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The Lunatic Cigar Box Ukulele

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This summer, I had the pleasure of spending some time with Ukester Brown, a local ukulele teacher/performer/enthusiast.  He loves the the songs of the 1920s, and has an extensive collection of Maccaferri ukuleles (the styrene ukuleles that were everywhere in the 1950s).  I had a chance to see his collection this summer (probably one of the best on the planet) and to see his two cigar box ukulele builds.  This encouraged me to try building one myself.

I took some time off from making ukulele play alongs, and decided to build my own cigar box ukulele.  My wife and I took a trip to Memphis this summer, partly as a vacation, but partly to visit the Memphis Ukulele Flash Mob.  One day, we traveled from the Civil Rights Museum towards the center of the city, and came across a cigar shop along the route—which had a lot of boxes in the windows for sale.  I went through the boxes, and my wife encouraged me to buy one box (I was going to buy a few), so I picked out a big mahogany box (laminate), and then dragged it along with me the rest of the day.

We went back to the hotel room and I ordered parts…and there was a neck/fretboard/tuner/bridge/nut/saddle combination that was for sale (concert scale), so I ordered it from eBay.  Sadly, the company contacted me 24 hours later and let me know they no longer had the item, so they refunded my money and I had to order everything separately.

I did so, and when we got back from Memphis, I ordered parts and started working on the ukulele.  I made a video of every step in the process, and that video appears below.  I share my thoughts—having no experience building a ukulele—along the way.  I made a lot of mistakes with the ukulele.  Examples?

  • The sound holes cut with a dremel tool faster than I thought, and I made mistakes.  I did my best to make the sound holes look okay…but close inspection shows the flaws.
  • I glued the bridge in the wrong space originally, even though I took a long time to measure and remeasure.  I think I measured at the top of the 12th fret (i.e. the 11th fret) originally, rather than at the bottom of the 12th fret…but I caught the mistake before the glue had completely set.  As a result, there is a sanded patch above the bridge that is visible…right now I am thinking of it as part of the charm rather than a major flaw.  I might stain it later…but probably not.
  • I cut the fretboard as it didn’t measure the same as other fretboards that I have.  That was a mistake, and I was able to glue it back together.

I knew—as soon as I saw the box—how I wanted to cut sound holes (f-holes), and many other details worked out as I built the ukulele.

If you are curious about parts, here is what I bought for this project…just under $90:

  • Box: $3.00
  • Concert Neck & Fretboard: $15.00
  • Bridge, Nut, and Saddle: $2.50
  • Box Corners: $7.00
  • Martin M600 Strings: $7.00
  • Interior Bracing: $5.00
  • Stain: $8.00
  • Tuners: $13.00
  • Music Nomad Octopus: $15
  • Small wood planer: $10
  • Titebond: $2.50

If you are going to buy tuners from China (eBay), be sure to buy 2 sets.   I would have been short tuners (there are left/right tuners) had I bought one set.  Some of these are tools that will be used for other projects, but I still bought them for this build.

The greatest surprise of all was how good the ukulele sounds, even though it is made of really thick laminate.  I was sure it would be a dead sounding box—as many cigar box ukuleles are.  I was okay with just hanging the ukulele on the wall as a conversation piece.  I think the giant box has a lot to do with its nice sound—I’m not sure a smaller build would sound better.  Cigar box ukuleles and guitars come from the depression, in a time period where many people couldn’t afford a real instrument—even an instrument as cheap as a ukulele—but they could fashion them out of other items.

I don’t consider myself an expert in the construction of cigar box ukuleles.  If I were to do this again, I might want to try using a CNC to create a neck/headstock and bridge.  I do want to look at starting a club at our school where students will paint and build their own ukulele (looking at Ohana kits), but that’s a different focus altogher (MUCH easier).  I would simply say that if you are interested in building your own cigar box ukulele, you can.


  

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