Homemade didgeridoos: plastic pipe, copper pipe, bamboo
You might want to try making your own didgeridoo if you’re on a tight budget, if you want an inexpensive practice instrument, or if you just have fun making things. Figure 6-1 shows three didgeridoos made by the author — made of plastic pipe, copper pipe, and bamboo.
You can easily make a didgeridoo of your own, tuned to any key you want, with a few basic hand-tools and some inexpensive materials. For example, you can make a plastic pipe didgeridoo in a couple of hours for a total materials cost of less than $6 (US), and without any tools more complex than a hacksaw. By the way, if you scoff completely at the idea of playing a plastic pipe, the Bloodwood CD by Alan Dargin & Michael Atherton (see the Discography page) contains a track of Mr. Dargin doing some rather amazing things with a 2 meter (6 foot) length of plastic electrical conduit. This track clearly demonstrates the playability of plastic pipe and other non-traditional didgeridoos, although that probably wasn’t what Mr. Dargin specifically had in mind.
You can make a didgeridoo out of any hollow cylinder of sufficient diameter and length, using any of a variety of materials. The following paragraphs first explain what tube diameters and lengths are suitable for making a didgeridoo, then describe the more commonly used materials and suggest convenient sources for those materials.
Whether you use material such as plastic tubing or you hollow out a segment of bamboo, the same minimum and maximum limits apply for the diameter and length of the tubing you can use to make a practical didgeridoo.
Shameless Advertisement: The author will soon have available a booklet containing complete plans and step-by-step illustrated instructions for making didgeridoos in bamboo, plastic pipe, metal pipe, and built-up wooden construction. The instruction booklet includes specific tube lengths for different keys (to simplify the tuning process), along with detailed instructions on preparing surfaces for painting, and how to moisture-seal bamboo to minimize cracking. If you’re interested, send e-mail to get information on pricing and availability. Please indicate whether you would prefer a printed booklet or an electronic booklet in HTML format.
You should select tubing or pipe with an inside diameter of 3 – 5 cm (1.25 – 2 inches), as shown in Figure 6-2. (Inside diameter is the distance across the inside of a pipe or tube, excluding the thickness of the pipe’s walls.) Materials such as bamboo usually taper in cross-section rather than being perfectly cylindrical. For bamboo and similar tapering tubes, make sure that the small end (which will be the mouthpiece) has an inside diameter in the specified range: 3 – 5 cm (1.25 – 2 inches). If the inside diameter is too small, the opening in the mouthpiece won’t let your lips vibrate freely enough to make the drone. If the inside diameter is too large, you won’t be able to get a good air-seal around your lips without building up a huge beeswax mouthpiece.
Minimum inside diameter for the mouthpiece end of a didgeridoo tube
Choose a tube or bamboo piece with a length of 115 – 160 cm (about 45 – 62 inches). Tubes shorter than about 100cm (41 inches) play more like a trumpet than a didgeridoo. Tubes longer than 160cm (62 inches) produce increasingly baritone drones which are increasingly difficult to play. If you’re a beginning to intermediate didgeridoo player, stick to the 115 – 160cm (45 – 62″) length range.
The easiest material to use to make your own didgeridoo is any one of several types of plastic water pipe. To make didgeridoos from plastic pipe, I prefer what is known in America as Schedule 40 PVC pipe, which is available in 1.25″, 1.5″, 1.75″ and 2″ diameters; I generally use the 1.25″ or 1.5″ diameter. Schedule 40 PVC pipe is not brittle, cuts easily, is relatively inexpensive, and produces a didgeridoo with reasonable tonal qualities. Schedule 40 PVC pipe is available at almost every hardware store; most hardware stores will cut a specific length for you, although to get the best price per foot you may need to buy a standardized 6, 8, or 10-foot length of pipe. Schedule 40 PVC pipe is a white poly-vinyl-chloride plastic pipe used for cold-water lines and drains; I imagine that this piping material is available everywhere in the world, even if not under the same name as in the United States.
Bamboo is the second easiest material to make your own didgeridoo with. Making a didgeridoo out of bamboo is a somewhat more difficult (and more expensive) task than using plastic pipe, but the woody bamboo has better tonal qualities. You might want to make a didgeridoo from plastic pipe before tackling a bamboo didgeridoo. Try to find Chinese bamboo, if possible. Chinese bamboo is stronger and denser than other varieties. There are a number of sources for bamboo; the easiest and most economical source I have found is at local plant and tree nurseries. Plant and tree nurseries frequently sell large bamboo pieces for use as tree stakes; you can find pieces typically 3 to 5 meters (9-15 feet) in length. Inspect each piece carefully before you buy it; make sure the piece is free of cracks for a great enough length to make a didgeridoo, and that the piece seems to be fully dried. Most bamboo pieces will develop small, short, hairline cracks in various places as they dry out.
Apart from a tube of some sort, the only other material you’ll need to make a didgeridoo is some beeswax to make a mouthpiece. Use only pure beeswax; other waxes may cause skin irritation or contain additives harmful to human health. (You will be holding your lips against this mouthpiece, remember.) If possible, use food-grade beeswax sold for use by people who can their own fruits and vegetables; beeswax is sometimes used to seal jars of fruit preserves. Otherwise, most hardware stores sell cakes of pure beeswax for use as wood polish (rubbing beeswax into wood gives it a glossy, waterproof finish). You’ll need about 14 grams (1/2 ounce) of beeswax for each mouthpiece you make. You’ll also need an equivalent amount of beeswax to melt in order to provide a foundation for your mouthpiece, and to later seal the completed mouthpiece into place.
Once you have acquired the basic materials for your didgeridoo – some sort of tube and some beeswax – you’re ready to get started constructing your didgeridoo. The following paragraphs first describe how to make a plastic didgeridoo, and then describe how to make a bamboo didgeridoo. Later sections describe how to apply a mouthpiece, and how to tune your didgeridoo.
Building a Plastic Didgeridoo
To build your plastic didgeridoo, you’ll need the following tools:
- Sharp knife
To make the didgeridoo, follow these steps (if your pipe was cut at the hardware store, start with step 3):
Measure and mark an appropriate length of pipe, between 115-160 cm (45-62 inches) long. 2. Using the hacksaw, cut the pipe. It doesn’t matter whether or not you cut the pipe exactly square, though get as close as you can. 3. Use the file and knife to smooth both ends of the cut tube, removing any rough edges and fuzzy stuff left over from cutting. 4. Follow the instructions in Adding a Mouthpiece to apply a beeswax mouthpiece to the tube. 5. If you wish, follow the instructions in Tuning a Didgeridoo to tune your didgeridoo to a specific concert pitch.
CAUTION! CAUTION! Work smart; work carefully. Always wear eye protection, even when working with hand tools; the smallest chip or splinter can ruin your vision, even if it doesn’t enter your eye with much force. Make sure that fingers and other body parts are away from the path of your cutting tools, especially make sure your fingers will be out of the way if your tool slips. Make sure you read and understand the manufacturer’s instructions accompanying any tools you use; follow all manufacturer’s safety recommendations. Brace and clamp your work pieces securely. Don’t become an emergency room statistic.
Building a Bamboo Didgeridoo
To build your bamboo didgeridoo, you’ll need the following tools:
- Measuring tape
- Long wooden pole, such as a painter’s extension handle or a broomstick
- Wood rasp with no handle (that is, with a bare tang)
- 2 hose clamps large enough to fit over the wooden pole
- Workbench with vise or large clamps
To make the bamboo didgeridoo, follow these steps:
Inspect the bamboo to find and mark a section (usually some distance in from both ends of the starting piece) that is free of cracks, whose small end will have an inside diameter not less than 3cm (1.25″), and has an overall length between 115-160 cm (45-62 inches) long. 2. Using the hacksaw, cut out the marked section of bamboo. It doesn’t matter whether or not you cut the bamboo exactly square, but get as close as you can. 3. Use the rasp to smooth both ends of the cut bamboo, removing any rough edges and splinters left over from cutting. 4. Using the long pole, and working from both ends of the bamboo section, knock out the nodes inside the bamboo so that there is a clear passage entirely through the bamboo section. When performing this step, and step 6, it is helpful if you can hold the bamboo in a carpenter’s vise; otherwise clamp or brace the bamboo work piece so that it is held steady as you knock out the nodes. 5. Attach the rasp to the end of the pole by clamping the rasp’s tang to the pole with hose clamps.
Use the rasp on the end of the pole to smooth the inside of the bamboo, especially where you knocked out the nodes, so that the inside of the bamboo is a relatively smooth tube.
Follow the instructions in Adding a Mouthpiece to apply a beeswax mouthpiece to the bamboo tube.
If you wish, follow the instructions in Tuning a Didgeridoo to tune your didgeridoo to a specific concert pitch.
Adding a Mouthpiece
Adding a mouthpiece to your didgeridoo is somewhat time-consuming, and requires that you work with patience and caution. Before getting into the practical instructions, it is useful if you understand a little more about the properties of beeswax. Beeswax is an organic wax soluble in alcohol, detergent, and mineral spirits. Beeswax is fairly hard and brittle at room temperature, is pliable at body temperature, and liquid at temperatures only slightly higher than body temperature. Making a beeswax didgeridoo mouthpiece mostly involves warming the beeswax enough so that it is soft and can be molded onto the end of the didgeridoo.
Be careful when testing the water temperature; you can burn yourself if the water is too hot. If the water is steaming, don’t put your hand in it.
First, you need to make a beeswax ring (or doughnut shape) that will fit over the end of your didgeridoo. Fill an old saucepan with water, and heat the water to a temperature greater than body temperature, but not so hot that you can’t put your fingers in it. Soak some beeswax in this hot water until the beeswax is soft enough to mold with your fingers. You’ll probably need to soak the beeswax for 10 or 20 minutes before it is soft enough to work with; you’ll also need to periodically heat the water up. Remember, don’t let the water get too hot for you to comfortably put your hand in it, or the beeswax will melt instead of softening.
When the beeswax is soft, roll it between your hands to make a “snake”, and then shape the snake into a circle large enough to go around the end of your didgeridoo. Make sure that the “snake” is thick enough in diameter to overlap the inside of the didgeridoo tube. You want more of a “fat cushion” for your mouthpiece than a thin bead around the rim.
As you work the beeswax, it will cool and harden. You’ll need to frequently return it to the hot water to soften again.
When you have completed the ring to go on the end of your didgeridoo, you next need to create a foundation on the didgeridoo that the beeswax ring can adhere to. To do this, you need to melt some beeswax and dip the end of the didgeridoo into it.
WARNING! WARNING! Beeswax is flammable (in fact, beeswax makes really great candles because of the sweet odor when beeswax burns). When you melt the beeswax, use a low heat, and never let the beeswax get hot enough to smoke. When melting beeswax, never leave the room; if you get interrupted for any reason, turn the heat off before going away from your melting pot. As soon as the beeswax is melted all the way through, turn the heat off; the beeswax will remain molten long enough for you to dip your didgeridoo. For maximum safety, melt beeswax in a double-boiler arrangement, or in a pan inside another pan, so that there is no chance that molten beeswax can drip directly into the stove or hot-plate burner.
To melt the beeswax, put about 14 grams (0.5 ounce) of beeswax into a small, flat can (such as an empty cat-food or tuna-fish can that has been thoroughly cleaned). In turn, place this can inside a large shallow pan lined with aluminum foil, such as an old 10″ skillet or a shallow (5cm/2 inch deep) metal baking dish. Place the entire assembly over a stove burner or hot-plate on low heat. Watch the beeswax carefully; it will melt completely through in about 10-20 minutes. As soon as the beeswax is completely melted, turn off the heat. Never let the beeswax get hot enough to smoke, and never leave melting beeswax unattended. Beeswax burns quite readily, and a beeswax fire is similar to a grease fire.
You should have a melted reservoir of beeswax about 2.5 cm (1 inch) deep. Turn your didgeridoo so that the mouthpiece end is pointing down, and dip the end of the didgeridoo straight into the melted beeswax and immediately out. Hold the dipped end over the container until the wax on the didgeridoo films over and no longer drips. You now have a foundation coating of beeswax for your mouthpiece.
Next, soften the mouthpiece ring that you have already made, and press it onto the end of the didgeridoo. The dip coating of beeswax will help hold the softened ring in place. Press firmly and evenly all around the ring until it is firmly stuck to the dip coating on the didgeridoo.
WARNING! WARNING! If you spill or spatter melted beeswax, you can get severely burned; the melted beeswax will cling to your skin. If your beeswax does catch fire, DO NOT pour water on the fire, you will only spread the fire. Treat a beeswax fire as you would a grease fire: Turn off the stove burner, DO NOT pour water on the fire, use a fire extinguisher rated for Class B or C fires (that is, an extinguisher suited for flammable liquids). If you don’t have a fire extinguisher, use flour or cornmeal to attempt to smother the fire. If you cannot quickly put out the fire, go to a neighbor’s house and call your fire department. Best yet, supervise your melting beeswax properly, and don’t have a fire in the first place.
Now, dip the didgeridoo into the melted beeswax one more time, to seal the ring into place. Do not hold the didgeridoo in the melted beeswax when you dip it this second time; just dip straight in and out. If you let the end of the didgeridoo stay in the melted beeswax too long, your carefully made ring will melt away!
While the new mouthpiece is still warm, press gently and firmly to make it as smooth and uniform as you can; let the new mouthpiece cool for 20 minutes or so before playing on the new mouthpiece. Figure 6-3 shows a completed beeswax mouthpiece on a didgeridoo made from plastic pipe.
A completed beeswax mouthpiece
Tuning a Didgeridoo
If you want to play your didgeridoo with other musicians who play melody instruments, you’ll need to tune your didgeridoo to a particular musical key. That is, you’ll need to tune your didgeridoo so that the pitch of its drone matches a particular note in Western musical scale. If you cut your didgeridoo according to the suggested range of lengths, your didgeridoo should already be fairly close to a B#, C, C#, D, or D#.
To tune your didgeridoo, you’ll need some sort of reference pitch. If you have a good ear, you can probably get by with a piano or electronic keyboard as a pitch reference. Most of the time, however, it is easier to use a chromatic tuner (such as those sold for tuning guitars) and a microphone. To use a chromatic tuner, you connect the microphone to the tuner’s input, play the didgeridoo into the microphone, and obtain a note-value readout from the tuner.
Tuning a didgeridoo is a trial-and-error process; you’ll need to be patient and careful to get it right.
You can only tune a didgeridoo from a lower pitch to a higher pitch. If, for example, your newly made didgeridoo initially appears to be somewhere between C and C#, you can tune it upward to be a C#, but not downward to be a C. Also, if you make a mistake while tuning and overshoot the C#, your only choice is to continue tuning upwards to a D.
To begin the tuning process, you need to determine what pitch your newly made didgeridoo is currently producing. If you’re using a piano or keyboard, play several notes until you’re certain you’ve found a note which isn’t lower than your didgeridoo’s current pitch, but not more than a half-step higher than the current pitch. This will be the note you’ll tune towards. If you’re using a tuner, simply read the pitch value from the tuner’s scale, and tune upwards to the next note.
Now, cut a small amount of material from the end of your didgeridoo; try small amounts at first (not more than about 1cm or 0.5 inch at a time) until you get a feel for how much the pitch of the didgeridoo goes up for each amount you cut off.
Having shortened the didgeridoo to raise its pitch, compare your didgeridoo’s pitch to your reference pitches again. If the didgeridoo’s pitch is still lower than the pitch you desire, cut some more material off the end.
Repeat the entire process of comparing pitches and shortening the didgeridoo until you have tuned the didgeridoo as closely as you can to a particular pitch. Remember what this pitch is; that is the key in which your didgeridoo plays.