Build Your Own Cigar Box Fiddle

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IMG_0255 (1)Contributed by Mike Deniz

I discovered cigar box fiddles (or CB fiddles) for the first time when cruising YouTube for tips on playing some of the tunes in the FOG repertoire.  I was captivated by the primitive construction that seemed to complement so well the “ol’ time” music played on them since the mid 1800s. I was instantly obsessed with owning one. Early in my research I had run across the “build your own” plans from a 1940 edition of Popular Homecraft magazine that was posted on cigarboxnation.com, a site that is primarily dedicated to cigar box guitars. Being that I am the least handy person you may ever meet, I passed it by in hopes of finding a more turnkey solution. My further online searches revealed only two for sale on the entire internet – one was a poor specimen on eBay and the other was a $600 made-to-order version, a cost I just couldn’t justify. So, I returned to the plans and decided to give it a go, and was pleasantly surprised how easy it was.

The most difficult part was finding the right cigar box. I combed all the smoke shops in greater Rochester looking for one that was the right size and construction. All these places sell empty boxes for around $3 each. A full size violin is about 24” long, with the body being about 14”L and only 4.75” W at the narrowest point to accommodate the angling of the bow; very few cigar boxes are this long and squat. I had to settle for one that was 11”L x 8”W, which meant I had to plan for the neck being proportionately longer to compensate.  This changes the point on the body where the bridge will be mounted, and where the f-holes will eventually need to be cut.

The other materials I acquired were:

  • ¾” dia. oak dowel (be sure to use a strong wood – not pine – since it would bear all the tension of the strings)
  • ½”W x ½”D wood strip for bass bar
  • Pencil-width dowel for sound post
  • Ukulele tuning pegs (these can be purchased on Amazon)
  • Steel strings
  • Two screw eyes (one large, one small)
  • Fingerboard with nut, tailpiece, and bridge (the instructions were to fabricate them all from wood, but I just purchased these instead with the string notches already in the nut and bridge
  • Wood glue

I cut the dowel to 24” long, and for a 5” length from one end, I sanded opposite sides of the dowel flat to a thickness of about 1cm. Into this flat end, I drilled four 3/8” holes an inch apart from each other, and assembled the ukulele tuners into them.  Then I drilled a small hall in the opposite butt end of the dowel big enough to eventually fit the larger screw eye.

The thing to remember is that the back of the cigar box will be the top of the fiddle. Onto it I traced f-holes using a template printed from Google Images, then cut them out with a small hand-held sabre saw. I then drilled a hole in the “front” of the cigar box such that there was a 1” distance between the top of the fiddle and the top of the hole. The dowel was inserted and passed through the entire interior length, then secured to the inside back wall with glue and the large screw eye, which was screwed through from the outside (the screw eye would eventually become the anchor for the tailpiece gut cord).

To the inside top of the fiddle I glued the wood strip such that it spanned the entire length between the center line of the box and the f-hole on the G-string side.  This would be the bass bar. Between the other f-hole and center line I glued the skinny dowel, cut such that it spanned the entire inside depth. This would be the sound post.

Finally, the last steps: 1) glue the fingerboard to the wood dowel and top of the fiddle; 2) fit the strings to the tailpiece and wind around the tuning pegs (the D and A strings were first passed through a small screw eye drilled into the ¾” dowel just in front of the nut), then fit the bridge. Because my fiddle was wider than average, I needed a taller bridge to prevent the box sides from interfering when bowing the G and E strings.

To see the original Popular Homecraft plans, click HERE.

It’s no Stradivarius, but it sound OK.  I’m working on my second CB fiddle now. Stay tuned!

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