Introduction: Simple Cigar Box Ukulele
This is a quick instructable on how to make a cigar box ukulele. There's lot of other instructables on cigar box instruments but I figured I'd show how I built mine. This was the first ukulele I built, hopefully it can help inspire you to bulid one too!
I wanted a ukulele and didn't want to spend too much money. My uncle happened to have some extra cigar boxes from someone who was throwing them out and one seemed like it would be a good size for a soprano ukulele, so I thought I would give making a cigar box ukulele a shot.
there is a ton of resources online on how to build instruments. This is just a basic overview of what I did so you can see it's not too hard. Making an instrument this way is not going to get you a professional quality instrument without spending a lot more time and effort, however, I managed to make one more than good enough for playing at home and with friends without too much effort!
One thing to note is that I used the bottom of the box as the top of the instrument. so when I refer to the top of the instrument it's the bottom of the box. This way you can still open the box and get a different quieter tone if you'd like.
Step 1: Gather Materials
Since I wanted to minimize the difficulty while keeping the price low it was a balance between buying as little as possible while not making it too hard to construct. the hardest thing to find locally will be the fretwire, I found mine at a store which also did some repair work. It's easy to find online though if you're willing to wait.
Music store parts:
-Tuners (I bought a set of 3x3 guitar tuners, I figured I could use the extra 2 on another project later)
-Fretwire (I got 24" of the thinnest fretwire they had)
-Ukulele strings (I got some soprano strings since that was the size of ukulele I made)
Hardware store parts:
- 1x 2x4 to make the neck
-1x cedar fence board (for the fretboard (something harder like maple would have been better), to add some colour to the neck, and to reinforce the box/neck joint)
-2x10 or similar (optional: to make a new top for the ukulele, you'll need a board as wide as your box or you'll have to glue pieces together)
-1x bolt, matching washer and threaded insert to attach the neck to the cigar box.
-1x cigar box
- a couple pieces of something hard to make the bridge and nut
Step 2: Tools!
I ended up using a lot of tools in this project which everyone might not have. I'll suggest some alternatives here that could be used instead
-Drill press (a regular drill could be substituted easily)
-table saw (there's no dado's or anything fancy so a simple hand saw could be used in a pinch)
-thickness planer (for everything besides making a new top it's not necessary, a block plane could be used, or sandpaper on a block)
-band saw (a hand saw and files/sandpaper could get the same result, it will just take longer)
-belt sander (files/sandpaper could be used)
-thin kerf hand saw for fretting (can be found for <$10 at a hobby shop, I used a razor saw)
-digital caliper for marking frets (a ruler could be used in a pinch)
-square to mark frets (many things can be used as an improvised square, or you could make your own)
Step 3: Neck
I made my neck out of three pieces, a piece of cedar fence board sandwiched between two 2x4's. I cut each piece to be the depth of my cigar box and about 12" long, then glued them together. make sure to spread the glue evenly and use as many clamps as you can. I ran my glued up piece through my thickness planer to get a nice face to draw on but it's not necessary. I drew a center line and set my fretboard on it so the 12th fret was right where the neck would meet the body of the ukulele then traced it. Next draw the profile of your neck on a long side beside where you traced your fretboard. make sure to give a good angle between your neck and headstock, you need the headstock to tilt back so the strings stay in the nut. if it's not enough of an angle the strings will pop out of the nut, that was the case with my ukulele so I had to add a strip of wood behind the nut to keep the strings down.
I would start by cutting out the side profile of your neck. try and cut the area where your hand will be when you play in one big piece, then you can tape it back in place and it will support the neck while you cut out the top profile where you traced the fretboard.
if you're using a jigsaw rather than a bandsaw you can put your headstock design on the same face as the fretboard and cut it out after you've done the side profile. if you're using a bandsaw you'll want to draw it on the back of the fretboard side so you can put the front of the headstock on the bandsaw table to cut it out.
once it's cut out shape it like crazy with sandpaper/files or whatever you prefer to use to get it feeling nice in your hand. be careful not to round over the edge where the fretboard will be glued on.
you can now drill the holes for your tuners in the headstock. (how big they are depends on the tuners you bought, I would suggest you drill some holes in a piece of scrap to see what works best. where they go depends on your design)
Step 4: Fretboard
I used a piece of cedar fence board for my fretboard, however something harder like maple would probably be better. I cut a piece of my fence board to about 1cm x 13" x 3" then ran it through the thickness planer until it was nice and flat. I think it ended up closer to 5mm thick in the end. I squared up one end of the piece really well, it will be where my nut goes, it's the basis for all the measurements for the frets. you can calculate all your fret distances yourself but it's much easier to use a fret calculator. I used the stewart macdonald one which is found easily if you google "fret calculator". it's a free tool on their website. for my scale length I used 13". you can do as many frets as you'd like. since my neck/body joint was at the 12th fret I wanted a couple past that so it would look nice.
next up is to mark all your frets. I measured the distance from the nut end of the piece to where the calculator told me the fret should be then made a small mark with an x-acto knife (a pencil would also work but is less fine). doing each measurement from the nut reduces any errors adding up between frets. once they were all marked I went back and used the knife to mark across the whole piece with a square, this helps keep the saw straight so all your frets are parallel. I put some tape across my razor saw at the depth I wanted to cut my slots. I cut mine a tiny bit deeper than the "tang" of the fretwire so I would be sure they seated all the way. I again used the square to help keep my cuts straight and cut all the slots to the depth of my tape. next you can trace on the shape of your fretboard and cut it out. if you do this now rather than before you mark your frets it's much easier to keep all your frets parallel.
Once the slotted fretboard was cut to shape I put in the frets. I cut each fret to length with some side cutters then hammered them in, I think the best method is to start from the edges and move to the center. I cut all my frets a bit long so once they were all in sanded them down to be flush with the edges of the fretboard.
I used a long flat file to try and level my frets then a triangular one to give them their dome shape again. there's lots of videos and descriptions online on how to do this, especially for guitars. for a little ukulele it's pretty easy, so don't be too intimidated. I also used my long file to angle the edges of the frets in so they weren't sharp.
Step 5: Cigar Box
You don't need to do anything to get the cigar box ready if you don't want, but I did two modifications.
The first was to glue in a piece of fence board across the side of the box where the neck would attach. This spreads the force of the neck bolt across the whole side of the box, it also helped keep the lid of the box tight so it won't rattle. you could just glue the box closed if you'd like.
I also used a piece of 2x10 to replace the plywood bottom of the box with solid wood. I used a handsaw to cut the 2x10 into roughly thirds then ran the best piece through the thickness planer until it was ~3mm thick. I used a chisel to take the bottom off the cigar box and glued the new top on. I also glued in some ~1cmx1cm supports around the outside so there would be more glue surface. I marked where I wanted the sound hole to go then drilled it with the biggest drillbit I had which was ~2" diameter. I drilled it using a drillpress and put some scrap 2x4's under the top so it was supported well and to minimize tearout.
neither of these are necessary, but the new top is a nice touch to make it sound better.
Step 6: Assembly
The first step for assembly is to drill the hole for the bolt that will attach the neck to the body. I drilled mine a bit above the center of the heel so there was a bit more wood. again i would suggest drilling a couple test holes to see what size works best for the threaded insert you bought. too small and you might crack the neck, too big and you'll have to glue the insert in.
Next is to drill the hole for the bolt in the body. mark where it goes so that when the neck is bolted up the top of the neck and the body are flush. you want the hole to be big enough for the bolt to slide in easily and not stick. the hole should go through the wall of the box and the piece of board you glued in (if you added one). once the threaded insert is in the neck you can bolt the neck and body together. be careful to make sure the top of the neck isn't twisted relative to the top of the body once it's all tight.
now you can glue the fretboard to the neck. I waited to do this since using only one bolt the neck/body twist a bit while tightening, if you're not careful and have the fretboard attached while you're tightening it you can break or warp the fretboard. you can use some cut off nails in the neck and some little holes on the bottom of the fretboard to make sure they stay lined up while glueing. use something soft like a 2x4 over the fretboard if you clamp it down otherwise you might wreck your fretjob. I just taped it down with some masking tape and put some weights on it.
once I had the ukulele assembled I finished it with some watco medium walnut danish oil, but you could use whatever you wanted, even paint!
Step 7: Bridge and Nut
Now you can make the bridge and nut. you should use something hard for where the strings rest on the bridge and nut, I had some purpleheart so that's what I used.
I cut the pieces for the bridge, nut and bridge body as long strips about 12" long on my table saw then cut them to length after. I had lots of extra if I needed a new piece that way and it was safer pushing the longer pieces through the saw. my nut was ~5mm x 10mm strip, the bridge was the width of my saw blade so it would fit nicely in a slot in the bridge body x about 1cm. the slot for the bridge in the bridge body was one blade kerf wide. The larger slot was sized so a screw head would fit in it, and the depth was about 2/3 of the way through the blank. I evenly spaced 4 holes for the strings to run through across the back and drilled them with a thin bit. I glued an extra piece of thin material under the top where the bridge would go so the screws would have more material to grab.
the nut and bridge piece were cut to length then sanded from a rectangular cross section to a half dome. you want the strings to only really make contact at the front edge of the bridge and nut so you know the exact length that can vibrate. I cut some starter slots evenly spaced across each piece about 1mm deep with my razor saw then increased their size with some files so the strings would sit nicely in them. to get perfect intonation this is a real art, but to get something passable it's not too hard.
I screwed my bridge body to the top (don't forget to drill pilot holes so you don't crack anything) and placed the bridge and nut in place but didn't glue them.
Step 8: Stringing It Up
now it's time to string it up! install your tuners in the headstock and install your strings. if you google how to replace ukulele strings there's lots of tutorials on how to tie the little knot at the bridge and how to tune it up.
once you have it tuned up you can see how well it plays, you'll probably have to adjust your nut and bridge so the strings are at a good height. if they're too high when you fret them the intonation changes too much, if they're too low you'll get buzzing from the frets. you can file your slots deeper to lower the strings, or sand the bottom of the nut/bridge if it's really bad. if it's too low you can put shims like pieces of paper under them or just start again with another piece from the strips you made.
I had to add the little maple strip in the picture since the angle of my headstock wasn't enough to keep the strings in the nut and they kept popping out. I just screwed it loosely to the headstock and passed the strings under it rather than directly to the tuners. it works quite well.
Step 9: Time to Play!
woo hoo! now you're done! time to jam!
if you find there's any buzzy frets you can go back and re-level your fretboard. I found it took me a while to get the nut and bridge to a place where I was happy with them.
I was quite happy with my little cigar box ukulele, in the end it cost me a bit less than a cheap ukulele and is much more interesting!