Introduction: Cigar Box Guitar | Corona Edition
I've always wanted to build a guitar. When I was a young man, I played a little, and saved all my money for a Black Lacquered Epiphone Electric Guitar. 16 year old me loved it, but 19 year old me sold it!
As a self flagellating punishment, I've never bought a guitar since, however, always dreamed of building one.
Recently, I found myslef in "Lockdown" due to Covid 19, with slightly more time on my hands than usual, as I no longer have to commute to work.
It was the perfect time, to realise my dream, I would build a guitar, that would be :
a) within my skillset
b) help to expand my skillset, perhaps for a later project
c) would express my hatred of Covid 19!
d) That I could look at & remember the fateful year of 2020!
After much googling - I settled on a cigar box style. Cigar box guitars typically don't have 6 strings, but what the hell, it's just a stick attached to a hollow box after all. If it has 6 strings, then I can put all the guitar chords, ingrained in my muscle memory, back to good use.
In addition, I figured, if I added sound holes... and a pickup, I could have acoustic and electric...best of both worlds. Little did I know, just how complex, and how much of a mess I would make of this!
Lots of lessons learned, so I hope you enjoy this read!
A Cigar Box.... or Actually Any kind of hinged Box
I used a super crappy chisel box. Watercolour Paint Sets, and art sets, usually have boxes like this also. While I didn't actively look for a cigar box, part of the fun of a project like this is the "found" elements. It's nice to put things to another use. When making a guitar there are obviously certain things that you "need to buy" but i did try to keep this to a minimum here.
I used maple for the neck, its strong, and easy to work with. I usually can only get hardwood in 20mm planks, I don't have a jointer - So i really take care to find the straightest, truest pieces for a project like this.
As you'll see, I never shy away from gluing standard planks together, to make thicker things!
Wilkinson Tuners/Machine Heads Chrome Right Handed WJ05 EZ-LOK (Set of 6)
Wow - did I mess up here... i originally bought cheap and cheerful Tuners, which suit a 3&3 Left & Right style head. Note the style of head I used, means I needed in line single direction tuners.. which precludes you from getting "super-cheap" ones!
Musiclily Stainless Steel 2.9mm Acoustic Electric Guitar 24 Frets Fret Wire Set, Chrome ~ 8€
Ernie Ball Super Slinky Nickel Wound Electric Guitar Strings - 9-42 Gauge ~6€
A Pick Up (Optional)
Pre-Wired 6-String Single Coil Guitar Pickup Harness with Volume Tone...or
MagiDeal Pre-wired Piezo Guitar Pickup w/ Volume Control Knob for Cigar Box Guitar Parts
Bits & Bobs
The fun of a build like this, is re-purposing "stuff" .. If you research cigar box guitars, there are some genuinely inventive ways of stringing these bad boys up.
Titebond original for laminating the neck
Hot Glue for things inside the cigar box
Described within the Instructable.
Described within the Instructable.
Step 1: Project Planning
You can't do anything without a plan. When you have ZERO idea how fret spacings, scale lengths, bridge locations etc. work, how can you build a guitar?
The link below is to an incredible resource of electric guitar plans, in PDF and sometimes DWG & DXF format.
My method, is to pick a plan that I like, in this case, really concentrating on the neck and head profile that I wanted. You need to ensure that it is printing at exactly 1:1 scale, which can be done, by measuring verified dimensions after printing. You will also need to ensure that if prinitng on A4, the print is tiled and spliced together with perfect accuracy.
THE FIRST MOCKUP
You'll see my spliced print with both a plan, and section through the neck, in the first image.
This is the first mockup. Its a stick and a box!
You'll also see, that I have my trusty "chisel box" which is soon to become a bonafide cigar-box.
At this point , I picked my timber for the neck. It is 20mm thick Maple. I peruse a plank to find the truest straightest section, using a square and a straight edge, and also check out the grain, for points of interest which i might want to express. That greenish twinged knot... is something that I want front row center.
Do yourself a favour, plan it out as perfectly as you can, and order the strings, tuners etc. at this stage. It gets very exciting later on, and you DO NOT WANT TO BE WAITING ON THE POSTMAN!
Step 2: Making the Neck
After ripping the timber down to about 20mm more than the widest point of the neck, it's time to make a scarf joint.
THE SCARF JOINT
A plain scarf joint is basically relying on glue & you can see the principle of how its achieved in the first four photos.
I mark out the required angle on my piece of head-stock timber using the measurements from the drawings, and a square.
THE GLUE UP
There are lots of tips and tricks out there to avoid glue slide on scarf joints.. At this point, the neck is in such a "roughed out" state, that 0.5mm off line, or even twisted, will not make a difference. None the less, do your damnedest to align this scarf, and clamp the hell out of it. I put as many clamps as i could physically fit on this. I have felt pads on the pressing points of my clamps, but I don't get too worried about clamp marks at a point like this, as there is still a lot of shaping to go.
I also glued a piece at the other end of the neck to help to form a heel.
THE CUT UP
After waiting one day to remove the clamps, I used "spray mount" at this point, to mount my plan template onto the timber. Then I use a band saw to cut out the plan shape. Staying on the far side of the line, giving myself plenty of room for sanding and shaping to the exact dimension.
Honestly, at this point, we are only dealing with 20mm thick wood, this is not beyond a jig saw, or even an elbow grease, hand saw/coping saw combo.
SHAPING THE NECK
There are loads of ways to shape the neck, rasps, spoke-shaves etc. However I used a short cut here.
I routed the edges using a 45 degree cutter at its maximum depth.(See 7th Photo) This removes a lot of material, and eases you into the shaping process.
Next I used a Shinto Rasp - These things are amazing, loved by luthiers, and hated by hands. This is a special type of rasp, that is basically, a bunch of parallel, and counter parallel saw-blades. It has a coarse side, and a fine side...but both sides remove a lot of timber.
For me, this was a fun project, not to be taken too seriously - I profiled this completely by eye, with an attitude of if it looks and feels correct, then that's good enough for me. I did pay particular attention to the junction between head and neck, regularly striking a "chord pose" to ensure that it felt comfortable to my hand, and allowed my fingers to wrap around the neck appropriately.
After the rasp, comes sanding @ 80 Grit, with an orbital sander and by hand, then moving to 120 grit, and then 240 Grit. Sanding Not Fun, but really helps to smooth out any transitions created with the rasp.
Since this project, I started another guitar project (because i enjoyed this one so much".. and generally used only a spoke shave to shape the neck. My only advice would be to have a practice on a blank piece of timber first.
Truss Rods? There is no truss Rod in this build. Again, in the spirit of the nature of this build, I did not over-complicate it. The neck is straight enough for me, both before and after stringing. Who knows how bent it will be in a year? Maybe not bent at all. Maple is a strong wood in tension & I'll take my chances!
Step 3: The Box & Struggling With Electronics
Now to Tackle the Box.
I started with a prewired Piezo Pickup. As there was no soldering this could have been easy... But.
I had a "pre-amp" that I bought years ago to test a record player (as I had no AMP) - What harm, if i hardwired it into the cigar box I thought.
As you look through the photo's maybe you'll be able to see what I did wrong. Suffice to say, at one point it worked, and at a later point, it did Not!
I used hot glue, to place the Piezo, and to hold wires etc, basically to stop this thing from rattling.
In simple terms, what you do is :
1) Place the pickup - on the soundboard, where the reverberance of the strings will be "picked-up".
2) Place the input - somewhere convenient on the side of the box.
3) Place the volume adjuster knob, somewhere that will not get in the way of playing.
THE SOUND HOLES.
I started with one sound hole, in a place beneath the strings that i thought it might belong. After deciding that it looked weird, I covered it with a strainer from my kitchen sink.. That will effect the sound in some way i thought... maybe it will be good, maybe it will be bad, but it will make my cigar box more distinctive.
But that wasn't enough.
F holes. It had to have F holes. I printed out some F holes, and cut them out with a jewelers saw. I found that it gave visual balance to the instrument, but again, had absolutely no idea, what, if any effect this would have on the sound!
I also started to sand the ugly stain off the "cigar box". To my surprise, the timber was the ugliest, cheapest, and thinnest plywood that is known to man!!!
As it happens, the grooved timber located at the top of the box (which was there to hold the chisels) looked like it would do a decent job of reinforcing the lid, so i left it there. In addition, i added a number of timber blocks, at corners. This was to facilitate the possibility of screwing this thing together, I didn't want to rely on just a clasp, and felt that a tighter box would leak less sound.
Step 4: Finishing the Box
As you can see from the first image. The box was starting to look downtrodden. After an overzealous sanding, it looked even worse, however a Dark oak stain, soon brought it back.
In fact, the over sanding, brought with it some scars and blemishes, which created an almost weathered or aged effect. it was starting to look like a cigar box.
Every Cigar Box has a label. I wanted to play on this, and as I mentioned earlier, I really wanted to commemorate the strange times in which the work took place.
So I adapted a known brand cigar logo, to acknowledge the year that was in it (in Roman Numerals) - and also send a special message to Covid 19. It was a crude message, and I have blanked it out on the Instructable. Perhaps you can use your imagination.
This was Tricky & I tried a number of different methods. It's also worth Noting, that all I had at my disposal for this logo transfer, was an inkjet printer. (I believe toner transfer may have worked with method 1)
Inkjet Print & Vigorous Rubbing with acetone = hint of a transfer but completely illegible.
Graphite & tracing - Stopped after 30 seconds - absolute madness
Inkjet Print on Acetate - Surely the ink would just peel off the plastic and onto the wood. NO CHANCE - Smudgy disaster.
Inkjet print & Vigorous Rubbing with Varnish = Eureka - The Ink transferred off amazingly well. So much so, that despite the paper getting completely stuck to the timber, and despite, the tooth brush scrubbing to remove the remaining paper, the transfer stayed. TAKE THAT COVID 19.
Step 5: Do Fret!
To My knowledge, electric guitars, generally have radiused fret boards & Classical Guitars generally have flat fret-boards. I don't pretend to have precise knowledge of anything here. But, before I even realised or thought about it too much, I was making a flat fret board. The difference in playing, to my jumbling chords, surely would be negligible either way.
I suggest before embarking on a journey of fret board and fret wire discovery, that you thoroughly research.
I've seen "guitar-builds" where the fret board, and even the neck have been purchased. Part of the fun of this project for me, was to learn how to do these things, make all the mistakes, and then in the future, make better guitars.
What I did is the following : But I really suggest watching as many YouTube videos about this process as possible!!!
1) Cut a ~6mm deep Mahogany Slice to Serve as Fret-board. I wanted this to contrast with the maple neck.
2) Sand this to a point where it is reliably flat and true on both sides.
3) Big mistake - I roughly cut the Fret-board piece to match the tapered neck profile. - this means step 4 was more complicated. ( I should really have marked and cut my fret slots, while i still had a square edge!)
3) I clamped the fret board so that the Fret wire slots would be at a perfect square to my work bench edge.
5) I fastidiously transferred the dimensions of the fret wire spacing to the fret board.
6) I cut using a thin kerf saw... and then found that a junior hacksaw blade was the perfect kerf size for a tight friction fir for my fret wire.
7) Drilled holes for ~6mm Dowel to use as Fret Marker Dots.
8) Glued the Dowel in place & pared smooth.
9) Full Sand-down ~240 - 320 Grit
7) I placed the fret wire... i tired a number of practice methods for this, but actually found that squeezing the fret-board and wire between the soft (timber lined) jaws of a woodworking vice, provided the perfect means of ensuring a consistent fit.
8) Trim the fret-wire as close as possible using a side cutter.
9) File Down and round the edges on both sides of all the fret-wire.
11) Glue Down the Fret-board
12) Sand down the fret edges, so completely flush with the neck.
13) Phew... take a breather.
14) Check the true-ness and level of the frets using a known straight edge. I know there is real artistry out there in leveling frets, crowning frets etc..
For me, against all odds, I found that, my straight edge was touching every fret, none too low, none too high. - I have no doubt- that if a trained luthier was to review this installation, they would have a lot to say, but for now - I was sufficiently happy, that this was starting to look and feel like a guitar.
Step 6: Putting It All Together
Drill to correct size. I sized the drill bit by simply holding it against the tuner. Make sure these are perfectly set-out. You can totally notice any misalignment. It is very satisfying to screw these in place.
The strings bear on the nut at the head, and the bridge on the body. The height of both nut, and bridge relative to fret board is called the action (I think!) - Again, I suggest that this is researched fully, there are loads of videos and articles about this available with cursory googling.
I was aiming for about a creditcards thickness between the string and the fret-board, maybe less - At this point, this was all eye-balled.
What I wanted was strings that were as easy to press down (for my uninitiated fingers) and would not BUZZ.
I used a small scrap of walnut, and cut to rough size using a tenon saw. After sanding, i ease the visible edges, with a file and sand lightly again.
I carefully marked the string slots using a mechanical pencil, and then, even more carefully, inscribed these slots using a small file. I use the corner of a triangular file, from a small microfile set.
What you want to do is set the nut and bridge...String up & then micro adjust.
My design (if you want to call it that) called for the strings to connect using a tail -piece.
For this, I scoured my biscuit tine, full of bits and pieces, and stumbled upon an IKEA wardrobe bracket.
I drilled 6 holes in this, and Mounted it to the guitar body, using M4 bolts, washers and nuts.
I used eyehooks to create a primitive bridge. The reason I did this, is because my tail piece was so narrow , it was forcing the bridge to keep the strings in place both laterally and vertically. My primative bridge attempts (using something similar to the nut) - just simply could not hold the strings in place, as the narrow tailpiece was forcing the geometry.
However... it was a bridge too far, - dont get me wrong it was playable, but it was extremely difficult to fine tune... you're relying on the height achieved by one half turn of an eyehook, to manage your action. All very imprecise, and a string buzz on low E string - that I just couldn't remove.
Step 7: Epilogue: the Improvements
I hope this has proved to be fun and informative. Really this is to provide encouragement for anyone to try their hand at any stringed instrument & to provide just enough sense of "Anyone could do that"
A cigar box guitar is a great project, that is as simple or as complicated as you wish it to be. Its like a gateway drug into the world of luthiery.
The moment I stringed this up and tuned it, I was 17 again,
The opening riff to stairway to heaven - badly picked and half forgotten - CHECK
Hotel California - badly strummed up to "cool wind in my hair" - CHECK
And so on....
I use a Donner Mini Amp connected to Headphones.... That's how you Rock out when you have kids!
I loved it so much, that I fixed some of the things that had annoyed me.
THE TAIL PIECE AND BRIDGE
Though I appreciated the spirit of my cobbled together versions, I replaced it ultimately with a shop bought combined tail piece and bridge, that is micro adjustable, for action and intonation. It sounds MUCH Better with this addition.
Somewhere in the midst of the construction, my piezo installation ceased to work. I purchased a simple 6 string pick up and installed. I have no benchmark for this kind of thing, but it certainly works.
The beauty of a cigar box, is it is not precious, and you can add and subtract to the design as you see fit, and not worry about leaving screw-holes!
Runner Up in the
Audio Challenge 2020
1 Person Made This Project!
- ArthurJ5 made it!