Orff Xylophone

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Project by vipond33 posted 08-14-2011 07:18 AM 12441 views 33 times favorited 14 comments Add to Favorites Watch

My daughter is in a movement and music class, song and dance too I suppose, with the music component performed entirely on xylophones. The teacher is trained in the Orff system, a method that teaches music much like learning a new language, something that young kids absorb easily. Xylophones are great instruments, piccolo to bass they are simple tools that allow even the youngest to master a simple tune or compose. My daughter liked it a lot so I thought maybe I would buy her one – till I saw the up to $1000 price tag. Now I know what you’re thinking, ”Build it and make this post come true!”. OK OK, so I thought and pondered and searched and was lucky and found a detailed set of plans here:

Right, super, this looks good, cutting list and all! How hard could it be? what could go wrong? Plenty it seems.

To build it I had a small dead straight piece of quartersawn ash for the soundboard and a length of rosewood for the keys and grips. Orff is very picky about their materials – rosewood is classic, so fair enough, I’m out of the gate.

In the soundboard the bottom must rise to create different volumes of air for groups of keys to resonate and is carefully divided for tone separation. The plan, surprisingly or not, called for butt joints at the ends ??? but who am I to question Orff? I did use a simple trick to re-enforce them though. Brass screws were driven in short, the heads nipped off and then filed flush. Solid and pretty.
The keys had to be very precise dimensions with nodal points (drilled holes to you) placed accurately and with curved undercuts.The shape of the top surface was also critical. I managed to do it with a tilting head shaper, screwing each piece onto a carrier.

After the build it was time to tune the keys by sanding, or removing minute amounts of material from the underside arc and the ends. Looking around the net I found a staggering amount of information available to do this, so after leaving the names of my next of kin I waded in. Well now, the writers of many of these pages used sophisticated tone generators and setups to vibrate the keys, scientific analyzers to decipher it and enough math and graphs to make the average calculator choke. They were talking about first, second, third, fourth order harmonics and beyond. Bewildered, and after hours of reading, I gathered the simplest of instructions and fled.

As a side note, it is interesting that there are only three ways to produce a pure tone for help in tuning. You can use a tone generator, a tuning fork, or you can just whistle. I think it’s rather amazing that we have pure tones within ourselves. Try it.
In the end it sounded ok, not perfect, but I gave up trying. It was very frustrating and strange, as a woodworker, to not be pleased with just the looks of a piece but needing to hear the wood as well. Will I ever make another musical instrument? Not in this lifetime, for I think that instrument makers are blessed with a certain skill at birth, my hat is off to them and now I understand the price.

24”x10 1/4”x5 1/2”
About 35hrs.
Build on LJ’s.

-- gene@toronto.ontario.canada : dovetail free since '53, critiques always welcome.

14 comments so far

View WayneC's profile


13754 posts in 4126 days

#1 posted 08-14-2011 07:20 AM

This is really pretty, any chance of a video of it in use?

-- We must guard our enthusiasm as we would our life - James Krenov

View Brett's profile


950 posts in 2787 days

#2 posted 08-14-2011 07:41 AM

Excellent! Very beautiful and I bet that it sounds fantastic. I love the last comment that you made “and now I understand that price.” So true.

That is a project to be proud of.

-- Hand Crafted by Brett Peterson John 3:16

View MShort's profile


1790 posts in 3447 days

#3 posted 08-14-2011 01:32 PM

That is a very sharp looking xylophone. Beautiful woodwork.

-- Mike, Missouri --- “A positive life can not happen with a negative mind.” ---

View 489tad's profile


3370 posts in 3040 days

#4 posted 08-14-2011 02:06 PM

Nice job. It looks great. Why not try another, you seem to have the patients for it.

-- Dan, Naperville IL, I.G.N.

View Maveric777's profile


2693 posts in 3105 days

#5 posted 08-14-2011 02:38 PM


-- Dan ~ Texarkana, Tx.

View CharlieM1958's profile


16275 posts in 4247 days

#6 posted 08-14-2011 03:08 PM

It looks great, and I really enjoyed reading the build story.

Even though I’ve played piano, guitar, and a few other instruments to lesser degrees for over 40 years, I had no idea what went into building one of these “simple” instruments. I always assumed it was all about the length of the keys…. period.

Thanks for the post!

-- Charlie M. "Woodworking - patience = firewood"

View Cosmicsniper's profile


2202 posts in 3187 days

#7 posted 08-14-2011 05:08 PM

This is awesome…need to do this one.

Yes, a lot of detail in a true xylophone to get that pure tone, though there’s nothing wrong with building one for the kids where none of the other harmonics are eliminated. Sadly, if you were to sell these, most many people would NOT understand the difference between what you built and the Fisher Price version.

It would be cool if you recorded your instrument and let us hear it!!!

-- jay,

View TopamaxSurvivor's profile


18292 posts in 3704 days

#8 posted 08-15-2011 08:47 AM

Nice work. Sounds like it was a lot of trouble to get it right! Welcome to LJ!!

-- Bob in WW ~ "some old things are lovely, warm still with life ... of the forgotten men who made them." - D.H. Lawrence

View itsmic's profile


1419 posts in 3147 days

#9 posted 08-17-2011 02:21 AM

Very Nice, I would love to try one of these, Yours looks to be perfect, thanks for all the info and pics, looks great

-- It's Mic Keep working and sharing

View lightweightladylefty's profile


3241 posts in 3741 days

#10 posted 08-18-2011 06:35 AM


I have always wanted to make a musical instrument but could never understand how to get a high tonal quality. Whenever I have inquired, I have never gotten adequate answers. I really appreciate your explanation and maybe you have just told the truth I needed to hear . . . ”instrument makers are blessed with a certain skill at birth.”

The xylophone is indeed beautiful and, based on its appearance, you are probably being too hard on yourself regarding the sound. Thanks so much for sharing all the details with us.


-- Jesus is the ONLY reason for ANY season.

View Broglea's profile


685 posts in 3119 days

#11 posted 08-24-2011 01:36 PM

Yikes. I had no idea what went into something like this. At the end of the day, you learned something new and now have a beautiful instrument. Like some of the previous comments, I too would like to hear it.

View vipond33's profile


1405 posts in 2526 days

#12 posted 09-18-2011 07:30 PM

Yikes too! Where are my manners? This is a very late thank you for your wonderful comments, I truly appreciate them. There won’t be an audio or video post on this for a while as the instrument is back on the bench in pieces. Yes I’m having another go at the sound shaping. Stay tuned! Ha.

-- gene@toronto.ontario.canada : dovetail free since '53, critiques always welcome.

View rance's profile


4258 posts in 3189 days

#13 posted 09-18-2011 08:18 PM

VERY Nice build. I was surprised at the cove bit used in the cutouts on the bottom of the notes. I would have guessed a straight cut. Was that specified?

-- Backer boards, stop blocks, build oversized, and never buy a hand plane--

View florentin's profile


65 posts in 2348 days

#14 posted 02-16-2012 08:35 PM

Wow! What an awesome job on this xylophone!!!


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