“Punch” Rare Corojo Cigar Box Guitar Plans
These cigar box guitar plans and subsequent build was inspired by a blues duo I saw at The Dream Cafe in Penticton, BC several years ago. For my local readers, you already know what a gem the little ‘Gypsy Heart’ Cafe is. For those passing through the Okanagan BC, world talents such as Guy Davis, Eric Bibb, Colin James, Willie and Lobo, Harpdog Brown, and Harry Manx (to name a few) have graced the intimate stage of this humble venue… the complete list of performers, both past and pending is as varied as it is long!
After witnessing the simplicity and amazing sound of these guitars about five years ago, I was inspired to build one for myself. At the outset, the process seemed daunting – especially the accuracy needed for an authentic and playable fretboard.
However, the process was both extremely rewarding (and doable!), and after researching cigar boxes for about a month, sourcing parts both new and old and bringing an instrument to life from out of the ether, I’ve become instantly hooked on creating more unique cigar box guitars and have started the necks for two more as I write this post. My goal with this post is to compile the notes from my build in one complete resource to help you with your own cigar box guitar plans.
The History of Cigar Box Guitars
Believe it or not, cigar box guitars have been traced back to the civil war and likely even pre-date that time period. Around 1860, shipping of cigars changed from large boxes yielding about 100 cigars, to the smaller boxes we’re more familiar with today and served as perfect bodies and resonators for these rustic instruments.
To give some history, the National Cigar Box Museum (yes there is such a thing) acquired two cigar box fiddles dating to 1886 and 1889 and have been described as being ‘…very playable and well-built’.
Later, the Great Depression of the 30’s saw a resurgence of the cigar box instruments within the Blues and Jug Band genres.
As funds and resources were scarce, these instruments were hand-made from basically any materials people could put together; early cigar box guitars were fashioned from cigar boxes (of course), oil cans, broomsticks and fence wire as well as rustic hardware such as door hinges, bolts and old keys for bridges and nuts.
This really hasn’t changed with modern builds, and much of the fun I had during my build was in hitting up antique stores for miscellaneous bits of hardware and wooden boxes.
It all Starts with a Box
The beauty of cigar box guitars, or any folk-instruments is that there aren’t any rules. Given their rustic roots, the sky really is the limit as far as material choice and design. In short, build what you love.
Sourcing Out a Cigar Box
My initial search started with the boxes. Scale length is a very important point to consider when constructing any guitar, which I’ll discuss in greater detail below. I wanted my intonation and fret spacing to be accurate for the best sound. As such, I needed some boxes in-hand in order to make relevant measurements for the length of my neck.
Cigar Boxes on Ebay and Etsy
Etsy and Ebay are likely your best bets for your boxes and realizing your cigar box guitar plans. I bought a bulk order from a US seller and had them shipped to a post office across the border to keep costs down.
Finding Cigar Boxes Locally
Don’t forget to check out your local thrift shops, classifieds and antique stores. You could even hit up your local cigar stores as they will often have recycling programs and will sell or even give them away. What I’ve found is that once the word starts to spread about your unique instruments, cigar boxes start showing up on your radar by way of garage sales, friends and so forth.
Cigar Box Prices
Box pricing typically ranges from a few dollars up to $15 or even $20 for a decent box. While the upper range may seem like a steep price-point, consider that you’re building an instrument that you’ll likely have for many years. Twenty bones really isn’t that much for the body of your guitar. My tip is to get the best box you can afford.
Build your Own
This opens up a whole new realm of possibilities. Creating your own box gives you full control over size, wood and artwork. There are many tutorials on Youtube showing both how to build a basic box as well as how to apply artwork using techniques such as Gesso application and inkjet / laser jet image transfers.
STEP 1: Plan Ahead and Get your Parts!
Nothing kills motivation quicker than getting started on a project only to be held up by missing parts (either in the post or determining you need something critical to your build). Chances are pretty good that you’ll be ordering parts from big suppliers such as CB Gitty, eBay, Amazon, Stew Mac etc.
You can also check out our store for cigar box guitar parts (coming soon).
Here are some items you’ll want to consider having on hand before getting started:
- Cigar Boxes: I prefer wooden (usually cedar or Spanish cedar) or paper covered wooden boxes.
- Hardwood for neck, bridge, headstock etc.: see below for my recommendations.
- Tuning machines: Get a set of six, minimum – if you’re building a three-stringer, you’ll be able to use them all for two guitars by swapping the orientation (2 on top, one below for one build, and the opposite on your next build).
- Mini pickup: I used a mini-humbucker for this build. If you want to fashion your own pickup, there are many tutorials on YouTube.
- Nut and bridge material: This can be bone, brass, bolts, old keys, dominos, Corian, stone, etc. For my cigar box guitar plans, I used a bone blank for the nut, which I filed down, slotted, and then used a 1/4″ brass rod for the bridge.
- Knobs: you can fashion your own, or pick up modern / retro-style knobs to suit your design.
- 1/4″ instrument jack: If you’re planning on amplifying your gitty, you’ll need a standard instrument jack.
- Volume and / or tone pots: For this cigar box guitar plan, I used a single volume pot wired between my 1/4″ instrument jack and my mini-humbucker pickup.
- Strap mounts – I used classic ‘button’ type strap mounts on this build.
- Tailpiece – options are endless here. I’ve seen spatulas, hinges, wood, forks… the sky is the limit. For this build I used an antique brass drawer pull that I found at a local antique shop for a dollar. I then marked my holes and drilled to retain the guitar string eyelets.
Selecting the Wood for your Neck
The integrity of the build comes down to your neck. With this in mind, most cigar box guitar plans call for a neck-through body. Really, the box is just to pretty it up and house your other components for an electric guitar.
For an acoustic guitar (non-amplified), the box will serve as a resonator and the shape as well as your sound holes will affect how she sings. If you’re making an acoustic guitar, the fewer elements you place in the box, the better the resonance.
For my build, I chose maple and black walnut for the neck design. Many cigar box guitar builders choose off-the-shelf hardwood blanks from big-box stores such as Home Depot (typically 1″ x 2″ and 36″ long), but I wanted a bit more control over the design, grain pattern and thickness. Since I have a jointer and planer in my shop, this opens up more design and construction possibilities.
As a note, stay away from softer woods such as poplar or pine as these lack integral strength and are prone to warping with humidity and temperature changes. Also note that laminating woods will add to overall integrity as seen with my walnut fretboard laminated to the maple neck and the heel strap running underneath the neck and through the box.
STEP TWO: Cigar Box Guitar Neck-build Details:
- Use hardwood. Maple, walnut, oak, cherry and mahogany are great choices. For these particular cigar box guitar plans I used maple and black walnut for the neck, headstock, fretboard and fretboard markers as well as the bridge.
- Mill your lumber. If you have a thickness planer and jointer, run your rough stock (this usually comes in 3/4″ rough-cut thickness) through a jointer. I start by milling down the edge and then running one of the faces through to get a perfectly flat face with my jointer. From there, I send it through the thickness planer to bring it down to my final dimensions.
- Choose your dimensions. I prefer a 40 mm wide neck and 18-22 mm finished height on the neck blank. The fretboard is going to add about 6 mm (1/4″) to this height. I chose 813 mm (~32″) for this build which gave me plenty of material to run the neck right through the box. This is definitely one popular option, but I chose to trim it to terminate inside the cigar box as I prefer this look.
- Cut your scarf joint. Once your neck blank is cut to final dimensions, you’re ready to cut the scarf joint. If you’re making your headstock of the same material (no detail), then mill your headstock to a thickness that will accommodate your tuners. My tuners allowed for a max headstock thickness of 19 mm. Note: A scarf joint is not necessary. You can certainly follow a ‘notched’ design as seen below… read on!
- Add a heel strap. The heel strap is approximately the same width and thickness as your neck and runs below the neck inside of your cigar box. There are no rules on how far this should protrude from the box itself, but aesthetically, I like about 1.5-2″. More than looking pretty, the heel strap serves to reinforce the neck as it will be notched to either accommodate your cigar box lid, your pickup, or both.
What about a Truss Rod?
From my research, a truss rod is neither necessary for a 1-string (referred to as a ‘Diddly Bo’), nor anything up to a 4-string instrument when using a hardwood for your neck. Anything more than four strings, and you’ll want to consider a truss rod as seen in traditional guitar builds. However, most cigar box guitars are built using a 3- or 4-string design. It’s this simplicity that adds to their charm.
STEP THREE: Addressing the Headstock
The two main considerations for your headstock are whether you want a straight neck or a ‘break’ angle on your cigar box guitar neck.
Here’s a simple way to look at it:
- Straight: Essentially you’re carving out your neck blank and/or adding material below your blank to ‘step’ your headstock. This is the most ‘straight’ forward approach (pun intended).
- Scarf joint: This is the approach I took and is what many traditional guitar manufacturers use. To me, this just looks and feels more authentic and allows some room to get creative.
Headstock Angle – it’s your design!
Remember, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to building your cigar box guitar. Some folks are limited to the tools they have at their disposal, and many builders out there do some amazing work with the most basic of tools.
My shop is pretty well equipped. While researching neck builds, I came across some discussion of ‘break angle’ and how having a straight headstock may require the use of ‘string trees’ to keep strings from popping out of the nut in the neck.
As this is my first build, I can’t speak on whether that’s accurate or not. However, visually, I like the look of a 15 degree headstock angle common to guitar manufacturers such as Gibson, plus, I was up for the challenge.
To achieve a perfect 15 degree angle, I opted to make a jig for my table-saw for consistent cuts. I’ve seen guys do this with a handsaw and then finish off the cut with a rasp and sandpaper, but the extra time to build my jig will be well worth it since my plan is to build many more cigar box guitars.
Here is a diagram of how the scarf joint works – there are a few different methods to achieve this. Since I wanted my headstock plate to be one piece, I followed the first illustration (scarf joint) so that my fretboard would cover the joint between the neck and the headstock.
If you choose to follow the middle example, you’ll see the delineation where the neck and headstock meet on the face of your headstock. This could serve as a design detail – again, it’s all personal choice.
Lastly, you could machine out your neck and headstock from one piece of thick stock, but to me this seems like potential for a lot of wasted hardwood.
Jig Problems and Resolution
I found some photos online from which I modelled my jig off of, but have run into some problems.
Specifically, because the off-cut from my neck blank gets trapped between the table-saw blade and my jig. As you an see in the jig to the right, the chance for binding is extremely high.
In fact, I’ve had to make multiple cuts to get a good angle – one to remove the bulk of the material and then a second or even third pass for a final ‘clean-up’ of the cut.
On the first pass (on both the neck and headstock blank) my saw blade seized and I had to turn off the saw.
This simply isn’t safe and I’ll be scrapping this jig in favour of a new design with an opposite layout so that the waste material falls to the outside of the blade, away from the jig.
In my opinion, the photo to the left, depicts a far better setup for a scarf joint jig whereby the waste material does not get trapped between the jig and the blade.
Instead, the waste material can exit out the open side of the blade thereby reducing risk of kickback, binding and injury. I’ll be sure to share my plans for a scarf jig in a future post.
STEP FOUR: Glue-up your Headstock
With my neck blank sized, and my scarf joints cut, the next step is to head to the glue-up bench.
For my first build, I kept the centre strip of my headstock the same width and material as my neck. I milled this down to about 19 mm thick and 40 mm wide and glued the angle tight using some spring clamps. On my second build, seen to the right, I kept the width the same as my neck but changed the material to black walnut for some contrast against the neck.
The length is about 10″ end-to-end, but you can make this as long or as short as you like, depending on your vision for your finished headstock.
There are several ways to accomplish a successful glue-up and some people build a jig, which I may consider for future builds. For now, this method worked very well.
This photo shows my second and third builds with a walnut centre strip but my process was the same on the first build.
STEP FIVE: Give it some Wings!
The next step was to add the decorative ‘wings’ to widen the headstock and give me a bigger palate on which to draw and shape my headstock.
The sky is the limit here, as it is with the rest of the build. Looking for a Stratocaster-style headstock? Maybe a Gibson Les Paul? Now is the time to start thinking about how you want this to be shaped.
This photo shows my walnut and maple headstock glue-up. I milled these to the same width as my neck blank (app. 19 mm).
Once the glue has set, the headstock is ready for some sketching, cutting and sanding. I wanted to keep the headstock design simple with a nice asymmetrical arc and a gentle swoop.
Using an artists French curve template, I marked out the top portion of the curve and then drew the angled lines toward the neck to form the sides of the headstock.
Trim and Sand
I use a 3/4″, 4 TPI blade on my band saw for rough cuts as well as for ripping / re-sawing stock to reduce waste.
In the past, if I had thick stock, I’d have to rip it down on the table-saw and then flip the material over to complete the cut.
With my bandsaw accurately set-up, I can now rip down fairly thick stock.
As a tip, while you can fashion your own bandsaw fence for accurate re-sawing, I recently upgraded to a Kreg Bandsaw Fence on my bandsaw and with some tweaking I can re-saw some very thin stock.
NOTE: Be smart when you work in the shop and protect your ears, eyes, limbs and lungs. Don’t suffer from the clarity of hindsight.
STEP SIX: Shape the neck and headstock
With the scarf joint complete, and the headstock trimmed and sanded, I took to shaping the radius on the neck. To do this, I ran a 1/4″ round-over bit in my router to knock off the edges. The router can only get so close to the heal-strap and headstock before the router’s baseplate makes contact, so I just used some finesse to drop-in to the cut and ease back out as I approached either end.
From this point, I removed any remaining material with a 4-in-hand file as well as various other files and rasps. The goal is to take the radius to a point that it feels comfortable in the hand. My neck build has somewhat of a ‘D’ shape. While I do like the thickness of this neck, for my next build, I’m going to experiment with removing more material with rasps and files to more closely resemble my other six-string guitars. As a note, the router is still a great means of removing the bulk of material.
Once roughed in, I completed all sanding working from 120 grit paper all the way down to 400 grit. I then wiped the entire neck down with a moist paper-towel to remove dust and raise the grain. Once dry, I hit it again with 400 grit for the final sand.
From here, I set the neck aside to avoid it getting bumped or banged as I worked on the fretboard.
STEP SEVEN: Building the fretboard
This was one of the most rewarding parts of the build and seemed much like a right of passage in the world of guitar building. Again, the most important thing to consider with the fretboard and neck is the scale of your build.
Choose your scale length in the beginning
I settled on a 25.5″ scale length, and what this refers to is the distance from the nut to the bridge. It is crucial that the distance between each fret is accurate and that the nut-to-bridge distance is spot on for correct intonation.
As a note, tone and string tension will be affected by your scale length. I may do a separate blog post on this but a Google search on ‘scale length’ will bring up a ton of results. Generally, cigar box guitars tend to be between 24.5″ to 25.5″. However, the only true rule is that there are no rules!
Print your template and cut your blank
Luckily, there’s a great online calculator that I found, here. This allowed me to input my requirements and then print a scale-version PDF that I could use as a fret template. I milled a length of black walnut stock down to 6mm (~1/4″) thickness and trimmed it to about 42mm (about 2 mm wider than my neck) so that I’ve have some wiggle room once glued up to trim down to final size. If you want to get fancy, metal-rule fret templates are available with varying scale lengths from vendors such as CB Gitty and Stew Mac. I may spring for one of these as I get going.
Mark your frets
Next up was marking out the fret positions using the paper template. After cutting a 45 degree angle on the nut end of the fret board, I left about 6mm from the cut for the nut slot. This marks the zero position on the fretboard from which the rest of the frets are marked.
Cut your slots
With those in place, I positioned the fretboard into a fret-cutting jig I made. This jig is set up so that the top stop-blocks rest along the saw rail and limit the depth of the cut I make with my fret-saw. This particular fret saw cuts a 0.021″ kerf which is perfect for the standard fret wire I’m using.
Add your fret markers
Having completed the fret slots, the next step was to drill my fret position markers. To do this, I simply drew a diagonal line from each corner to determine centre. I centre-punched each location and then set a depth stop on my drill-press for about 3mm (~1/8″).
For this build I used 3/8″ maple dowels which I fashioned on the drill-press using a plug cutting bit. I then masked my work with 3M 2″ green painter’s tape and with an X-Acto blade, cut the tape, added glue and then tapped in my maple plugs.
Once the glue had set, I used a flush-cut saw to trim off the excess, removed the tape and then sanded the plugs down using 120 grit, 240 and then a final pass with 400 grit. Ahhh – it feels so good!
Cut the nut dado, trim and drill the headstock
The final few steps to the fretboard before actually fretting, involved cutting the dado or slot to retain the nut. I added a 45 degree cut to slope toward my headstock and then left about 6mm to cut a 6mm slot about 3mm deep. I made this slot on the table saw after setting the blade height by simply making a few passes and staying within my scribed lines.
To finish things off, I added a 45 degree cut to the opposite end of the fretboard after determining how much overlap I wanted on the box. Bear in mind, these are purely stylistic and the sky is the limit with your own design.
Lastly, I drilled out the headstock to accommodate my tuning machines. For this build, I went with 4 and staggered the top two for visual interest. The common theme – there are no rules, so do what you like!
Adding frets and gluing down the fretboard
At this stage, it’s time to add the frets! You can buy fret-wire by the foot on Ebay, from various guitar parts suppliers, or even your local guitar shop. For my build, I chose medium fret wire from CB Gitty.
Techniques vary for installation, but I chose to secure my neck on some carpet and brace the neck roughly below each fret with a carpeted block. From here, I pressed a length of fret-wire into the slot with my thumbs and then laid a block of scrap hardwood over the fret and tapped down with a small hammer. You will hear an audible change once the fret-wire has seated fully.
Once the fret-wire is in place, I trimmed it off with a pair of flush-cut snips in preparation for the radius and final filing of the frets. You don’t want to leave any sharp edges on these!
Filing the frets
After clamping and securing my fretboard to my bench leaving the side I’m working on to overhang the bench, it was time to start filing. Using a long metal file, I rested the file flat alongside my rough-cut frets and with steady pressure ran the file along the fretboard’s length.
Simply file until your frets are flush with the edge of your fretboard. If you’re slow, steady and careful, you’ll feel when the frets are flush and when you’ve made contact with the wood. Gently run your hand alongside your filed frets. You should not feel even a hint of drag – if you do, gently file until perfectly smooth.
At this point, you’re ready to tape your fretboard and bevel the edges of your frets. I chose a 30 degree angle and went by feel. If you want to get more precise, which I plan to do on future builds StewMac sells fret bevelling files that will maintain a perfect angle.
STEP EIGHT: Making your Nut & Bridge
Earlier, I spoke about the importance of fret-scale. In order for your intonation to be correct, the twelfth fret must be exact centre between the nut and the bridge.
For this reason, I chose to make my bridge a ‘floating bridge’. While the location was still mapped out ahead of time, this allowed me to make some minor adjustments once she was strung up to insure my harmonics rang true and my notes were on point, both open and at the twelfth fret. More on this below as I discuss fine-tuning and setup.
Bridge Choice & Tailpiece
The sky really is the limit here. I’ve seen everything from old keys to brass rods and from empty single-serving Jack Daniels bottles to Dominos (real dominos, not pizza – that could get messy).
For this build, I wanted something that would tie my design together and bring the woodwork in the neck down into the guitar box. Maple and walnut were my choices here and my first bridge used bone that I filed to fit my 4-piece bridge.
However, I had to scrap this design (and by this I mean, ‘file away for another build’ as I made the bridge too wide to have enough room for adjustments without hitting the tail-piece. Back to the drawing board I went to mimic the design, only more slender and this time, I chose 1/4″ brass rod instead of bone.
After glue-up, I ran a 1/4″ drill-bit through the length of my block and then sliced the bridge blank in half with my bandsaw. This revealed a ‘trough’ to house my bras rod, which I just tapped into place with a small hammer. I then bevelled the edges similar to my frets and then did a final sand before clear-coating. I think the end result is pretty slick.
For this build, I found an antique brass drawer pull, as seen above, that compliments the overall aesthetic very well. The only modification to made was to drill out the rear to accommodate the strings as you can see in the photo above. I used the same template for my string spacing as used on the nut for my string holes.
For better distribution, I traced the base of the pull onto some thin sheet metal and sandwiched the box lid between this and the drawer pull. You can see the side brass bolts have a different head than the screw in the centre of the tailpiece; the two side bolts take a washer and a nut, while the screw in the centre mounts the tailpiece through the box and into the hardwood neck below the box. This worked really well to keep everything secure as you don’t want the string tension to tear the bridge out of the box!
Making your nut
As you can well imagine by now, nut material and level of refinement varies amongst cigar box guitar plans and builders. A Google search will show all kinds of nuts ranging from brass rods to old bolts and from bone to Corian.
For my build, I really wanted the neck to be as pro as possible, so I chose a nut blank for my build. After some sanding and filing to get it in place and to the right dimensions, a dab of CA glue holds it in place. The nice thing about CA glue is that if you need to change out your nut down the road, a swift tap with a hammer and a punch will knock out the nut quite easily.
Here are the steps involved in getting the nut to the right dimensions:
- First, a set of digital callipers are a must. Determine the width and depth of your nut to fit the dado made in the fretboard, earlier. For my build, that was approximately 40mm long to match my neck width, 6mm wide and 6mm high.
- Sand down a pencil on your belt / disc sander. I removed half the material from the entire length of a new pencil that I could then lay across my frets and scribe a line across the width of my nut. This placed the centre of the pencil led to the exact height of the tops of my frets.
- Remove your nut from the fretboard and then sand down to about 1/16″ above your pencil line. This will give you some material left over to work in your string slots.
- Mark your string locations. Again, you can use a rough method, dividing your nut to accommodate 3, or 4 strings (depending on your build), or use an online calculator to determine exactly where your strings should lay. This calculator takes into account string gauge so that your spacing is exact. The latter is the method I chose.
- With your string locations marked, it’s time to create the recesses for your strings. Here is a great video outlining the process. I don’t have fret files, yet. However, welder’s tip cleaners come in varying gauges and work fairly well for slotting the nut.
STEP NINE: Under the Hood and Peripherals
At this point of the build, it’s time to secure the neck to the box. There are many ways to do this and different schools of thought with ‘optimal methods’ as varied as personalities. For me, it made sense to mount the neck to the box itself, leaving the lid free to come off and on for future access.
I’ve read of guys gluing the lid to the box to optimize resonance, especially on acoustic setups. The point to consider, of course is future access to electronics or even the neck, should something go south.
Back to my method…
The ‘Punch’ box, as well as many other cigar boxes I’ve seen, aren’t built with structural support in mind. While many use solid ‘box’ type joints which will likely withstand the lifespan of a guitar, I like to reinforce the ends with 3/4″ material – usually hardwood – which serves several purposes:
- Doing so reinforces the corners and actually adds some weight to the box, which I feel balances the instrument when in hand.
- I notch my supports to accommodate my neck creating a ‘cradle’ or trough for the neck to rest in as seen in the photo below.
- The supports serve as an anchor point for screwing my neck to the box from the back.
Your choices for pickups are endless and all will affect the sound of your instrument in a unique way. For my cigar box guitar plans, I wanted a purely electric guitar. To my surprise, the guitar sounds great even acoustically, and I often just play it unplugged.
For this particular build, I chose to go with a mini ‘humbucker’ pickup tied into a single volume pot and a 1/4″ instrument jack.
The steps for implementing this type of pickup are as follows:
- Determine where on your cigar box that you want your pickup. Location will affect sound quality as well, but I wouldn’t overthink things too much. Somewhere in the top third is likely ideal. This will also preserve any of that beautiful cigar box artwork that is typically in the centre of the lid.
- Notch your neck to accommodate the pickup. Care must be taken here to insure your box lid will close and that you have enough room to adjust your pickup.
- Cut your box lid for the pickup. Many pickups will come with a plate surround that will dress up your end result. If not, you’ll want to be precise as you trim your box.
- Map your wiring. You want to insure your wiring does not impede the box lid. If space allows, run your wiring underneath your neck. If not, as in my case, you may have to run a small dado across your neck for your wiring to rest in.
- Adjust your pickup height. Most pickups will have adjustment screws to set your final height. Experiment here once your build is complete to get the sound you’re happy with. A good place to start is about 1/4″ below your strings.
A volume pot is not necessary, but adds some control right at your fingertips when playing, versus adjusting on the amp itself. Many builders will wire the pickup straight to the input jack, however, I wanted to add some control to my cigar box guitar plans.
Below is wiring diagram for my setup:
Pretty standard stuff here. I chose a typical 1/4″ instrument jack with a fancy cover plate. Really, it would be simple enough to make your own cover plate out of wood, brass etc.
With the electronics complete, it’s now time to button this baby up, secure the lid, mount the tailpiece and string her up to get ready for the final fine-tuning. For this particular build, I chose electric light strings (0.026NW, 0.018NW, 0.013P, 0.010P) and used a ‘D-G-B-D’ tuning. Note: your tuning choice will affect the string gauge choice you want to use.
As mentioned earlier, I’m using a floating bridge design to allow for easier fine-tuning so it was just a matter of placing the bridge at approximately the 25.5″ mark (measured from the nut), and putting on the strings.
STEP TEN: Fine Tuning the Cigar Box Guitar
The key to making a good guitar, great is in the final fine-tuning and setup. Spending the time now to take all your hard work to the next level will be well worth it. Here are some things to consider along with steps for a more precise setup:
Action refers to the height of the strings above the fretboard. If the action is set too high, playing a note on the fretboard will distort the note because of the distance the string has to travel to make the note ring out.
This can occur at both the nut as well as further down the fretboard.
As a general rule, I like to set my action first and then address intonation as discussed below. Bear in mind, I’m not a master luthier – these are just tips I’ve picked up and work for me.
What has worked is setting the action on my first fret to be about 1-2 mm above the fretboard and 2-3 mm above the 12th fret. This makes for comfortable playability and doesn’t distort the notes when playing. To achieve this, follow the process for shaping and setting up your nut described above.
Additionally, you’ll want to overshoot your bridge design so that you have material to sand down to get your desired action height at the 12th fret. With your action dialled in, the next step is to check your intonation.
Intonation, Nut and Bridge Height
This is likely the single most important variable in a good guitar setup. In short, correct intonation means that when any note is played on the fretboard, including open strings, it is at the correct pitch.
The most common test for intonation with the use of an accurate tuner is to pluck the open string. With this tuned to pitch, striking the 12th fret should produce the same pitch. Further, plucking the 12th fret harmonic should also produce the same pitch (not sharp or flat) and with these three tests proving accurate, one could say the given string is in tune with itself, or in other words, the intonation is correct.
If the 12th fret is sharp, this means the bridge has to be slid back slightly and this is why I prefer a floating or adjustable bridge. Similarly, if your first fret is sharp then your nut height is likely too high.
As a final test for intonation, and with the above dialled in, I then check the first four frets on each string. Typically these will all be on point if the above steps are correct, but if not, further tweaking may be required.
The strings for your cigar box guitar are generally going to be the middle 3 or 4 strings from a traditional guitar set or in other words, the E-A–D–G–B-E strings. This setup will give you the most versatility in terms of rhythm and lead playing. If you’re looking for a more trebly sound, you can consider the four highest strings: E-A-D–G–B–E.
Another consideration is the tuning you’ll be using as this will have an effect on the string gauge you use.
Cigar box guitars are generally tuned to an open chord and a good rule of thumb for 3-string instruments is a I-V-I tuning, which is the root note of the chord, the 5th note, and the root again. To figure out an open ‘G’, you simply count the ‘G’ as your ‘1’ and then G-A-B as your ‘3’ and returning to ‘G’, or 1 / root. In this example, open G would be G-B-G. An open D chord tuning would be D-A-D. Make sense?
Here are some common tunings:
Open G – tuned GDGB or DGBD on a 4-string instrument, or GDG on a 3-string instrument.
Open D – tuned DF#AD on a 4-string instrument, or DAD on a 3-string instrument.
Open C – tuned CGCG -or- CGCE on a 4-string instrument, or CGC on a 3-string instrument.
Again, create your own rules and have fun.
String gauge will tie in and depend upon your tuning choice as well as fret length. For an instrument in the 23″ range, a medium gauge of guitar strings will work well. However, if your strings are too loose or too tight, you’ll want to select a different gauged set for your specific build so that your instrument rings correctly.
Fret buzz can occur for many reasons including, but not limited to a warped neck, poorly seated frets, too low of an action, poorly slotted nut and / or bridge, and so forth.
While eliminating all buzz issues is beyond the scope of this post, if you’ve followed my cigar box guitar plans to this point, have a well-milled hardwood neck, good action, slotting and fret setup, chances are you instrument will sound amazing!
Here’s a little test run with my second build, EVE, fashioned from a CLE cigar box.