How to Make a Cigar-Box Ukulele

by Michelle Diane
Wooden cigar boxes can be converted into ukuleles that you can actually play.

Wooden cigar boxes can be converted into ukuleles that you can actually play.

Thomas Northcut/Photodisc/Getty Images

The cigar-box ukulele is basking in renewed popularity among music enthusiasts and crafters alike. Also known as the cigar-box guitar, this traditional folk instrument resurrects the sound of its generations-old Mississippi Delta and Appalachian hill country roots. Hand-crafted much like they were a century ago, cigar-box ukuleles, even this simple one, take time and patience to make, and according to Ivan Sucharski of Cigar Box Nation, "Once you've built one, you'll want to build another. It's addictive!"

Items you will need

  • Wooden cigar box
  • 3-foot-long, 1 inch- by 2-inch poplar board
  • Pencil
  • Wood file
  • Pocketknife
  • Hacksaw
  • Drill
  • Scroll saw
  • 8/32- by 1 ½ -inch bolt
  • Rag
  • Wood stain
  • 1-inch sponge brush
  • Sealant
  • Wood glue
  • Finishing nails
  • 3 tuning pegs
  • 3 acoustic guitar strings, gauged .045, .035, .026.
  • ¼ inch- by 2 ½-inch eyebolt

Preparation

Step 1

Line the neck board up with the cigar-box lid so the board extends approximately an inch beyond the lid. Mark the board with a pencil line on both sides of the lid. Use a pocketknife and wood file to cut a groove the depth of the cigar-box lid between the marks. Work carefully and measure against the lid often to ensure the neck board fits evenly against the lid.

Step 2

Make a mark at the center point of both ends of the cigar box. Measure ¾ inch from the center in either direction and mark the spots; they should be one and a half inches apart with the center point between them. Draw ¾ inch lines from the end marks toward the bottom of the box; connect the lines to create 1 ½-inch by ¾-inch rectangles on both ends of the cigar box. Use a hacksaw to cut out the rectangles; work inside your pencil marks; these notches will hold the ukulele neck. Lay the neck board across the notches; it should be slightly larger than the notches. Deepen and widen the notches a little at a time with the file or sandpaper. They should fit tightly around the neck allowing it no movement. Close the cigar box; the lid should lay flat; if it bows, the notches are not deep enough; ensure there is no space between the neck, lid and notches.

Step 3

Drill sound holes so they are centered on either side of the lid between the neck and box edge. Simple drilled holes will produce a good sound, but you can use a scroll saw to create more elaborate design. Take care not to crack the lid while making the sound holes.

Craft the Neck

Step 1

Measure 4 inches from the top of the neck and draw a line across the board. Drill three holes on the top of the board for the tuning pegs. Position the upper hole approximately ¾ inch from the top of the board and ¼ inch from the left side. Measure 2 inches down and 3/8 inch toward the center from the first hole and drill the second. Draw angled lines down from the first hole and up from the second toward the right side of the head to make a pyramid shape. Drill the third hole one-quarter from the right edge at the apex of the triangle.

Step 2

Use the pocketknife and file to shape the headstock. Use your imagination; the only rules are: Don't go below the 4-inch mark and retain enough thickness to ensure the tuning pegs screw in tightly.

Step 3

Make three small holes, with the drill, at the bottom of the neck an equal distance apart for the strings.

Step 4

File a shallow groove across the neck a half inch below the ukulele's headstock for the top bridge. Cut the groove so that two-thirds of the 8/32- by 1½-inch bolt protrudes above the neck when laid in position.

Step 5

Take off the hardware and sand the neck smooth; take extra care on the edges and corners to remove the nicks and rough spots that can cause splinters. Use a rag to rub stain into the ukulele neck and a sponge brush to apply the sealant; set it aside to dry thoroughly.

Assembly

Step 1

Glue the ukulele neck to the cigar-box lid and reinforce by tapping in a few finishing nails, once the glue is dry.

Step 2

Nail the cigar box closed with finishing nails. Drill pilot holes to ensure the nails go in straight and take care not to crack the wood.

Step 3

Screw in the tuning pegs and string the ukulele. Slide the 8/32- by 1½-inch bolt into the groove under the headstock and position the ¼-inch by 2½-inch eyebolt, under the strings, about 3 inches from the bottom of the ukulele to form the bridge. Tune it up; your cigar-box ukulele is ready to play.

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Photo Credits

  • Thomas Northcut/Photodisc/Getty Images