Wednesday, January 21, 2009

How to make a low D penny (or tin) whistle

This article originally appeared as a thread on the Chiff & Fipple forum. It was written over a two day period as a commentary on me building a low D whistle.

I have modified the original posts to try and make it read more like an article, but its still a commentary on what happened.

Part 1
I found these instructions:

and as I had a piece of 1 inch diameter aluminium alloy tubing I decided to give it a go.


Cut the tube to approximate length plus 2 cm to give me some leeway for error.

Cut the window and filed out the burrs.
To do this I put masking tape on the tube, marked it out in pencil, drilled the short edges with a small drill bit and used a fine junior hacksaw blade to cut the top and bottom, then I filed them out using a needle file.

Made the fipple plug.
To do this I cut a bit off the end of the handle of an old garden brush which was a good fit in the tube already. Put some sandpaper on my workbench and rubbed it backwards and forwards till I had taken enough off it to get an airway 17mm wide (to match the window)

Made the ramp.
I used a hammer and the round end of a radiator plug to "panel beat" the depressed area over a large number of strikes with the hammer. I tried to align the edge of the lip so it was straight but this is not easy with aluminium, I can see now why so many makers mill out the lips in aluminium whistles. Then I filed the edge slightly sharper to give me a start at being able to make a sound.

Shaped the wind way.
I put the fipple plug in the tube, taped the tube to my bench with gaffer tape and used a block of wood and a hammer to shape the top of the airway slightly flatter. Again a lot of short sharp strikes while moving over the area to prevent the tube being damaged. The wood protects it also.

Took whistle indoors and left it to reach room temperature then blew some air through it to warm it up. Taped the fipple block in place and was surprised to make a sound, this was a bottom C#.

Glued the fipple block.
I used impact adhesive because thats what I had.
I also used it to fill the gaps between the wood and the tube now that it had been slightly distorted.

Total time so far: one hour plus coffee break.

I had to leave it for the glue to set overnight.

Tools used so far:

Wood block
Mitre saw (to get the fipple block ends straight, although you could use any saw).
Junior hacksaw with a fine blade
electric drill and drill bits
needle files
chromatic tuner (could use a piano or other tuning aid)

Part 2


Checked for seal round the fipple block and all was OK
Warmed it up and tested the tuning, still just under C#.

Spent one hour (yes one hour) trying to get the manufacturers label off the tube!
It was laminated on with plastic and I ended up using solvent. I am not going to include this in the overall time for making the instrument.

Tuning of root note D
Cut the tube with hacksaw about 6mm at a time till I was showing a flat D.
Then very carefully took small amounts off (filing might be easier) until I hit it correctly.

Making of holes
I put masking tape right down the centre of the tube and marked the centre line in pencil. Then calculated the positions of the holes using the formula in the article. I decided to offset some of the holes as I have short fingers and I did this by looking at pictures of commercial whistles. Drilled the holes with a small drill bit and removed the masking tape.

Started on the furthest away hole, enlarging it with successive drill bits until it got higher in pitch and nearly in tune. Then used tapered reamer to adjust it more precisely. Could use a rat tail file for this or just successively larger drill bits.

Tools used today in addition to yesterday:

Tapered reamers (not necessary, could use a file or drill bits)

Time spent in total so far: about two hours in total

So far I have bottom two notes playing in tune. Next task will be to tune the other notes and then make sure the lip adjustment is right for a good tone on every note.

Couple of photos of the progress so far (click on image to see larger version):

You can see that the holes are all still small apart from the bottom one which has been tuned.
The rest will get bigger as I work my way up.

The mouthpiece will be cut at an angle and filed smooth. The lip will need adjusted to make a clear sound on all notes, but even in this state its actually sounding good on the two notes that work.

Part 3

I work from home so at lunch time I made a quick sandwich and started tuning the whistle. I did each note in turn, opening up the hole with successively larger drill bits till it was just below pitch, then I went back and used a tapered reamer to finely adjust the holes. It was a bit fiddly, but took half an hour to complete. Because I knew I would have to clean the holes I stayed slightly flat on the note so I can adjust again later. I was surprised at how big some of the holes were but they were in line with the sizes the author of the article ended up with. At this point I was glad I offset the holes.

Total time so far : 2 hours 30 minutes

I then used a half round needle file to de burr the top and bottom surfaces of each hole.
I used some P600 paper to clean up the lip which has improved the volume.

OK, we have a working whistle.

Here is a clip of me playing the Dark Island on it:

I still need to shape the mouthpiece and varnish the end of the fipple block to protect it. I think making that diagonal cut might be quite difficult with hand tools. Will do it later and report back.

A functional low D in under three hours using basic household tools, and I have never made a woodwind instrument before. I have to say, I am surprised and even slightly shocked. Its not an Overton or even a Susato but it works!

A couple of the notes are still a bit flat and need pulled up but I will do that with a rat tail file, gradually over the next few days. I will cut the mouthpiece to shape later today and varnish the wooden end. I may also adjust the wind way to make it more efficient and send more of the air onto the lip blade.

Photo of what it looks like with the holes correctly tuned (click on image for larger version):

I have shaped the mouthpiece end and am re gluing the fipple block, then I just have to varnish the wooden end to protect it. Going to lacquer coat it and also the top of the mouthpiece because I had a bad reaction to an aluminium trumpet mouthpiece once (so did a lot of people which is why they stopped making them).

If anything, resetting the fipple block made it louder. I meant to burn the top of the block to harden the surface a bit but its too late now. Maybe the next one I build. I can see me doing more of these. Maybe a very mellow C made from half inch plumbing pipe next.

Having made the angled cut for the mouthpiece I realised that there was going to be a tendency for my bottom lip to lever the wooden block up the way and slightly narrow the airway. To stop this happening I drilled a hole through the bottom of the tube and screwed the fipple block to the tube using this. The adhesive might be strong enough but a bit of over engineering does no harm.

I have now sprayed the mouthpiece end with clear lacquer and its going to take some time to settle down. Will give it another blow tonight and see how I get on. One not is noticeably flat in both octaves so one hole needs enlarged slightly and then that will be it.

I have adjusted the tuning again and recorded a bit of Hot Asphalt to try out a faster tune. I am glad I offset those holes.


This instrument has been well used and features on my new CD.

I went on to scorch the inside of the fipple block as a way of hardening the wood. This video is a final demonstration of the finished instrument. Having experimented with this one I have found an easier way of doing it. Instead of flattening the tube at the fipple end to make the air pass over the blade I could make the bit taken out of the block wider at the open end and narrower at the blade end. This is how the Clarke original whistles are made. I think I could reduce the air requirement by doing this and bringing the blade down to the level of the top of the fipple block. I will be building another one soon.