What I learned Making Tongue Drums

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Blog entry by GnarlyErik posted 06-26-2015 08:05 PM 4370 reads 1 time favorited 7 comments Add to Favorites Watch

Thanks for your interest in the tongue drums -

I apologize but I did not keep precise dimensions for my tongue drums. I made about six in total, mostly as experiments to discover how the various materials and sizes worked. I made some with red oak sound boards and pine sides, one with a mahogany board and oak sides, one with a hard maple and etc. I gave all but this one of away so no longer have them around to measure, but the sound boards on all of them were of a similar size.

I have taken some pictures which may help you on relative sizes and dimensions. The background is a grid with 1” squares, and I have laid my rule directly on the drum to help in some pictures. There is some information online you can find as well which will be of help. I remember I printed out some schematics I found online which I glued onto my stock to guide the cutting. I was pleased with the results in any case.

The best sound seemed to be with the one made from the traditional padauk material from Africa, and which is pictured here. The hard maple and mahogany also produced pleasant sounds, and the oak not quite as nice, but still OK. My recommendation would be to use maple or mahogany (not Philippine) since you don’t need much, and it is easier to find than the padauk. I also made various inside depths, from 4” to about 8” inside under the sound board. All the ones I built have 6mm high quality ply bottoms and fairly small sound holes cut in the ends. The bottoms were screwed in place onto thin fillister cleats glued to inside of the sides and ends, and recessed enough so the bottoms are slightly recessed so they do not contact the surface the drum rests on. All the other joints were glued. I found it was good to glue on small felt furniture pads for the box to stand on to isolate it from solid contact with whatever it is placed on. I cut the linear parts of the tongues with with a very thin kerf battery-powered panel saw and finished the curved parts with a 24” scroll saw. Sanding the sides of the tongues was a challenge and was done mostly with power sander belts cut into narrow strips and used by hand before the soundboards were glued in place.

The outside dimensions of this particular drum are 18” long by 9-1/2” wide by 8” inside depth. Keep in mind the soundboard itself fits inside the sides – maple in this case, so its width is reduced by their combined thicknesses and it winds up approximately 8” wide. The soundboard goes over the end pieces, and I found it makes a difference how far the slits are from the ends. The soundboard is 3/4” thick at the ends, but some of the individual tongues are tapered somewhat in my efforts to ‘tune’ the drums to particular tones – a haphazard and difficult process for me since I am ‘musically challenged’, i.e., I don’t know very much about music. I think with a little research though you could come close to whatever notes/tones you seek. This particular one sounds very nice to my ear, and the ones I made for children seem to be pretty popular with them – then again children just like to make noise sometimes don’t they?

I hope you make a drum – at least one – they are a little addictive! I would be very interested in seeing your completed project.

Good Luck!

-- Candy is dandy and rum sure is fun, but wood working is the best high for me!

7 comments so far

View stefang's profile


15512 posts in 2794 days

#1 posted 06-26-2015 08:12 PM

They are very nice looking.

-- Mike, an American living in Norway.

View tyvekboy's profile


1334 posts in 2473 days

#2 posted 06-26-2015 08:23 PM

Thanks for sharing this information.

You might want to go back to your project post and edit it with a link to this blog post and/or add pictures to the project post.

Your original post on the tounge drums was also good.

I have some scraps of Cumaru that I may try it with.

-- Tyvekboy -- Marietta, GA ………….. one can never be too organized

View maplerock's profile


525 posts in 1260 days

#3 posted 06-26-2015 08:33 PM


Great explanation! So nice of you to take the time. A couple of questions: how did you attach sandpaper to the jigsaw (if you used one to sand the cutouts.)

Do larger fingers Produce lower sound?

Did you use a tables for any of the cut outs?

Where did you get your pattern for the cut outs (on top)?

-- Jerry... making sawdust in the Knobs of Southern Indiana

View Texcaster's profile


1138 posts in 1134 days

#4 posted 06-26-2015 10:49 PM

Nice work Gnarly,

With an inexpensive chromatic guitar tuner you can zero in an exact pitch for each tongue. If you tuned it like a diatonic fretted dulcimer, playing a bum note is impossible.

Ex. the key of C maj has no sharps or flats. Tune the tongues with no sharps or flats. If you accompany someone else they must also play in the key of C.

From the link

Frets, strings, tuning and modes[edit]

Fret placement[edit]

The frets of the Appalachian dulcimer are typically arranged in a diatonic scale. This is in contrast with instruments like the guitar or banjo, which are fretted chromatically. As early as the mid-1950s some makers began to include at least one additional fret, usually the so-called “six and a half” or “6+” fret a half step below the octave. This enables one to play in the Ionian mode when tuned to D3-A3-D4 (the traditional tuning for the Mixolydian mode), where the scale starts on the open (unfretted) string. This arrangement is often found to be more conducive to chord-melody play. It also became common to add a fret one octave up from the 6+ fret, called the “13+” fret, and by the late 1970s these additional frets had become standard.[16]

Eventually, some builders began to offer further additional frets at the “1+” and “8+” positions. These additional frets facilitate the use of still more scales and modes without retuning. As was probably inevitable, this trend eventually led to the availability of fully chromatic dulcimers, with twelve frets per octave, permitting playing in any key without re-tuning. Chromatic fretting, however, remains somewhat controversial among dulcimer players, with traditionalists preferring what they feel is the greater authenticity of the diatonic fingerboard.[17]

-- Mama calls me Texcaster but my real name is Mr. Earl.

View jinkyjock's profile


487 posts in 1034 days

#5 posted 06-27-2015 10:11 AM

thank you for posting this intriguing project.
Had no idea such an instrument existed so any knowledge gained is always welcome.
You have produced a beautiful object.

View jinkyjock's profile


487 posts in 1034 days

#6 posted 06-27-2015 10:13 AM

read your post (thank you) with great interest, however although informative it is just a wee bit
too technical for my limited understanding.
Therefore I “googled” a video of the drum being played.
Looks like a similar wood to Erik’s piece.
What a wonderful, rich and clear tone it produces.
Thank you guys for this gem. THIS is why I love Lumberjocks.
Cheers, Jinky (James).

View NormG's profile


5499 posts in 2464 days

#7 posted 06-29-2015 04:10 AM

They are fun I have made 3 I believe, one similar to your and others varies in woods used. Did you place wood pieces of various heights inside at the end?

You are correct, the kids love these

-- Norman - I never never make a mistake, I just change the design.

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