LumberJocks

What I learned Making Tongue Drums

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Blog entry by GnarlyErik posted 06-26-2015 08:05 PM 5617 reads 1 time favorited 10 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?

EDIT JAN. 5, 2017:

It is difficult to TUNE each key. The pitch of the note produced is related to, and controlled by many factors:

Namely,

Of the keys themselves: Length, Width, Thickness, Mass (density of the material), and for the lack of a better word, its ‘sympathetic’ interaction with its neighboring keys. (There is probably a more proper term, I just don’t know what it is);


Of the sound box:
The shape, size, depth, volume, material used and size of openings to the air. Also whether or not it has an enclosed bottom (all mine do, but I plan to experiment with one without a bottom sometime). I am told each component of the wood used should be held lightly near one end close to one’s ear and tapped lightly with a fingernail to see if it has a ‘ring’ to it. Anything which ‘thuds’ should be rejected. The same goes for the keys, obviously!

Generally speaking and as you would expect, the larger a key is by any factor, the deeper in pitch its note will be. Therefore, by reducing a given dimension its pitch is raised and vice versa. The problem lies in reaching a defined pitch on a specific key without the adjacent keys interfering too much, as they will all vibrate ‘in sympathy’ more or less, and some are prone to ‘buzz’ if everything isn’t in harmony. Any buzzing is an unpleasant and unwanted sound.

I think the solution is to deaden all keys except the one being tuned in some way, much in the way a capo is used in a guitar. In other words, ‘ground’ them in some way as you tune a specific key. This will require some ingenuity on your part to find a way to do this for each key. Obviously removing material, or reducing its size raises the pitch and vice versa. You can also glue wood on the bottom of a key if needed. I use a tuner app on my iPad to tune, but any tuner should work. Now the problem is, how does the key sound when the other keys are freed to work in sympathy? I try to first tune all the keys individually, and they try them all after they are un-grounded. Seems to work OK, but there’s some back and forth too sometimes. Patience is required!

There is some very timely information from ‘Texcaster’ in the comments below on suggestions for tuning. Texcaster appears to be a much more musically literate person than me, and I’m sure he is right. Next time I build one of these I will follow his advice.

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!



10 comments so far

View stefang's profile

stefang

15512 posts in 2878 days


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

They are very nice looking.

-- Mike, an American living in Norway.

View tyvekboy's profile

tyvekboy

1440 posts in 2557 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

maplerock

529 posts in 1344 days


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

Erik,

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

Texcaster

1161 posts in 1218 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.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appalachian_dulcimer

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

jinkyjock

488 posts in 1118 days


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

Erik,
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

jinkyjock

488 posts in 1118 days


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

Texcaster,
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

NormG

5621 posts in 2548 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.

View Sandpaperer's profile

Sandpaperer

5 posts in 51 days


#8 posted 01-05-2017 04:38 AM

Can any of you guys answer this question? Can the soundboard/top of the tongue drum be pieces of lumber that have been glued together or does it have to be one piece? I want my top to be walnut around 8 – 10 inches but it is hard to find that wide. Thanks.

View GnarlyErik's profile

GnarlyErik

264 posts in 1678 days


#9 posted 01-05-2017 07:33 PM

Thanks for your question Sandpaperer.

Let me point out first thing I do not present myself as any sort of musical expert being merely an interested novice. However, after building a number of these drums a while ago I have learned a few things about musical sounds. I am still learning after getting into building more sophisticated stringed instruments,

To answer your question directly, no I do not believe it will make much difference if you build your sound board out of more than one piece. In fact, the next one I try will have individually separate ‘keys’. The reason is simple: It is devilishly hard to do any ‘tuning’ to each key. The pitch of the note produced is related to, and controlled by many factors:

Namely,

Of the keys themselves: Length, Width, Thickness, Mass (density of the material), and for the lack of a better word, its ‘sympathetic’ interaction with its neighboring keys. (There is probably a more proper term, I just don’t know what it is);

Of the sound box: The shape, size, depth, volume, material used and size of openings to the air. Also whether or not it has an enclosed bottom (all mine do, but I plan to experiment with one without a bottom sometime). I am told each component of the wood used should be held lightly near one end close to one’s ear and tapped lightly with a fingernail to see if it has a ‘ring’ to it. Anything which ‘thuds’ should be rejected. The same goes for the keys, obviously!

Generally speaking and as you would expect, the larger a key is by any factor, the deeper in pitch its note will be. Therefore, by reducing a given dimension its pitch is raised and vice versa. The problem lies in reaching a defined pitch on a specific key without the adjacent keys interfering too much, as they will all vibrate ‘in sympathy’ more or less, and some are prone to ‘buzz’ if everything isn’t in harmony. Any buzzing is an unpleasant and unwanted sound.

I think the solution is to deaden all keys except the one being tuned in some way, much in the way a capo is used in a guitar. In other words, ‘ground’ them in some way as you tune a specific key. This will require some ingenuity on your part to find a way to do this for each key. Obviously removing material, or reducing its size raises the pitch and vice versa. You can also glue wood on the bottom of a key if needed. I use a tuner app on my iPad to tune, but any tuner should work. Now the problem is, how does the key sound when the other keys are freed to work in sympathy? I try to first tune all the keys individually, and they try them all after they are un-grounded. Seems to work OK, but there’s some back and forth too sometimes. Patience is required!

I hope this is of help!

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

View Sandpaperer's profile

Sandpaperer

5 posts in 51 days


#10 posted 01-06-2017 03:07 AM

Thanks for the answer. You gave a lot of useful information. I am working on my first drum and hoping it turns out well.

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