Tongue Drums #1: The soundboard/tongue top

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Blog entry by GnarlyErik posted 06-07-2021 01:08 AM 489 reads 2 times favorited 1 comment Add to Favorites Watch
no previous part Part 1 of Tongue Drums series Part 2: Mallets - more than you need to know! »

There’s been enough interest in the tongue drums I’ve built, I’ve decided to make a blog entry to share what I have learned, much of it through trial and error, as well as what research as I can find. Plese keep in mind that I am NOT a musician, so there’s been a lot of trial and error on my part. I’ve lost count now, but I’ve made well over a dozen of these things, with no two of them exactly alike.

I will attempt an ongoing blog to describe the process and what I’ve learned. Since this is fairly complicated to describe I will begin with the business end of tongue drums since that is what everyone seems to want to know about – the top, or sounding surface.

In general terms here’s my input:

Top Material: I believe any dense hardwood which #rings’ should be fine. So far I’ve tried the following, ranked from best on down. this is my own opinion of course, and others may disagree:

Red cherry

Padauk (African)

Honduras mahogany


White ash

Hard maple (I was surprised at this one)

#A sample should ‘ring’ when held close to your ear and tapped with a fingernail. (You’ll recognize it when you hear it!)

Top Thickness: 5/8” to 3/4” seems about right. The 5/8” red cherry top I’ve recently finished and which you can hear played in the video has a very ‘sweet’ sound to my ear. The 3/4” Padauk on the other hand has a more sonorous ‘heavy’ sound, but seems to have a better range.

Tongue pattern: There are many variations including those you invent for yourself. Mine shown here are derived from a combination of those I’ve tried to figure out from online pictures, more precise harmonic calculations, Hertz measurements, etc. Some generalizations: The thicker the tongue material is, the ‘thunkier’ the sound; The longer a tongue is, the deeper the note towards bass; Tongues may be tuned higher by thinning it at the tip; Tongues may be tuned lower by thinning near the fixed end; (within reason.)

The illustrations are full-sized scanned images of my latest twelve-key red cherry top tongue drum. It is too long to fit on my scanner, so the scans are in two parts with a ‘witness’ tape intended to help you print out and join together each half into a full-sized pattern. I am not a musician, but my drum sounds very sweet to my ear. For precise tuning a Hertz measurement app or tool is probably mandatory, but if you know your stuff, tuning by ear should be possible too.

(Click on links below for printable tongue patterns):


Here is another twelve-key pattern available online:


In a future blog entry(s)on this subject I will include information on building the base for the soundboard, joining the soundboard to the base, mallet making & material sources.
I also plan to find a piece of old-growth southern heart pine and will try a soundboard made from that. I hcen’t heard of SYP being used, but old-growth is incredibly dense, straight-grained and brittle, but I believe it should make good tongues if you don’t get too fancy with the ends. I have a wide piece piece of purpleheart also which I’ve been told works well. Incidentally, I use no metal fasteners at all in my tongue drums except for small screws to hold the bottom resonater panel in place so it can be removed for tuning if need be.

-- "Never let your dogma be run over by your karma!"

1 comment so far

View robscastle's profile


7950 posts in 3324 days

#1 posted 06-07-2021 11:07 PM

Looks good Gnarly.

I may have to recruit my son to assist in tuning as I and almost deaf.
I am also not a musician
I am going to use Red Iron Bark for my first attempt.

-- Regards Rob

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