayed with a couple of coats of musical instrument lacquer. It plays nicely, though it’s not very loud due to the relatively small body. It does have a certain unique sound quality — I suppose it would be called “tinny”. But that’s a good thing in this case, one of the features that makes it unique.”

One Response

  1. Robin says:

    Lovely work, Vance! I happily stumbled across the tips and projects of tinplate girl and am now dreaming of one day attempting something as audacious as this. As a one time uke learner and long term guitar fumbler, making my own instrument would be hugely satisfying. And a great way to avoid practising! 😉

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