Julian's creations: From box to strings - VIDEO

Following a tradition dating back almost 200 years, Chapeltown craftsman Julian Chevens knows how to turn unwanted items into something beautiful.

His cigar box guitars are, quite literally, made from cigar boxes which he imports from the US.

And while it may seem like a niche hobby, Julian's instrument-making follows a tradition that dates back to as early as 1840.

A trained joiner, Julian started making cigar box guitars 18 months ago, though he has spent more time making them over the last nine months as the economic downturn has affected the joinery trade.

"Sometimes I start at about 8am and work right through until 2 in the morning. It takes your mind off things," he said.

The former joiner discovered his passion for the instruments after finding a link on You Tube.

"I saw a video with 'cigar box guitar' in the title and clicked on it - from that point on I was hooked," he said.

Julian has built eight guitars, all of which are beautifully crafted from a variety of woods, including sycamore, poplar, rose wood, oak and zebrano.

His attention to detail is staggering - even the tiny volume knobs are made from layers of different wood, all off which are delicately compressed like a multi-layered, miniature sandwich.

Guitar necks are finished off with 2mm strips of darker shades of wood.

"I think it's the detail that people like," says Julian, whose skills are the result of 12 years working as a joiner.

As a result of his experience as a guitar maker, Julian has amassed a modest-but impressive workshop, albeit in a back bedroom.

Equipped with a workbench, jigsaw and tool box, there's little room for guests to stay over.

Cigar boxes spill over one another, emitting a floral, tobacco-tinged oaky smell.

But while the boxes take over the bench, their names are entertaining. One caught the eye with the words: "Mayorgas and the aptly subtitled Bonita Mommas: 'One Mother of a Cigar".

Among the tools is a fret slotting saw with mitre box and fret scale template, made by Sheffield tool company Stewart McDonald: Julian said: "I have to buy this from the States, can you believe it? They only make them down the road in Hillsborough."

Julian's craft name, Ju Ju Guitars, is already catching the eye of enthusiasts across the Atlantic.

Already, he has had three sales and six serious enquiries - the majority being from the US, where the cigar box guitar scene is much bigger.

But the UK market is growing. Fast. Makers and players - from both sides of the pond - congregate on at the Cigar Box Nation website, through which Julian has obtained his commissions.

The American-based site has a section dedicated to British converts entitled The Brits are Coming, with each member having his or her, slightly bizarre web name, such as Randy Rooster, Swampbitch and Hogs Grunt.

Julian's 'Ju Ju' was given to him by fellow Cigar Box Nation members.

"Apparently, it means good Mojo - it's a name the Americans gave me on the forum so I stuck with it," he laughs.

But unusual names, cyber space forums and modern-day pastimes aside, the cigar box guitar's history is rooted in necessity. The earliest proof of a cigar box instrument is an etching of two Civil War soldiers playing at a campsite.

Cigar box guitars were also instrumental in the rise of jug band blues, as they contributed to the cheap-to-build musical repertoire of its performers, who were predominantly poverty-stricken black Americans.

During the Great Depression, there was a resurgence of homemade instruments.

Sitting on the front porch playing a home-made instrument was a popular, free pastime in such hard times.

Conventional instruments were the reserve of the rich but initiative meant that such objects as broom handles and wires from the screen door could potentially become part of an instrument.

Even Jimi Hendrix, Roy Clark and Carl Perkins are alleged to have started their careers on the cigar box guitar.

Along with Julian, other modern day cigar box devotees include Hollowbelly, a British blues guitarist whose haunts include the prestigious 100 Club.

Hollowbelly will perform at the Cigar Box Festival in Birmingham in October, playing Julian's hand-crafted guitar.

"I'm just making that now. I'm using a wood body - not a cigar box. The guitar will be made from a sycamore tree that was cut down in the woods nearby.

"A council worker said he was going to bin it so I took it home and now it's about to become a guitar," Julian said.

He is also using a miniature Jack Daniels bottle and a Grolsch pop top.

Julian is hoping to take a few guitars for display at the Cigar Box Festival.

"It's the first one of its kind. There's loads of people going from all over the country."

Asked as to how he's getting there, he said: "Randy Rooster's picking me up."

Log on to thestar.co.uk/video for a video interview with Julian.

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