From Memorabilia to Music: The National Treasures Box Guitar
by Drew Pelto, AKA *censored*

Alright, settle down class, time for a history lesson…

(Boos echo across the room)

… about rock and roll and cigars.

(Boos become cheers)

Since the dawn of mankind, we’ve discovered ways to make music to accompany our voices. From simple rhythms hitting two things together, to paleolithic flutes, Indus Valley stringed instruments, and onward into the thousands of ways we have to make organized sounds today, music has been a part of our culture and our entire existence as a species.

The guitar itself traces its ancestry back to chordophones of the Babylonians and Hittites, undergoing various changes in shapes, sizes, number of strings, tunings, and so much more into the normally-six-stringed instrument that we know today.

Meanwhile in the modern day, it was around 1840 that cigar companies stopped shipping their wares in large boxes, crates, and barrels, and started using smaller boxes that held 25-50 at a time. These small but sturdy boxes could often be reused, and antebellum amateur musicians and craftsmen began experimenting with them in creating homemade musical instruments. The earliest dated evidence of a cigar box instrument is an 1876 etching of soldiers at a Civil War campsite, one of whom is playing a cigar box fiddle. By 1890, a document with plans on how to build a cigar box banjo was added to the American Boy’s Handy Book. Cigar box instruments have been a mainstay of folk and blues music: legends like Blind Willie Johnson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Carl Perkins, Roy Clark, Albert King, Buddy Guy, Big Bill Broonzy, Louis Armstrong, and even a young Jimi Hendrix played cigar box guitars at points in their life. Thanks to the great Shane Speal, the instrument has seen a resurgence in both construction and use over the last quarter-century.

Alright, lecture over. Put your backpacks down, I didn't dismiss you yet! Now, how does this tie into cards? Well, in 2006, Playoff created the National Treasures brand of cards, still produced now by Panini. These high-end cards came in a hinged cedar box. Like the cigar boxes, the National Treasures boxes are pretty sturdy and can easily be re-used. And so, putting two and two together… why not make a National Treasures box guitar?

If your box doesn't contain a hit, maybe you can write a hit song with it instead!

I got on eBay and grabbed an empty 2017 National Treasures baseball box for $4 plus shipping. The hinges were damaged on it, but that’s fine: they were probably going to get taken off anyway. With a little orange oil and a cloth, I could remove the seal from it as well without damaging anything. I told a friend about my idea. He works in home improvement and he said he had some wood if I wanted it for the neck. So he cut me a piece of a poplar 1x2 totally for free, which I took home, cut to the right length with a hand saw, and sanded down.

Now I should probably take this moment to mention that my woodworking skills are limited. There’s a good chance I could manage to screw up nailing two pieces of wood together. Before this, the most I had done was assemble Ikea furniture and screw together a basic planter and a rudimentary board for my guitar effects pedals. While my grandfather was primarily a timberman and carpenter in Michigan’s copper mines for close to fifty years, and my dad had some woodworking skill, I never had really done anything with it. No tools, no experience, no problem, right?

They'd likely kick my weenie butt knowing I could barely use a saw
(L to R: my grandfather William and his brothers Carl, Reino, and Hugo, Hancock, MI, c.1935)

The good news is I found a few YouTube tutorials on how to build it, or I’d likely be dead in the water. I also made several trips to Home Depot because—like I said—no tools aside from the bare minimum in a hammer, a basic saw, some screw drivers, and a Dremel. So after getting a coping saw, some screws, some bolts to serve as the bridge and nut, some nails and wood glue to keep the box closed, some springs, and a clamp, I was finally ready to build.

I first cut out some space on the neck so that the lid of the box could settle in securely and be totally flat from the neck to the tailpiece, and even have some space under the lid to help with resonance. I added some springs inside to help add some reverb and cut out enough space on the box and lid so it would have a nice, snug fit. The tutorial I watched said I should cut out a lot of space on the headstock. It turns out I could have skipped that—the tuners would have fit in just fine, and the cut I made turned out pretty rough since I was doing it by hand. Ehh, whatever, it looks rustic or something.

Once I got the neck and headstock shaped, all it came down to was drilling holes for the strings in the tailpiece and in the headstock for the tuners, cutting a small groove for the nut to sit in, and screwing in the tuners. I also cut sound holes in the lid of the box to help with sound projection and sanded them down. I added grommets to the smaller two—strictly optional, though it helped to hide the rough edges.
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Once the neck and box were fully cut and drilled, it was simply a case of assembly: glue the neck in, then glue the box shut, clamping it down to make sure it holds. After it sets, a nail in each corner and through the lid near the neck and tail piece help to keep it secure. Finally, string it, slip the bridge into place, tune it, and you have yourself a National Treasures box guitar. I might add the ability to have a strap for it as well. All I’d need is a screw in the tailpiece and somewhere in the neck.

"If you go down to Deep Ellum/Just to have a little fun/Have your hundred dollars ready/When the policeman comes
Ohhh sweet mama, Daddy's got them Deep Ellum Blues..."

You’ll notice the neck doesn’t have frets like a normal guitar typically does. This would require a mitre box with some complex measuring and accurate cutting, and for my first one I just didn’t want to mess with it. I simply used an open tuning and marked on the neck where the frets would go using a tuning app on my phone, the slide, and a pen. That way I have a visual target for playing any major chord for a full octave, and even a few above that. In only a week of playing around with it, it’s easy to pull off "Deep Ellum Blues," or some Zeppelin, like “When The Levee Breaks,” “Misty Mountain Hop,” “Bring It On Home,” “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” and “Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp.”

This was a fun project, and I’d love to make a few more. Maybe some with three strings, maybe some with frets, some electric, different tunings, there are a lot of ways to go with this. I may even add a “1 of 1” decal to each. The labor was relatively limited and if someone like me with no previous carpentry skills can pull it off, then anyone can.

(Bell rings) Class dismissed.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Drew Pelto is an autograph collector and multi-instrumentalist, having played drums, guitar, bass, keyboards, mandolin, trombone, and orchestral percussion in various musical outfits over the past twenty years. He believes he is the least musically-talented member of his extended family and lives in Arlington, TX, where he is currently working on writing as a solo artist.