In 1840 an enterprising individual decided to try selling cigars to the masses by packaging them in small, portable containers. This idea led to the development of the cigar box and a subsequent soar in the sale of cigars. With all those empty cigar boxes lying around, it was not too long until a few crafty individuals figured out how to use cigar boxes to make music. With its humble beginnings in back porch bluegrass, the cigar box guitar and ukulele have boomed into the mainstream, being built and used by musical giants such as Ted Nugent and B.B. King. With the guidelines below, you can follow in their footsteps and create a three-string, fretless cigar box ukulele.
Choose a good cigar box. The box must be wood--not cardboard--and in good condition. The typical ukulele uses a box approximately 10 inches long, 6 inches wide and 2 1/2 inches deep. Using a bigger box will result in a deeper tone, and using a smaller one will give you a higher pitch.
Choose wood for the ukulele neck. Hard woods such as walnut, oak, maple and poplar work well.
Assemble the neck board. Begin by lining up the board with the cigar box, making sure the bottom of the neck is centred and located one inch from the bottom of the box. In this particular design, the neck runs through the entire body of the instrument. Mark the neck at the entry point. Make another mark where it exits the other end of the cigar box.
File away the area between these two marks, creating a shallow depression the same depth as the cigar box lid. Sand the neck to remove any rough patches.
Measure and mark 2 inches from the top of the neck. Drill three holes spaced 1 inch apart, one on the right side and two on the left, sized to fit the turning pegs. To prevent the tangling of the ukulele's strings, the holes should not be perfectly aligned.
Using the file, make the top of the neck 1/4 inch narrower than the body. File the edges down, rounding them, excluding the portion which will be inside of the ukulele. Rounding the edges will make the instrument more comfortable to hold when playing.
Measure 1/2 an inch from the bottom of the neck. Drill 3 small, evenly spaced holes where the strings will be threaded later.
Sand, stain and seal the neck.
Measure the end of the cigar box where the neck will be inserted. Mark the halfway point from left to right. From the centre of the box's side, measure 1/2 an inch from the bottom of the box and mark it. Draw a rectangle, 1/2 inch from the bottom of the cigar box, centred 1 inch high and 2 inches wide. Repeat on the other end.
Cut the opening for the neck, just inside of the marks. If the neck doesn't fit, widen the hole with sandpaper or a wood file.
Drill sound holes in the lid of the cigar box. These are simply small holes in the lid, away from the area where the neck will be.
Insert the neck into the body and secure it with wood glue. When the glue is completely dry, firmly fix the neck into place with the addition of finishing nails.
Thread the ukulele by running the guitar strings through the holes in the bottom of the neck (which should be protruding from the end of the ukulele), over the cigar box, up the neck and around the tuning pegs. To tune your ukulele, turn the pegs to loosen or tighten the strings. Before tightening the first time, run a 2-inch screw underneath the strings at the bottom of the ukulele. Tightening the strings should hold this in place. This will keep the strings elevated from the surface of the instrument.
Reinforcements, such as dowel rods, can be glued and clamped inside the cigar box if the ukulele needs to withstand heavy usage. Be gentle when drilling the sound holes or you may crack the lid.
Tips and warnings
- Reinforcements, such as dowel rods, can be glued and clamped inside the cigar box if the ukulele needs to withstand heavy usage.
- Be gentle when drilling the sound holes or you may crack the lid.