The Nicotina
Ellen Kuhfeld

Up to this point, the instruments have been more proof-of-principle than true musical instruments. The step up to a genuine folk instrument is not hard. The nicotina (an instrument of my own devising) is made from a wooden cigar box, with fretting and strings based upon the mountain dulcimer and a sound like a gentle banjo. Like the tin can banjo, it's a member of the ancient and honorable family of spike fiddles.

Because this instrument is more genuine, it must be made with more care if the results are to be satisfactory. The whole job takes me something like 8 hours. I goof around a lot, but I know what I'm doing. If you're single-minded and beaverlike, figure six hours; if you're a novice, figure 16. In either case, once you have the parts, a week of evenings or a nice solid weekend should easily see you through.

Let's start with the materials and tools needed. (Lists are appended - follow hyperlinks.)

The first job is to make the head and neck, complete with mounting for the cigar box. We prepare the cigar box body, and mate the neck onto it. From there we establish the position of the bridge, apply the finish, and install bridge, nut, and tuners. Then we string the instrument, tune it, and begin learning to play.

The neck is made from the 36" piece of mahogany. It should be straight -- check it with a metal straightedge. It can bow at most 1/16" at the center; if it does, put the frets on the concave side rather than the convex.

Mark a diagonal on the narrow side, from the end of the bottom, up to 5" in on the side to be fretted. Cut along this line. Sand the cut edge of the 5" by 3/4" wedge until it is flat and smooth; lightly sand the other side. Do the same on the long piece. Shift the wedge underneath the neck, glue, clamp, and let set.

(Note: for strong joints, sand two wood surfaces before gluing them together. Cut wood forms a "patina" within 24 hours that slows glue penetration.)

Now drill holes for the tuners. They come in both left- and right-handed versions. It's not vitally important which you have; you'll develop preferences to guide you in later instruments. Just be sure to take the differences into account when you're laying out the holes. (See the sketch below.)

A drill press does the best job on these holes. If one isn't available, do the best you can. Then, if the base doesn't fit comfortably flat against the head when you mount it, enlarge the hole a bit from below; but don't enlarge all the way to the upper surface. The wood should grip the shaft tightly where it emerges, to support it against string tension. This helps the instrument maintain its tuning. Once the tuning heads have been mounted, remove them. They'll be re-installed once the wood is sanded and finished.

At the place where head meets neck, make a cutout just wide enough to hold the nut (that bit of bone or plastic). There should be about 3/32" of nut emerging above the surface of the wood. The side of the slot towards the neck is very important. This is where the string begins, and the reference point for all fret positions.

Most of our measurements are in inches, because America runs on inches. Our fret positions are in centimeters, because decimals are easier to calculate than fractions. Measuring from the neck side of the nut slot, mark the neck with lines at the appropriate distances.

The fret marked F# is optional. It's the most common accidental note in folk music, useful in playing many tunes, but its presence spoils the conceptual purity of the fingerboard and makes the instrument more confusing to play. Some of the frets above may end up inside the cigar box; ignore them. They're included for people with small boxes.

Use a fretsaw at the marked locations to make slots for the fret wires. X-acto sells small fretsaws, or you can use a hacksaw with the "set" of the teeth ground flat to narrow the cut. (A coarse sharpening stone and some sharpening oil work wonders. Put the saw blade on a flat surface, and run the stone back-and-forth along its length, both sides.) In either case, test your saw on a scrap of wood to make sure the slot is the right width for the fret wire.

Build up the portion of the neck that'll go inside the cigar box to the box's outside thickness. (Use the extra piece of mahogany.) Cut the end off square at 30" from the nut slot. Cut down the top and bottom by the thicknesses of the bottom and lid of the box. The details of these cuts depend on the cigar box you have. The neck should just fit inside the box after an opening has been cut for it, and the top and bottom of the neck should be even with the top and bottom of the box. Cut out a hollow in the fret side so the box lid can vibrate freely. Have a smooth curve going from the back of the cigar box onto the neck.

Round the lower edges of the neck, as is customary on musical instruments. It'll fit more comfortably against the palm of your hand. A small X-Acto drawknife is the best tool, but you can whittle, carve, or file if those are your tools. Sand the neck smooth up to a medium grade of sandpaper. Sand the fingerboard to a fine grade, and spray the fingerboard only the fingerboard - with Deft. (Mask off the parts that'll mate to the cigar box.) Sand again, lightly. This seals the pores of the wood, which you are about to insult with metal filings.

Pound the tang of your fret-wire into the fret slots. Use a soft hammer, or a piece of wood to protect the fret wire from your metal hammer. If your fret-wire is all in one length, it's easiest to cut it off after it's in place than before. Use the fine metal file to smooth the ends of the frets even with the sides of the neck. Round over the ends of the frets. Take fine sandpaper in your fingers (not on a sanding block) and run it along the corners of the frets to smooth any sharp edges.

Make sure the cigar box is well and sturdily put together; check all the joints. If things are not glued absolutely tight, pry the lids loose and glue them in place. (It's not that bad - - either a wooden cigar box is well-glued, or it's held together by half a dozen tiny nails.) Leave the hinges and clasp; they'll be decoration when this is all done. I like to leave the paper seals and tax stamps -- they look interesting, and don't seem to harm the sound.

Select one end of the cigar box for sacrifice. Make two sound holes 1" in diameter, centered vertically and 1-1/4" in from the sides of the box. Many boxes have lids supported only at front and back, not sides. For these, glue in two strips of 3/16" wood to support the lid when closed. (Hold in place with spring clothespins until the glue sets.) Trim the wood to mate neatly with the 1 " holes. Between the holes, center an opening for the neck. Put the neck in the cigar box for size. Trim the wood strip at the intact end so the neck butts up neatly against the box. Close the lid and make sure it fits nicely.

Glue the neck into the cigar box, using 5-minute epoxy. (Epoxy doesn't need clamping, but the pieces of wood must not move. Clamps or weights are the easiest way to ensure this.) Do it in three stages. First, glue the neck solidly inside the box. After that has hardened, glue the lid down. Finally, flow a thin line of epoxy onto cracks and openings to seal and round them. The glue will not be obvious when the instrument is finished -epoxy and Deft are an almost perfect match on wood.

Suddenly you have something that looks like a musical instrument. Leave it alone for several hours; 5-minute epoxy no longer flows after five minutes, but takes hours to build decent strength. Trim, build up, smooth, and round until there are no sharp corners or discontinuities.

Line a straightedge up with each side of the neck, and mark the end of the box with two matching lines. These give the position of the neck extension inside the box. One inch down from the soundboard, centered, drill three holes for your escutcheon pins. The drill should be a bit smaller than the pin shafts. Don't install the pins just yet.

The banjo strings will run up from the escutcheon pins, bend around the edge of the box, and continue down the neck. The strings will cut into the grain of the soundboard, perhaps even split it. Make a recess in the edge, about an inch and a half long. Epoxy hardwood in place, grain along the edge. After an hour to harden, smooth the inset to match the edge. The hardwood keeps the strings from cutting into the soundboard.

The bridge should be about 68.28 centimeters from the nut. It can be glued to the soundboard, or held there by the pressure of the strings. Glued bridges give slightly better sound; pressure bridges are adjustable for perfect tuning. Go with a pressure bridge for your first instrument. Sand the entire instrument clean and smooth. Remove all pencil marks you've made; preserve the original paper and makers' marks on the cigar box. Pencil a line 68.28 centimeters from the nut onto the soundboard.

Finish the wood with Deft. Several light coats are better than one heavy coat. Use fine steel wool, then wipe clean, between coats. Let the last coat dry overnight. Install the machine tuners (you may have to re-drill the holes to clean up raised grain from finishing). Tap in the escutcheon pins, leaving room for the string loops to hook over them.

Trim the bone or plastic nut so it's as wide as the neck. It should fit tightly in its slot -- if it doesn't, wrap it in paper and tap it in. (Don't use glue. You'll want to adjust or rework the nut as you learn more about playing. This is easier if you can remove and replace it.) Cut down until the nut protrudes from the neck about twice as far as the frets do. Round off the corners and edges.

Mark the nut 3/16" in from each end, in the center, and with two more marks midway between, for five in all. (You have three strings; but there should be five notches so you can move the strings around to fit your playing style and fingering.) Notch the nut with a triangular file at these marks, slanting down towards the head from the neck. Use knife or chisel to make the notches VERY sharp at the bottom. (This keeps the strings from buzzing loosely.) The neck side of the notch should be about a fret thickness and a half above the fingerboard.

From hardwood, make a bridge for the soundboard. It should be a wedge about a quarter of an inch high, narrow at the top and about 3/16" wide at the bottom. Cut out the center bottom so it rests on the ends only. Mark and notch the top to match the nut.

Install a banjo second string in the center, using the back tuning head. Tighten it moderately, and use it to hold the bridge in place. The wrapped (fourth) string goes to the bottom of the neck when it's held in playing position -- you strum or pluck with your dominant hand, so if you're left-handed it'll be on the opposite side from a right-handed instrument. The last string, again a plain string, will play melody. It goes where your thumb will hit it first as it sweeps towards your palm.

Tune the two plain strings to G, and the wrapped string to C below G. You may break a string or two before you get the hang of tuning; that's as traditional as the instrument itself. Now refine the tuning and bridge placement. The middle G fret (halfway between nut and bridge) should sound an exact octave. You can get a guaranteed-exact octave by snapping the string up against your fingernail, held near this fret. Move the fingernail around until you get the clearest note. Then press the string down against the G-fret, and compare with the true octave. If the fretted string sounds a bit high, move the bridge away from the nut a hair. If the fretted string sounds low, move it closer. When fretted note and true octave are the same, your bridge is in perfect position. Retune.

The nicotina is, as mentioned, fretted the same as an Appalachian dulcimer; and any dulcimer book will tell you how to play it. You'll have to adapt their instructions from lap to tummy, but that shouldn't be hard -- the main difference is to use fingernails or picks instead of a quill.

Ellen with her nicotina

Next: The Scheitholt

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