Building a Balalaika Pt. 1 – The basic shell

The balalaika is probably the most challenging project I have taken on to date.  Books and papers and videos, all available on line, provide about 97% of the information necessary for construction.  But the 3% that is missing is critical!  None of the drawings I have found are done to scale.  Most of the descriptive text I rely on has been translated from Russian to English.  Many times I have been ready to abandon the project.  But I finally have something that is beginning to look like an instrument and so I am ready to show the world what has been going on in the shop.


This was the first challenge. The squared off sections will be the neck and the heel which will live outside of the body of the instrument and the odd shaped projection on the end will be inside the body. The ends of the side staves will approach that point from different directions and figuring out how to cut all compound angles accurately kept me occupied for quite some time.

The transom, or base, wasn’t much better. Again, the angles are all compound. The Maple veneers and purflings are laminated on to baltic birch plywood.

An inlay of contrasting hardwood will go in the end where the strings will attach.

The staves are made of Maple re-sawn from a reject bass guitar neck. Again, each stave requires one edge to be beveled at a different angle. Here a thin strip of veneer is being glued on to that edge.

While attaching the staves, the neck/heel block assembly and the transom are clamped to a jig to hold them in their proper places. Note the block raising the end of the neck by a couple of degrees. That is one of the 3% details that wasn’t spelled out but I am pretty sure it needs to be there.


Old world professional builders hold the staves in place till the glue dries by putting in temporary nails where the bindings will cover the holes. I didn’t trust my accuracy though so I designed a clamp. And, of course, it requires four clamps to attach my special clamps. In other words, I am using 6 clamps to do what others do with a handful of nails. But it worked for me.


I did use the old nail and wedge trick to clamp the narrow end of the staves to the heel block. And some good heavy electrical wire helps hold everything in place along the seam.

A good strong light bulb inside the box helps while planing the edges to a good fit.


With all the staves glued in place, the edges are trued up before gluing on the linings. That miniature block plane is becoming one of my favorite tools. It almost makes me feel like a real woodworker.

And here is the basic shell with the linings. Time to start thinking about a top.

1 thought on “Building a Balalaika Pt. 1 – The basic shell

  1. I intended to build a balalayka with four stings, so I could call it a Balalele, but seen the body how to build that, I think that I give that idea awy.
    First the amount of tools needed and the scary 6 sided belly.
    Of course, it is all possible and I also see where the price of a nice one comes from.
    I keep myself to building Pacific Ukeleles. Far easier.


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