I'm gearing up to attempt some cigar box* lutherie for the first time in a long long time.
I remember the article in an early issue of MAKE magazine that arguably kicked off an entire internet cigar box guitar revolution. At the time I thought it the article was cool, but I was too obsessed with Real Lutherie™ at the time to embrace the low-fi/makeshift aesthetic. I did manage to make one cigar box instrument that was way overbuilt but not very successful... it was about 85% built when my life was turned upside down by a move and major house renovation. When I finally finished it a few years later, it was promptly stolen out of my truck literally the next day and I took at as a bit of a cosmic "maybe you're just not meant to make instruments" kick to the balls. For that and other reasons I mostly set that itch aside until recently.
It's *wild* how much information there is about lutherie in general now; hundreds of hours of youtube content, etc.
It's also wild to see how Cigar Box Guitar Making™ has become a sort of invented tradition with accepted best practices and standardized scale lengths, tunings, et cetera. That whole "taking part in a time-honored rugged traditional tinged with faux hobo nostalgia, except 99% of what's been written about cigar box guitars has been written by obsessive hobbyist woodworkers on the internet in the last 10 years" thing.
I'm not sure how much of that can be attributed to the C.B. Gitty company, who has built a bit of a cigar box guitar tool and supply empire, but that's got to be part of it.
Anyway, hooray for the goddamned internet; when I was daydreaming about lutherie 15 years ago StewMac was pretty much the only game in town, and they're good but they were certainly priced like the only game in town. It is amazing how much more accessible things like cheap tuning machines have gotten, and how much less trial and error a person might have to do thanks to the hundreds of other people that have trod pathways ahead of them.
* technically, unfinished craft boxes from Michaels until such time as I can get my hands on some actual cigar boxes, which are scarcer in junk shops than they used to be. But that's fine because it also provides an opportunity to play with finishes.
The challenge with work-from-home lunch hours is not allowing yourself to be totally derailed if you use some of your lunch hour to tinker
Ran out of daylight to get a decent photo, but at least I managed to get primer and a couple of coats of paint onto it.
I remembered that I had most of a can of "oil rubbed bronze" type metallic paint from my theremin speaker stand which should look pretty cool, I think one more coat should do it. Going to try using plain old minwax polycrylic as a gloss clear coat. I have the notion it will be less fussy than the nitrocellulose lacquer I've been fighting with on the #telecasterkit project.
Definitely going to try using grain filler on the next one.
This is a slightly better photo after a third coat, still wet, but ultimately just a difficult color to photograph. If I get into this in a sustained way I’ll probably cobble together a light tent for photography #cbg
I managed to get five or six coats of spray polyurethane on this thing today; looks like brush marks but I think those are actually sanding marks that have been highlighted by multiple layers.
Dubious I’ll be able to sand this enough to get a smooth look (without sanding all the way through to the color layer) - definitely grain filler next time. #cbg
It's technically past the 24-hour "dry time" window and the finish has lost the ever-so-slightly-rubbery feel it had last evening, but it's still pretty smelly so I'm not going to bring it in and tinker with electronics just yet. (not that it would do me any good without neck/bridge/strings anyway.)
But, I did remember to get a photo of the highly sophisticated bracing I added #cbg
Alright, there's any number of things I *should* do outside today ahead of the impending storm, but what I'm probably *going* to do is see how far I can get on a neck for the #cbg
Probably going to splurge on that CB Gitty scarf joint miter box because I don’t have a table saw, and it’s relatively cheap (and the one I tried to make myself is not square, lol.) But with a little filler and sanding this should be close enough.
This test fret was about 100x easier to install than any of the ones I did 15 years ago, and that’s definitely thanks to having the right tools (my wife got me the CB gitty fretting kit for my birthday. #cbg
If I’m going to the trouble of making a scarf joint I might as well add ears so I can give it a nice shape #cbg
Need to clean up the nut slot some but I think I’m ready to start carving? I think the fret slots came out well despite me having to cut half of them using a speed square as a guide because I got ahead of myself and glued the headstock and heel block on like a dingus #cbg
My obsessive nerd inclination is to do some CAD to determine the optimal neck angle per bridge placement and location. I used my ancient, offline copy of adobe Illustrator for basic geometry stuff like this for years and years, but it finally stopped working a couple of OS versions ago and I am not going to let adobe bleed me to death for the rest of my life... but I haven't really learned inkscape or (god forbid) an actual CAD package in the meantime, so that would be a whole yak-shaving expedition that's probably a bit of a moot point anyway because it's not like I have any kind of precision finer than "half a degree-ish" on my saw. 🤷♂️
My napkin calculations suggest about 6 degrees, which seems like a lot, but the body *and* neck are smaller than most instruments I'm used to, and math is math.
Worst case I can shim the heel one way or the other. #cbg
5° probably would have been a little better for the neck angle, but I think 6 is close enough that I’ll be able to fine tune the action just by tinkering with the bridge height 😎 #cbg
I had forgotten how pleasing it is to shape a neck, doubly so making little curlicues with the spokeshave.
I spent maybe 5-10 minutes at this this morning and my god it is soothingly meditative
Not sure if spokeshave difficulties are due to dull blade and inexperience, or spokeshave being a cheap piece of junk. Probably a little of both. (I bought it from Grizzly Industrial and wouldn't have spent more then twenty bucks in 2006 dollars on it)
My sharpening stones are a mess, seeing if I can clean/recondition them is a whole other yak shaving expedition I could go on.
Meanwhile, a cheap rasp worked pretty well to rough out the neck. I got it halfway cleaned up starting with 80 grit sandpaper before the mosquitoes chased me inside... there are still some pretty deep gouges but hopefully sanding will go quickly when I'm not being eaten alive.
Realized a major #footgun: Because my box lid is like 5/8" tall and the neck is only about 1 1/2" deep, my plan to attach the neck with two lag bolts is not going to work.
But, hopefully I can salvage it by putting a notch in the approprate place in the box lid. (I don't think I described the issue very well, but it will be apparent when I photograph that step. #cbg
Ran out of daylight again, but I think it’s just about to the “good enough” stage. Will give it another one more session with 220-grit, and then hit it with some grain filler. #cbg
I had the stain out for the #lm386amp project, so why the hell not. 🤷♂️ It will be a little less contrasty against the dark body.
Not sure I’ve ever stained poplar before… not the prettiest wood, at least with this stain. Predictably there are some dodgy spots around the heel where there’s either glue resisting or end-grain/filler soaking up the stain and going dark. Not sure what that resistant spot on the flat part of the heel is from, though. #cbg
...just realized it *probably* would have been optimal to stain after installing frets; I'll have to be super careful cleaning up fret ends and will almost certainly have to do some touching up if I scuff the wood. #cbg
My working theory is that with a protective layer of tru-oil on the frets that need markers, I’ll be able to glue in some un-stained dowel, cut it flush with a very very good saw I have for such things, and sand it without screwing up the stain #cbg
It was a nice, but not very realistic working theory. It’s fine, it was already looking pretty rustic, and now it’s relic’d. #cbg
Should have drilled the tuner holes before starting the finish, of course. Terrible tear-out despite using a sacrificial block behind. Maybe a poplar thing? The wood seems really fibrous. Time for some more filler (and it will be covered up by the machine heads anyway.) #cbg
not sure what’s lack of experience installing frets vs compromising the sharpness of the fret slots by applying finish after cutting them (the grain filler is water based.)
Things seem to be better after doing another pass with the saw to clear debris out of each slot.
With an unradiused fingerboard it seems to me that, once I get all the frets hammered in and filed, I ought to be able to put the entire thing in the jaws of my workmate table to give it a good even press for good measure.
I am going to order a pair of flush-ground nippers right now because I already tell how tedious it’s going to be to file those ends down. #cbg
I’ll be putting one or two more coats in the front of the headstock, but I’m calling the neck done at five (I think, is easy to lose count) coats. The back of the neck looks great. The fingerboard… well, it’s a learning process.
I got the neck attached, sort of, last night, but I’m not confident it will be strong/stable enough. I may try to re-do it with a banjo dowel-stick sort of arrangement, although without a jig to get that 6° angle just right that will be tricky too. The two complicating factors are the deep box lid, and there just not being enough room or depth in the box to drill a straight hole. #cbg
Well, it’s a bit of a disaster inside but I did the dowel stick thing, deliberately drilling the neck hole a bit large and using epoxy putty to set the dowel at the right angle. The neck is proud of the body by about 1/4, which I’m not thrilled about, but it feels solid.
Definitely not worth the trouble of doing anything other than a through-neck on a #cbg 🙄
I started making a nut from a sample chunk of corian I picked up at Home Depot. Seems like it would work really well, but it’s a little too hard to conveniently sand by hand, and even if I had a belt sander the dust is probably nothing you want airborne without a real dust collection system. I’ll stick to oak. #cbg
I haven’t soldered anything in 20 years and it shows, but this will get the job done. Leaving the pickup taped in place for now, gives me the option to move it later. #cbg
Alright, here goes. Bracing for potential disappointment in the form of catastrophe for structural failure, undetected fretwork problems, etc… #cbg
(So far so good, although I need to re-slot the bridge; thought I’d be able to get away with a *little* wider spacing there despite the untapered neck, but nope)
The pickup is working, it’s a quieter than electromagnetic pickups but that’s cool, it gives me more headroom to play with my amp’s gain and overdrive.
The action feels a little bit high, but that’s a trade-off of not having a truss rod, and part of that is also these monster strings.
Anyway, photos/audio once I get the bridge fixed, and get to know it a little more #cbg
Still trying to get the bridge dialed in, and probably going to try some lighter strings.
But overall, I call it a success, especially in terms of the frets and the intonation.
#cbg update: Nothing imploded overnight, and the strings seem to be slowly settling down so they don't need to be tuned up every 30 seconds. I am surprised by the volume and sustain this cheap mystery wood box (probably basswood?) puts out for its size.
I spent entirely too much time this morning fooling around with online string tension/weight calculators. I ordered a custom set of D'Addarios that ought to be in the right ballpark for standard plectrum tuning (C3 G3 B3 D4) at the shorter 23" scale length. The 'baritone' tuning is neat but the tension feels excessive - part of that is probably my brain objecting to the heavier strings in a 4-string configuration, but it will be easier to fine-tune and get a sense of what could use improvement with a familiar tuning under my fingers.
Also, part of my whole reasoning for getting back into this was to have a consistently tuned guitar-like alternative to plectrum banjo, so I can focus on learning one set of scales and chords.
Along those lines, I'm definitely having thoughts about a full ~26.5" scale 'octave plectrum' / 'base plectrum' with super chonky strings tuned C2 G2 B2 D3.
It would probably be muddy for chords at the low end, but would be fun for stoner rock noodling.
Here's some "clean" harmonic minor noodling over a loop from the other night. My understanding is that piezos tend to sound a bit hot no matter what, but especially when attached directly to the top of the instrument like this one is. I've read that attaching them with a blob of hot glue as a bit of a cushion is a popular technique to calm them down a bit, but honestly my impression is that a super-cheap piezo transducer is never not going to sound the way it does.
I have a cheap single-coil electromagnetic pickup for my next build, I'm curious to see how it sounds on a #cbg compared to a "real guitar"
Finally got some photos that give a better sense of the color (although it does not shine like this except in direct sunlight.)
I’m not over how playable this instrument is compared to the first one I made years ago. Granted that one was stolen before I had a chance to tinker with it, but I know the fret work on that one was not as good, and the scale was shorter and less forgiving.
I need to make the nut slots a little deeper and see if I can seat the 13th fret a little bit better or file it level, but overall it’s pretty cool. #cbg
@mayor woohoo! thanks for sharing the build process, it's been great to watch. Look forward to hearing some music from it :)
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