Acoustic Electric Cigar Box Ukulele

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cigar_uke_001_tmb.jpg (48581 bytes)Some time ago, I salvaged the parts from two identical no-name banjo ukuleles to make one playable vintage 1920s banjo ukulele. Not long afterward, I was looking for a new way to scratch MIAS and it occurred to me that I could mate the leftover neck with a cigar box to create one of the following:

1.) A Frankensteinian tone monster
2.) A playable musical instrument
or 3.) A good joke

As it turned out, I ended up doing all three at once. The project is more or less completed now, and I've decided to post information about how I did it for those who may be interested in trying it for themselves.

It's important to note that I learned a great deal from a several important luthiers who have posted Web pages and contributed their wisdom to discussion groups, forums and bulletin boards. Without their unknowing yet purposeful assistance this project would have been doomed to failure.

As it turns out, there's a lot more to making a fretted instrument than just gluing stuff together!

I started out to build a "Hooch-alele," in homage to the great ones made by Earnest Instruments. But the more closely I looked at the project, the more certain I became that making the cigar box serve as a portable mini-booze cabinet and musical instrument was beyond my skills as a wannabee luthier.

So, very early in the design phase of the project, I decided to abandon the dual-purpose idea and just make a playable instrument. Since I was starting with an already-made neck and a vintage, solid cedar cigar box, I didn't see the need to do anything formal, like draw a blueprint. I did, however, make photos of the cigar box and the neck and I used them to create a full-scale "concept" photo to act as a guide.

The concept image along with a few hand-sketched notes about the critical dimensions proved to be enough of a guide for me. Unfortunately I didn't think of documenting the process, so there are no pictures of the original building process. I'm now starting on Ukes #002 and #003, so I will illustrate this article with pix from those as they progress.

I spent several months thinking about it and reading everything I could find on the Web about instrument scales. Internal bracing and other aspects of construction are just as important to cigar box ukes as they are to more conventional instruments.

My project was accomplished in several phases:

1.) Design:
     Determine scale.
     Plan neck modifications.
     Design bracing.
     Source materials.
 
2.) Prepare Neck:
    Sand off most of old finish.
    Pull old frets and flatten fret board.
    Replace and level frets.
    Fabricate new tuning peg to match existing three.
    Cut heel notch to fit cigar box.
    Make logo decal and add it to the headstock
    Apply waterbase Urethane Satin finish

3.) Prepare Cigar Box:
    Add internal bracing.
    Install neck block.
    Thin top.
    Brace top.
    Clean up box exterior.
    Stain box.
    Apply water-based urethane Satin finish

4.) Prepare other parts:
    Make a replacement tuning peg.
    Make a new nut..
    Make a saddle.
    Modify bridge blank to accept saddle.
    Fabricate a pickup from Radio Shack parts.

5.) Assembly:
    Hand fit neck to box.
    Drill block and neck for mounting screw.
    Install neck and tuning pegs.
    Install bridge and fit the saddle.
    String it up.
    Fit the nut.
    Set the saddle height.
    Intonate the saddle.
    Install strap pegs
    Install pickup.

6.) Final Tweaking and Analysis:
    Experiment with braces.
    Repair cracks
    Install reinforcement cloth behind F-holes
    Replace braces
    Reset bridge
    Install label
    Seal back

7.) What to do differently next time
    Build the neck and bridge from scratch.
    Thin back, and maybe the sides, of box to increase resonance.
    Install a bridge plate.
    Reinforce soundhole.
    Make sure overall geometry results in ideal bridge height.
1989-2014 by Dennis Ecklund.
Your comments are cordially solicited. E-mail: info2@ecklunds.com