Here are some photos and build notes for a cigar box guitar that I built. I’ve wanted to do one of these ever since I read about CBG’s in Make Magazine several years ago.
Construction is really simple, you pretty much just poke a stick through a box and string it up. Here are the basic ingredients for my build, as shown above:
- A wooden cigar box
- 1 x 2 stick of hardwood
- 4 tuning machines
- 4 guitar strings
- 7 pearl marker dots
- Fret wire
- Piezo Buzzer and Phone Jack (not pictured)
I chose this box because it was lightweight and tightly built, with a really nice ring to it when tapped. The box sounded pretty “musical”, but supposedly any old box will sound great.
First, I cut holes in either side of the box. On the neck side of the box, I made the hole larger, so that the neck could visually intrude into the body a bit. This is purely an aesthetic move. I thought that it would look nicer that way.
My walnut board had a slight bow, so the first thing I did was jun it through a jointer on one side to make it dead flat. I planned to make a fretted instrument with a nice, low playable action and despite it being a cigar box guitar, I hoped to avoid buzzing if possible.
Next I cut a 2 step relief into the neck where it goes through the body. The first step compensates for the thickness of the box top, allowing the neck to sit flush with the top of the box (or even a bit higher).
The second notch is a standoff to keep the stick from actually contacting the
box guitar top. This will allow the top to freely resonate, which will make for a louder guitar than if the stick were just glued to the top.
The common way to form the peg head is to cut away 1/2 of the thickness of the neck, but I have seen a few fancy-pants CBGs that had glued on angled head stocks.
I reinforced the seams of the box with some thick CA glue, and added some blocks to brace the neck to the box.
A word about glue – Luthiers traditionally use hide glue to build instruments, and will advise against using CA glue to build or repair guitars. With that being said, I used thick CA glue and an accelerant for all joints in this project. I did this because it makes building so fast. So far so good! A better approach (aside from hide glue) would be to use carpenter’s wood glue, but this requires extended clamping and drying time for each operation. If you’re not in a hurry, don’t use CA.
I copied the fret locations and scale length from another guitar, and installed the frets and markers. I drilled 4 half-inch sound holes in the top, these will be the finials of my “f-holes”. You really don’t need very big holes for a box this small.
I made a walnut bridge with a cocobolo saddle and glued it in place. However I would not glue the bridge down if I were doing it again, as I had to break it off later and move it in order to set the intonation. I made a nut out of white plastic, but I think that it is a bit soft. I plan to replace it with bone or aluminum at some point.
I added a cocobolo face to the peg head before installing the tuners (without bushings) and giving the guitar a quick lacquer job. I got the vintage tuners from a local luthier, who brought out a whole gallon bucket of spare tuning machines and dumped them out on the counter in front of me when I explained that I was making a cigar box guitar.
I eased the back of the neck with a router to make it more comfortable.
I cut string holes in the tailpiece, and lined them with bushings made from brass tubing to prevent the strings from cutting into the wood. A lot of CBG builders use the little metal ends from old guitar strings for this, but I didn’t have any around.
If you want to electrify your CBG (and you do), you can make a decent pickup from a piezo buzzer element. You can find a buzzer at Radio Shack for about $3. Pop open the buzzer and carefully remove the element. You don’t want the plastic case or the circuit board inside, just solder some leads right to to the pads on the element. Wire the pickup to your input jack, and then glue it to the inside of the guitar top, directly below the bridge with a drop of CA.
Or if you get really adventurous, you can experiment with winding your own magnetic pickups. When you have tested your pickup and everything works fine, glue the box shut to greatly improve resonance and sustain.
With an open tuning, these instruments are really fun to play. Go ahead, Join the Cigar Box Revolution! Make one for yourself, they’re a real gas to plink around on.