Building a Cigar-Box Guitar
Words and photos: Vic Tesolin
Diagram: Graham Sands
As a woodworker, making your own tools is a real treat because you can make them to your exacting specifications. The same holds true for a musician – I’ve been playing stringed instruments for over 30 years and there is nothing more gratifying than making your own instruments. This cigar-box guitar (CBG for short) is one of my favourites to build. I can usually make one in a day and there is no end to the options you have for customisation.
This particular model is acoustic and fretless which is well suited for slide playing. I have also made versions that have a pick-up installed in them to amplify the sound, as well as versions with frets for chording. CBG’s are also characteristically made with odd objects and commonly found parts that you likely have laying around your shed. Using items like bolts and threaded rod for parts like the nut and bridge may seem odd but a quick internet search will turn up all kinds of weird and wacky CBG’s so have some fun with it.
Start by gathering your parts. As the name suggests, a cigar box guitar requires a cigar box that you can usually find easily enough at a local tobacconist. The size and type are up to you, and you can even make your own box if you like. Boxes are made from anything ranging from hardboard and plywood to solid wood. I’ve made CBG’s out of all types of boxes and they’ve all worked well.
You will also need the other bits and pieces shown in the materials and supplies list. I get all of my hardware from C.B.Gitty.
Mark up the neck
You can use almost any timber to make a CBG, so this is really up to you. In this case I used a straight- grained piece of construction material, but fancy is good too. Mill the neck to the dimensions listed and indicate where the top surface and top end are. Mark the nut location on the top and side surfaces, 150mm from the top end of the neck. Then measure from the nut down towards the bottom end of the neck and make a mark at 622.3mm. This is the bridge location and will give you a scale length of 24-1/2".
Now lay the neck down on the cigar box and line up the bridge location such that the bridge is approximately three-quarters to the bottom of the box (photo 1).
Roughly mark the location of the box on the neck so you have an idea of what part of the neck will be in the box. Finally, find the centre of the neck width and mark it at the bottom end (photo 2).
Often times there are various labels and export stickers on the cigar box. In Canada and Australia there are some pretty graphic photos of what smoking can do to various parts of the anatomy. I typically take off the graphic stickers and leave the export labels in place. I’ve found the easiest way to do this is with a heat gun or even a hair drier set to its hottest setting.
In order to let the neck into the box, you have to create notches on either end of the cigar box. Place blue painters tape across the ends of the box. Find the centre of the inside of the box width and mark it clearly with a fine marker on both ends. Now line up the neck using the centre mark you made on the bottom end with the centre mark on the box ends (photo 3).
Clamp the neck in place lightly and use a marking knife to cut through the tape. Set a marking gauge to the thickness of the neck material and score the blue tape between the two marks you made for the neck width. Now use a square and a knife to carry the width lines down to the depth line and remove the rectangular bit of blue tape. The remaining blue tape will delineate your neck position.
Use a fine-tooth saw to make your cuts down from the top making sure you don’t cut into the tape (photo 4).
Use a utility knife to carefully cut across the bottom of the notch with multiple passes until the waste breaks away. Use the knife to refine the corners of the notch then place the neck into the notches to verify the fit (photo 5).
Strut your stuff
Next you will fit the box struts which serve to strengthen the box. When the strings are tensioned, they will exert force on the box and these struts will help to handle that force. The material for the struts can be solid wood or ply and anywhere from 12 to 20mm thick. The struts should be sized to the shortest depth of the box. The long sides of most cigar boxes are usually narrower by the thickness of the lid.
Cut the struts to fit the width of the box and install them. Use a pencil to trace the location of the notch then remove the waste (photo 6). Reinstall the struts and test fit the neck to be sure all fits well. Remove the neck again and attempt to close the lid.any minor adjustments at this time to ensure the lid closes easily.
The lid of the box will be screwed shut in a later step, but you can locate and drill the pilot holes for this now (photo 7).
Let there be sound
This model of CBG is acoustic so there needs to be some ports to let the sound out. This is an opportunity to get creative. In this case, I drilled two 35mm holes with a Forstner bit and hot-glued a couple of sink strainers into those holes (photo 8). In the
past I’ve also used things like large grommets, or small clock bezels and I’ve also just left them as plain holes. The choice is yours – just be mindful that the neck goes through the centre of the box so putting a sound hole in the middle of the box will not work well. I also try to keep the box graphics intact so the artwork will look good.
Final neck fitting
Place the neck into the box so that it’s positioned using the marks you made early on in the build. Lightly close the box lid and trace the location of the lid onto the neck with a marking knife (photo 9). Use a marking gauge set to the thickness of the lid and strike a line referencing the top surface of the neck. Remove the waste, essentially creating a really wide, shallow dado that will allow the box lid to close completely with the neck installed.
I typically do this freehand at the bandsaw being sure to cut to the line, but I don’t stress if the cut isn’t perfect. This area will be in the box and never seen again once the box is screwed shut (photo 10).
Make heads and tails of it
We have to thin the headstock area to properly fit the tuning machines and to create an area for the nut. Set a marking gauge to 5mm and strike a line on the edge of the neck running from the top of the head to the nut line you marked earlier on. Cross-cut on the nut line to the depth you just struck then resaw the waste away (photo 11). You can now remove the resaw marks with some sandpaper, although I typically leave the marks there.
Using the diagram shown in the diagram above, locate the tuning machine holes and mark the shape of the headstock (photo 12). Drill the tuning machine holes with a 5/16" bit and then cut and shape the headstock. If you are using a set of tuners other than the ones listed, be sure to review the installation instructions for them to ensure the hole sizes and location are correct.
Now locate the three holes in the tailstock for the string anchors and bore the holes with a 5mm bit. Finish off by tracing a pleasing arc on the end then cut and shape the curve. As you can see, any curve will do here, as long as you are happy with it (photo 13).
Soften the neck
The back of the neck should be rounded over to be easy on the hand while playing. Place a piece of blue tape 12mm down from the nut location and 12mm up from the point where the neck enters the box. Install a 3/8" radius round-over router bit into a router table and rout the round-over on the back side of the neck (photo 14).
Use the blue tape as a gauge for where to start and stop the cuts visually. If it’s important for you to be more accurate than this, feel welcome to set up a fence and stops on the router table. Remove any sharp corners on the neck then do any final sanding and apply finish (photo 15). I typically only use a coat of wax on the neck, but any finish will do including adding colour in the form of stain or paint.
Install the hardware
With all the woodworking done, it’s time to install the metal bits. Start by gluing the bridge (a 5/16" threaded bolt in this case) against the shoulder you created on the headstock (photo 16). Some five minute epoxy or strong hot-melt glue will be perfect for this.
Now move to the tailstock and glue the rivets into the anchor hole with some medium thickness cyanoacrylate glue making sure not to plug the holes with the glue (photo 17).
Finally, install the tuning machines according to the instructions that came with them. Be mindful that the screws used for this hardware are typically tiny, so don’t lose them (photo 18)!
The only things left to do are the assembly and stringing. Place the neck into the cigar box, close the lid and screw the lid shut (photo 19). Lay a ruler down on the centre of the nut at the 24-1/2" (622.3mm) mark (photo 20), then place a light pencil mark
on the box at the end of the ruler.
Place two pieces of tape on the box to show where the neck is as a means of centring the bridge location (photo 21). Glue the bridge (in this case, a piece of 5/16" threaded rod) to the box using five minute epoxy or hot-melt glue, then remove the tape.
Install the strings and tune them to the appropriate note (photo 22). I typically string my CBG’s with an open G string set which are tuned to G-D-g to make it easy to play with a slide. If this is your first stringed instrument, jump online and learn how to string an instrument. It’s not hard to do but like anything else you need to know the steps.
There are many instructional videos online that explain how to play a CBG. As you surf around, you’ll start to see that there is an entire sub-set of musicians that play instruments that they have made themselves. You will find events, concerts and festivals with the CBG as the central instrument, so have some fun with your new-found, handmade instrument.
Vic Tesolin is a furniture maker and also a Lee Valley Woodworking Partner. He lives in Canada and teaches workshops all over the world. Learn more at victesolin.com