How to Build a Cigar Box Violin - the historic 1940 fiddle plans

(by P. M. Pennel, published in Popular Homecraft Magazine, February-March 1940 issue.  Thanks to Knotlenny for the transcription.)

Anyone who loves music and is handy with tools can make a cigar box violin that is capable of producing really good tones. The violin may be designed for either two strings or four, depending on the maker's ability as a craftsman and aspirations as a player.



The musical range of the four stringed instrument is the same as that of a real violin, but, although the two stringed instrument is easier to make and play, it has the compass of nearly all well known songs and melodies. Under supervison, a group of children between the ages of 10 and 15 made some very credible violins and later played them at several public affairs.

MATERIALS INCLUDE

  • a wooden cigar box
  • a piece of broom or mop handle about 23 inches long
  • two smooth pieces of wood for fingerboard and tail piece
  • two small screw eyes
  • two (or four) ukulele pegs
  • a stout violin bridge
  • some short pieces of heavy wire
  • glue
  • tiny nails
  • some extra pieces of wood for nut
  • sound post and bass bar (dowel rods)
  • The two string violin requires violin A and D strings while the four stringed instrument uses a full set of violin strings.
  • An old bow can be bought cheap at a music or second hand store.

As cigar boxes vary in shape and size, the measurements given here must necessarily be approximate, but following the basic principles a playable violin will result. This children mentioned in an earlier paragraph built their instruments for four strings, but strung them up with only two until they had learned to play them. The children's fiddles had slightly shorter measurements.

BODY - Scrape paper label from the cigar box and sandpaper it. Make a paper pattern the size of the bottom of the box and cut it out with afine toothed jig saw. The bottom of the box will be the top of the violin.

BASS BAR - Cut a piece of wood, 1/4 inch wide by 1/2 inch deep and the length of the inside of the box. Spread the edge with glue and glue in place near the sound hole. (Study Fig. 1 for position). The bass bar braces the wood fibres of the top of the instrument on the side of the heavier strings.

NECK - Flatten the end of the broomstick on both sides for a distance of about 5 inches. In this flat part bore holes for the pegs about 1 inch apart. File the holes until the pegs entering alternately from opposite sides, come through far enough for the string holes to be seen.

ATTACHING NECK TO BODY - Cut a hole large enough to admit broom handle in the end of the box. The edge of the hole should be about 1 inch from the edge of the box with its sound holes, so that the fingerboard will slant at about the right angle toward the bridge. Pass the neck through the hole to the other end of the box. Secure in place from the outside with a screw eye and a few tiny nails.

SOUND POST - Make a small round post as long as the depth of the box and a little less in thickness than a lead pencil. Glue the end in place as indicatedby X in Fig. 1. Now glue the cover on the bottom of the box and add a few nails around the edge to hold it tight.

The second post conducts the sound vibrations to the neck of the instrument (whence they emerge through the sound holes) and also supports the top.

NUT (also called little bridge)  -- Make a wedge shaped piece of wood 1" long and a little deeper than the thickness of the wood to be used for the fingerboard.  Flatten a small space on top of the neck about 1 1/2" from the pegs and on this glue the nut securely.  The top of the nut should be slightly rounded and have two (or four) slight notches to space the strings and hold them just above the surface of the fingerboard. (Figure 2 & 3, and photo of the neck detail.)

FINGERBOARD --   Cut a smooth piece of wood 10" long, 1" wide at one end and slightly wider at the other.  (Fig. 3)  For the two stringed violin the top of the fingerboard may be left flat but for the four stringed violin, it must be rounded to conform to the curve of the bridge and nut.

Glue the fingerboard to the voilin with its narrower end touching the nut and secure with a nail at the points where it touches the neck and body.

Between the nut and the pegs, gouge out a place on the neck.  (Fig 2 and photograph of the neck.)  In this hollow, put a screw eye to hold the A and D strings in place.  If four strings are to be used, bind a piece of wire around the neck at this point, leaving an open space to pass the outer strings under.  (See photo.)

TAIL PIECE -- Cut a piece of wood 2 1/4" long.  Shape as in Fig 3.  Drill two holes near each end.  Fasten the smaller end to the screw eye in the end of the violin at the edge, glue a small piece of wood about 1/3" thick.  This keeps the wire from cutting into the body of the voilin and keeps the tail piece from touching the top.

BRIDGE -- File the feet of the bridge flat to fit the top of the violin.  A high bridge is recommended.  The top of the bridge should have two (or four) slight notches to space the strings evenly and keep them from slipping out of place. Tie the strings in the holes of the tailpiece, pass over the bridge, fingerboard and nut. The two middle strings go through the screw eye and the two outer strings go under the wire to the pegs.  (Fig. 3 and photograph). 

As you hold the violin facing you, the strings reading from the left to right are G,D,A and E, tuned in fifths.  For the two-stringed violin, only the D and A are used. 

The pressure of the strings holds the bridge in place but it will break unless kept standing up straight.  The string length from bridge to nut should be about 12 to 13".  If when playing on the G and E strings, the bow touches the edge of the instrument, the edges may be shaped off a bit with a rasp or coarse sandpaper.

Words on paper are not much help in telling you how to play the violin but Fig 4. gives a diagram of the principle of fingering. 

These violins are patterned on the principles of all stringed instruments and have the important parts of the professional models.  Incidentally, a visit to a maker's or repairer's shop would be intensely interesting and helpful.

FOR ADDITIONAL HELP - Check out the CB Fiddles group on Cigar Box Nation.  The group offers tips, reports on builders' progresses and more.  

PHOTOS --  Cigar Box Nation member "Nick" has posted photos of his completed cigar box violin.  See them here.

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Comment by Frankie Allen Revell on November 30, 2017 at 10:26pm

Sounded great James!  I'll have to try one of these.

Comment by Rooster Reaves on October 10, 2017 at 9:22am

I'll have to try one of these.

Comment by James McFadyen on November 14, 2016 at 11:47pm

I built one following the plans as closely as I could. It sounds pretty good! 

https://youtu.be/aNlvZWc4u-U

Comment by Iain T.S. on May 23, 2016 at 4:17pm

in going to build an ammo box fiddle for my girlfriend this week, she really likes my other instruments, so ill build her a fiddle, since thats her instrument

Comment by Jim Morris on September 30, 2015 at 11:10am

Thanks for doing that Shane. Those plans are 75 yrs old but they stand the test of time.

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