Made In FLA: Cigar-Box Guitar Built by Hand
An international banker trades power lunches for power tools, moonlighting as a master craftsman of cigar-box instruments.
Like the smoke of a fine tobacco, the melodies that hang in the air of Luis Schmied’s garage-turned-workshop in Weston are sweet, rich and smooth. Echoing elements of folk and blues, the soothing sounds come not from a stereo, but from his own fingers, working in harmony with his latest customized creation.
A money maestro specializing in equipment financing, Schmied channels the precision required by his day job into an unexpected after-hours pursuit: building one-of-a-kind stringed instruments using repurposed objects—like cigar boxes—as the base.
Born in Argentina, Schmied, 44, says his first musical love was the drums, and he played with amateur bands in Buenos Aires before moving to South Florida in 2002.
“I love the mixture of Latin, European and American cultures here. I also love the weather—even the summers,” he says.
In 2006, Schmied began teaching himself to play the guitar and stumbled upon open tuning, which he calls a simpler way to learn the instrument.
“You tweak the strings a bit, and when you strum the guitar, you are already playing a chord, which is not the case with standard tuning,” he says.
Open tuning has its origins in folk instruments like the banjo, although big-time musicians, such as the Rolling Stone’s Keith Richards, often play open-tuned guitars. Once Schmied discovered open tuning, he researched 19th-century guitar makers who built instruments from recycled materials, like cigar boxes, out of necessity. Curious, he bought a cigar-box guitar from an artist in Virginia, and a fascination was born.
“The sound was sweet and a little weird,” Schmied says. “But I was hooked.”
Captivated as much by the instrument’s construction as its sound, Schmied, who had a basic knowledge of woodworking, tried making his own cigar-box guitar. After building his first piece, guided by a combo of online research and intuition, he wondered how different construction techniques would affect the sound, and so he began working on second and third iterations.
A year after Schmied built his first guitar, his wife, Silvia, suggested he put a few of his prototypes on eBay; he was surprised when they all sold. Six years and 100 instruments later, the accidental entrepreneur takes a week to several months to build a guitar, depending on the complexity of inlaid and laminated woods and the number of frets and scarf joints. Schmied’s favorite cigar boxes have beautiful artwork that also create a pleasing tone, like the Arturo Fuente brand, which was founded in West Tampa.
Schmied spends a lot of time with each finished instrument, extensively chronicling its personality through beautiful photographs that feel more like portraits than product shots. He also records demos that he posts online, giving prospective buyers a detailed account of how each instrument will appear and play when it arrives.
“For me, each guitar is like a different person,” he says. And because the instruments are all handcrafted using materials and techniques that are difficult to replicate exactly, each has its own unique feel, look and sound.
Most of Schmied’s customers are from the United States and Europe, and though they include a mix of ages and genders, they skew a bit more toward middle-aged men. Although there are a few new players among them, attracted to the ease of learning that an open-tuned instrument provides, for most buyers, this is not their first stringed instrument.
While Schmied Handcrafted Instruments has gained a loyal following, its founder is hesitant to take on the business full-time. “It continues to be my therapy, releasing my mind for a couple of hours at the end of the day,” he says.
Schmied has branched into other types of instruments and accessories, ranging from wooden wall guitar hangers to guitar slides made from wine-bottle necks. One of Schmied’s popular models is a banjo that uses a vintage-film-reel canister as a base. “Getting the canisters is the tough part,” he says.
Although these Hollywood relics may be elusive, luckily, his main staple—cigar boxes—remains prolific in South Florida. Whenever he stumbles upon a new tobacco shop, Schmied—who does not smoke cigars himself—makes sure to stop in and introduce himself to the owners. The shopkeepers often happily part with their extra cigar boxes because Schmied gives the containers a second life.
Like the tobacco shop crowd, he has a play-it-forward attitude about his pieces.
“I am making a tool for another musician, and that guitar could help someone find a new sound or write a new song,” Schmied says. “To me that is the most rewarding part.”