13 Dollar Guitar





Introduction: 13 Dollar Guitar

About: I get a real kick out of completing projects with as low a budget as possible. It's usually pretty easy to collect almost all the parts necessary to make some pretty cool stuff. I also enjoy playing music an...

Have you ever wanted to build your own guitar? It's such a daunting task that it is easy to be intimidated and give up on the project before you ever start it. Well this is a great project for your first guitar build. It's not too complicated with bending wood or any of that jazz. This is simple enough for anyone to make, and cool enough of a finished product that your friends will ask about it. It's inexpensive as well, so you won't break the bank trying this one out. I have included a video of my build, because for me it's easier to see someone actually doing it than it is looking at pictures and reading a description. I have included those as well, for those of you who prefer that. I played the background music on the video, so that anyone who watches it doesn't have to listen to my voice "a cappella."

This project was inspired by an article I read about how people will build their own instruments when they are put in a situation where purchasing one is not an option. For example, during the great depression there was an explosion of cigar box guitars being made. People who couldn't afford a store bought one would build their own so they couple keep making music. So I set out to build this guitar as frugally as possible.

With that said, I do feel like I went a bit cheap on my make-shift fret idea. If I was doing this project again (which I plan to soon), I would go ahead and buy some actual fret wire. It's not expensive and it would be a huge upgrade. There are a couple of spots on my neck where you can hear a "fret buzz", nothing intolerable, but it would be as simple as buying the real deal to eliminate that problem.

Supply list

  • 40" long piece of wood. Any type will work. Mine was 2 1/2 by 1 1/2. Anything bigger will work fine.
  • Two pieces of 1/4" poplar wood. Found mine at the hardware store for $5.
  • Six zither pins. I ordered them on ebay. $3.
  • Acoustic guitar strings. $5.
  • Fret wire. (I suggest you buy some when ordering your zither pins)

Tool list

  • jig-saw
  • router
  • hand saw and miter box
  • drill
  • plane (for smoothing and thinning the wood)
  • wood glue and super glue
  • clamps

Step 1: Prepare Your Wood

The board that I started out with was really long, with nails in it. So I pulled out the nails and cut the ends off, leaving me with a 36" inch piece. I measured 7" down and marked that for the head of the instrument. Another 18 1/4" I marked for the neck, leaving the third portion to be the body. Next I lightly planed the neck portion to give it a nice smooth surface. Then I drilled a hole right at the line where the neck meets the body. Mark lines 1/4" in on both sides from the bottom of the wood all the way up to that hole. Then cut that part out with a jig saw.

Next take one of your pieces of poplar craft wood and cut it to the size of your board. The widest part of neck (where it meets the body) on my guitar is 57.5 mm, so I cut it to that size. Then I spread out wood glue onto the board and clamped them together. I let that sit over night, because you don't want to take any chances with that one. You want it to be as solid as possible.

Meanwhile, I took the old plane to my other piece of poplar because it was the thinnest wood I could find, but I wanted it quite a bit thinner. So plane it down as much as you can stand to. The thinner you get it, the more volume you will get from your finished guitar.

Finally, I used one of the ends that I had cut off the original board to cut out my tail piece. To do this, I wedged a piece of scrap wood into the end of the body (see video if this is tough to follow), then I traced that shape onto paper. I cut out the paper, and traced the shape onto my piece of wood. Then jig sawed it out.

Step 2: Making the Neck

This is the most important part of the build, so don't just measure twice, measure many times to be sure you have it right. A bit of guitar making lingo you will need is "scale length." This is the length from the nut to the bridge. The twelfth fret lies at exactly half of the scale length.

You can find several fret calculators online that will provide you with exact measurements for the instrument you want to build. Just give them your desired scale length and the number of frets you want, and they will tell you where each fret must be placed. My guitar has a 25" scale length. Here's the one I used:


You will need a digital caliper in order to get the frets measured as accurately they need to be. Take your time and get it right.

I used a miter box and a hand saw and just made a few light passes to make an indentation where my fret will go. If you buy actual fret wire, you may need to change up this process a bit.

Next I put the guitar on its side, clamped it down and cut from the start of the neck all the way to the end of the head. I measure this at 20.7 mm and just did my best to stay on that line.You can cut your head piece to any design you like, just make sure and angle it downward, away from the neck so the strings will be pulled tight against the nut.

Clamp down the guitar neck down and use a router to put a curved edge on both sides of the back of the neck. Sand it down as smooth as possible. Flip it over and put a straight bit in the router. The bottom of the neck is 57.5 mm and the top is 43 mm. So draw a line connecting these two measurements, then use the router to lightly pass over it until you smooth it down to that line.

Step 3: The Body

After all your neck work is done, glue up that tail piece that you cut and slide it on into place. I didn't need to clamp mine down, as the pressure from spreading open that wood held it together really tight. I then traced the shape that was made onto my piece of poplar. I jig sawed it out as close a possible, slightly on the bigger side, so you can sand it down as necessary. At this point, you should go ahead an drill out your sound hole. I forgot and had to do that after it was assembled. When you're ready, glue it up and shove it in there. I mixed up some wood glue with saw dust and smeared it all around the joint, just to make sure it was absolutely tight.

Now you can flip it over and trace the shape for the back. Cut out the back a bit bigger than what you trace. Glue it up really good and clamp in place overnight. Now you can use the router to cut off the excess to make a nice flush, seamless joint. Sand it up real good and there is your completed body and neck.

Step 4: Nut, Bridge, Frets and Strings

I used a little piece of scrap wood to cut out my nut and bridge. The nut i cut out 43 mm, then cut slots for the strings every 7 mm. For the bridge, I made it 70 mm and 11 mm between each string.

Now I would advise you to go ahead and drill holes in your tail piece for your strings to run through. I drilled through the top and out the back. With the nut in place, run a test string through and make sure you are happy with your bridge placement before setting it in with wood glue. After you're satisfied, wood glue them both in place.

For my frets, I used one of those little flags they will stick in your yard to mark pipelines, or other utility such and such. I smoothed them down with steel wool, then cut them to length and tried my best to make sure they were perfectly straight. Then I super glued them in place and clamped them down for about fifteen minutes. The perfectly straight part is where I was wrong, and why you may prefer to buy the real fret wire. As you can see in the video, a couple of my pieces are not straight, and that is where you can hear the dreadful fret buzz. Oh, well. Lesson learned.

Then with the frets still clamped down, I used a file to smooth down the edges, so they don't scrape my hand while I play.

Now just drill six holes in the head piece to screw your zither pins in place. You can get a special wrench to tune up these pins, but I just use a good old ratchet wrench and it works jus

Step 5: Finishing Touches

Before putting on the strings, I decided to use a hole punch in some paper, then use a permanent marker to mark my frets where they are normally marked on guitars. The 3,5,7,9,12,15,17,19 frets get marked. Then I printed up a little "Epiphany Guitars" label to glue inside the sound hole, to give it that "official" look. Then I strung it up, tuned it up, then played my heart out.

I hope this will inspire someone out there to build their own guitar. Nobody who wants a guitar should have to go without one.



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40 Discussions

Thanks so much for the tutorial. Your instructions, pictures and video helped tremendously and made me realize it was not too difficult. It was a little time consuming, but well worth it!

As you can see by the pictures, mine is much wider and has a stylized body shape. I used a 2" X 6" board and cut it out with my jigsaw. I opted for standard parts like the tuners, frets, nut and saddle. I ordered these on EBay all for around $11.00. It took a while for the things to arrive, but they look great.

You can also see that my sound hole, (or should I say holes), are unique. I modified a picture of a Phoenix and traced it on the front board. Oh, and for the front and back boards I used that 3/16" basswood plywood, (I believe it's 3/16"), it was cheap but a little difficult to cut. I used a tiny drill bit on my Dremel too to drill a series of holes all the way around the outline of my design, then used a sharp hobby knife to connect the drill holes , lastly I used a nail file to smooth out the cuts. I applied stain and some Danish oil finish to my guitar.

It turned out so well, that I'm now using it to relearn the guitar, (I used to play years ago). I wasn't that good, but I could play a little.
Oh the most important part- I bought a piezo buzzer from Radio Shack and some 1/4" phone jacks and installed them inside my guitar so I can also plug this thing into an amp. It sounds pretty awesome on that too.

Thanks again for your instructions!!

2 replies

that is freakin awesome, my man. it really looks out of sight. i love that you put in a piezo. i am wanting to do the same on my next one, but i'm wanting to keep the thrifty theme going and try re-using one of them from an old smoke alarm. not sure if it will work yet or not, but check back and find out. again, your guitar looks fantastic.

I've done that w the smoke detector before. It actually worked out better than I expected. The key is the placement. You seem to be pretty damn handy. I'm sure that you'll figure it out!! Haha


2 years ago


Tried this three times now. Was hoping to make one for my son for X-mas but that's out now as I keep splitting off one of the tines when trying to spread it open for the sound box. Yours appears to be almost three the starting width at the bottom when spread, I can't get get past a half a width increase before it snaps. Tried it twice with a clear pine with fairly straight grain and once with maple. Drilled holes at the top of the "box" so I could get the jig saw in there.

Any tips for how you got it to spread so far... or... you know... at all in my case...? :D

What a great instructable. Thanks. You are a real pro with the design, precision, use of tools and detailed explanation of how you created a good looking, playable guitar. Excellent. I will try to put something like this together without the power tools except a drill and try to work out some kind of folding or removable neck for easy carrying. Since it matches up and even exceeds what i was looking for, this is for me one of the best instructables ever.

Fantastic instructable! I own and play an acoustic guitar, but I must admit that it's too big to carry to school and definitely too heavy to take on a camping trip. I've been looking for a tutorial like this for ages, and I'm glad I finally found yours. This is something I'm definitely doing for this winter.

If you were to do another one, what changes would you do to the soundbox? Since the Fretboard can't be shortened, it's the part of the guitar I'm looking forward to making way smaller than the guitar I've got.

1 reply

Thanks for the feedback. As for the soundbox modifications, if I was building another, I would order some wood that was the right thickness. Mine ended up quite a bit too thick, sacrificing volume. With that said, sometimes a low volume guitar is desired. That's what is nice about building your own, you can make it to your own needs.

I had been thinking of making a similar box to carry on bicycle trails and hiking/ camping trips, as carrying my old martin around is a bit problematic. This looks like an interesting solution similar to my plans. I had planned on using the peg and head stock from another "trash" guitar I have acquired. Our buying the tuners (they are fairly inexpensive to purchase from most music stores, but I do understand the minimalist approach restriction you were abiding by. One thing I would consider doing is modifying the sound chamber with small light reflector boards. There are several speaker design programs on the web that could be used to build the sound box and probably get near double the volume. The reflectors could be built out of wide Popsicle sticks an mounted in the box chamber before on put the top on. This would give the box more resonance as well as volume. Thanks for building/posting this, I agree the fret wire would be a better choice and I would try to make the slits for the wire at or just under so one could replace the fret wire easily if needed, as backpacking and cycling is a pretty rough environment. Great job! Your build gave me several ideas to try and easier than what I had intended.

Hey man, really like the workmanship on this. I made a cigar box guitar with my son for school last spring, and had some key differences. Wasn't able to access a router, so it was a bit boxier than it should be, but came off okay. The frets issue was pretty well solved using straightened paper clip segments, but incorrect glue had them pop off after an hour strumming. To cut costs, the strings were held on both ends with eye hooks, which made it pretty secure and in tune. Had a wolf paw sound hole (my son's name is Wolf) that made for a nice effect with steel strings. Maple wood through and through kept it light and automotive spray paint with a clear coat kept it pretty much scratch free without a pickguard. We're planning on doing another one in the next few months and love some of the choices you made.

1 reply

Very cool guitar. I dig the wolf paw sound hole. I found a cool box recently that is destined to become a similar looking guitar to yours. Well done.

Hey, epiphanyww,

Nice job on the guitar AND on the Instructable. Inspired by your work, I have looked around the internet for more and yours is the best I have found. I have a 50 year old 12 string made in Mexico from my college days that is too hard for me to play now. I have been thinking about something much smaller overall with smaller neck dimensions. I may "adjust" your design down to a 3/4 size scale, adjust the neck cross section to fit my arthritic hands a little better, and use some light nylon strings. That set-up might better fit my current capabilities than my old 12 string. I don't play very well, so this investment is about right for me to have something to re-learn on. Besides, I would enjoy building it as much as playing it. Again, very well done. Thanks.

1 reply

Very kind words. Absolutely, building your own instrument is the most rewarding part of it. I can't play very much either, but I've got nothing but time (to practice). Good luck with your project.

I think that the neck looks a bit too thick to play nicely.

Awesome! I'm in the middle of designing a travel guitar, might use your triangle body design.

I don't play guitar, or any instrument for that matter, but this one looks so cool, I think I'll make one just for fun. Nice instructable. Easy to follow. Thanks man!

Without some sort of way to anchor the body while playing, isn't it terribly awkward to change fingering positions? It looks to me like the fingering hand is doing all the support and would become terribly fatigued after a short while.

1 reply

Good call. I'll have to attach a guitar strap or maybe just run a string underneath the strings at the head like folks do with a mandolin. I don't know if Picasso or da Vinci said it, but I always liked the quote, "Art is never finished, only abandoned."