Tongue Drum

A friend of mine who is a percussionist like me recently moved to another state. I had been playing music with her for a while and decided to make her something she could use that would remind her of me and the other musicians that would miss playing with her. I settled on this tongue drum. I combined the designs from two other wood workers I watch a lot on YouTube; Steve Carmichael and Steve Ramsey. You can click on their names to view these specific videos, and if you’re interested in woodworking I highly recommend subscribing to both channels.

Anyway, I started off by researching what kinds of wood would be good for making a resonant instrument out of. Some of this I already knew from playing, but there were a lot of options I’d never heard of. Bubinga is a good choice as well as Rosewood. I chose Mahogany, since I couldn’t find a big enough piece of Rosewood. If you don’t have access to these more exotic woods, you can use a hard wood like maple. The more dense it is, the better sound you’ll get.

Next I decided how to lay out my drum. Both of the Steves above have links to different patterns but I went with something simple. Since I didn’t want to mess up a good piece of mahogany I made a template on a piece of plywood first. I laid out the lines for the gaps in the wood and then used a 1/4″ straight bit on the router to cut the holes. A started each line by drilling a 1/4″ hole near the end of it so that I could place my router bit.

Once I was happy with my layout, I cut my mahogany and traced the layout to it. The piece of mahagony I used was much thicker than the plywood, (about an inch), and I only have a trim router so the process was a little more difficult. I had to cut the groove in one side and then flip the board to cut the groove the rest of the way through the board. This would be much easier if I had a router table with a fence, but I haven’t made one yet. The router sometimes slid off track into he mahagony but that was not a huge deal. I put those tracks on the inside of the drum and they actually helped with tuning. I’ll explain that later.

Next I decided where to cut the pieces apart so that I would have four distinct pitches. For a tongue drum, each section of wood is cut to a different length so they produce different pitches. The key here is not so much accuracy as it is deciding the general sound you want the tongues to make. There are calculators available online to help determine exact pitches but at least for this instrument I wasn’t concerned with that. I used stop blocks clamped to my mahagony board and a carpenter’s square to keep the router from going astray since I couldn’t use the router’s side fence on top of the board. I cut one set of tongues first before determining where to cut the second set. I listened to the pitches and then used my judgement, combined with some basic knowledge from one of the calculators to decide where my second cut would be.

Next I assembled the box of the drum. This step was fairly simple and just required me to glue up the four sides as I would any other box. I used “whitewood” for this, which is basically some kind of pine that I got from my local Home Depot. Again, a harder wood probably would sound better but really the top is where the sound comes from. The box is just a place for the sound to resonate. I didn’t put a bottom on the box yet because I needed to be able to access the bottom of the tongues to tune them. I also glued the top on at this stage.

It is important to make sure there is as little gap as possible between the top of the drum and the box. Any gaps of air between them will deaden the vibration and the sound.

Check out the glue I use for all of my projects!

You can see in at least one of those pictures where my router bit went wild into the bottom of the board. However, as I mentioned, this can help with tuning. To fine tune a tongue drum, you can remove material from either the base or the end of the tongue to adjust the pitch.  To raise the pitch up you would remove some wood from the end of the tongue, and to lower it remove some from the base. Steve Carmichael does a great job explaining this in his video. I used a forstner bit to take out some material from the underside of my tongues. I wasn’t going for exact pitches here, just a general distance between them so that played from the longest to the shortest tongues the pitch steadily went up. I also found that the solid middle piece has a pitch as well.

After my drum was tuned to how I wanted it, I glued two more pieces of wood into the inside to screw the bottom into. I wanted the bottom to be inset in the drum instead of mounted flat to the bottom. I used two scrap pieces of wood to make sure the blocks were the same distance away from the drum top. This made sure that nothing would be interfering with the vibration of the top. If you use scrap like this as spacers, DON’T GLUE THE SCRAPS IN. That would ruin what you were trying to do. Just set them in and remove them once the blocks are glued and dried.

After the supports were dry I cut a piece of 1/4″ plywood for the bottom and used four painted black screws to hold it in place. I sanded all of the sides to get ready for a finish and used a random orbit sander to round over all of the sharp edges.

On the outside of the drum I wanted to put my friend’s name to make it customized for her. She is from Japan, so to do this step I downloaded a Japanese font on my computer and printed her name. To get the ink on the drum I had to use an ink transfer method that I had never seen before. Steve Ramsey has a great video on how to transfer ink using the waxy paper behind a sheet of labels. However, I didn’t want to waste a bunch of labels to get to the paper so I decided to use regular wax paper instead. This process is easy to do but a little difficult to explain so I’ll do my best here. I may also do a separate post explaining it later on.

Basically, the idea is that you have to print the ink onto something where it is not going to dry until you transfer it to the wood. Wax paper works great for this. I did discover that putting wax paper directly into the printer occasionally works but more often ends with a printer jam. To get around this, I used some blue painters tape to attach the wax paper (cut to roughly letter paper size) to the top of the regular paper so that when the regular paper fed through it would take the wax paper with it. I have done this a few times now and it works great.

Before printing, however, it is important to flip the image 180 degree horizontally or else it’ll be backwards when you transfer it. Once it is printed, carefully take your wax paper off of the letter paper. Don’t touch the ink because it will not be dry (which is the point). At this point I usually put some more blue tape on the back of my wax paper with the sticky side up so that when I lay it on the wood I can use the tape as an anchor.

Carefully position the image where you want and then slowly press the ink onto the wood. Make sure to go back with your fingers and press in every part of the image. Try not to let the wax paper come up off of the wood a lot because it could smear or re-print the image. I printer her name on both sides of the box.

After the ink dries on the wood, which may take some time, you will need to use some kind of finish to seal it. I used three coats of spray lacquer that dries clear but brings out the color of the wood. I sanded lightly with fine grit sandpaper between coats. This finish turns out really well as long as all of the surfaces are sanded. It is also important to sand off any extra glue because some glues will turn colors with finish applied to them.

Here is what the finished drum sounds like:

I really enjoyed this project and as a musician it was extra nice to make an instrument. If you liked this project or got value from it please think about subscribing. As always let me know what you think and thanks for reading!


Author: Sam Adams

I am a musician, educator, and composer based out of Kentucky. I also dabble in wood working.

2 thoughts

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.