Introduction: Awesome Cigar Box Dulcimer

Picture of Awesome Cigar Box Dulcimer

Growing up in Appalachia I've seen my fair share of backwoods instruments but none are more impressive to me than the Cigar Box Guitars. Being left handed is what attracted me to playing the dulcimer, it was inexpensive and easy to flip the strings around.
I was never much for playing traditional dulcimer songs, and I felt "held back" by the diatonic fretting, that is why it is fretted like a normal guitar.
So for the sake of not being long-winded in the "Title" this build is really a Left-Handed Six-String Electric Chromatic Dulcimer. But you can choose to do however many strings, fretting, or spacing you would like to. I encourage variation!

This Instructable may seem a little tough but as long as you can be patient and accurate, it's pretty easy.
This was a really fun project, and my first Instructable! ENJOY!!!

Step 1: Supplies and Tools

Picture of Supplies and Tools

*Now you can make your instrument as basic or as fancy as you see fit, but I tried to pull out all the stops on this to show you the potential there is in constructing this dulcimer.


"Stock" lumber from local Lowes or Home Depot (I used Lowes because it was closer)
Neck - 1/2"x2"x4' Oak
Headstock - 1/4"x4"x2' Oak
Fretboard - 1/4"x2"x4' Poplar
Fretdots - 1/4"x2' Oak Dowel Rod (optional)

Note: Save all the extra cut offs from the build you'll use them variously throughout.
           Make sure your lumber is as straight as possible and is free of knots. Remember accuracy is key.


Cigar Box from local smoke shop (mine is 7.25"x10"x2")
Tuning Machines
Nut made from material of choice
Strings: 2x-22w, 2x-14, 2x-12 gauge
Wood Glue
Super Glue
1/8" metal rod ( local hobby store)


Pickup with electronics EQ-7545R
Wood Stain
Wood Sealer
Box Hardware (local hobby store)
Thick craft paint

Note: Some great places to get cheap instrument hardware are:   ( FREE SHIPPING!!! )

Step 2: Tools

Picture of Tools

I pride myself in the amount of hand-tools I use when building instruments. So if you are working with a limited workshop, do not fret, so am I.


Coping Saw (your best friend so you may want to have a nice one)
Craft Saw (typically find with small miter boxes, nice thin blade)
Accurate Ruler/s
2-6 Clamps
Files (various) and Wood Rasp
Wire Cutters/ Small Bolt Cutter
Power Drill
Drill Bits (various sizes)
Drive Bits (various sizes)
Sandpaper (raging from 125grit-1000grit)
Utility knife
Corning Tools (optional)

Step 3: Preparing the Box and Neck

Picture of Preparing the Box and Neck

Get the right Box!
Size is important, I prefer the 2" but the larger the box the better (bigger) sound you'll yield.

1. Decide which way the neck is going to come out the box, remember mine is for a left-handed person. When you hold the instrument you don't want the label to be upside down. (image 1)

2. Using your ruler draw a 11/2" long x 3/4" deep rectangle centered on the neck side of the box. This will be where the Neck comes out of the box. (image 2 and 3)

3.  Carefully cut out with Coping Saw, and file down as needed. (image 4,5,6)

Neck Support:

4. Measure the height from the inside bottom of the box to the bottom of the cut you previously made. (image 8)

5. Cut corresponding measurement from the lumber we are using to make the Neck. (image 9)
Check height correctness by dry fitting Neck. Lid should close flat! (image 10)

6. Find the center of Neck support and center of the box (image 11). Glue and Clamp (image 12).

This is as good a time as any to cut the neck to the proper length.
This particular Dulcimer will have a length of 27" from Nut to Bridge. I made sure to add at least a 1 1/2" so the Bridge wouldn't be up against the string Saddle and a extra 1/2" for the Nut.
I added just a little more extra to be on the safe side, so the final Neck length came to be 29 5/16"

Step 4: Making the Headstock

Picture of Making the Headstock

Shaping the Headstock:

1. You want to Design your Headstock on the computer or draw it on a piece of grid paper. It can be as simple or wild as you want, just make sure you leave 2 inches from the bottom of the neck to where the tuning machines will start. My Dulcimer headstock will be 1/2" thick, 3 1/2" wide and 5 3/4" long.

2. To get the headstock to the proper thickness I cut two 6" long pieces out of my Headstock lumber (image 1). I then glued them together and used rubber bands to keep them aligned (image 2). You can clamp or a heavy object to ensure the two pieces set flat together (image 3).

3. Once the wood has completely dried (image 4), transfer or draw on your design any way you see fit. I just cut out my design and traced around it (image 5,6,7) .

4. Cut out using Coping Saw, if you have a scroll saw this may make this step a lot faster depending on your design. Make sure to save scraps for the next step (image 8).

5. Using a side scrap taped to the headstock (image 8) to make the side square, I added a 30 degree backward angle to the bottom of the Headstock where it meets the Neck with a Coping Saw (easier with a Miter Saw). Adding this angle (along with the allotted 2" of space discussed in step 1) allows proper drop in the string to sit in the Nut taught (image 9).

Headstock Support:

Most store bought instruments' necks and headstocks are made from one piece of wood. Because our Neck and Headstock are two separate pieces we need to construct a simple support to be glued in between the Headstock and the Neck.

Again this can be as simple or wild as you wish. Just Make sure it has the same 30 degree angle as the Headstock.

I made my support out of the left over scrap from the Neck lumber.

It ended up being 2" long and 1" wide (image 10,11,12).

Placing the Tuning Machines:

1. Having collected parts here and there, my tuners were from a old 12 string guitar (image 13). I simply took my bolt cutters and cut it in half, and filed the sharp edges down (image 14,15).

2. Most manufactures include a technical drawing that provides the given distance between the machine posts and suggested hole size for the shaft (image16). If you are using individual tuning machines a 1" spacing will also works well.

3. I wanted to add a slight inward angle to the tuners. To do this I made two parallel lines from the bottom of the headstock at 2 1/4" and 4 3/4". I then measured 3/8" in from where the outside bottom where the tuners will start. I then measured from the top outside edge 3/4" in. I know this is a little confusing but if you refer to Image 17 it should make sense.

4. Use a 9/32" Drill bit and drill the center points for the tuner shafts (image 18).

5. Dry fit to check correctness (image 19).

Step 5: Making the Fretboard

Picture of Making the Fretboard

The Fretboard is the most important part of this build and should demand the most accuracy!!!
Please make sure to take your time, there is little room for error so double check any measurements before making any cut!!!

I like to use Poplar for fretboards because it's softer than oak and it looks nice when stained. By making the Fretboard separate from the Neck it makes it more convenient to handle. Also if you mess up and have to restart you waste a lot less lumber.

1. Dry fit the Neck in the cigar box and close the lid. Make a line 1/2" down from the Headstock end of the Neck. Then measure from that line to the box lid, this will yield your fretboard length. My measurement came out to 18 13/16". (sorry no image)

2. Figuring out the frets is pretty easy. I did learn the mathematics to calculate a fretboard but like most people I find it easier to use SteMac's Fret Calculator.
I used the "Acoustic Guitar" setting with 19 frets and a 685.8mm (27") length.
The StewMac page also gives some great tips for fretting.
Don't forget to print them out!

3. You could use Metric or Standard in the previous step but whichever you choose, try and be as accurate as humanly possible to measure out the frets on your Fretboard. Make sure to measure from "Fret to Nut" (the Nut being the top of the Fretboard) and double check your accuracy with the "Fret to Fret" measurements on your SteMac printout. Using my square I made vertical lines for each fret (image 1, 2).

This is a cosmetic addition to the build, it is completely optional but most instruments have fret-dots for ease of playing. I like to make my dots out of oak dowel rod, but you can use any kind of wood or plastic dowel you see fit.
If you choose to not do a insert you can use paint to make a dot before sealing the wood towards the end.

1. Cut nine 1/4" lengths your oak dowel rod.

2. The fret-dots will be located at the 3rd,5th,7th,9th,12th(x2),15th,17th,and 19th fret.
Measure the center of each fret getting a dot and make a mark (image 3), except for the 12th, it will get 2 evenly space dots marking the octave (image 4).

3. Drill holes in the marks you made with a 1/4" drill bit (image 6).

4. If done correctly the slices of dowel rod will fit snug into the holes. If not use a little wood glue.

Side-dots, like fret-dots are completely cosmetic and if you wish you can skip over this step.
However this is a very important feature for me, because I mark my side-dots where the diatonic frets are located on a traditional dulcimer.
It's nice because my Fret-Dots are "Guitar Style" and my Side-Dots "Dulcimer Style" making it easy to transition between traditional and contemporary tunes.

1. On the side of the Fretboard that will be facing up towards you depending on your dexterity, make a line diving the fretboard thickness in half. Then make a centered at the 2nd,4th,5th,7th,9th,10th,11th,12th(x2),14th,16th,17th,and 19th fret.

2. Instead of making a ton of tiny wood or plastic dots to be fitted, I took a 3/32" drill bit and hand twisted a divot at each mark made previously (image 7).

3. I then filled these divots in with a thick dimensional fabric paint. After it dries, sand down an excess paint so it is level with the wood (image 8).

Step 6: Fretting Made Easy

Picture of Fretting Made Easy

Fretting is considered by most to be the hardest part of any homemade string instrument. It is certainly the most crucial. However I've spent many hours developing my own brand of fretting that is unconventional to say the least, and I'm sure I'll make most Luthiers out there cringe with my process.

If you have visited StewMac you may have noticed that what they feel is a essential set of specialized fretting tools should cost close to $200! I don't know about you but I certainly don't have that kind of money to throw around. I like to live by the particular logic that people have been building fretted string instruments for hundreds of years and they had to make due with even cruder hand-tools than what is available to us today. Thus is the premise behind my process. I apologize for the bit of theory but I hope you can sympathize with my view on the matter. Now Lets Get Started!!!


What's great about my method is you only need a handfull of tools

Fret Slots: Box Cutter, Craft Knife, Coping Saw (image 1)

Fret Shaping: Wire/Bolt Cutters, Rough File, Smooth File (image 2)

Cutting the Fret Slots

1. First lets prep the Fretboard. Using a straight edge and the Box Cutter, carefully score each line, that you made in the previous step, starting from the 19th fret down to the 1st. Then take some fine sandpaper and sand any high Fretdots and Pencils marks away. You will probably have to re-score your lines to remove any sawdust from sanding.

*Note: Starting from the 19th fret and working down is important. You typically don't play that high all the time and this gives you a good chance to practice and develop a rhythm. However, I do recommend testing my method out on a scrap piece of poplar first!

2. Using the Craft Saw I make a 1/8" cut following the score made in the previous step. When sawing make sure to keep the Saw LEVEL!

3. Using the the Coping Saw, I then make a 1/16" deep cut on top of the 1/8" cut. (image 3) Again STAY LEVEL when cutting!!!
    The cut should resemble the shape of a Field Goal Post in American Football.

If you use the same Fretwire that I do, this should make the perfect slot

Fret Shaping

1. Using the Fretboard I lay the Fretwire along the slot and mark the length. Use the Wire/Bolt Cutters to cut the wire to length.

2. I then add a 45 degree angle to the Crown and the Tang ( making a "<======>" shape) with the Rough File. Next I smooth it all out with the Smooth File (duh) and add a little roundness to the Crown of the fret. (image 4)


1. Lay the Fretboard on a level sturdy surface (I used a concrete floor).

2. Set the prepared fret gently in the slot. Make sure it is not too long and is centered. Lay the scrap wood across the fret.

3. Using the Rubber Mallet tap the fret into the slot. Start with light taps, and then give it a couple good whacks to be sure it takes hold.

The Fret Tang should be fully immersed into the wood there should be no gap between the wood and the Crown. (image 4)

Repeat this process for all the frets. (image 5,6,7)

*Note: If you have any loose frets, don't worry after staining and finishing they should snug up.
            If your Frets are falling out, you may be cutting too deep with the Coping Saw but this can be easily fixed with a dab of glue.

Step 7: Making the Heel

Picture of Making the Heel

The Heel is the joining piece of the neck to the body. Mine is simply cosmetic an provides no real structural support, making this step optional, but it does add a nice visual transition. (image 1)

1. Using the excess Neck lumber I cut two 4" pieces and one 4" length piece using the extra Fretboard lumber.

2. Stacking the wood Oak,Poplar,Oak; glue and clamp. (image 2)

3. Next draw the transition, however you prefer. I drew mine pretty symmetrical so I can get two Tail-blocks out of this one chunk of wood. (image 3)
*Note: make sure to save the second half regardless, We'll need it for the assembly section.

4. Dry fit it and see how you like the look before cutting (image4)

5. Using a Coping Saw I cut the block in two.

Step 8: Tailpiece

Picture of Tailpiece

The Tailpiece is what holds the strings in place, and along with the Nut, determines the string spacing.
You can make a Tailpiece a variety of ways (BE CREATIVE), but it all depends on whether or not you'll be using Ball-End or Loop-End strings (pretty self-explanatory of what that means). For this build the tailpiece is design for  Ball-End but I've included a Tailpiece I made for a traditional 4-string dulcimer made out of a fork for Loop-End strings (image 2).

1. Measure and mark a line at 2 1/8" and 2 1/2" on the extra Fretboard lumber. (image 3)

2. I then took the time and calculated the string spacing I wanted (image 4) in millimeters. As you can see I also calculated a tradition 4-string Dulcimer in millimeters and a good spacing for a Slide-Guitar style in inches.

*Note: These measurements are for a Left-handed set-up!!! Don't forget to inverse these measurements if you are Right-Handed

3. Using My measurements I lay out the proper marks on the 2 1/8" line (image 5)

4. Before I drilled I took a tack and made a center divot so the drill bit will not slip. (image 6)

5. Using a 1/16" Drill bit I made my holes (image 7)

6. Lastly cut the wood along the 2 1/2" line. You can use a Miter box, if available, and add a stylish angle, and round it out with a file as I did on the top and bottom, but this is completely optional. (image 1)

Step 9: Putting It All Together!!!

Picture of Putting It All Together!!!

Now that all the components are made, it's time to put it all together!

1. It's quite uncomfortable to play a instrument with all square edges. So using the Cornering Tools (image 2), Rasp, Files, and various Sandpapers I bevel all the edges that will be handled:
The Back of the Neck
Headstock Support

*Note:Cornering Tools are optional, you can round out all the parts with the Rasp but look at how nice it bevels (image 3,4) and they're CHEAP!

2. Using scrap wood, I Super Glued two side pieces to the Heck Support in the box to help keep the Neck perfectly aligned (image 5). Then fit the Neck in place and clamp it down (image 6).

3. I then taped the two halves of the heel together (image 7), and glued and clamped the Heel in place (image 8).
    Looks nice (image 9)

4. The Headstock Support is such a tricky little component to clamp, I decided to use Gel Super Glue to adhere it (short drying time and strong hold). Make sure it is aligned right in the middle (image 10).

5. Again using Gel Super Glue, I attached the Headstock and Headstock Support to the Neck (image 11).

*Note: It's okay if the Headstock sits a little higher than the Neck, It will work to our advantage when we make the Nut.

6. Last but not least, the Fretboard. Close the box lid and glue the Fretboard down. To clamp, use a scrap piece of lumber to lay over the frets (image 12,13).

Now that it's all together the build is almost complete! (image 14)

Step 10: Staining and Finishing

Picture of Staining and Finishing

Staining and Finishing are up to you completely, but with all the time and effort at this point I feel it was only necessary to make it look it's best!


I chose to find a stain that would match the Cigar Box color as close  as possible. It took me two coats.
Just follow the instructions on whatever stain you choose.

*Note: Staining will expand the wood. This will help tighten down any wobbly Frets.


I ALWAYS recommend to finish any untreated wood!
The simplest and cheapest way to finish wood is to water down some Wood Glue and brush it on with a foam brush.
I wanted to emulate the Cigar Box that I chose so I went with a Glossy Polyurethane. It took three coats

*Note: As you can see, for a little style, I carefully peeled the inside label from the Cigar box lid and glued it down to the Headstock and finished over it (image4). Also, No need to tape over your frets when Finishing, we'll level off the frets later and remove any build-up.

With Polyurethane I take some car Buffing Compound and rub it into the Neck for a slick and smooth playing surface (optional).

Step 11: Installing the Pickup/Electronics

Picture of Installing the Pickup/Electronics

You certainly do not need to have a pickup, this step is OPTIONAL.

I like the EQ-7545R, It's small, cheap, and easy to use. (image 1,2)
If you want to go with another pickup method CB Gitty has a nice section on their website.

1. Remove the Box Lid. To do this open the lid all the back and CAREFULLY peel the sticker label holding it on (image 3).

2. Measure the metal electronics box and the battery box combined, refer to Image 3.

3. Measure in a inch or so from the top edge of the box and mark the width recorded in the previous step (image 4)

4. Use the Coping Saw and cut the lines marked (image 5).

5. The wood should be able to be coaxed away. There may be some nails holding it in but you can fold or trim them off (image 6).

6. Dry fit to check for correctness (image 7, 8).

7. I then figured out on the Box Lid where the Neck will rest and approximate Bridge Location (27" from Nut to Bridge).I drilled a hole just big enough to slip the Piezo cord through (image 9).

8. To install the 1/4" jack, drill the proper hole big enough for it to slip through. If it's hard to tighten the nut on the jack you may need to carve out a little of the wood on the inside of the box to push the jack through farther (image 10). I used a sharp screwdriver to do so.

Step 12: Making the Bridge

Picture of Making the Bridge

The Bridge supports the strings and helps transfer vibrations acoustically. Also I prefer to use a Bridge held in place by the tension of the strings because I can adjust the Bridge for better intonation in the higher register (12th-19th fret).

If you choose not to do a Rod Piezo Pickup Bridge you can easily make a bridge by fretting a excess piece of Fretboard wood (image 2).

1. I had to shorten up the Rod Piezo to Neck width. To do this I followed CB Gitty's instructions.

2. For a Rod Piezo Bridge I had to create a saddle for it to rest in. To do this I made a 3/8" wide 1/4" tall 1 1/2" long "U" shaped bridge with a 1/8" groove down the middle. (image 1)

3. To construct, I Super Glued many little pieces of Wood Veneer I had lying about (image 3, 4) . In retrospect it would have been easier to just cut this shape out of a scrap piece of lumber.

4. Cut the metal rod to length with Wire/Bolt Cutters and file down.

5. The Rod Piezo should sit down in the 1/8" groove and the Metal Ros should rest on top if it, applying the vibrations to the pickup. Make sure the Rod sits a tiny bit above the "U" shaped saddle (image 1).

Step 13: Making the Nut

Picture of Making the Nut

The Nut is what will hold the strings in place at the top of the Fretboard.

Guitar Nuts come in a variety of materials, awhile back I picked up a mixed bag from a music store going out of business. I found for acoustic instruments I prefer the density of bone.

1. Using the Coping Saw, trim the Nut down to the width of the Fretboard.

2. The Nut is only 1/8" thick and we have close to, if not 1/2" of space. To fill this gap, I cut a 3/8" deep, 1 1/2" long piece of wood from the part of the Cigar Box I cut away to install the electronics (image 2).

3. Test fit the pieces and make sure they are snug in the 1/2" gap between the Fretboard and the Headstock. You may have to file and sand down the piece of Cigar Box to fit properly. (image 3-6)

*Note: The Coping Saw provides the perfect width for the strings to sit in, the Craft Saw is too think of a blade.

4. Next make a line across the Nut 3mm down from the top. Then along the top edge of the Nut, marked the string spacing, just like in Step 3 of making the Tailpiece.

5. Using the Coping Saw cut down on the string marks to the 3mm line (image 7).

6. It doesn't hurt file down the top edges and sides a little bit, but this is optional.

Step 14: The Setup

Picture of The Setup
It's all come down to this! The Setup!

1. Before I attach the Neck I took the finest File I have and lightly ran it up and down the Fretboard a couple time to level out any high frets. (image 2)

2. Using the screws provided, screw the Electronic Controls to the Box and screw on the Input jack. (image 3,4)

3. Place the Neck in its proper place in the Box and close the lid, make sure the piezo is threaded through and plugged into the Controls first.

4. Center the Tailpiece on the back of the Box and use a 1" long screw to attach. I had a spare Strap Button about, so I put that over the screw before attaching. (image 4)

5. For a fancy touch I added box corners from the local hobby store.This was cheap and I think it will help with preserving the paper edges. (image 5)

6. Install the tuning Machines (image 6).

7. Assemble the Bridge and the Nut, then string it up!!! (image 7,8)

*Note: I like to tune up the strings gradually over a couple hours. Sometimes tightening fresh strings to their pitch too quickly can cause them to break. It can take up to a two weeks for the strings to stretch to their pitch.

8. I like to tune my Dulcimers to DAdd, but because this is a 6-string Dulcimer it will be tuned DDAAdd. For strings, I wen to my local music shop and got; two 22w gauge strings for the low "D", two 14 gauge strings for the "A", and two 12 gauge strings for the "d."

*Note: D=D3 on the piano, or 146.83hz. A=A3 on the piano, or 220.00hz. d=D4 on the piano, or 293.66hz

Finally, my favorite!!! Time to Play!!!

Thank you all for reading my Instructable, I hope you learned something interesting and/or new. If you have any questions, or need help with your build feel free to message me!


oloxo (author)2013-07-04

I can't wait to make this! Could you tell me what song you're playing in the demo?

mole1 (author)2012-12-26

Wow! It's beautiful!
Is that the sound without electricity?

rmazzupappa (author)mole12012-12-27

Thanks! Yeah that video was shot without the use of a amplifier.

pie R []ed (author)2012-07-26

Very nice job! I like your approach, and the result sounds beautiful. Gotta love the double courses!

rmazzupappa (author)pie R []ed2012-07-27

Thank You! I'm glad you enjoyed it! It really is one of my favorite dulcimers to play

jessyratfink (author)2012-07-18

It sounds much better than I thought - great build and fantastic instructions too!

About This Instructable




Bio: Being a Artist and Printmaker I have to be creative everyday! It is my compulsion. What I love about Instructables is the free exchange of ... More »
More by rmazzupappa:Easy Winter Cat ShelterAwesome Cigar Box Dulcimer
Add instructable to: