The Biz: Box office

If, as Rudyard Kipling famously wrote, “A woman is only a woman, but a good Cigar is a Smoke,” then what does that make the box the cigar came in? In the hands of craftsman and entrepreneur Steven Miller, it’s a fiddle—and one that not only feels and sounds like the real thing but is also a work of art.

String theory: Putting a modern spin on an old idea, Steven Miller is resurrecting the cigar-box fiddle, producing playable pieces of art. Photo By Jonathan Welch

Working out of Asheville Craftworks—the West Asheville shop where his cabinetry, woodworking and home-remodeling business is based—Miller is transforming his long-running passion for stringed instruments into a second business: Carolina Fiddle. And though he’s focusing on cigar-box fiddles for now, he plans to steadily expand his business to include such other exotic instruments as frying-pan banjos and toy pianos, as well as more mainstream fare: guitars, mandolins, pochettes (small “pocket” fiddles) and even classical Stradivari-style violins.

Using vintage wooden boxes he buys mostly on eBay, Miller has crafted 39 cigar-box fiddles so far (including one electric one), “So I’ve kind of figured out how to do it at this point,” he says. Miller’s four- and five-string creations sell for $375 to $400 apiece at Woolworth Walk downtown. Although he believes he practically has the cigar-box-fiddle market to himself, both here and elsewhere, he admits that they’re not exactly selling like hotcakes. But interest in the lovingly crafted instruments is growing, he reports. Swanky Charlotte-based retailer Origami Ink will soon be featuring his creations at its store in The Village at SouthPark mall, rubbing shoulders with such chichi names as Cartier and Louis Vuitton.

And lest you think cigar-box fiddles and the like are mere oddities, Miller stresses that these instruments have a rich history dating back at least to the Civil War, when cigar shippers switched from bulk crates to the smaller boxes we know today.

In fact, many famous musicians started their playing on such instruments, notes Miller. He cites such rock, folk, jazz, blues and country-music luminaries as Jimi Hendrix, Blind Willie Johnson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Charlie Christian, Carl Perkins, George Benson, Roy Clark, Buddy Guy, Big Bill Broonzy, Eddie Lang, Josh White and Sleepy John Estes, among others.

“Cigar-box instruments basically started off as homemade instruments in the mid-19th century,” says Miller. “Say you’re a guy here in Buncombe County and you want to play a guitar, banjo, fiddle or something, but you don’t have any money or any way of getting one. Cigars were being shipped in wooden boxes … so you pick up a cigar box and say, ‘Well, I’m halfway there—all I need now is a neck and some strings.’ That’s literally how the idea started. My inspiration was to take that old idea and just do it as well as it could be done. I want to make the absolute best cigar-box fiddle anyone has ever seen. So I conform to all the standard dimensions and do as nice a woodworking as I possibly can. And I’m really conscious of the sound.”

Open up a Miller fiddle and you’ll find all the acoustical components seen in a standard violin—including bass bar, sound post and tail block—installed in a sealed and painstakingly restored cedar or plywood box. On the outside, Miller adds the distinctive, Stradivari-style f-holes and outfits the instrument with modern tuning pegs, bridge, nut, strings, tailpiece and chin rest.

“When you hold one of these and close your eyes, I want you to feel as if you’re holding a real violin,” he says, closing his eyes in mock reverie.

A distinctive feature of Miller’s instruments are the exquisite fretless fingerboards, fashioned either out of ebony or Miller’s current favorite, flame maple. Other than the box itself, however, the instrument’s defining feature is probably its graceful strut, which Miller says he invented. Of one piece with the neck, it extends across the box’s entire underside, giving it the strength to handle the requisite string tension while maintaining its tuning.

Although Miller has played in various folk-blues and country groups, he considers himself a middling musician at best. Citing guitar and mandolin design innovator Orville Gibson as one of his heroes, Miller has become an avid collector of instruments, primarily prewar Gibson guitars and mandolins. “They’re in a climate-controlled, secure, undisclosed location. … They’re in there with Dick Cheney,” he says, laughing. In fact, Miller’s admiration and respect for Gibson has helped steer his passion more toward the engineering and design aspects of music than toward playing it, he says.

Miller, who moved to Asheville from Southern California in 2003, comes by his tech-geek credentials honestly. Before gravitating to woodworking and instrument design, he worked in the bicycle industry, scoring a patent on a bike brake and developing a helmet-strapping system, though neither of them ever went anywhere, he says. Miller also spent time as a computer-network engineer. Currently, he supplements his income by working as a technical writer for Harbor Freight Tools, the nation’s largest tool-and-equipment catalog retailer.

Although Miller takes great pride in his many lines of work, he envisions a day when instrument-making becomes his main endeavor. Right now, he says, he struggles with refining the production process to make it more efficient. While $400 may seem like a lot for a cigar-box fiddle, the materials needed and the 20 hours of work it takes, on average, to make each instrument translate into a very low profit margin. Right now, he says, he’s making about $3.62 per hour. But Miller hopes to get that figure up to $18 an hour, while keeping the price of the instruments virtually unchanged.

And if not, he says, it probably won’t be the end of the world, adding, “Music is my passion. … It’s really just a lot of fun.”

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