A while back I wanted to make a cigar box fiddle. I went to as smoke shop, asked if they had a spare wooden cigar box, and if I could have it. They had some beauties! However, short of buying all the cigars in those fine varnished boxes, in which case they would have given me the box, I had to settle for a plain old cheap plywood box with a pretty paper cover. Oh well.
I got as far as punching out a couple of F holes with the end of a pointy screwdriver and gluing in some pine blocks of wood at either end. Gave up when it came to making a neck for it.
Luke Glick, a local woodworker and fiddler from Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, had a look at my unfinished project and said he might be able to complete it. Great! I handed him the box, a blank bridge, and a $12 set of pegs I had sent for. (That's a picture of Luke playing the cigar box fiddle that he made.)
A good mark of a true folk instrument is the use of common sense and available materials. He had his own fiddle to go by for measurements so he cut a simple neck out of a piece of maple. He cut a box into it for the pegs. He measured the narrow end of a peg about a half-inch in from the end and drilled fours holes all the way through the peg box. Then he measured the wider end where it would fit into the opposite side and drilled out that end to that size. He did not use a peg hole reamer because he did not have one. Therefore the pegs are not perfectly fitted as they should be or would be if he were a luthier and not just a woodworker.
Not having a piece of ebony available he made the fingerboard out of locust, that being a good hard wood. He made the nut and tailpiece out of locust as well. The pine blocks of wood at either end of the cigar box help to stabilize the neck end as well as the button end which holds the tailpiece on. A piece of 3/8” dowel was used for the “button.” It has a groove cut around it so that the string stays put. The tailpiece would be attached with a sturdy piece of nylon string.
Now here is where Luke really diverged from what a luthier would have done. Because clamping the neck on would be difficult, in order to make sure that the neck stayed put, he glued the neck onto the box and put a screw through the wooden block and into the neck from the inside of the box. The paper covering on the box was removed at the area where the neck is glued on. Unless you really know what you are doing with violin making or repair, necks are a really touchy thing and it is no fun to have one come loose while you are playing. Believe me, I know.
After measuring out where the bridge would be placed Luke decided to opt for a stable sound post, one that would not fall down in case the box got bumped or the cheap plywood shifted. Remember - this is just a cigar box fiddle - not a fine violin. He put a spot of epoxy glue on the bottom of the box, stuck in a piece of 1/4” dowel cut to the right height and glued the top on. Before putting it together and setting it up (strings, bridge, pegs, tailpiece, button) the whole things was then varnished.
For strings, regular 4/4 (full size) violin strings were used.
How does it play? It plays pretty much like a regular fiddle. We found that an arched bridge is not so good because the rectangular box lacks the inside curve on the E side and the bow would hit the box. So he flattened the bridge out as much as possible but left it a little bit curved so that single string notes could still be played. Other than that because Luke had measured all the distances precisely from nut to bridge the notes and fingering fall the same as they do on his regulation fiddle.
How does it sound? It has the sound of a fiddle being played on an old 78 through a Victrola on an old radio show. It has a sound all its own and more importantly - is a one of a kind - a fine piece of folk art made just for the fun of it.