Building a Balalaika Pt 4 – Ready for Strings

A recess was carved for the lower nut of Ebony. This is where the strings will pass over the edge of the body.

And, it was glued in.

Frets were installed just like on a guitar except the little short ones on the end are tricky to handle

two .040″ Nylon strings and one .010″ steel string are attached with loops around standard guitar bridge pins.

The bridge of Maple and Ebony is not glued but merely held in place by string tension.

The tuner mechanism was screwed into place and covered with a Mable plate.

Upper nut is made of Micarta which is a synthetic bone substitute. Just like a guitar except shorter.

The pick guard is elevated to be level with the finger board adn only touches the top along the bindings. This one is temporarily attached with double stick tape until after finish is applied.


So, that’s about it for now. I am thinking about finishing with French Polish but that will be a whole other story.

Building a Balalaika Pt. 3 – Neck & Fingerboard

Balalaika tuning machines are typically mounted in a cavity and covered with a decorative plate. Here the headstock is ready to glue on to the neck.

The angle of the headstock is achieved by making a 15 deg. scarf cut in the neck.  I like to do this on the band saw with plenty of help holding it in place.

Before gluing it on, I very carefully calculated exactly where it should be located and checked all my measurements three times. And it still didn’t come out quite like I wanted.  But I can make it work.

Gluing the headstock to the neck. The stop on the right prevents it from sliding off the tapered end of the neck.

Out of the clamps and ready to trim off the excess.

I really like this Komelon 265/10 1/2″ pull saw.  The perfect tool for this kind of a cut.

I added some veneer and a maple plate to the headstock partially for looks but also to give some depth for a nut slot.

Cutting a slot for the nut with all the apparatus necessary to hold it square and level. Again, some might eyeball it and cut it with a handsaw but that’s not my style.

One of the cool tools I inherited from my dad is this 24″ height gauge. It has a carbide tip so I can scribe lines in an aluminum stick at precise locations and make my own fret scale rules.  This instrument is a 440mm scale length.

Here the fret scale ruler is taped to the fingerboard blank and a fret slot will be cut on each mark. The saw blade cuts a .023″ kerf which fits my fret wire.

Voila! A slotted finger board.


Holes were drilled for the “dots” which were super glued in place. Then the thickness sander levels everything and cleans up the glue


The finger board, which is still oversized and square, is cut to its final dimensions with this taper jig.

Finger board is glued on with wood glue.


And plenty of clamps, of course.

Looking more like a real instrument all the time. Now it is time to shape the neck.

I begin by cutting the neck back close to the edges of the finger board on the band saw and then finish the ends with a hand saw.

A flush cutting router bit brings the neck down to the same width as the finger board.


Rounding the back of the neck is done with a spokeshave, microplanes, and lots of sanding with strips of Mirka Net.

More sawing on the heel

And the basic shaping of the heel is done.


Building a Balalaika Pt 2 – Top and Bindings

The top is made of Sitka Spruce, glued up from two book matched plates, same as other instruments I have built so I have no pictures of that process.  But the sound hole is much smaller. 18mm.  Traditional instruments have a fancy inlaid rosette, usually with six petals.  After weeks of stewing about how to do that, I settled on a simple circular inlay.  But I still wanted it to look a little bit cool.

In case you haven’t noticed yet, this is the first instrument I have built using all metric measurements.  And I am rather liking the system.

First I cut wedges of rosewood with the grain running to the center and arranged them on paper with purfling pieces in between. Once aligned, I superglued it all together.

I mounted the glued up mess into the lathe and turned the edge to a 60 mm circle which could be inlaid into the top. The the sound hole was opened up to 18 mm after it was inlaid.

Sound board braces have an 1820mm radius to provide a slight dome to the top.

The seams of the staves were reinforced with bias tape and wood glue. Also note the linings were notched out to receive the end of the braces. Off to the right is my home-made 1820mm radius sanding block and gauge.

That last little peek inside before closing up a box is always hard. I will probably never see inside that instrument again. And if there is anything else I wanted to do in there; its too late.


And so, with some glue and a lot of twill tape and wedges the box is closed.

When the top is dry, the overhang is trimmed flush with the sides. Then the same router jig I use on guitars makes short work of cutting binding channels.


Bindings were attached with wood glue and held in place with tape while they dried.

And so the basic box is completed and I turn my attention to the neck and headstock. I guess I skipped over the part where I inlaid the corner pieces. I must not have been in a picture taking mood that day. Sorry.


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.