Renee Stokley
Renee Stokley with one of her Cigar Box Guitars. Paul Demarco/Washtenaw Voice

She has boxes that contain fabulous shoes and boxes that hold extraordinary hats, but it’s her cigar boxes that Renee Stokley uses to make beautiful music.

During the day, Stokley, 52, of Romulus, a security patrol officer with Campus Safety and Security, can be found quietly patrolling the Washtenaw Community College Campus and doing her part to keep the community safe. In her off hours, Stokley has an interesting hobby: She makes guitars from cigar boxes and hopes to one day turn it into a lucrative business.

They are called Delta Blues Slide Guitars and these unique and lovely instruments are steeped in tradition. During the Great Depression, many black performers who came out of the South were poor and could not afford to buy an actual guitar, so they found ways to create their own.

In those days, it was simply a matter of piecing together a cigar box with either a mop or broom handle and some chicken wire, and you had the makings of a crude but effective instrument.

Stokley admits she didn’t know anything about guitar-making. It was when she took a guitar-playing class at WCC with guitar instructor Shari Kane that she first heard about cigar-box guitars and how simple they were to construct.

Kane has been teaching at WCC for more than 30 years, and for the past 20 years she has been touring nationally and internationally with the musical group Madcat & Kane.

About ten months ago, Stokley got her first box. It was given to her by a friend, Mark O’Brien, an insect collections manager for the University of Michigan’s Zoological Museum. He and Renee met when she was a work-study student at the museum in 2005.

In January, she built her first guitar. It was a gift for her brother, Donnie. She gave it a Three Stooges theme because she knew that’s what her brother liked. The second one she built for O’Brien after receiving another box from him. So far, she has built about a dozen guitars with 30 more in the works.

“In the beginning, it would take me about 60 hours to build one guitar because I did it mostly by hand,” Stokley said. “Now it takes about five hours, because I have power tools and a set routine.”

Although her goal is to start her own business, Stokley admits she has given away several of her instruments. She gave one to her mother as a Mother’s Day present and Mom went on to learn how to play it on her own.

“They are easy to play and they are electric, which generates some serious sound,” said Stokley, who has plans to stay pretty busy with her new venture — for a good cause.

She recently purchased 50 cigar boxes from Bruce Hackmann, a volunteer for Waggin’ Tails Dog Rescue, an organization that provides shelter for homeless dogs waiting to be adopted.

“Renee was already making guitars when I met her,” Hackmann said. “I was selling the cigar boxes to raise money for the Michigan Humane Society. And the last bunch of boxes the money went to Waggin’ Tails Dog Rescue.”

Her contribution will help the charity and give Stokley the materials she needs to get her guitars built and ready to showcase.

The cigar boxes are made entirely of wood and attached to a wooden oak neck about 31-inches long. First the wood is notched and the hardware is attached. A hole is cut into the box to support the neck and the neck is then shaped and sanded to make it easier to grip. Holes are drilled into the neck to support the hardware for the strings. Acoustic or electric string is used.

Afterward, the front board is put in and the neck is then stained. Once the electronics are wired in, the neck is glued to the box and the box is glued shut. Polyacrylic sealant is then used to seal the box.

At this point the bridge and nut are installed along with any cosmetic hardware like the drain-hole cover which gives it a classic look. Lastly the strings are attached and the guitar is ready to go.

The guitars typically have only three strings, but can have five or six strings, and the sound is unmistakably blues. The instruments are very sturdy and hold up well under strenuous play – as an impromptu performance by Stokley showed.