The origin of cigar box instruments is in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when around the time of the Civil War there were many people seeking to express themselves through music but could not afford to buy real musical instruments. Later, home built, Cigar box instruments where especially important in the rise of the Blues as they provided an accessable means to create great music. Instruments as simple as a box, broom handle and string were enough for some people to find inspiration and create great music by simple means.
Some of the great pioneers of rock n roll started with a simple cigar box instrument, pioneers of rock n’ roll such as Carl Perkins, blues greats like Lightin’ Hopkins, B.B. King, Blind Willie Johnson and Charlie Christian all started with a Cigar Box Guitar. The great B.B. King did not start with a Gibson but a homemade cigar box guitar that his father made for him in his shed.
Step 1: Part Sources- the Box
Step 2: Part Sources- Neck and Fretboard
I'm not affiliated with Mainland Ukes, just a fan.
Step 3: Part Sources- Bridge, Saddle, and Nut
Step 4: Part Sources- Electronics and Case Hardware
To protect the corners of the box (and dress it up a bit), I went with the 8-pack of Nickle plated box corners from C.B Gitty Crafter Supply . Good size for my box, and they came with screws for installation.
The sink drain will become the sound hole cover. It's called a Crumb Cup, I think it's designed to fit a small drain sink like you would find in a bar. I found it in the plumbing sections with the sink and faucet parts at Lowes. They had larger ones, but for my sized box, and for a uke, this one was a better fit. It takes a 1 1/2" hole and has a lip to cover the edges of the cut hole. It is recessed 7/8". I will simply epoxy it in place.
To install the neck to the box, I plan on trying something that I havn't seen before. While in the hardware store, I found these threaded wood inserts that I plan on installing in the base of the neck, drill the box, and then mount the screws through from inside the box into the neck. These come in several sizes, these are size 10-24 machine screws and I think the inserts are about 1/4" OD and have matching 10-24 threads on the inside.
Step 5: Bracing the Box
You can see in this first picture the bar code and Italian flag on the lower end of the box. These are not stickers, they were screened onto the box. I initially planned to leave the flag and cover the bar code, but after beginning to sand the box with 220 grit sandpaper, I found that the barcode sanded off cleanly. To balance things out and give the box a cleaner look, I went ahead and sanded the flag as well.
Step 6: Positioning the Soundboard and Neck Braces
Since the box was braced very strongly at this point, I considered not bracing the soundboard at all and probably could have gotten away with it. However, since I had decided to use a fixed bridge, I ripped one of the scrap 3/8" braces in half and glued it in place slightly above where the bridge would be placed on the finished uke. To find this location, I held the neck, fretboard and nut in place and measured 17" down the neck onto the box from the nut. 17" is a typical scale length for a tenor uke. I then placed the saddle on the bridge and lined up the saddle with the 17" mark from the nut. I then made sure that the soundboard brace was not placed directly under where the bridge would need to be (so that the vibrations wouldn't be dampened too much.) I glued the brace about 1" above where the soundboard would be placed.
Step 7: Preparing for the Neck Installation
Beginning with the neck I located the best postion to place the threaded inserts, which on my neck was down 3/4"and 1 1/2" from the top, and drilled holes in the neck just slightly deeper than the inserts. Notice that my aim on the neck holes wasn't exactly perfect with a handheld drill and I got slightly off center. I then had to compensate by making the box holes slightly off center too. No big deal as long as they matched up.
The inserts do have a notch for threading them in with a flat head screwdriver, however, these are soft brass and after destroying two of them, I found a much better way to install them. Before threading them into the neck: First thread two matching nuts onto the machine screw, then thread the machine screw into the insert until the bottom of the screw is flush with the bottom of the insert. Second, start unscrewing the nut closest to the insert until it touches the insert, them loosen the second nut until it jams down on top of the first nut. This creats a jam nut on top of the insert. You can now use a socket to thread the insert into the hole until the insert is flush, or just below the surface of the wood. Before threading it in a did place a very small drop of epoxy on the outside threads of the insert to ensure that it wouldn't come out. Then, simply back out the machine screw and remove the jam nuts. Voila, perfectly inserted threads, with no mishapenness due to the soft brass.
At this point I am going to wait until after final shaping the headstock and mounting the fretboard before attaching the neck to the box.
Step 8: Drilling the Box for the Soundhole, Jack, and Volume Pot
For the holes for the cup pulls that will house the volume pot and jack, I used a 3/4" spade bit, drilling very slowly to make the holes. A tip about using these: Once you get about half way through the surface, turn it over and drill from the other side. This will reduce the chance of getting chips in the wood when the bit finally breaks through. The hole on the soundboard will be for the volume control, and the hole on the end of the box will be for the jack. Just like with the sound hole crumb cup, after final finish of the box I will install the cup pulls with epoxy to hold them in place permanantly.
I've also included a picture of the cup pulls after I drilled holes into them to match the pot and jack. I used this step drill bit which allowed be to drill a hole slightly larger after each test fit.
After the holes were all complete, I finished sanding the outside of the box with 220 followed by 300 grit sandpaper and finally 0000 steel wool and then cleaned any sanding dust on the box with a tack cloth. At this point, I set the box aside to begin work on the neck.
Step 9: Shaping the Headstock
First, I freehanded in pencil a design on the headstock that I liked, being careful to leave enough room around the peg holes for strength and for the peg bushings to overlap. After drawing the design, I used a coping saw with a thin blade to cut off the excess. A scroll saw probably would have been the ideal tool to use to cut this, but I don't have one, so I used a coping saw. Here's a hint. When cutting, cut well outside the line, so that your final finish sanding places you on the line. As you can see in the pictures, while I had plenty of wood left, the headstock turned out a little narrower than initially planned.
For the final sanding and shaping, I used a 3/4" drum sanding mandrel in a drill press as well as a belt sander and a lot of hand sanding with both sandpaper and 0000 steel wool. I started with 150, moved to 220, and finally 280 grit sandpaper on both the sanding drum and belt sander.
Step 10: Attaching the Fretboard
For this step, I choose to use a quick set, 2 part epoxy instead of the foaming, Gorilla brand glue I used to reinforce the box earlier in the project. This is the same epoxy that will be used later to attach the bridge and box hardware.
After covering the underside of the fretboard with a thin coat of epoxy, carefully line up each edge, align the top edge of the fretboard with the pencil line marking the bottom of the nut, and align the centerline marked on the underside of the fretboard with the centerline on the lower end of the neck. When appliing the epoxy, remember that you will have some squeeze out the sides. To reduce this as much as possible, make sure to leave at least a 1/4" space between the epoxy and the edge of the wood that you apply it to. Too much space and you'll end up with a gap in the finished neck between the fretboard and neck, not enough space and you'll end up doing a lot more finish sanding to eliminate all the excess, dried epoxy that squeezed out. Use sufficient clamps along the length of the neck to secure everything in place while the epoxy cures. This epoxy says it dries in 10 minutes and is handleable in 1 hour, but since I will be sanding off some excess epoxy that squeezed out, I plan on waiting until the following day to begin that process.
Step 11: Finishing the Neck and Fretboard
Applying the Tru-Oil is extremely easy, just use a clean, lint free cotton cloth and rub it on. The secret is to apply it in several thin coats. You'll be surpised at how far this stuff goes, a little goes a long way. Wait about 2-3 hours between coats, lightly sand with 0000 steel wool, use a tack cloth to remove any dust or fibers, and apply another coat. These pictures are after only one coat. I would suggest 5-6 thin coats. Any areas where something will be glued later should be avoided. You can see in the pictures I have not put Tru-Oil where the nut will attach, or on the end of the neck where it will attach to the body of the uke, or on the underside of the bridge.
Step 12: Attaching the Neck
Step 13: Attaching the Bridge
Just like when attaching the neck, getting things extremely square and aligned is essential when attaching the bridge if the strings and action to are to be useable and look good. Measure multiple times, dry fit, measure and check again. The bridge needs to be attached securely in place (at least on this uke build) because most of the string tension will be pulling on it, so once you put on the adhesive and clamp it in place, you're committed. The best adhesive that I have found for attaching the bridge to the box is Titebond III wood glue. Originally I used epoxy after just roughing up the polyurethane finish, but while at the World Ukulele Congress, in the heat of the day, the bridge pulled off. Got some great advice from other builders there who turned me onto Titebond III and advised me to always make sure that the bridge is attached to raw wood, not even roughed up poly. The benefit of the Titebond is how it penetrates into the wood fibers which epoxy doesn't. After the bridge popped loose from just being epoxied, I sanded all the finish off under where the bridge would go, down to bare wood, reattached it with Titebond III, and reapplied the finish. I would reccomend just attaching the bridge before applying the finish to the box.
Begin by measureing the distance from the bottom of where the nut will be placed (on this build that is the top end of the fretboard) to where the saddle will go (the saddle notch on the bridge.) This measurement will determine the scale length for the instrument. For a tenor uke like this one, the scale length is typically between 17" and 18". For this uke I went with a scale length of 17 3/8" because my box length was slightly longer than a typical tenor uke.
Common Uke Scale Lengths: Courtesy of Nakulu Ukulele
Soprano (or standard): Scale length: 13-14 in.
Concert: Scale length: 15-16 in.
Tenor: Scale length: 17-18 in.
Baritone: Scale length: 19-20 in.
To get everything square before permanently attaching things, I used a wooden tougue depressor and taped it to the box above the bridge when measuring the scale length. Then, I used a combination square to make sure it was square with both sides of the box. (If your neck wasn't exactly square with the box, make sure that your bridge is perpendicular to the neck. Setting it to the box, if the neck isn't square with the box will only make things worse.)
Next, measure and mark on the tounge depressor the exact halfway mark across the box. This should line up perfectly with the center of the fretboard and the halfway mark made earlier on the bottom end of the box. Measure and mark the halfway point on the bridge, line it up with the mark made on the tounge depressor, make a final check for squareness all around, apply an even, thin amount of Titebond III to the back of the bridge and clamp it in place. Once the glue sets enough for things not to move, untape the tounge depressor and remove it. The instructions on the Titebond III reccomend leaving surfaces that will be under tension clamped for 24 hours to ensure complete drying and curing.
Step 14: Finishing the Box
In this step I began the process of laying the final finish on the uke box. For the box I chose to use a fast-drying, clear polyurethane. I initially thought about staining the box to match the neck, but after realizing how it would affect the look of the branding labels screen printed on the lid, I decided to go with the two-tone look. After seeing the final project, I'm glad I did. Unlike the finish of the neck, which was a hand rubbed oil finish (fairly hard to screw up), the finish on the box would need to be brushed on. The secret to any clear coat poly finish is to use very thin coats, allow each one to dry completely (the can says 3-4 hours, I like overnight depending on humidity), steel wool the surface smooth, tack cloth all dust, and brush on the next coat and repeat. This box took 6 coats, which include 6 cycles of coat, allow to dry, steel wool, and tack cloth. For me, a cheap foam brush worked extremely well to brush on each coat without leaving brushstrokes in the finish. Tip: A sealed zip top sandwich bag will keep a brush wet and reusable overnight without cleaning it. Eliminiating dust and brush stokes in the final finish is crucial here, so take your time.
To allow access to all sides while finishing it, I tied a small 1/4" rope to a large socket from a mechanic's socket set, opened the lid to the box, and passed the loose end of the rope out through the small hole on the end of the box. Then I closed the lid and hung the box over my work area to finish it. To gain more control over the box while brushing it, I simply held onto the box by placing two fingers from my left hand through the larger hole in the box and used the brush in my right hand. To reduce runs in the finish, pay attention not only to the surface you are currently appliing the poly too, but also to adjacent sides, that's where the runs will appear.
Step 15: Adding the Box Hardware (box Corners)
The screws that come with the box corners that I acquired from CB Gitty are small. Very small. But they do need predrilled. The screws that came with mine were probably size 2 and about 3/8" long. To pre-drill these I used a small, 1/16"drillbit and held each individual corner in place and pre-drilled the holes into the box directly through the holes in the box corner. After the holes were drilled I dipped the threads of each screw in a very small drop of super glue and screwed them in place. The super glue ensures that the short, small screws won't vibrate loose and fall out. Continue this process for each of the 8 corners.
Step 16: Adding the Box Hardware (soundhole, Jack and Switch Hole Covers)
Step 17: Attaching the Tuners
Installing the friction tuners is a fairly easy process. Begin by pressing the metal bushing down into the peg hole from the top. It will be a tight fit, but that's what you want. Make sure they get pressed in all the way so that the bottom of the bushing's flange is even with the top surface of the headstock. Next install the tuner peg down through the metal bushing. From the back of the headstock place the friction bushing (rough surface down usually) and the tuner knob over the tuner peg and use the friction screw to connect all the pieces together. Tighten the screw just enough so that the tuner will hold under tension from the string but not so tight that it won't turn. Final tightening will need to be done when the strings are attached. Continue the process for the remaining tuners.
Step 18: Installing the Electronics- Volume Control and Jack
Installing the volume potentiometer didn't require any extra steps as there won't be any outward forces pulling on it. Simply install it through the cup pull and secure with the nut and the volume knob from outside the box.
Step 19: Installing the Electronincs- Pickups
Step 20: Installing the Strings
Before final tuning, the string height must be adjusted for the action to be playable all along the fretboard. Once the strings are in place, look from the side to see how much the strings need to be lowered. Start setting the action with the nut, then make final adjustment to the saddle if needed. To make adjustments,sand the bone nut or saddle on a flat surface until an even string height is acheived on all strings. Be carefull not to take too much. Sand, fit it, look at it, and try again. Once the nut is set, see if you need to adjust the saddle. On my build, the action was good after just sanding the nut. Once the action is set, you can glue the nut in place, but on my build I am going to leave it just held in place by string tension.
After the strings are in place and tuned, find the best sounding location for the pickups and attach them securely with epoxy.
Step 21: The Final Product
The great thing about a home built project is that if you don't like it, try someting else. I'm sure I'll continue tweaking it, but that's half the fun!