A Box, a Board, and Three Strings

When the rubric for the DIY project was first handed out in class, I knew almost instantly what I wanted to do: I wanted to make a playable cigar box guitar. I play guitar (poorly), and I’ve been interested in building one for some time now, but due to a complete and utter lack of technical skills and experience, I’ve never attempted to do so. Truthfully, I have never built anything more complicated than IKEA furniture, and it was exceptionally simple to build even by IKEA standards. Because of this, I knew I wanted to build a cigar box guitar, but I felt very unsure if I actually could build one. I actually had to spend a few days searching for instructional resources to convince myself that this wouldn’t be impossible before I decided for sure. After finding a decent number of resources that were designed to help novices such as myself, I felt somewhat more confident that I might actually be able to build a halfway decent looking instrument at a low price, assuming I bought relatively cheap materials and borrowed most of the tools.

I want to start off by briefly discussing what the various parts of my guitar are, as well as what materials I used to make them. The body of the guitar is of course made out of a cigar box that I got from a local cigar store for free. I drilled a circular hole in it using a special drill bit to allow sound to reverberate out properly. The neck of the guitar was made from a 1” x 2” x 36” rectangular block of red oak wood that I got from Home Depot. The nut and bridge of my guitar, the places where the guitar strings are suspended from on either end of the neck, are made from two ¾” x 4” metal bolts also from Home Depot. I measured the distance between these two bolts and plugged it into a fret calculator, which told me exactly how far apart to put each fret. The frets themselves, which are the metal bars that are spaced-out along the neck that can be held down to create different notes, are made from metal coat-hanger wire. I was originally planning on including at least twelve frets, but due to an unexpected shortage of wire coat-hangers, I did not have the resources necessary to build more than eight. I plan on adding the other four and possibly more in the near future, but decided that eight would be enough for now. I also used standard guitar strings and tuners (the part that changes the tension of the string) that I got from Guitar Center.

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The finished product.

I took the “multiple intelligences” quiz and it told me I was an intrapersonal learner, meaning I work well when I’m in a quiet, distraction-free environment and that talking myself through what I had to do would help me to think and understand the project better. This is somewhat similar to how I usually approach an unfamiliar project, and I modeled my work environment and process after these tips.  It also told me I was strong in interpersonal learning, which I feel is true in contexts where I don’t understand how to do something and need someone to explain and/or demonstrate it for me and give me feedback when I try to explain or do it myself. I did have someone give me some tips on how to use the power tools properly, which I think helped tremendously with this project.

After determining what ways I learn most effectively, I turned to the internet to find the instructional resources necessary to actually build the guitar. I found out that there is an entire website dedicated to the art of building cigar box guitars. This site has links to dozens of instructional articles, videos, and forums. I would have thought the videos would have been the most effective learning tool for me, as I often use YouTube tutorials to learn how to play a particular song on the guitar. But I found that instead of constantly pausing, re-winding, and fast-forwarding through videos, I could easily move between steps on the instructional articles without much trouble. Because of this, I mostly used two web-based instructional guides for my project, and mixed and match designs and techniques from both (Brown, 2014; Frauenfelder, n.d.). However, when it came to more detailed steps, like installing frets or drilling holes, I found the videos to be exceptionally helpful since they visually demonstrated what I would have to do (NightHawkInLight, 2015; Watt, 2015). I tried using instructions from forums, but found that unless they included pictures detailing the steps they were not very helpful, and it still seemed like the articles and videos were more thoroughly detailed overall. However, I did find some forums helpful when it came to finding creative ideas about what to use as building supplies, such as this one which explained alternate materials that could be used to make the frets (Ray, 2011).

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Some of the tools I learned how to use.

Building this guitar required me to use a power drill, a hand-powered coping saw, metal files and rasps, a power sander, none of which I’ve ever used previously. While a few of the instructional resources I found gave a brief description of how to use these things, most of the videos and articles out there assume you have some competence with these tools. Because of this, I had to deal with a slight learning curve for each of the tools, which slowed my progress down significantly. Five minutes into trying to saw down the headstock, where the tuners would go, I became aware of exactly how far outside of my comfort zone this project was. I found myself struggling to keep the cut level with the guidelines I drew, and it progressed far slower than I had anticipated. After around two hours, I had made a very wobbly looking 4 ½” x ¼” cut down the neck, and the Texas Summer heat had taken all my energy. I had no idea I’d break a sweat doing any of this. After re-reading one of the articles that talked about how to use the saw more efficiently instead of just “winging-it,” I managed to cut the other section of the neck with ease. I learned that I needed to physically practice with each of the tools on some test pieces of wood to get the hang of it rather than jumping right into it. I also learned that working outside in Texas in September was a bad choice, so from this point onward, I did all physically-intensive manual labor only after the sun had set.

I had a lot of fun with this project. This very quickly went beyond trying to make something adequate to attempting to make the best possible instrument I could with the tools and materials I had at my disposal, which admittedly cost me more of my free time and money than I had originally been planning to spend. I feel that it’s definitely worth it, and I fully intend to continue refining this guitar and am considering making another one now that I have a better grasp on the building process. I also feel much more confident about attempting to do something I’ve never done before from scratch. I get the feeling that this project is probably at least partially designed to get us to think about how we so that we can learn how to create flash animations and videogames, which is something that presumably most of us have little to no experience with prior to this class. I do feel more confident in my ability to learn how to do these things now.

Works Cited:

Brown, L. (2014). DIY Cigar Box Guitar. Art of Manliness. Retrieved Sep. 11, 2015, from http://www.artofmanliness.com/2014/10/13/how-to-make-a-cigar-box-guitar/

Frauenfelder, M. (n.d.). Learn How to Build an Easy Cigar Box Guitar. Make:. Retrieved Sep. 11, 2015. http://makezine.com/projects/make-21/cigar-box-guitar/

Fret position calculator. (n.d.). Stewart-McDonald Supplies. Retrieved Sep. 11, 2015, from https://www.stewmac.com/FretCalculatorguitar

NightHawkInLight. (2015) How To Make A Fretted Cigar Box Guitar. YouTube. Retrieved Sep. 11, 2015, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FDKCvCQzkTk

Ray, D. (2011). Alternate fret material. Cigar Box Nation. Retrieved Sep. 11, 2015, from http://www.cigarboxnation.com/forum/topics/alternate-fret-material

Watt, G. (2015). The Easiest Way To Build A Cigar Box Guitar. YouTube. Retrieved Sept. 11, 2015, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pmzvfyOizV8

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