Most folks get cigars out of cigar boxes. Steven Miller gets beautiful music out of them.
Miller, an Asheville carpenter who crafts musical instruments in his spare time, transforms used cigar boxes into exquisite violins he calls Carolina Fiddles. He’s been making them since 2000, and he says each one is built to full-size standard and scale. “They sound just like a regular violin,” Miller says. “I’m very careful to make them the same dimensions as a standard violin, and they play just like a regular violin. They’re sometimes not quite as loud, but the tone is the same.”
Cigar-box fiddles have been around for more than a century, but Miller’s instruments have taken the quality to a new level. “They were developed in the late 19th century and early 20th century, basically by poor people who wanted a musical instrument but couldn’t afford to buy one,” he explains. “Cigar boxes were available, so they made fiddles out of the cigar boxes. I kind of latched on to the idea of taking this rustic, homemade instrument and using the nicest materials I can find to make it as nice as possible.”
Miller starts with a basic wooden cigar box — a vintage box of, say, Counsellors, or a more modern box of Te-Amo or Cuesta-Rey. He prefers cedar, which he says “resonates really well” for musical tone. Then, working from his own design based on traditional violin technology, he adds the neck, fingerboard, strings, tuning pegs, and chin rest to arrive at a finely crafted, albeit odd-looking, fiddle.
One of the biggest challenges is managing the pressure on an instrument when it’s tuned up, so each fiddle is supported from underneath by a strut of Miller’s own design. “There’s a little over 200 pounds of pressure when the instrument is tuned up, which is a lot of pressure to put on a cigar box,” he says. “So these instruments are carefully designed to support the pressure of the strings and still allow the box to resonate.”
The whole process takes about 40 hours in Miller’s shop, where he uses primarily hand tools for the necessary carving, filing, and sanding. Because he only charges about $750 per instrument, he’s scarcely making money off the fiddles, but he doesn’t seem to mind. “Nah, it doesn’t pay,” he says. “I just do it because I really like them. I enjoy making musical instruments.”
That much is true. Miller also makes acoustic and electric guitars, electric violins, and toy pianos, and once he even made a banjo using a frying pan as the body. But the cigar-box fiddles, which earned Miller a blue ribbon at the N.C. Mountain State Fair, seem to give him the most pleasure.
“There’s almost an element of humor to it,” Miller says. “To have this fine workmanship with this funky little old box, that’s a contrast I find humorous.”