Introduction: Building an Electric, Cigar Box Ukulele
In this Instructable, I will be documenting my first attempt to build a Cigar Box Ukulele. It's a work in progress, so I will be updating this Instructable along the way. Feedback is appreciated. My Cigar Box Uke will actually be built from a wine box not a cigar box, but Wine Box Ukulele just doesn't roll off the toungue as well. This is a wood box that held two bottles of wine, not a box from a box of wine. Cardboard just wouldn't sound the same (although... having a spigot on my ukulele might be something to think about for next time...) I think I'll call this one a "Winolele" due to the source.
The origin of cigar box instruments is in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when around the time of the Civil War there were many people seeking to express themselves through music but could not afford to buy real musical instruments. Later, home built, Cigar box instruments where especially important in the rise of the Blues as they provided an accessable means to create great music. Instruments as simple as a box, broom handle and string were enough for some people to find inspiration and create great music by simple means.
Some of the great pioneers of rock n roll started with a simple cigar box instrument, pioneers of rock n’ roll such as Carl Perkins, blues greats like Lightin’ Hopkins, B.B. King, Blind Willie Johnson and Charlie Christian all started with a Cigar Box Guitar. The great B.B. King did not start with a Gibson but a homemade cigar box guitar that his father made for him in his shed.
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Step 1: Part Sources- the Box
I got this at the Liquor Barn. $13 bucks for the box and two bottles of wine! I was ready to pay this much for a cigar box on ebay until I saw this. The box even has tounge and grooved corners for added strength. Plywood, not solid wood, but it is about 1/4" thick on all sides and acts like it will have a good sound.
Step 2: Part Sources- Neck and Fretboard
Since this was my first build, I decided to source the toughest part to build, the neck and fretboard. This tenor sized neck and fretboard were purchased from Mainland Ukes in Nashville IN and are identical to the ones used on their ukes. The fretboard comes with the fretwires pre-installed which was a big plus . The headstocks are rough, and need final shaping and sanding, but they are cut long so that they can be custom shaped, which was a plus. Mahogany neck with a Rosewood fretboard and friction tuners, tenor sized. I was able to visit Mainland Ukes and pick them up directly from Mike, the owner. Other sized necks are available including Soprano, Concert, and Baritone .
I'm not affiliated with Mainland Ukes, just a fan.
Step 3: Part Sources- Bridge, Saddle, and Nut
On this build, after researching moveable versus fixed bridge options, I decided to go with a fixed bridge. Once, again I went with Mainland Ukes for the Bridge, Saddle and Nut . I was able to pick them up on the same visit when I got the neck and fretboard. Bridge is Rosewood, knot style, and the Saddle and Nut are bone.
Step 4: Part Sources- Electronics and Case Hardware
For this build, I wanted it to make it electric, so after researching several options, I decided to go with a dual piezo pickup with jack and volume control that I purchased from prfromil on ebay. The thing that I liked about it was that it came pre-wired, and had the piezo's already sandwiched and epoxied between two pieces of what looks like thin oak which should cut down on feedback. The only downside with these is that the threads on the jack and pot are a little short. The wood on the sides of my box are nearly a 1/4 inch thick while the top and bottom of the box are about 1/8" thick. After looking for a clean way to mount the jack and volume pot, I finally found these 3/4" Cup Pulls in the plumbing section at Lowes. They come 4 to a pack, have a good lip to cover the cut edge of the hole, and are about 1/4" deep. After driling a hole in them these should come in handy for the build.
To protect the corners of the box (and dress it up a bit), I went with the 8-pack of Nickle plated box corners from C.B Gitty Crafter Supply . Good size for my box, and they came with screws for installation.
The sink drain will become the sound hole cover. It's called a Crumb Cup, I think it's designed to fit a small drain sink like you would find in a bar. I found it in the plumbing sections with the sink and faucet parts at Lowes. They had larger ones, but for my sized box, and for a uke, this one was a better fit. It takes a 1 1/2" hole and has a lip to cover the edges of the cut hole. It is recessed 7/8". I will simply epoxy it in place.
To install the neck to the box, I plan on trying something that I havn't seen before. While in the hardware store, I found these threaded wood inserts that I plan on installing in the base of the neck, drill the box, and then mount the screws through from inside the box into the neck. These come in several sizes, these are size 10-24 machine screws and I think the inserts are about 1/4" OD and have matching 10-24 threads on the inside.
Step 5: Bracing the Box
The box was built well, but to reinforce it I used a scrap board of birds-eye maple that I had lying around. The borad was already planed down to about 3/8" thick, so I ripped it on the table saw into several strips 3/8" wide to use as braces along each corner of the box and lid. Looking back, with this hard of a wood, 3/8" was a bit of an overkill, 1/4" X 1/4" would have been sufficient. To glue the strips in place I used Gorilla Glue (GG). GG bonds extremely strong, especially if you dampen both surfaces before gluing and clamping them together, but its downside is that it foams out badly. The foam can be trimmed off after it dries, which for the internal braces I didn't mind doing, but for any gluing needs outside the box like the bridge, I will be using epoxy.
You can see in this first picture the bar code and Italian flag on the lower end of the box. These are not stickers, they were screened onto the box. I initially planned to leave the flag and cover the bar code, but after beginning to sand the box with 220 grit sandpaper, I found that the barcode sanded off cleanly. To balance things out and give the box a cleaner look, I went ahead and sanded the flag as well.
Step 6: Positioning the Soundboard and Neck Braces
Once the bracing for the corners of the box were complete I turned my attention to how I would brace the soundboard and the upper end of the box where the neck would attach. To strengthen the end of the box for the bolt-on neck I took another piece of the 3/8" birds-eye maple that the braces were made of and cut it to fit the entire space on one end of the box between the braces and even with the top of the bottom of the box (this neck brace can be seen on the right hand side of this picture.)
Since the box was braced very strongly at this point, I considered not bracing the soundboard at all and probably could have gotten away with it. However, since I had decided to use a fixed bridge, I ripped one of the scrap 3/8" braces in half and glued it in place slightly above where the bridge would be placed on the finished uke. To find this location, I held the neck, fretboard and nut in place and measured 17" down the neck onto the box from the nut. 17" is a typical scale length for a tenor uke. I then placed the saddle on the bridge and lined up the saddle with the 17" mark from the nut. I then made sure that the soundboard brace was not placed directly under where the bridge would need to be (so that the vibrations wouldn't be dampened too much.) I glued the brace about 1" above where the soundboard would be placed.
Step 7: Preparing for the Neck Installation
To begin the process of positioning the neck, I first marked the exact center and using a speed square, drew a line perpendicular to the soundboard surface on both the box where the neck would be and on the neck itself. I then positioned the neck on the box, making sure that the neck was perfectly flush with the soundboard of the box and traced the outline of the base of the neck on the end of the box.
Beginning with the neck I located the best postion to place the threaded inserts, which on my neck was down 3/4"and 1 1/2" from the top, and drilled holes in the neck just slightly deeper than the inserts. Notice that my aim on the neck holes wasn't exactly perfect with a handheld drill and I got slightly off center. I then had to compensate by making the box holes slightly off center too. No big deal as long as they matched up.
The inserts do have a notch for threading them in with a flat head screwdriver, however, these are soft brass and after destroying two of them, I found a much better way to install them. Before threading them into the neck: First thread two matching nuts onto the machine screw, then thread the machine screw into the insert until the bottom of the screw is flush with the bottom of the insert. Second, start unscrewing the nut closest to the insert until it touches the insert, them loosen the second nut until it jams down on top of the first nut. This creats a jam nut on top of the insert. You can now use a socket to thread the insert into the hole until the insert is flush, or just below the surface of the wood. Before threading it in a did place a very small drop of epoxy on the outside threads of the insert to ensure that it wouldn't come out. Then, simply back out the machine screw and remove the jam nuts. Voila, perfectly inserted threads, with no mishapenness due to the soft brass.
At this point I am going to wait until after final shaping the headstock and mounting the fretboard before attaching the neck to the box.
Step 8: Drilling the Box for the Soundhole, Jack, and Volume Pot
I'm going to have only one soundhole, so I choose to position it in the upper corner. I used a 1 1/2" hole saw to cut a clean hole that I thought would fit. The package for the crumb cup listed it as 1 1/2", but apparantly it was just slighly larger and wouldn't fit into the initial hole. To fit it, I wrapped a small, scrap wooden dowell with 220 grit sandpaper and gradually sanded around the hole making it larger a small bit at a time, test fitting, resanding, test fiiting, resanding, etc. until the crumb cup fit down into the hole just slightly snug. After final finish of the box I will install it with epoxy to hold it in place permanantly.
For the holes for the cup pulls that will house the volume pot and jack, I used a 3/4" spade bit, drilling very slowly to make the holes. A tip about using these: Once you get about half way through the surface, turn it over and drill from the other side. This will reduce the chance of getting chips in the wood when the bit finally breaks through. The hole on the soundboard will be for the volume control, and the hole on the end of the box will be for the jack. Just like with the sound hole crumb cup, after final finish of the box I will install the cup pulls with epoxy to hold them in place permanantly.
I've also included a picture of the cup pulls after I drilled holes into them to match the pot and jack. I used this step drill bit which allowed be to drill a hole slightly larger after each test fit.
After the holes were all complete, I finished sanding the outside of the box with 220 followed by 300 grit sandpaper and finally 0000 steel wool and then cleaned any sanding dust on the box with a tack cloth. At this point, I set the box aside to begin work on the neck.
Step 9: Shaping the Headstock
To begin shaping the headstock, I first had to decide on a shape. I wanted to go with something different, something that I hadn't seen on a uke before. Most of th ukes I own or have seen are the standard, symetrical crown or pineapple top shape. Nice, but I wanted to experiment with a different look. I've always liked the asymetrical look of a Rickenbacker headstock, so that's what I decided to try.
First, I freehanded in pencil a design on the headstock that I liked, being careful to leave enough room around the peg holes for strength and for the peg bushings to overlap. After drawing the design, I used a coping saw with a thin blade to cut off the excess. A scroll saw probably would have been the ideal tool to use to cut this, but I don't have one, so I used a coping saw. Here's a hint. When cutting, cut well outside the line, so that your final finish sanding places you on the line. As you can see in the pictures, while I had plenty of wood left, the headstock turned out a little narrower than initially planned.
For the final sanding and shaping, I used a 3/4" drum sanding mandrel in a drill press as well as a belt sander and a lot of hand sanding with both sandpaper and 0000 steel wool. I started with 150, moved to 220, and finally 280 grit sandpaper on both the sanding drum and belt sander.
Step 10: Attaching the Fretboard
To begin the process of attaching the fretboard, first place the nut on the neck and mark a pencil line to mark how high to set the fretboard once it is epoxied in place. Then turn the fretboard over, measure and find the midpoint of it's width on both ends, and drew a line down the centerline of the neck. Once the fretboard is centered on the neck, but before permanently attaching, be sure to rough sanded and shape the the neck to eliminate any overhang and ensure a smooth joint between the fretboard and the neck (if needed.) At this point, a final finish sanding isn't necessary, the joint will need to be resanded after the epoxy has cured to clean up any squeezed out epoxy.
For this step, I choose to use a quick set, 2 part epoxy instead of the foaming, Gorilla brand glue I used to reinforce the box earlier in the project. This is the same epoxy that will be used later to attach the bridge and box hardware.
After covering the underside of the fretboard with a thin coat of epoxy, carefully line up each edge, align the top edge of the fretboard with the pencil line marking the bottom of the nut, and align the centerline marked on the underside of the fretboard with the centerline on the lower end of the neck. When appliing the epoxy, remember that you will have some squeeze out the sides. To reduce this as much as possible, make sure to leave at least a 1/4" space between the epoxy and the edge of the wood that you apply it to. Too much space and you'll end up with a gap in the finished neck between the fretboard and neck, not enough space and you'll end up doing a lot more finish sanding to eliminate all the excess, dried epoxy that squeezed out. Use sufficient clamps along the length of the neck to secure everything in place while the epoxy cures. This epoxy says it dries in 10 minutes and is handleable in 1 hour, but since I will be sanding off some excess epoxy that squeezed out, I plan on waiting until the following day to begin that process.
Step 11: Finishing the Neck and Fretboard
Before attaching the final sanded and steel wooled neck and fretboard, decide what type of finish you will be using on the finished ukulele. For this uke, I will be using two separate types of finishes. On the neck and fretboard I will be using a hand rubbed, polymerized Tung Oil finish, commercially available as a product called Tru-Oil. Tru-Oil is used frequently on gun stocks and custom guitar necks. It is fairly inexpensive and can be purchased online or locally, most commonly in gun shops. It works best on hardwoods, so for the body of my uke, I will be using a clear polyurethane which I will apply in a later step.
Applying the Tru-Oil is extremely easy, just use a clean, lint free cotton cloth and rub it on. The secret is to apply it in several thin coats. You'll be surpised at how far this stuff goes, a little goes a long way. Wait about 2-3 hours between coats, lightly sand with 0000 steel wool, use a tack cloth to remove any dust or fibers, and apply another coat. These pictures are after only one coat. I would suggest 5-6 thin coats. Any areas where something will be glued later should be avoided. You can see in the pictures I have not put Tru-Oil where the nut will attach, or on the end of the neck where it will attach to the body of the uke, or on the underside of the bridge.
Step 12: Attaching the Neck
When attaching the neck, it is essential to make sure that everything is perfectly square and in line with the box. From the previous steps, you already have the holes drilled in the box and the threaded inserts placed in the neck. You should also still have a center line marked on the underside of the neck. On the soundboard of the box, the earlier centerlines have probably been sanded off due to the finish. No problem. Simply remeasure and mark in pencil, or even with removeable tape, the exact center line down the top of the soundboard. Dry fit the neck in place making sure that when the bolts are theaded in, that the point of the fretboard is inline with the centerline of the soundboard. If everything lines up, you are almost ready to attach the two pieces together. If not, it may be necessary to slightly enlarge the bolt holes in the box to allow for "wiggle room" to get the pieces aligned. Since I chose to also epoxy the neck and box in addition to the bolts, I rough sanded some of the finish off of the box where the pieces would attach, added a small amount of epoxy to the end of the neck and underside of the fretboard before attaching everything. If you are only using the bolts, simply attach the neck and box together. Use good size washers under the bolts inside the box to avoid having them dig into the wood. Look down the box and neck from the far end of the box to ensure everything is in alignment.
Step 13: Attaching the Bridge
Just like when attaching the neck, getting things extremely square and aligned is essential when attaching the bridge if the strings and action to are to be useable and look good. Measure multiple times, dry fit, measure and check again. The bridge needs to be attached securely in place (at least on this uke build) because most of the string tension will be pulling on it, so once you put on the adhesive and clamp it in place, you're committed. The best adhesive that I have found for attaching the bridge to the box is Titebond III wood glue. Originally I used epoxy after just roughing up the polyurethane finish, but while at the World Ukulele Congress, in the heat of the day, the bridge pulled off. Got some great advice from other builders there who turned me onto Titebond III and advised me to always make sure that the bridge is attached to raw wood, not even roughed up poly. The benefit of the Titebond is how it penetrates into the wood fibers which epoxy doesn't. After the bridge popped loose from just being epoxied, I sanded all the finish off under where the bridge would go, down to bare wood, reattached it with Titebond III, and reapplied the finish. I would reccomend just attaching the bridge before applying the finish to the box.
Begin by measureing the distance from the bottom of where the nut will be placed (on this build that is the top end of the fretboard) to where the saddle will go (the saddle notch on the bridge.) This measurement will determine the scale length for the instrument. For a tenor uke like this one, the scale length is typically between 17" and 18". For this uke I went with a scale length of 17 3/8" because my box length was slightly longer than a typical tenor uke.
Common Uke Scale Lengths: Courtesy of Nakulu Ukulele
Soprano (or standard): Scale length: 13-14 in.
Concert: Scale length: 15-16 in.
Tenor: Scale length: 17-18 in.
Baritone: Scale length: 19-20 in.
To get everything square before permanently attaching things, I used a wooden tougue depressor and taped it to the box above the bridge when measuring the scale length. Then, I used a combination square to make sure it was square with both sides of the box. (If your neck wasn't exactly square with the box, make sure that your bridge is perpendicular to the neck. Setting it to the box, if the neck isn't square with the box will only make things worse.)
Next, measure and mark on the tounge depressor the exact halfway mark across the box. This should line up perfectly with the center of the fretboard and the halfway mark made earlier on the bottom end of the box. Measure and mark the halfway point on the bridge, line it up with the mark made on the tounge depressor, make a final check for squareness all around, apply an even, thin amount of Titebond III to the back of the bridge and clamp it in place. Once the glue sets enough for things not to move, untape the tounge depressor and remove it. The instructions on the Titebond III reccomend leaving surfaces that will be under tension clamped for 24 hours to ensure complete drying and curing.
Step 14: Finishing the Box
In this step I began the process of laying the final finish on the uke box. For the box I chose to use a fast-drying, clear polyurethane. I initially thought about staining the box to match the neck, but after realizing how it would affect the look of the branding labels screen printed on the lid, I decided to go with the two-tone look. After seeing the final project, I'm glad I did. Unlike the finish of the neck, which was a hand rubbed oil finish (fairly hard to screw up), the finish on the box would need to be brushed on. The secret to any clear coat poly finish is to use very thin coats, allow each one to dry completely (the can says 3-4 hours, I like overnight depending on humidity), steel wool the surface smooth, tack cloth all dust, and brush on the next coat and repeat. This box took 6 coats, which include 6 cycles of coat, allow to dry, steel wool, and tack cloth. For me, a cheap foam brush worked extremely well to brush on each coat without leaving brushstrokes in the finish. Tip: A sealed zip top sandwich bag will keep a brush wet and reusable overnight without cleaning it. Eliminiating dust and brush stokes in the final finish is crucial here, so take your time.
To allow access to all sides while finishing it, I tied a small 1/4" rope to a large socket from a mechanic's socket set, opened the lid to the box, and passed the loose end of the rope out through the small hole on the end of the box. Then I closed the lid and hung the box over my work area to finish it. To gain more control over the box while brushing it, I simply held onto the box by placing two fingers from my left hand through the larger hole in the box and used the brush in my right hand. To reduce runs in the finish, pay attention not only to the surface you are currently appliing the poly too, but also to adjacent sides, that's where the runs will appear.
Step 15: Adding the Box Hardware (box Corners)
Once the finish was completed on the box the next step in my plan was to add the box hardware.(I could have applied more finish coats, but after 6 coats there is a point of deminishing returns where you have to ask yourself if the extra coat is worth the risk of getting runs in the finish. 6 coats of poly was plenty to assure a hard finish.) The hardware could also be added after attaching the neck, but I think it is easier to maneuver everything without the neck attached yet.
The screws that come with the box corners that I acquired from CB Gitty are small. Very small. But they do need predrilled. The screws that came with mine were probably size 2 and about 3/8" long. To pre-drill these I used a small, 1/16"drillbit and held each individual corner in place and pre-drilled the holes into the box directly through the holes in the box corner. After the holes were drilled I dipped the threads of each screw in a very small drop of super glue and screwed them in place. The super glue ensures that the short, small screws won't vibrate loose and fall out. Continue this process for each of the 8 corners.
Step 16: Adding the Box Hardware (soundhole, Jack and Switch Hole Covers)
Since the holes for each of these hole covers were drilled in a previous step, all that is needed now is to sand the inside edge of each hole (because some of the polyurethane will have built up and shrunk the hole size some.) Sand each hole and test fit each cover (dry, without epoxy) until it fits in smoothly. Once you are satisfied with the fit, apply a small amount of epoxy under the lip of each hole cover and place it. After that epoxy is dry, if needed, you can apply an additional layer of epoxy around the edge of the hole cover on the inside of the box. However, if your holes were fit tight enough, this is probably not necessary.
Step 17: Attaching the Tuners
*Follow the manufacturers directions for the tuners you select for your uke. These are how mine were installed.
Installing the friction tuners is a fairly easy process. Begin by pressing the metal bushing down into the peg hole from the top. It will be a tight fit, but that's what you want. Make sure they get pressed in all the way so that the bottom of the bushing's flange is even with the top surface of the headstock. Next install the tuner peg down through the metal bushing. From the back of the headstock place the friction bushing (rough surface down usually) and the tuner knob over the tuner peg and use the friction screw to connect all the pieces together. Tighten the screw just enough so that the tuner will hold under tension from the string but not so tight that it won't turn. Final tightening will need to be done when the strings are attached. Continue the process for the remaining tuners.
Step 18: Installing the Electronics- Volume Control and Jack
Installing the jack required some reinforcement so that any outward force from the cord wouldn't simply pull out the glued in cup pull. To do this, I used 2 washers. One washer had a 3/4" hole which would go around the cup pull and rest on the wood, while being slightly higher than the bottom of the cup pull, the other washer had a 3/8" which would fit the jack. Using these washers will ensure that the box keeps the jack and cup pull from pulling out. One both washers are in place, secure with the nut from the outside.
Installing the volume potentiometer didn't require any extra steps as there won't be any outward forces pulling on it. Simply install it through the cup pull and secure with the nut and the volume knob from outside the box.
Step 19: Installing the Electronincs- Pickups
Before permanently epoxying the piezo pickups in place, experiment by securing them temporarily in place with duct tape in various places under the bridge to find the best sound.
Step 20: Installing the Strings
Any type of strings will do, but for this build I decided to use my favorite type of strings, Aquila Nylgut. This is a knot type bridge, so tie a stopper knot on the end of each string, feed it through the hole in the bridge, over the saddle and fretboard and secure on the tuning peg. Ideally you want to see three to four wraps on the peg when it is tightened and tuned.
Before final tuning, the string height must be adjusted for the action to be playable all along the fretboard. Once the strings are in place, look from the side to see how much the strings need to be lowered. Start setting the action with the nut, then make final adjustment to the saddle if needed. To make adjustments,sand the bone nut or saddle on a flat surface until an even string height is acheived on all strings. Be carefull not to take too much. Sand, fit it, look at it, and try again. Once the nut is set, see if you need to adjust the saddle. On my build, the action was good after just sanding the nut. Once the action is set, you can glue the nut in place, but on my build I am going to leave it just held in place by string tension.
After the strings are in place and tuned, find the best sounding location for the pickups and attach them securely with epoxy.
Step 21: The Final Product
Well, here it is, the final product. Not bad for a first attempt. Like other cigar box instruments that came before it, it's not perfect, but it's fun. Cigar box instruments are grass roots instruments...rustic, old fashioned, simple and awesome.
The great thing about a home built project is that if you don't like it, try someting else. I'm sure I'll continue tweaking it, but that's half the fun!
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