Solid-state femtosecond lasers have stimulated the broad adoption of multiphoton microscopy in the modern laboratory. However, these devices remain costly. Fiber lasers offer promise as a means to inexpensively produce ultrashort pulses of light suitable for nonlinear microscopy in compact, robust and portable devices. Although encouraging, the initial methods reported in the biomedical engineering community to construct home-built femtosecond fiber laser systems overlooked fundamental aspects that compromised performance and misrepresented the significant financial and intellectual investments required to build these devices. Here, we present a practical protocol to fabricate an all-normal-dispersion ytterbium (Yb)-doped femtosecond fiber laser oscillator using commercially-available parts (plus standard optical components and extra-cavity accessories) as well as basic fiber splicing and laser pulse characterization equipment. We also provide a synthesis of established protocols in the laser physics community, but often overlooked in other fields, to verify true versus seemingly (partial or noise-like) mode-locked performance. The approaches described here make custom fabrication of femtosecond fiber lasers more accessible to a wide range of investigators and better represent the investments required for the proper laser design, fabrication and operation.