Darren Dukes began building cigar box guitars as “kind of a fluke thing, really.” He was shopping for a guitar on eBay and “kept seeing these cigar box guitars. At first, it was kind of annoying, but after a couple of months, I saw a band I like — the North Mississippi Allstars — playing one.
“Basically my whole life, I’ve been cutting wood and nailing it together. You take a look at this guitar, and you think, ‘How hard could it really be to put this together?'” He described his first couple of attempts as “terrible,” and said he didn’t even complete one of the guitars until his fourth try.
That was four years ago, and Darren is now approaching the build of his 500th cigar box guitar. It’s also become a full-time business for him. Backporchmojo grew out of Darren’s eBay sales of his early cigar box guitar efforts in order to be able to buy parts for more. “People kept emailing me, ‘I like ‘this one’ you did, I’d like you to try ‘this.””
In the years prior to his cigar box guitar building, Darren’s woodworking had been in items like clocks, end tables and other furniture, and “craft stuff” — and “I kind of got burned out. This let me get bit by the bug, and I’ve been in the shop ever since. It’s kind of fun getting back in the shop.”
He’s also having fun experimenting with different areas. “I’ve opened myself up to things I wouldn’t have tried before.” For instance, much of Darren’s previous woodworking occurred with basic home center pine boards. Now, he’s using woods and veneers like bird’s-eye maple, purpleheart, flame maple veneer, and more.
Although most of his guitars start with an actual wooden cigar box — one source is tobacco companies that ship worldwide and need to remove a few cigars from various types of boxes to create “sampler packs” — and he frequently does leave painted or art-covered sides visible, Darren notes that the bottom of these boxes is often plain, and can be made from cheap plywood. “Dressing them up with exotic veneer makes them really exotic.”
In addition to sanding the bottoms smooth and applying veneer, he will also use various woods in areas like the guitar necks. And, while Darren generally starts with a pre-made wooden cigar box, he has on occasion made his own boxes. For instance, when making license plate guitars, he notes, “Most cigar boxes aren’t quite as big as license plates, so I’ve built my own boxes, but with the volume I do, it’s too time-consuming to do too many.”
One of the reasons Darren prefers to leave an actual cigar box in his cigar box guitars is for the heritage aspect. “Its heyday was the Depression, but there are pictures of Civil War soldiers with cigar box guitars,” he said. “It’s an instrument of hard times. It’s primitive because you didn’t have any money to run down to the Sears and buy yourself a guitar. In the Depression era, it was a cigar box, a broomstick, and the wire that held the cornhusks together was the string.”
Darren notes that many of today’s cigar box guitars are “fairly modern instruments,” fretted to the same scales as traditional guitars. And, while they are simpler instruments, typically ranging from one to four strings, with a simple mechanism and no need for a truss rod, “there’s still a learning curve” to building them.
That’s one reason he started a yahoo forum for cigar box guitar builders, and sells some cigar box guitar kits. “It’s rewarding to have people coming to me now, and to pass that knowledge on,” he said.
He’s also continuing to expand his own knowledge: he’s learned to use a spray gun to apply finishes, expanded his knowledge of working with lacquer, and made numerous jigs for guitar creation, including one to create angles for the headstock. “I’d never used a cabinet scraper until I got one about six months ago. I didn’t realize how handy those were until I got a set.”
Lately, Darren is experimenting with adhesives, such as different kinds of epoxies. “It’s interesting exploring that world. I’ve opened myself up to things I wouldn’t have looked at before.”
As for the guitar itself, Darren said, “I don’t know if I’ve ever learned the instrument. I’ve always kind of picked on one since I was 17 or 18 years old, and I’m such a music lover that I can’t help but have one around and play on it.”
Now, he says, “I get to make guitars and play guitars all the time. I indulge myself in two ways. The big thing with cigar box guitars, from both a builder and a player standpoint, is they’re fun. It’s a serious instrument and serious woodworking, but you don’t have to be Eric Clapton or Norm Abram to attempt them. Anybody with some basic skills in either area can attempt this.”