Originally published in 1886, these cigar box banjo plans are some of the earliest ever discovered. They bear a striking resemblance to the Daniel Carter Beard plans originally published two years prior. John Richards plans, as printed below, utilize the same broomstick neck with a separate one-piece fretboard/headstock.
We have reprinted these plans, exactly as found when they were published on March 20, 1886 in the St Joseph (MI) Herald newspaper. A few notes have been added alongside the illustrations.
A Cigar-Box Banjo.
A Home-Made Instrument, and How It May Be Manufactured.
By John Richards, in Harper's Young People, and published in the St. Joseph (MI) Herald, March 29, 1886
A cigar-box banjo is something which most boys have heard of, and same have attempted, with more or less success, to make. Possibly their older relatives have ridiculed the home made instrument, and it has to contend against prejudice, which, as we know, is almost fatal to success. Nevertheless such a banjo, if carefully made and properly strung, can be made to give forth very musical tones, and where the "real thing" can not be had the combination of cigar box and broomstick makes a good substitute. If you would like to try your hands at it, I will tell you how to go to work.
Procure a cigar box, eight and a quarter inches long, four and three quarter inches wide, and two and a quarter inches deep. Thus is the ordinary size of a box used to contain fifty cigars.
The bottom of the box forms the head of the banjo, thus allowing the cover to be opened or shut. In each end of the box, cut two round holes, three quarters of an inch in diameter, half an inch from the top and an equal distance from the two sides of the box.
With a lead pencil mark off, on a piece of soft wood nineteen inches long, four inches wide and half an inch thick the shape of the handle as shown in FIG. 1. Before sawing the handle out, the four key holes should be bored, each hole being a quarter of an inch in diameter. Then shape the handle according to the outline of the diagram and across the top of the handle cut a groove three-sixteenths of an inch wide and equally deep (A, FIG 1), this is to hold a small bridge to keep the strings from touching the handle.
In the side of the handle drill a hole half an inch above the angle (B, FIG 1) - this is to hold the fifth key, and just below the angle a grove three sixteenths of an inch wide and equally deep should be cut for the purpose of holding a small bridge for the fifth string (C, FIG 1).
From an old broom cut a piece of stick twenty four inches long, whittle this flat on one side and on the other side, eight inches from the end, cut the stick away so that it will slope and become flat at the end (FIG 2). Eight and three quarter inches of the other end of the stick must be cut away, so as to fit snugly the holes in the cigar box, the end projecting slightly. This broomstick is the backbone of the handle, which is fastened to it by two three quarter inch screws as shown in FIG 3.
Five keys shaped like FIG 4 can be cut out of tough pieces of wood, each piece being half an inch thick, two and a quarter inches long, and one inch wide. Make those belonging to the keyboard fit tightly in their holes. The key for the fifth string can be cut half an inch shorter than the others. Each key should have a hole bored through it, as shown in FIG 4.
The small bridge is a piece of wood a quarter of an inch high and three sixteenths of an inch wide which is made to fit the groove (FIG 1, A), with four notches cut in to conduct the strings. A similar bridge with only one notch and a quarter of an inch long will answer for the fifth string.
The large bridge is made from a piece of wood two inches long, five eighths of an inch wide and a quarter of an inch thick. The shape of the bridge can be seen in the illustration of the finished banjo. Five notches an equal distance from each other should then be cut in the top edge of the bridge.
The tail piece is the piece to which the strings are attached at the lower end of the instrument. It is made from a piece of hardwood an inch and a half long, an inch and a quarter wide and a quarter of an inch thick. Five small holes an equal distance apart and a quarter of an inch from the end of the piece of wood must first be drilled, and through the small end two holes a quarter of an inch apart and three eighths of an inch from the end should be drilled to allow a piece of wire about six inches in length to pass through them. A piece of tin an inch and a quarter long and three-quarters of an inch wide, bent so as to fit on the edge of the box will be required. Strings can be purchased at almost any music store.
Having purchased the strings, begin to put the various parts together by fitting the handle through the holes in the cigar box and the small bridges in their respective grooves. The tailpiece is then fastened close to the end of the box by twisting the wire around the projecting piece of broomstick and staying it. Place the piece of bent tin on the edge of the box, under the wire holding the tailpiece, thus preventing the wire from damaging the box. Fit the keys on the keyboard and the short key into the hole in the side of the handle. Knot the strings before threading them through the holes in the tail-piece. Before tightening the strings the last bridge is placed under the strings, two and a half inches from the end of the box, and your banjo is finished. - John Richards, in Harper's Young People.
Nice work Shane! Seems like John Richard's plans appeared in many places. Copies of these plans are also published in the March 25, 1886, Waterloo, edition of the Iowa State Reporter.
Yep, I found several versions. This was one of the cleanest of the early versions. Haven't found the Harper's Youth version yet
As you see in the ad above, I took the scans of the original newspaper story and turned them into a cool 12x18 poster. Gitty got 'em printed and is selling them for $8. We're just gonna use the money to continue all this historical research. I've already got other stories in the works.
ps. Here's a pic of the poster
I love the history of musical instruments and you Shane and C B Gitty have made this site a treasure trove and exciting place to read about old time instruments.
dude...you have no idea what we've got in our back pockets! Stay tuned. I'm working on some serious blues history, re-creating CBGs of legends, etc
I'd just like to add just a note to anyone from the St. Joseph, MI, who may be interested in CBG's or Cigar Box instruments of any kind and anyone in Michigan. We have established a group: Cigar Box Guitar Minded Michigan'ders, who meet every 2nd Saturday of each month at Red Sky Stage in Petoskey, MI from 1 to 5pm. Everyone is welcome. No cost. We also have a face page: CBG Minded Michigan'ders Check us out.....Preston