The Bamboo Ukulele Project

The Bamboo Ukulele Project

David St. Martin was hired at the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year as the “Tinkerer In Residence” at Mark Day School, in Marin County. As part of the early stages of developing a truly hands-on learning environment for the school’s students, he was tasked with building energy for the program among students and teachers, developing lessons, building a tool collection and teaching.

Smith & Fong met David and the school through providing materials for his bamboo ukulele project, just a small part of what the school has already done this year. The school blog,, documents them all, and it’s worth a look. This is a very unique school.

The ukulele project began to take shape as David experimented with Mark Day’s new laser cutter to build some partial instruments for the purposes of teaching music concepts to a fourth grade class.

“It sort of mushroomed from there,” he said. “Each iteration of the project just became more exciting and interesting and students began coming in to the lab to see what I had done, or give me feedback. One student nudged me to add the angled side to make it look cooler. Another one thought I should make the neck thinner. It became a great tool to talk about prototyping and not letting a seeming failure set you back. Each failure leads to the next insight.”

The ukulele generated enough energy to establish a new elective class for seventh- and eighth-graders to design and build their own instruments. One current student is making a small Plyboo bamboo conga drum!

The focus of the ukulele quickly turned to creating the simplest design that both looked good and sounded great, with a minimum number of pieces and a fairly quick assembly, using no special tools. The idea was for a student to be able to assemble it with simple instructions. Right now the uke has only 45 pieces and can be built and finished in two days.

Mark Day School’s entire fifth grade learns to play ukulele, so the goal David is working on now is creating a learning experience around building one, as he continues to work on simplifying the design while keeping it cool enough for the kids. And he believes there has to be a way to make it their own, so he’s working toward allowing enough customization to truly affect both the look and sound of the instrument.

“Using the bamboo has been nice, not only because it is eco-friendly, but also because it has better resonant properties than other multi-ply materials,” St. Martin said.

David will be at Dwell On Design 2015 in Los Angeles to show off these remarkable instruments.