Debbie Thompson has been woodworking and woodcarving for more than 30 years, but her current project came to her by surprise.
"Four years ago I made a Native American flute out of PVC pipe, and I took it to work and one of my longtime friends asked me if I'd ever made a cigar box guitar," she said. "A few days later, I came home and there were cigar boxes on my back doorstep, and I thought I would take on a new challenge."
After fashioning those first few cigar boxes into mini hand-carved guitars, Thompson started collecting cigar boxes from corner stores and local cigar shop Burns Tobacconist. She now supplies Vinterest Antiques with a limited supply of her handmade instruments for the holidays.
Each guitar takes several days to make, and sells for anywhere between $75 and $120, she said. The guitars are fashioned with one to six strings, and are uniquely designed and decorated by hand.
Thompson, recently retired, said growing up in her generation, kids had cigar boxes that they would fill with knickknacks and toys. Now that fewer people are smoking, the boxes aren't as easy to find, but the novelty of the classic wooden boxes, the sweet smell of the tobacco they once housed, and the artful woodwork of those who turn them into tiny guitars have caused a resurgence in the cigar box instrument trend — Thompson said you can spot Steven Tyler, Johnny Depp and Paul McCartney wielding cigar box guitars nowadays.
The scaled-down instruments are identical to real guitars except for the guitar box resonator.
"We adhere to guitar-making standards [for] scale length, which in turn decides where the frets are to be placed and also the string height above the fretboard," said Thompson. "These factors are critical in making it sound like a musical instrument."
Aside from their relationship to the full-size instrument, hers are anything but scaled-down. Sourcing all kinds of materials, Thompson has used everything from bolts and screws to cabinet hinges, threaded rods, can lids, grommets, small sink strainers, egg spatulas and paint can lids to decorate her guitars so that each is one-of-a-kind.
"They're so pretty, most people are surprised to know they play," she said.
Though she has taken guitar lessons and said she still picks up a cigar box guitar every day to practice, her extensive background in woodworking turned out to be all she needed to create playable guitars.
"I pride myself in my workmanship and the quality of the instrument," Thompson said. "These are guitars that just happen to be built out of a box."
To see her cigar box guitars, visit Vinterest Antiques, at 2105 Northpoint Blvd. in Hixson, during the holiday season, when you can also buy hand-carved and painted ornaments made by Thompson. For those looking for something extra special this season, she said she can typically accommodate special orders, like a left-handed guitar, ukuleles and specific color requests.
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