Monday, February 22, 2010

Call me the GIT-arr man

I'll start the revivifying with the cigar box guitar I built.

First, know that despite appearances this is not a remarkable thing; after all: And I will cut the suspense as well, by revealing the output of this procedure:

I generally just followed the instructions in Make Magazine, which I will neither repeat nor paraphrase. What I do want to do is just describe some of the ways in which my experience compared to the article.

I shall begin where I began: at the cigar store. I started out with a search in Google Maps (where else? heh heh) for "cigar". This revealed some Maps place spam which it was my privilege and duty to report to the Maps folks, but I shall not digress.

I ended up at Grant's Tobacconist up on Market St. I wandered in on a Saturday afternoon, whereupon I discovered two things. First, that the guy who runs the place may or may not know what these people are doing with all these empty cigar boxes, but he does know enough to make us pay for them. $10 got me 3, of which I don't mind saying that one may well be the platonic Form of a cigar box, at least from a guitar point of view. More on this later.

Second, I learned that, wow, it's smoky in there. It was almost funny: I was in a race against time, I had to check out quickly and escape before I busted out coughing and offended everyone in there. I mean, you don't walk into a cigar shop and then start coughing ostentatiously and glancing around to see if people take your hint. But I survived, and hopefully without spreading offense.

Building a CBG requires a modest variety of handtools, of which to my shame I was not already an owner. I went to Lowes, that magnificent Store of Stores, vast savannah of tooling. There, I found only FAIL. They had like 1/3 of what I needed, so I bought the oak stick I needed and left it otherwise as I found it.

Then I went to tiny-ass Cole Hardware, clown-car of retailers, wedged all Harry Potter style into a 47-inch gap between buildings on 4th St. They had everything I needed. Go fig.

Having procured my tools, the construction went pretty much as the Make guys described. I will say that I wished more than once for my dear Father's table saw. By my rough calculations, a table saw would have reduced my prep time on the neck from about 97 and a half fortnights down approximately 0.0000000 seconds, for a percentage improvement of roughly INFINITY. Alas.

Honestly though half my problem was that I didn't know how to use a coping saw and I wasn't sure of the best way to proceed, since you have to basically slice the oak stick in half the long way, twice, to carve out a couple chunks. On one end, I ended up using chisels to hack out the wood and then sanded the bejesus out of it. This worked but was time (and kilocalorie) consuming. The other end I used the coping saw on, which worked pretty well. With practice or a steadier hand, one might even call the results good.

Yeah, I screwed some things up. But some were not my fault, I swear! Behold my shame, in no particular order.

For one thing, it turns out that cigar boxes smell like cigars. And I don't like cigars. Wanting to not have to deal with a Pigpen-like cloud of cigar odor every time I picked up my guitar, I wanted to deodorize it a bit. To do this I just dumped a couple ounces of baking soda inside the box and let it sit for two or three days, then dumped it out. The odor's not gone, but now it's a gentle musk instead of a heinous stank. Problem: SOLVED!

As for the neck, well... I wasn't really thinking when I drilled the holes for the tuning pegs. Normal people arrange the pegs with 2 on one side and 1 on the other. I thought it would be hilarious (absolutely. hilarious! Seriously, I thought this would be totally funny) to put the 3rd peg on -- get this -- on the TOP of the headstock!!! So I drilled the hole up there only to realize that I drilled it too far away from the end of the headstock for the actual thumbscrew to clear the wood. I actually had to use the coping saw again to cut off a slice of the headstock at a jaunty angle to make room for the tuning peg. I wasn't laughing anymore, although in the end I think it lends the finished product a certain ghetto je ne sais quoi.

Now, you have to understand: I had never seen a guitar string before. Ever. I had no idea how the little barrel plug thing on the end was supposed to work, and I was like, "do you just tie the string onto the hinge through the screw holes? Or what?" Then I got them in the mail and I was like, "Ah. Uh. Hmm." Apparently the hinge that Mark Frauenfelder used in the Make article had tiny little holes, or else he had weird strings because there was no way those strings were staying attached to MY hinge through geometry alone. I ended up just punching 3 holes in the hinge that were smaller than the barrel plugs. This worked, but makes me wonder if I shouldn't have just used something other than a hinge, but whatever. Fun factoid though: a faux gold/brass hinge that would look decidedly low-budget on actual cabinetry looks surprisingly kickass on a cigar box guitar.

And now, I have to talk about the frets. Dear Make Magazine photographers: you guys know I love you, but YOU LIE! The article clearly depicts the fret slots being cut with the coping saw. Now, maybe it was just my particular saw, but this ended up cutting a slot too wide for the fretwire to take grip. When I used the Xacto hobbyist saw that came with my miter box, which has a significantly narrower kerf, the fretwire stuck fine. Thing is, I couldn't find replacement coping saw blades that vary in kerf, so I think this might have just been a photo staging error. Fortunately I (wisely) only cut the first slot with the too-wide slaw, and all the others turned out fine. I still need to glue that first fret in, but I think I may leave it as-is. As a reminder. Never forget! Anyway, "Measure Twice, Cut Once" paid off -- thank you, Norm Abram!

Though this reminds me of my only real gripe about the article, which is that it was insufficiently precise in some of the parts list. And yes I realize that there are variable widths of fretwire, but I also ordered the wire that the article advised, as far as I could tell. I think. Maybe? I tried anyway. Point being, the article just sort of said "hey go to and buy some fretwire. Or maybe if you like." A little more guidance on specific strings and fretwire to buy would have helped us hapless n00bz.

Another minor issue I encountered was that the screws securing the cigar box to the neck really wanted to dig right through the cigar box's wood, because it was pretty lightweight. (Okay fine, technically the platonic Form of a cigar box from a guitar point of view would be made of wood that sounds great but is hard enough to hold a screw well. So maybe it's not quite the platonic Form. But more on this later.) Fortunately I have screwed enough screws in my day to expect this, and I didn't let the screws bite straight through the cigar box entire.

Finally, Cigar Box Guitar protip: remember that shipping things (such as, hypothetically, guitar strings and tuning pegs) thousands of miles takes time. And also that if you don't order everything you need at once, you have to make another order. And then wait for the second order to arrive. Yeah. Keep that in mind...

Ultimately, battle was joined, and a hard-fought victory was won. Which is actually a lie, the victory came quite easily. My opponent was made of wood after all. Aside from the quibbles above, the whole thing went remarkably like the Make article, except for the preparation of the cigar box itself.

The box I chose was not a typical box where the lid closes flat and flush. I chose one that actually was like a chest with a shallow lid with a lip that closes onto the bottom. The result is that it has a nice hollow reverb just by itself, when you knock it with a knuckle. The edges are also nicely beveled, giving it a great appearance and feel in the hands. And finally, the branding is actually branded into the wood, as opposed to printed on paper glued to the outside of the box. All in all, it is a Cadillac among cigar boxes. It ought to have been though, since it cost me the princely sum of $4 -- American!!

Anyway this box structure complicated the process of making the neck flush with the box top. The trickiest part was that ultimately I only needed to remove about 3mm of material from the portion of the next that goes into the box, which is why I tried the chisels I mentioned earlier. But whatever, I soldiered on, and all is well.

I'm extremely satisfied with how it came out. That cigar box was all I could have hoped for, and it sounds pretty freakin' awesome. I expected kind of a course, ragged, thin sound, at least compared to a real guitar. I strummed this sucker and I was completely shocked -- it actually sounds like a guitar!! A real honest to gods guitar!

Then I tuned it. With my Google™ Nexus One™, powered by Android™, using an app named "G-strings" I obtained from Android Market™, the leading mobile applications marketplace. *cough*

The only other issue I had was that while tuning it, the high G string was twanging. I poked around at this and realized this was because the g-string wasn't pulled tight across the nut. (What?? Get your mind out of the gutter.) So I restrung that thread onto the peg's lower hole, and boy howdy, does it sound awesome now.

So that's it! It went pretty much according to plan, and I truly can't believe how well it turned out. It sounds awesome, was fun to build, and required only hand tools, except for a cordless drill.

Now I just need to learn to play guitar.


Anonymous said...

That's a cool guitar right there. And don't let anyone tell you that you need six strings to play guitar. Just check out Seasick Steve when you find the time!
Quite appropriate to learn blues guitar on that baby!

Able Dart said...

Last month the owners of Grant's decided to start a policy that reduced seating in their smoking area down to two seats, and required a $25 purchase in order to have 2 hours' worth of "sitting and smoking privileges." Those of you who have visited the store know that they don't don't have a separate appointed smoking lounge, but simply seats in the store.

Apparently the owners decided to institute this policy over a personal disagreement with some of the regular customers - including some who helped the store obtain a variance to continue to allow smoking in the store after the latest city smoking control ordinance was passed.

As of now, unless you are willing to buy $25 in cigars on the spot and be scrutinized by an increasingly rude staff, there is no place to sit inside and smoke a cigar or pipe in Downtown San Francisco - apparently due to ego conflicts more than anything else.