A protocol is presented to build a custom low-cost yet high-performance femtosecond (fs) fiber laser. This all-normal-dispersion (ANDi) ytterbium-doped fiber laser is built completely using commercially available parts, including $8,000 in fiber optic and pump laser components, plus $4,800 in standard optical components and extra-cavity accessories. Researchers new to fiber optic device fabrication may also consider investing in basic fiber splicing and laser pulse characterization equipment (~$63,000). Important for optimal laser operation, methods to verify true versus apparent (partial or noise-like) mode-locked performance are presented. This system achieves 70 fs pulse duration with a center wavelength of approximately 1,070 nm and a pulse repetition rate of 31 MHz. This fiber laser exhibits the peak performance that may be obtained for an easily assembled fiber laser system, which makes this design ideal for research laboratories aiming to develop compact and portable fs laser technologies that enable new implementations of clinical multiphoton microscopy and fs surgery.