How to Make a Cigar Box Lute - 1927
A note from Shane Speal: In my previous post, Photos: Cigar Box Instruments from 1922 Book, I lamented that author Satis N. Coleman did not add any musical instrument plans in her book, Creative Music for Children. Soon after, I found a second book by Coleman that does exactly that! Her follow up book, Creative Music in the Home (copyright 1927, Lewis E. Myers Co.) was written with parents and teachers in mind and features music history and DIY instruments that bring the history alive.
Consider the historical timeline: It was 1927 when Creative Music in the Home was published, the same year that Blind Willie Johnson was recording his first records. The cigar box guitar was actually no longer a new concept for America and no longer just a poor man’s guitar. It had already become a source for music education!
The following plans were taken from Chapter XXII of Creative Music in the Home, subtitled “The Lute.” The plans describe a fretless, four string cigar box instrument. Of note is the use of violin tuning pegs in in a non-slotted headstock.
Cigar Box Lute
A Cigar Box Lute such as is shown in Figure 14 is not difficult to make; and if one has the patience to work at it very carefully and accurately, some pleasing sounds may be produced on a homemade instrument of this kind.
The materials required are:
A cigar box (not too shallow)
A strong stick about 20 or more inches long and about 1/2 x 1 inch in size — one that will not bend or break under the strain of four tightly stretched strings
Four strings - Guitar strings may be used — three catgut and one wire string; or violin strings may be used if they’re long enough.
Four pegs (it appears the author means violin tuning pegs based on the sketches)
A fingerboard about 1/4 inch thick, 1-1/2 inches wide and about 16 inches long
Brace (aka drill)
9/32” bit (drill bit)
(1) Clean all paper from box and lid. Use a little hot water if necessary to soften the paper but do not soak the wood in the water. Why not?
(2) Put the lid aside to be used for later. Tighten the joints of the box with small brads.
(3) At each end of the box cut out a notch so that the stick may pass through the center of the box. (Fig. 15) If you have a deep box, the stick may go through the box with the narrow side down; otherwise with the wide side down. The notches must be cut exactly wide enough for the stick to fit in tight; and they must be cut deep enough to allow the stick to rest about 1/2 inch lower than the top of the box.
(4) At one end of the stick bore a hole in which to fasten the strings. This will be the bottom of the instrument. At the other end bore the 4 peg holes, leaving plenty of room between the pegs to turn them easy. The stick will look like Figure 16.
(5) About 1-1/2 inches from the innermost peg-hole, saw out a tiny trough on the side of the stick that is going to be uppermost. Make this trough about 1/4 inch wide and about 1/4 inch deep. (Fig. 17)
(6) Cut a little piece of wood 1/4 inch thick, about 3/4 inch wide and 1-1/2 inches long, and fit it into the little trough. This is the “nut.” Fill the trough with glue and fit the nut into it, narrow side down and very tight. (Fig 18.)
(7) Place the stick in the notches of the box so that the bottom end extends about an inch beyond the box. Glue it in place and fill the remaining part of each notch with a patch, cut to fit and glued in place. (Fig. 19) The edge of the box must be even all around.
(8) Cut a little block of wood to rest on the stick just inside the box at the lower end. Make it heavier and wider than the patch, but no taller. Glue it against the patch and against the stick. It must come even with the top of the box. This is to support the patched end of the cigar box. Support boh patches in this way. (Fig. 20)
(9) The cover for the box must have holes in it. Why? Cut the holes either with a coping saw or by boring them with brace (drill) and bit. Very pretty covers can be made by boring several holes in some kind of design in the center of the box lid (Fig. 21)
(10) Cover the edges of the box with glue. Lay the top on it. A tiny brad in each corner will help hold it down. (Fig. 22) Weight it down and leave it to dry for at least twenty-four hours.
(11) Now make the finger-board. It must be as wide as the nut at one end, a little wider at the other end, and just long enough to fit tightly between the nut and just long enought to fit tightly between the nut and the cigar box. (Fig. 23) The top surface of the finger-board should be on a level with the cigar box cover. (Fig. 23) A block of the same height should be placed under the other end of the finger-board at the nut, so that the finger-board will be straight.
Glue the blocks and finger-board in place. A slender nail or two will help.
(12) Saw four little slits across the nut for the strings to pass over. (Fig. 24) The slits should almost reach the finger-board but not quite. The nut need not stand over 1/4 inch above the finger-board. If taller, trim it down and smooth the corners. Sandpaper the slits for the strings.
(13) Cut a narrow strip of wood about 2 inches long and 1/2 inch high for the bridge (Fig. 25) It is to be placed near the bottom of the instrument, and the strings must pas over it. Cut or saw four slits in the top of this bridge to hold the strings at equal distances apart. It is merely held in place by the tightness of the strings — not glued.
(14) Sandpaper the entire instrument, and see that no extra glue is left on the surface, for every spot of the glue will show through the stain or varnish.
(15) Stain or varnish the instrumentt, as you prefer, and leave it to dry.
(16) When it is thoroughly dry, put the pegs in the holes and fasten the strings, tying them through the hole at the bottom of the stick. (Figs. 26 & 27)
Guitar strings may be used — three catgut and one wire string; or violin strings may be used if they are long enough. As you hold the instrument with the top facing you,the heaviest string should be on the left side and the smaller one to the right. (Fig. 29)
Stringing, Tuning & Marking Notes on Fretboard
After the strings are on, slip the bridge in place and let the strings pass through the slits in the bridge and in the nut.
Tune the three catgut strings to Numbers 1, 3 and 5 of any major scale that seems to suit the strings you have, and tune the heavy string to Number 5 below. Having these three nots produced by the open strings, you may now find out how to obtain the other notes of that scale. First strike the open string that gives Number 1, then find where the finger must press down that string in order to produce the right sound for Number 2. Mark this place on the finger-board. Play the next open string for Number 3, and find the place where that string must be shortened for Number 4. Number 5 is again an open string, and the places for 6, 7 and 8 may also be marked under this string. Can you now play the complete octave on these three strings? If the low string is tuned to low 5, you can mark the places under that string for the low 6 and 7. If you can have all these places marked on your finger-board, and if you can keep your strings in tune, you can play most of the tunes in this book on your lute after a little practice.
Playing the Cigar Box Lute
If you wish to play chords on the lute, it would be well to practice striking the three open strings that are tuned to the keynote chord — 1, 3, 5 — all at once, using the thumb, forefinger and middle finger. Practice this until you get your right hand used to chord playing. Then the fingers of the left hand may be brought into service to change the chord tones. Can you place two fingers of the left hand on the two higher strings so the right hand can play numbers 1, 4 and 6 all together? Can you find a way to play low 5, 2 and 4 together? Can you play chords that sound right when you sing some of the songs given in this book,or some other songs you know?