Restoring an Old Ukulele - by David Sutton

The following article is excerpted from David Sutton's book, An Obsession with Cigar Box Guitars: Over 120 Hand-Built Guitars from the Masters - 2nd Edition. (2019, CompanionHouse Books.) 

SHOP NOW:  We have autographed copies from the author for sale at StubbySlide.com. 

The first ukulele I can remember seeing was blue. My dad had bought it for my mom in the early sixties because he thought she might like to learn how to play it. It had a picture of a hula dancer stenciled in white paint on the front of the body, and a plastic fretboard installed with screws.

It was tiny, a soprano, and I remember my dad explaining that it should be tuned to the musical phrase “My dog has fleas,” which he sang for me to remember. My older brother Greg says he first learned to form chords on that blue ukulele. My sister Diane remembers family sing-alongs, notably “The Sidewalks of New York.” I played the blue uke, too, following chord diagrams in a well-worn beginner book.

Radio personality Arthur Godfrey had helped popularize the ukulele in the fifties, starting what became known as the “second wave” of the ukulele’s popularity. (The first stateside ukulele craze began in San Francisco in 1915, at an event called the Panama– Pacific International Exposition.)

The humble uke lost popularity in the late sixties, when the six-string guitar became the lingua franca for rebelious folkies. I also blame novelty singer Tiny Tim for the ukulele’s crash in popularity.

Over the decades, my dad’s blue uke got plenty of attention, and not a little abuse. I remember seeing it after my parents passed away, when we were cleaning out the house I grew up in. I had thought the blue uke had gone the way of all things, but I recently learned that one of my sisters kept it.

When I saw this ukulele again, I decided to get it ready for its second act.

Photo above:  The years had not been kind to this little guy, but the essential pieces were all there, in good condition.

When the little Harmony ukulele came to me recently, the back, which had split into five pieces, was being held together with packing tape and a nail. (Below)

Once I removed the nail and tape, the back came off easily enough. It was split in four places. Although only one split went the full length, I pulled the others apart, too, to make it easier to repair.

I covered a sheet of MDF with wax paper to provide a flat surface I could glue on, and, one by one, I edge-glued the pieces together.

This photo shows all five pieces glued in place. Once the glue had fully cured, I used a scraper and some medium sandpaper to remove all the old glue from the edges.

I added bracing to give the back a little extra support, and to prevent it from splitting apart again.

With the bracing in place, I used a scraper and sandpaper to smooth out the joints.  Ultimately I decided, instead of trying to repaint the back, to leave it as you see it here, for authenticity.

I noticed a couple of tiny cracks starting on the instrument’s top, so I installed two braces there as well. I used a scraper and sandpaper to remove the old glue from this edge as well.

Using a screwdriver, I removed and disassembled the tuners, then gave them a thorough cleaning.

After gluing the repaired back to the sides, I used clamps on the support blocks and long, strong rubber bands to hold it in place for drying.

The fretboard and body responded well to a sponge bath using a cotton rag and warm water with just a few drops of mild detergent.

1 comment

  • David Sutton
    David Sutton
    Here's "My Dog Has Fleas", which I just listened to for the first time today. When I was a kid, I just took it for granted this was a song -- couldn't exactly look it up on YouTube in 1963: https://youtu.be/fXLWkuaZkOg

    Here's "My Dog Has Fleas", which I just listened to for the first time today. When I was a kid, I just took it for granted this was a song -- couldn't exactly look it up on YouTube in 1963: https://youtu.be/fXLWkuaZkOg

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