Introduction: Cigar Box Fiddle / Violin

Picture of Cigar Box Fiddle / Violin

This instructable will show you my cheats, mistakes, fixes and follies in creating a cigar box violin. In the end it turned out much nicer than I thought it would during the darker days of the build (I made lots of mistakes). You should make one too! No guts, no glory.

Step 1: Supplies and Tools

Picture of Supplies and Tools

For this build I relied on:

  • a wood cigar box. I used a Cohiba box that I re-sized.
  • a rough-carved neck and finger board, purchased on-line*
  • a violin completion kit (strings, pegs, chin rest, etc), purchased on-line*

The tools I relied most heavily on were:

  • a table saw (for re-sizing the cigar box)
  • a band saw (for resizing the neck)
  • a scroll saw for cutting the f-holes
  • a 36" bench top belt sander (with 6" disc sander)
  • a drill and assorted bits
  • sandpaper, mixed roughnesses
  • general purpose wood glue
  • assorted clamps

* a note about my on-line purchases: I purchased 2 sets of supplies, one for this build and one to act as prototypes in case I ever try to make my own necks and finger boards. I purchased from aliexpress.com and the supplies were drop-shipped from China. If you purchase from aliexpress.com, remember that shipping is slow.

Total cost of this build: $41 (spring 2016)

Step 2: The Build in 5 Steps

I outline the steps in more detail later, including the many mistakes I made, but if you want to cut to the chase, here is the general work flow:

  • Resize the cigar box to suite your preferences. I made mine long and narrow, 4" across from top to bottom, because that is the minimum with of a violin where you bow it. You could use a box without resizing it, but it may be hard to bow if the box gets in the way.
  • Resize the neck to keep the scale length of a 'real' violin. The body of a violin is longer than that of a typical cigar box. If you don't extend the neck and you try to keep the original scale length of a violin (12 7/8") you will be bowing right up by your chin - an uncomfortable position.
  • Attach neck to cigar box with appropriate angle for fingerboard. A violin fingerboard slopes up, and the modified neck needs to be within a certain range so that the strings are 1 1/8" above the cigar box at the bridge.
  • Finish the box and neck to your liking. I used a dark shellac and covered with a few layers of clear shellac spray, very light sanding in-between.
  • Complete the violin using the remainder of the parts from your kit. The toughest part here is getting the pegs to fit well in the holes.

Step 3: Resizing the Box

Picture of Resizing the Box

Of the cigar boxes on hand, I selected a Cohiba box because it had a nice feel and because it has box joints on the ends that look cool to my eye. I disassembled the box from its lid and saved the hinges for final reassembly.

MISTAKE: I initially thought I could disassemble the box at the box joints, but then I realized that the glue at the joints was stronger than the wood, and I was at risk for breaking the box to useless splinters.

FIX: I sliced the box on my table saw, removed the excess wood, and then re-glued the box back together. It doesn't look perfect, but it worked. I glued in small pieces of wood along the bottom and sides to 'double up' over the joints.

While narrowing the box I splintered off some of the box joint and had to reconstruct them using spare wood that I cut out of the box. For this, I rough cut the pieces on a band saw and then slowly fit them in place with a lot of sanding and test-fitting.

At the end of this step I had a box that was 12" x 4" x 1 3/4" tall.

I took the lid and cut it to be 4" wide, taking care to keep the Cohiba logo in the center.

Step 4: Lengthening the Neck

Picture of Lengthening the Neck

The neck I purchased wasn't long enough. The reason for this is that a violin body is 14" long and my Cohiba box is 12" long. I initially decided to 'split the difference' and added a 1" piece of maple to the neck after pre-gluing the fingerboard on.* The pictures show how I added that and shaped it using a band saw and a belt sander.

MISTAKE: My 'split the difference' idea won't work because the pre-fab tail piece I purchased is already sized for a normal violin. I'd have to shorten it by 1", but that is pretty darn impossible.

FIX: I added a second 1" piece of maple and reshaped it yet again. Twice the work, but at least I realized before the glue-up.

* I pre-glued the fingerboard to the neck, which is not typical when building a violin. I did this because I wanted it there to help hold in place the added 1" chunks of maple while the glue was drying.

Step 5: The Top

Picture of The Top

Now I have a neck that is the right length and a nice top ready to go! I did a test fit and it is looking fine... I downloaded some f-holes from the internet, sized them in PowerPoint and printed them on regular paper. I then glued the guides to the top using Elmer's spray glue and cut the f-holes using a scroll saw. After that, I removed the remaining paper with a solvent and everything was awesome until...

MISTAKE: The top seemed too thick, and when I checked it against the thickness of a real violin I realized it was twice as thick. I worried that this would negatively affect sound, so I decided to resaw it thinner!!! Gawd, what a mess. Turns out that I do not know how to resaw. 'Gonna have to find an instructable about that.

I ended up with two halves that were warped and useless.

FIX: I had a beer and watched a movie. Then I glued the two halves back together and when they were dry it was warped. I placed a heavy brick on it for a week. It was flat but looked horrible. I sanded it as best I could, then I gave it a quick coat of spray shellac. It is amazing what shellac can cover...

Step 6: Setting the Neck

Picture of Setting the Neck

I gave the neck a couple coats of a dark shellac and then set it to the box. I spent some time sanding the neck where I added the extra maple, trying to get the angle right. A correct angle for a violin neck results in the finger board being 21mm (a tad shy of 7/8") high at its end. I got 'close enough' and then I drilled a hole for a dowel, and glued the neck in place.

MISTAKE: not sanding for a perfect fit. When I added the strings, the neck warped out of place despite the dowel. Turns out that there is a fair amount of tension in a violin, which is why the necks are usually dovetailed in the body. My neck's fit wasn't perfect, and so it flattened on itself.

FIX: I drilled a 1/4" hole in the neck and screwed the neck in place at the appropriate angle.

TRICK: I like coarse thread drywall screws; they are cheap and I always seem to have them around. However, their heads are > 1/4" so you can't cover them with a standard dowel. I simply round off the heads using a grinder until the screw can be covered by a dowel.

After gluing in the dowel, I sanded it flat and covered it with a coat or three of the shellac, applied with a q-tip. It is virtually impossible to see unless you know it is there.

Step 7: Gluing the Top and Finishing!

Picture of Gluing the Top and Finishing!

I signed the inside of the box so that you can see it through the f-holes and then glued the top in place. After the glue set, I did a light sanding and a couple coats of shellac over the entire fiddle excepting the fingerboard.

MISTAKE: Dark shellac tries quick and runs. My first attempts resulted in runny streaks and a rather ugly neck.

FIX: After letting the first coat fully dry, I simply sanded it all off and started over with less shellac on my brush and more patience. There may have been a couple beers in-between the mistake and the fix.

Final assembly was pretty easy. The strings were pre-labeled and the chin rest simply slides in place.

MISTAKE: I took the bridge straight out of the kit and after adding strings the violin looked great but the strings were very high off the finger board. I was distraught and kept re-checking my angles etc. The neck hadn't warped or moved, what was the problem?

FIX: A local violin maker took mercy on me and told me the obvious - the bridge is oversized on purpose so that violin makers can cut it down to the perfect size. He also had a nifty tool with the right shape for the bridge (it is not just an oval). He measured and marked my bridge and sent me on my way. Thanks!

Someone at the violin store tried to buy the fiddle from me on the spot! What a neat feeling (I didn't sell).

Step 8: Final Thoughts

Picture of Final Thoughts

This wasn't a particularly hard build - some of the cigar box guitars I have made were more complex, but boy oh boy does this one look nice. Everyone compliments me on it, and it actually sounds decent - video coming soon, I promise.

YOU SHOULD MAKE ONE TOO and post improvements here.

Thanks for reading!

Comments

Ugifer (author)2016-06-17

Nice build. Hope it sounds good, 'cos it certainly looks it!

I may have missed it, but do you have a sound post? That's the bit of dowel that sits under the bridge and braces the top against the bottom. It's the most important internal part of a normal violin for getting a decent sound. It also stops the top from collapsing under the pressure of the bridge.

Your top looks narrower and stronger than a normal violin, but it's also flatter, where a violin gets some strength from being arched on the top and bottom. I would still expect that you needed a sound post both for strength and particularly for sound quality.

Ugi

rickkeil (author)Ugifer2016-06-17

Thanks for the comment. It doesn't have a sound post, but I will definitely try that on my next build. The wood in the box is so thick that I didn't think the post would help. I will try to add a song post through the f-hole and report back if it makes a difference!

JoeV24 (author)2016-06-13

I build bass guitars as a hobby and for $ if someone commissions one from me. Believe me, I do not ever sell any bass that I build for myself; they are my children and they stay on my wall. The commissioned ones I can detach from as they are out of sight and mind and I built them more as a labor of love than for the bux.

I digress. I never tried shellac for covering my woods, I use clear or tinted lacquer that requires lacquer thinner to make it spray-able.

What I like about lacquer is that it dries almost instantly at 75F+ ambient temp. I can shoot on 10-15 coats of clear lacquer in 45 minutes or so. You don't have to buy special acoustic instrument lacquer either, as the quart sized can at most decent hardware stores is as good, if not better that the very pricey specialty stuff from luthier sales on the internet or in their nice catalogs.

Otherwise, I like your honesty (the mistakes) and the end product. How's it sound?

rickkeil (author)JoeV242016-06-17

Thanks for the comment. I have used lacquer on other instruments but the shellac seemed good for this build since I wanted to tint and I haven't done that with lacquer. It sounds nice but a little thin. It definitely sounds better when played by a good fiddler instead of me (a beginner).

wobbler (author)2016-06-12

Great design- made me wish I could play a violin. Maybe I should just stick with fiddling about?

About This Instructable

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Bio: I like to tinker around with small electronics projects and with woodworking projects.
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