When I first began to take an interest in building my own cigar box guitars I took a look at a few plans and read how many experienced builders went about it. The key piece of guidance that I came away with was that there are no rules and anything goes.
Unlike building six string guitars there really are no rules. You can use as many strings as you like, you can use any materials you like, you can make them as big or as small as you like.
Now I am not a very experienced builder (at the time of writing I have made a grand total of six CBGs and a couple of diddly bows) but here is the basic approach that I take to a new build.
I start with a rough idea of what I want to build. This is often inspired by others that I have seen or heard in action. So at this stage I’m thinking about the number of strings, whether I want it to be fretted, what sort of pickup I want to use (magnetic of piezo) and whether I’m going to use a through-body design.
I then start to gather the parts. The biggest problems I’ve encountered at this stage have been finding suitable boxes and wood for the necks.
The best source for boxes has been eBay. I’ve now managed to accumulate a whole heap of cigar boxes that will keep me happy for many months. But I’ve also used other boxes, most notably 35mm slide boxes. These tend to be very robustly put together and they are a generous size.
I’ve sourced wood for necks from a variety of places. My local timber merchants has a handy off-cuts bin where I’ve found some useful lengths of oak and I found a source on eBay who sell a variety of hard woods including some nice pieces of walnut. I’ve also managed to scrounge some seasoned mahogany and teak shelves from various locations which I’m progressively working my way through.
My favoured pickups are the magnetic variety, as used on electric guitars. But these present their own challenges as they tend to require a recess for mounting which can mean cutting into a through neck, which weakens it. But piezo pickups are more than adequate and for a first build this is what I would recommend.
These days I tend to fit a fretboard and add frets, but this isn’t necessary. Remember, there are no rules. Again, for a first build I would not bother with fretting or adding a fretboard.
For tuning pegs I like to use proper guitar tuners and I was lucky enough to lay my hands on a big bag of smart tuners for very little money when a local guitar store closed down.
For the nut and the bridge I like to use pieces of bone. I’ve acquired some great big knobbly cow-bones and joints from our local butcher which I’ve cleaned, sawn and sanded and successfully used for nuts and saddles. But I’ve also used pieces of hard wood for the bridge along with bolts, eyelets, keys and nails. Anything goes.
To fix the strings at the body end you’ll need to fashion some form of tailpiece. If you are using a through neck design you can simply drill some holes through the wood big enough for the string but too small for the bobble at the end (I don’t recall the correct term for this part) to pass through the hole. Many builders like to prevent the string cutting into the wood by using little metal eyes at the end.
For my builds where I have not used a through-body neck design I have mounted the neck on a large piece of hardwood that sits inside the box. I’ve then attached a tailpiece made from various things including brass clock parts or drawer handles and even belt buckles. I’ve found that this configuration has resulted in fantastic sustain and resonance.
Armed with all the parts I then decide on how many strings (I like to use three) and how long the scale will be (I usually go for something around 23.5 inches or 600mm). I make a sketch of what I aim to achieve and then list all the things that I need to do.
I hope that this introduction has provided at least enough to get you started with your own cigar box guitar build.