Four More Tongue Drums

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Project by GnarlyErik posted 10-23-2012 02:52 AM 29464 views 31 times favorited 14 comments Add to Favorites Watch

Four more tongue drums

I have just completed my last four drums for my grandchildren, so that will probably be it for tongue drums for awhile for me. These are three sizes, with the sounding boards being the same size. #1 is a mahogany sounding board and oak sides and ends, 3-1/2” high. #2 and #3 are identical as they are for twins. These have cherry sounding boards with cedar sides and ends, and are 7” high. #4 is a padauk sounding board with maple sides and cherry ends, and is 9-1/2” high. This one also has mahogany intarsias laid into the sides for decoration.

After building six drums, and trying various experiments, here are a few things I have learned:

1: Height or depth makes a difference in sound as may be expected, giving a deeper tone, although the shallower ones sound fine too and have the advantage of being lighter and much easier to manage and carry about. Note I have started adding carry handles for convenience;

2: Softwood sides give a more mellow sound, more pleasant to my ear, hardwoods provide a sharper more ‘percussive’ voice. Some of my drums have been made with small decorative sound holes in the sides, and some without, but it doesn’t seem to make much difference since most of the sound comes thru the openings in the sound board and via the vibrations of the instrument as a whole – which is surprisingly vigorous when you put your hand on it;

3: Here’s are my choices of soundboards in order: Cherry, padauk, Honduras mahogany. Note these are the only ones I have tried so far. I was surprised the cherry sounded better than the padauk to me;

4: I managed to ‘tune’ the flat or ‘buzz’ sounds out of any tongues by adding slugs of the same material underneath and near the fixed ends with screws and glue. The size of the slugs control the tone, and if they are fixed further out on the tongue, they aren’t as effective. The last picture in the album above shows these slugs installed on the underside of tongues of one of these drums. If I build any more drums, I will attempt to tune to a scale, which I have not done so far;

5: The most laborious part of building these is the sanding of the slits and ends of the tongues, but I found a way around this by creating sanding ‘blades’ for my scroll saw. Once I figured that out, things became much easier;

6: If I build any more of these, my material choices will be: White pine sides, cherry sound board and ends.

UPDATE 6/26/2015: I’ve made a new blog entry to pass along a few things I’ve learned to help those who may wish to build any of these:

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

14 comments so far

View ruddy's profile


549 posts in 3390 days

#1 posted 10-23-2012 04:39 AM

A fine collection Erik. What thickness do you recommend for the sounding board.
Thanks for sharing this project, I have made one recently and although the Grandkids love it, it is a long way from being really great with the sound.

-- And my head I'd be a scratchin'

View clarkey's profile


468 posts in 3507 days

#2 posted 10-23-2012 01:07 PM

Nice work!!!! l’m interested in building one myself . Where can l get a drawing of the tongues ? Your project notes are very helpful . Could you tell me , is the tone deeper when the sides are higher? Thanks for showing

View sras's profile


5135 posts in 3581 days

#3 posted 10-23-2012 02:21 PM

Very nice results! I appreciate that you shared what you learned as well. Thanks.

-- Steve - Impatience is Expensive

View timeshare's profile


11 posts in 3482 days

#4 posted 10-23-2012 04:49 PM

I would enjoy if you care to share your plans, althought there are several plans on different sites they are for tone bars on one side. Larry ([email protected])

View Ken90712's profile


17701 posts in 3640 days

#5 posted 10-23-2012 05:10 PM

Ill bet they sound as good as they look. well done

-- Ken, "Everyday above ground is a good day!"

View oldnovice's profile


7496 posts in 3819 days

#6 posted 10-23-2012 05:44 PM

Four drums … four grandchildren … someone will be sorry unless you make some plugs. Based totally on experience of taking care of two grandchildren 5 days a week.

Other than that, I like these drums in appearance and design, not to mention your learnings/teachings in your write up. Those will come in handy when I build ONE. Thanks for posting the size. Is there pattern/template you can post for the actual cut out in the sound board?

It would be interesting to change out the sound boards while keeping the dimensions of the box constant and log the sound qualities of various woods. Obviously the cutouts of the variable sound boards must also be the same for a valid test.

-- "I never met a board I didn't like!"

View JoeinDE's profile


444 posts in 3775 days

#7 posted 10-23-2012 06:51 PM

Nice builds.

I’m currently building a set – one for each of my kids and one for each of my five nieces and nephews – 6 tongue drums in all. These will be posted when I am done. Each will have a different wood for the sounding board. The woods I am using are walnut, mahogany, purpleheart, padauk, cherry and maple. All sounding boards are roughly 1” thick. So far I would rank the woods in this order padauk > cherry > walnut > maple > mahongany >> purpleheart. The paduak has an amazing level of resonance to it. The cherry produces good tone, but done not have the same level of resonance as the paduak. The purpleheart is just too rigid to vibrate well at that thickness. The mahogany provides more sound than the ph, but it doesn’t resonate very well. The folks who make these for a living use padauk and canarywood almost exclusively. Admittedly I am experimenting with with tongue shape and size so I figured I might have some duds in my set.


View Fishinbo's profile


11362 posts in 2627 days

#8 posted 10-23-2012 09:08 PM

All of them are enticingly pretty. Keep them coming.

View GnarlyErik's profile


320 posts in 2586 days

#9 posted 10-23-2012 09:27 PM

Ruddy, I’ve made my sounding boards 3/4” thick, except for one (padauk) which is a bit proud of 7/8”. I have also tapered a couple from full at the fixed end of the tongues to about 60% of that at the free ends, though I could not tell much difference except it saves a on weight somewhat. Hope this helps.

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

View GnarlyErik's profile


320 posts in 2586 days

#10 posted 10-23-2012 09:35 PM

Clarkey, I will try to post my sketches and patterns when I can get back to my computer where they are filed, which should be tomorrow.

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

View GnarlyErik's profile


320 posts in 2586 days

#11 posted 10-23-2012 09:36 PM

Old novice, see my note to Clarkey above . . .

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

View TopamaxSurvivor's profile


18639 posts in 4127 days

#12 posted 10-24-2012 03:57 AM

Nice work. Thanks for the tips ;-)

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

View GnarlyErik's profile


320 posts in 2586 days

#13 posted 10-24-2012 08:03 PM

I promised to post my sketches for the drums I’ve built. Please note that I am NOT a musical person, so you should take my ideas and dimensions with a generous grain of salt. I only know what ‘sounds good to me.

First, a sketch of the box structure. As noted above, I have built several depths of drum, with the soundboards more or less the same. The dimensions in this sketch may be adjusted to suit the builder’s wishes in size:

Now, a full-size scan of my twelve tongue layout. The tongues are centered on the soundboard. My method was to print my pattern, then center it and glue to the sound board itself. Once the tongues were cut, the paper sketch was sanded off.

And, here is a full-sized pattern of my fourteen tongue drum – done same as above;

A note on cutting the slits: I started the straight parts of slits with a battery powered Makita panel saw because of the thin kerf. Then, the outlines of the curved ends of the tongues were cut with a scroll saw. The last cuts were made with a hand-held saber-saw with a metal-cutting blade, which followed the panel saw cuts because that gave a smoother kerf, and it provided a slightly larger kerf which made things easier to sand.

A note on sanding. The most time consuming part of building these for me was getting a nice smooth sanding job on the sides and ends of the tongues. I soldered a 1/2” x 24 gauge piece of sheet metal to an old scroll saw blade. Using contact cement, I then glued a strip of belt 60d sander belt to the sheet metal. That allowed me to use the scroll saw’s sweat to do most of the sanding of the tongues. I also cut strips of the belt sander belts in different widths which made great hand sanding tools since the fabric in the belts keep them from tearing. BELT SANDER BELTS ARE MY FRIENDS!

Keep in mind, the tongue sanding should be done before the soundboard is glued to the box!

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

View mbs's profile


1657 posts in 3391 days

#14 posted 11-30-2012 05:25 AM

Thanks for sharing. I will be making two for my grands.

-- Sorry the reply is so long. I didn't have time to write a short reply.

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