Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Cigar Box Ukulele

Over the last year I've been getting back to playing guitar and have thought about making some simple instruments from wood. It was while surfing for home made instruments that I came across the world of the cigar box ukulele and the related cigar box guitar, cookie tin banjo etc... These folk instruments have been traditionally made by those lacking money or, I guess, access to the 'real' thing but in recent times they have become something of a craft object and all round cool instrument.

I decided to give it a go and make myself a cigar box uke from scratch. Because I did not know anything about making instruments, let alone the finer points of being a luthier and not having tools, the construction was fairly gradual. First I looked through the web and Wellington library for some simple instructions. I got three sets of plans and they all suggested different ideas which was good at my stage of understanding. Next Charity set me up with two cigar boxes from Moore Wilsons. I visited Alister's Music and got some great advice about getting the measurements right and they sent me on to Weta Guitars in Newtown who were really helpful in explaining the basics of fretting, and kitting me out with some Jarrah for the fretboard.

I decided on a Kauri neck and sourced that from Capital City timber on Thorndon Quay. Getting the bridge, nut and tuning pegs from Alister's completed the basic parts needed (Oh yeah - I got a bit of pine to strengthen the box).

I should point out that I did not know what any of the above words meant two months ago so please don't be intimidated by stuff like bridge and fret.

I had to source some tools as I went but the only specialist tool I purchased was a fretting saw from iconic USA luthier supplier Stewart MacDonald. I totally recommend this tool.

I also ordered a heap of ukulele fret wire from Australian Luthiers Suppliers. I don't think there is a luthier supply store as such in N Z

Friends and contacts were crucial, especially Jeff and his excellent bandsawing of the neck and John for his precision drilling of the neck joint.

As the photos show, the finished instrument is stunning (to me anyway) to look at and I'm happy to report that it plays really well too - a bit more twangy and light than the other ukuleles I've played. I'm definitely going to make some more and keep trying new ideas and designs. Down the track I want to build some sort of banjo and mandolin as well. I'm not sure if I will have a go at a hand made body.

I am really interested to know if there are any cigar box instrument makers out there in Wellington or further afield or even people wanting to give it a go. I can't believe that in the Ukulele capital of New Zealand there aren't a few DIY cigar box luthiers out there! Meanwhile my next project is a patch up of a $3 ukulele found at the tip shop.


  1. Hi David - that's stunning!

    I always wanted to play the banjo. (Ever since my Dad used to tell me about the kids' banjo group that he and his sister belonged to in Otaki about 70 years ago!! There's even an old photo.)

    I've been thinking about ideas for workshops. I wonder if we could just get together a group of people who are interested in skill sharing in an informal way??? Maybe I should email you ... I'm really interested in talking to you more about pedal power too.

  2. Hi Johanna - thanks for the feedback. Banjo camp sounds great. I'm so keen on building a banjo at some stage using a gourd as the sound box, but the Ukes are an easier start point I think. It would be neat to catch up - my email is in the profile - one of the only details that is! I really must make this blog a bit more stylish!