A cigar box guitar, if you don't know, is a simple stringed instrument that uses a small wooden box as the resonance chamber. CBG's generally have 3 or 4 strings (some have 6; and some variations have only 1 or 2) and have all of the basic components of a guitar: a neck, body, nut bridge, and strings. They are often made using recycled material or found objects.
This instructable will show you how to build a resonator or dobro-style CBG that is unique because it features a hidden compartment for a small bottle or flask of whiskey, some shot glasses, and a shot server. A resonator guitar is simply a guitar that has a metal vibrating surface rather than wood which creates a bright metallic sound. Resonator-style CBG's are often built using license plates or metal pet dishes. In this instructable I will use a metal hand saw as the resonator surface.
Since CBG's are made using recycled materials it's unlikely that you'll start with the exact same materials that I used. So this Instructable will serve mainly as a basic guide to building your CBG rather than precise instructions.
Step 1: Supplies and Tools
A Wooden Cigar Box: Obviously, you'll need a cigar box. These are really easy to find. You can use eBay. You'll find really cool boxes there but you'll also spend quite a bit more than you have to especially after shipping is factored. Instead, I suggest a local cigar shop. Most shops sell empty boxes for a dollar or two and might even give them for free. Look for a box that is wood and has a thickness of at least 1.5". The length and width can really be any dimension but bigger is better in my opinion. If you can find a box greater than 6" x 6" then you're golden for this project.
A Metal Plate of Some Sort: An old license plate will work great. Or a hand saw. Or roof flashing. Or a street sign. Or a cookie tin. Or, I don't know, go root through the neighbor's trash.
- Wood: Generally you'll want hardwoods. At the large box stores you can find maple, poplar, and oak.
- 48" long 1x2 hardwood (maple recommended) for neck. Avoid soft wood like pine)
- 30" long 1/8th inch or 1/4th inch hardwood board for a fret board
- Screws (various)
- Guitar strings
- Guitar tuners (half a set)
- Piezo pickup
- 1/4" mono phone jack
- light insulated wire
- Four-in-hand rasp/file combo
- Tape measure and/or long straightedge
- Wood glue
- Super glue
- Painter's tape
- Clamps (several)
- Small handsaw
- Screw drivers
- Hand drill with bits
- Paper (for drawing, notes, etc.)
- Utility knife
- Files and rasps
- Sand paper
- Soldering iron
- For installing frets (optional):
- Dovetail saw
- Wire snippers
Step 2: Prepare the Soundboard (Cigar Box Lid)
After you settle on a resonator soundboard (license plate, saw blade, etc.) trim it if needed. In my case, I cut the saw to the length of the box lid using a hacksaw and file the sharp edges smooth [side note: the metal of a hand saw is remarkably hard. I ruined a brand new hacksaw blade getting through it. Drilling holes in it was no picnic either.] If you’re using something other than a painted piece of metal (say, a license plate) you may need to spray the surface with a clear enamel to prevent rusting. The saw I used was very rusty so I sanded it with fine grit sand paper and applied two coats of satin enamel clear coat. If needed, drill small holes in the plate/saw for some screws.
Step 3: Map Out and Cut the Neck
Mapping Out the Neck:
What you want to do now is make marks on the board to map out what the guitar will look like. Part of the neck will be inside the box and part will stick out one end. Assuming you’re a normal person (i.e. right-handed) the cigar box will likely be oriented so that the hinges are on top when playing. Open up the cigar box and situate it on the bench so that the hinges are away from you and you are looking at the inside of the box. Butt one end of the maple board against the inside left edge of the box and hold it there. Mark the butt end of the board as “end” or “butt” or however your brain will remember it. Then, on the right side of the box, trace both the inside edge of the box and outside edge of the box. In between those marks write “box” to indicate the wall of the box. You could then write “inside box” to show which part of the box that will live inside and write “neck” on the part that will be the neck outside the box. I know this all seems like overkill, but it will help you avoid making a bad cut and having to start the neck over again. You’re going to make even more notes on the board in a few steps.
You’ll also need to mark the wall of the box to indicate the center. This will allow you to center the neck board through the box squarely. Measure the box from inside to inside and mark the exact center. Then measure and mark 0.75” on both sides of that center mark. This indicates the 1.5” dimension of the neckboard.
Reinforcing the Neck:
The next thing you want to do is reinforce the neck. This is because in a little bit you’re going to notch out part of the neck wood to either allow the box top to vibrate or to account for the box lid (depending on the type of box you have). 3 guitar strings stretched over the neck and tuned create something like a 14 trillion pounds of force (may be an exaggeration). The maple board by itself can handle that. But once you start cutting away to make room for the box lid the neck can get weak pretty fast.
So to reinforce the neck, measure the distance between the butt of the maple board and the “inside of the box” line. Add about 1.5 inches to that measurement and cut that off the “outside of the box” end of the neck board. Cut the tip of that piece off at a 45 degree angle (for aesthetics). This will be your reinforcement piece. Take that piece and glue it to the underside of the neck board exactly flush with the butt end. Clamp it for a few hours to dry. The 45 degree angle will create an attractive heel where the neck exits the box.
Measure the thickness of the cigar box lid using a ruler. You will want to remove that much wood from the neck board from the “butt” end to the “outside of box” mark. This will allow the top neck surface to be flush with the cigar box lid. Mark the thickness on the neck board and cut using a band saw or hammer and chisel. Test the fit and sand the new surface smooth.
Now cut a notch out of the box where the neck will poke through. To do so, trace the butt end of the neck board on the outside of the box using your previous center marks as a guide. A coping saw can be used to cut the box. Use a file or rasp to shape the hole so the neck board fits snugly.
Define the Bridge Position and Headstock:
Insert the neck board into the cigar box with the butt end firmly against the inside of the box. Close the lid. You could tape the lid shut to make it easier to work. Now it kind of looks like a guitar. Place a piece of painters tape on the box around where you’d like the bridge to be. I usually like the bridge to be left of center but you could really put it anywhere as long as you leave at least an inch or two behind the bridge and leave room to route the strings through. Use a pencil to mark exactly where you want the bridge. Use a yardstick or measuring tape to measure and mark 24” from the bridge. That will be the position of the nut. (Note: 24” is the “scale length.” Besides 24” there are various scale lengths that could be used. I like 24” because it is a nice even number).
Measure about 6 inches from the nut mark on the neck board and make a cut. Then chop the resulting piece into two 6” lengths and set them aside. These will be sandwiched together and used for the headstock shape.
In the meantime, remove the neck board from the cigar box and turn it over on the workbench. Use a pencil to mark the center line the entire length of the neck (e.g. outside of box part of the neck board). The centerline will give you a guide while shaping the neck.
Step 4: Shape the Neck
Once you get the rough shape, start using a rasp or 4-in-hand to continue to shape the neck. Use the center line as a guide to make sure you are maintaining symmetry and taper as you get towards the headstock and heel areas. Run your hand over the entire neck to locate high spots that need more attention. Your soft caress is the best caliper to getting a nice shape.
Once the basic shape is obtained, start using files and rough sand paper to get it smooth. Then use consecutively finer and finer sandpaper to get a nice finish. Once you are down to about 200 grit, wipe the entire back of the neck with a damp paper towel. This will cause the wood to swell and lift the grain. Sand some more and it will get smooth as a baby's bottom.
Step 5: Define the Headstock
Spread some woodglue on the sides of those 6” headstock pieces from Step 4. Then clamp them on the sides of the neckboard like little ears and allow the glue to dry over night. This creates the paddle that the headstock can be cut from.
While that’s drying you can design the shape of your headstock. You can do it freehand or do a Google image search for headstock designs. You can get really creative here; the only thing to remember is that the headstock will have 3 guitar tuner machine posts poke through holes. For strength, you generally want all three holes drilled through the “original” neck board and not the ears. This isn’t gospel; it might work otherwise. But don’t come crying to me if you have trouble down the road.
You probably noticed at this point that the posts on the tuning machines are too short relative to the thickness of the headstock. If you did notice that, you’re very astute. To correct this, you need to make the headstock thinner. Another reason to make the headstock thinner is to allow for a suitable string angle over the nut which will keep the strings from buzzing. Mark about 0.5” thickness on the top of the headstock paddle to be removed. And taper the mark as you get closer to the nut. Raise the guide on the bandsaw and start cutting this away. An electric sander will help you get the new surface nice and smooth. Otherwise, use your 4-in-hand and sandpaper to get the surface as smooth as you can. [Note: all of this “thinner headstock” business and string angle nonsense could also be accomplished by using a scarf joint to angle the headstock back instead of keeping it straight and making it thinner. If you don’t have power tools, the scarf joint idea might be marginally easier.]
Take your awesome headstock design and trace it onto the headstock paddle and cut out with a coping saw, jig saw, or scroll saw. Sand the edges and feather it into the neck profile using your 4-in-hand.
Mark and drill 3 holes in the headstock for the tuning machines. Depending on where you get them and the type they may or may not have a bushing for the post. I encourage you to test on a piece of scrap wood first to figure out the diameter of the holes. You want the posts to be tight and not wiggle.
Step 6: Create a Secret Compartment
Hide the Liquor:
Dry fit the neck board into the box. Find a place inside the box where the liquor bottle will fit and can easily be removed. You might need to orient it in different ways to get it to fit. It may fit on either side of the neck; it might need to be placed behind the neck. But you want it to fit in there while still allowing the box to close. Use some scrap wood to build a little platform for it to sit if you have to. You may need to elevate the platform a bit using some wood braces. Glue these into place and clamp.
If the bottle does not fit snuggly you can use some twine or leather strips to strap it into place. Drill some holes in the platform or box and tie knots in the twine to secure the bottle in place. Leather and twine have a bit of stretch to them so that will help to secure the bottle by stretching over the bottle like bungie cords.
Create a Mini Shot Server:
Measure the width and depth of the box and draw out a paddle shape on a piece of paper. Cut out the shape to create a template pattern. Transfer this shape to a piece of 0.25” wood and cut out with a scroll saw or coping saw and sand. This will be your shot server. Cut two large holes in the paddle to hold the shot glasses. You should be able to slide the paddle into the box sideways like a shelf. Mark where the paddle sits within the box. Cut some “shelf brackets” to hold the paddle in place and allow it to slide in and out. Glue these brackets in place at the marks and clamp.
You should now be able to store the bottle, glasses, and server completely within the box, completely hidden from your wife.
Step 7: Glue Neck to Cigar Box Lid
Step 8: Fretting (or Not Fretting)
For the fretboard, use a 0.25” sheet of hardwood. At the “big two” home improvement stores you can buy small sheets of poplar or oak that are about 4” X 36”. You can get more exotic woods like rosewood or ebony at specialty stores.
Fretless Neck (easier): Cut the board to the width of the neck (1.5”). For the length, measure the neck from the nut mark to the box. Add an inch or so that the fretboard overlaps the box. You could leave it flush with the box but it looks nicer if you overlap a little. Cut the board to length. Apply a thin layer of wood glue to the back of the board and to the neck and clamp the fingerboard down to the neck. Use several clamps to make sure it adheres evenly. Wipe off any excess glue with a damp rag. [A trick: to keep the board from sliding while clamping, put a few grains of salt in the glue before clamping]
You can mark the frets (to make playing a little easier) by drawing the fret marks on with a marker or a wood burner. See the "fret template section below to figure out where to make the marks.
Fretted (a little more advanced): Buckle in. Put on a pot of coffee. Pull up a chair. This is going to get tricky. You’ll need to buy fret wire which can be purchased at a guitar shop or online. You’ll also need some tools that you might not already have. You’ll need a pull saw. You’ll need a non-metal mallet. And it’d be good if you have a miter box to keep the cuts straight. And you’ll need a decent metal ruler that has metric (found at drafting or art store). Oh, and you’ll need to print a template out from the internet so you know where to put the frets. And some super glue.
Fret Template: First thing you should do is go to this link and download the template for a 24 inch scale. Then print it out. To check for accuracy, measure the template from the nut line to the 12th fret. That should be half your scale length (For a 24 inch scale that should be 12). If you get 12 then the template printed out OK. If it doesn’t come out to 12” then I don’t know what to tell you. You probably need to fiddle with your printer settings or Adobe or something. Whatever it is it’s over my head. Maybe use a different website to get the template (Google it, there are a million of them). Don’t email me though. I have my own problems. Once you have your template printed, cut it out and tape it to the fingerboard. Use a square to transfer all of the lines to the fingerboard with a pencil.
Cut Frets: Once all of the fret marks are transferred to the fingerboard load it into your miter box. Use the pull saw to make shallow channels at each fret mark. The cut should be deep enough to accept the fret wire but not too deep. One way of getting uniform depth is to count the saw strokes. For instance, it may take 13 pulls to get the right depth. Test this on a scrap of wood. Let the saw do the work; don’t push down on the saw. Once you get the stroke count dialed in you can use the same number of strokes on each cut. Make sure each channel is evenly cut and don’t lift the saw out of the cut with each pull. I highly recommend doing a test run on a scrap to get the hang of this. Once you do several cuts you’ll be pretty comfortable with it.
Trim the finger board: Cut the board to the width of the neck (1.5”). For the length, measure the neck from the nut mark to the box. Add an inch or so that the fretboard overlaps the box. You could leave it flush with the box but it looks nicer if you overlap a little. Cut the board to length.
Install Frets: Cut the fret wire to length using wire cutters. The wire just needs to be slightly wider than the fingerboard (1.5”). Spread some superglue into the channel (carefully) and put a piece of the wire into the channel. Now whack it into the channel with a mallet. Make sure it goes all the way in and give it a few good whacks all across the wire. Repeat this for all of the frets.
Step 9: Gluing the Fingerboard
Step 10: Dressing the Frets and Checking for Level
Bevel the Frets:
File the fret wire flush with the neck and then file a bevel on the edges. Use some very fine grit sand paper to smooth the edges. Get them to where you think you’ll be comfortable playing.
Level the Frets:
In a perfect world, all of the frets would be perfectly level. But due to imperfections of the wood and inconsistency of installation there will likely be a fret or three that are higher or lower than all the others.
Lay a straightedge (preferably something metal) so that it spans 3 or more frets. Rock it back and forth. If there is no movement (e.g. the straightedge doesn’t see-saw on one of the frets) then it is level. Do this all up-and-down and across the neck. If you do notice a high spot use a Sharpie to mark it. Use a file or piece of Emory cloth to sand the fret down so that the rocking stops.
You can get an inexpensive straightedge tool called a rocker from a music store (one that carried guitar building supplies). These are really handy if you’re going to build more than one CBG or if you think you’ll “graduate” to a full 6-string guitar. Otherwise you could use a metal ruler or, for the closer frets, a razor blade (razor blades aren’t wide enough to span some of the lower frets)
One tip is to use painter’s tape to cover the wood between the frets. This will protect the wood when using the file and protect from any stray Sharpie marks.
Step 11: Install Tuning Knobs
Step 12: Drill the String Holes
Step 13: Make a Nut
You can use a lot of different hard materials for a nut. A piece of hard plastic like a hair comb would work. You could use a metal bolt. Or you could buy bone guitar nuts. Or, if you have access, you could use a deer antler. You could even use oven-drying modeling clay (Sculpey) or a piece of Corian.
To create the nut, cut the hard material (I am using deer antler in this Instructable) and sand it so it is the width of the neck (1.5”) and about 0.25” thick. The height should be about twice the thickness of the fingerboard. Once you get it to shape, you can always sand away more material.
Glue the nut in place using super glue. The nut goes right up against the fingerboard at the headstock.
Mark the string locations using a pencil. So the middle string is obviously dead center. Mark the other two strings at 0.5” on either side of the center string. You could go wider if you prefer but I like it at 0.5”.
At each of the string marks, use a small file to create a channel for the string to sit. You could use a jeweler’s file or the corner of a larger file that you already have. These grooves keep the strings in place and allows them to vibrate. Don’t worry about the depth at this point since adjustments will be made at the end.
Step 14: Make a Bridge
Bridges often “float” on the surface of the guitar. This means that it is not glued or fixed in place. The tension of the strings holds it in place. The adjustable nature of a floating bridge is useful for setting the tuning of the instrument.
At this point, just set the bridge aside until you string it up. Don’t lose it.
Step 15: Electronics and Bonus Points
Most guitars have dots or marks at certain fret positions so players don’t get lost on the fingerboard while playing. It gives them landmarks for their brains to calibrate on as they play and glance down. As standard, these are located at the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, and 12th positions. One guitars these markers can range from simple pearl dots to ornate inlayed designs. A very simple marker for a cigar box guitar would be a dot of paint or marker. Since you have your soldering iron already warmed up why not burn some dots into the surface of the fingerboard.
Cigar Box Guitars are great acoustic instruments. But you can also have fun with electronics by adding pickups and effects. Probably the simplest pickup is a piezo disk. Piezos are essentially buzzers that, when wired in reverse, will pickup sound rather than emit sound. You can buy piezos online or at Radio Shack for a dollar or two. While you’re at it, get some wire and an input jack.
While you could wire in a volume know, this example is just a jack and piezo. So solder the piezo and jack securely. Drill a hole in the side of the box to mount the jack. You could use a small piece of wood or metal as a decorative plate to mount the jack.
The piezo can be taped or hot-glued to the underside of the cigar box lid. It will pick up vibration from the strings and amplify the CBG’s sound. Before permanently mounting the piezo disk experiment with different positions to get the best sound. Directly under the bridge is a good place to start.
You can add fancy box corners, decals, and upholstery tacks to make your CBG look more professional. The possibilities are endless. One tip is to check flea markets and garage sales for old costume jewelry. Old pins, belt buckles, and pendants look really cool placed in the headstock, or wherever.
Step 16: String It Up
A note about tuning: You can tune your strings virtually to anything you want. The predominant tuning in the cigar box guitar community is 1-5-1 which means the bass (top) string is a root note, the middle string is a 5th step above the root, and the high string is an octave of the root. Strumming this essentially creates a “power chord.” And fretting across the neck with one finger moves that chord up and down the neck. This is what makes CBG’s so great for people that have never played an instrument. And this tuning is really great for the blues because you can play a simple 12-bar blues with almost one finger.
So after you have your strings selected and separated from the rest of the pack, open the box and thread each one up through the neck board and through the cigar box lid. Carefully guide it over the bridge and up the neck and through the little hole in the tuning peg and wrap it around the peg once manually. Keeping tension on the string with one hand, start winding the tuner with the other hand until the string has some tension on its own. Once it does, position the string in its grooves on the nut and bridge. Pull up on the string to give it a bit of the stretch and continue to tighten. Use a guitar tuner to get the string nearly up to pitch (there is no point in fine tuning at this point. Repeat with the remaining 2 strings.
Set the bridge into position by measuring 24” from the nut and slide the bridge to that spot. This will get further adjustment later. Now tune each of the strings up to pitch.
Give each string a quick pluck and marvel at the fact that you just built a musical instrument on your own. I know it sounds like crap at this point but It’s still a pretty cool feeling.
Step 17: Tuning, Intonation, and Final Adjustments
- Try fretting at the first fret. Is it comfortable? Does it take too much effort to get the strings against the fingerboard? If so, try more filing of the nut and bridge. Remember to file a little at a time and retest often. It’s easier to remove material than to add material back.
You may have already noticed that while the strings are in tune while plucked “open” they sound a little off when fretted. This is due to the overall intonation of the instrument. To correct for this, the bridge needs to be moved to its ideal position. Fret one of the strings at the 12th fret and pluck while checking the tuner. If it’s a little sharp, move the bridge toward the back of the guitar. If flat, move it towards the fingerboard. Play the string in the open position and retune. Then try the 12th fret again. You may need to go through this process a few times for each string before getting it right. It’s OK if you can’t get perfect tuning at the 12th fret. Just get it as close as possible.
This process can be frustrating because of the trial and error involved. Especially when you adjust one string only to make one of the others worse. But eventually you’ll get it to where it sounds good.
Now try fretting each string at all of the different frets and plucking the strings. The strings should vibrate freely and not have a buzzing sound. Although you filed the frets in an earlier step it’s possible that additional filing is needed. When you find a buzzing fret the culprit is usually an downstream fret that is causing the issue. For example, if the G string buzzes at 7th fret, it’s probably the 8th or 9th fret that is high. Loosen the strings and carefully move them out of position so you can access them for filing.
Step 18: Jam
Most common tuning is I-V-I which basically means the low string is tuned to a root tone and the middle string is tuned to a fifth above that. The high string is tuned to an octave about the root. Since I used the A, D, and G strings from the pack I tuned to G-D-G. Strumming this in the open position is a G chord. If you take your index finger and bar the strings at any fret it creates a different chord up and down the neck.
Playing a basic blues riff is a breeze:
1) strum the strings open.
2) Use your index finger to press the middle string at the second fret and strum. See how it sounds kind of bluesy when you co back and forth from open to pressing that one string?
3) Now press the middle string down at the third fret and throw that into the mix. Sounds really bluesy now, huh?
4) Experiment with variations of this and jam out.
Step 19: Drink