How I Made a Pennywhistle at Home in my Spare Time

by Eric Reiswig

First, a disclaimer: this document isn't meant to be a definitive guide on 'How to do it.' Rather, the idea is more of a descriptive 'How i did it.' There are lots of ways to make a whistle, and this is just what seemed most natural to me. It's a lot of fun; please do give it a try.

Click here for a photo of what one of these whistles looks like.


Preliminaries

I make my whistles in ordinary copper plumbing pipe. I use the 1/2" diameter for the smaller whistles (D down to Bb) and the 3/4" for the larger sizes (low G down to D). There is no difference between the two other than size. (ie. all the methods are the same.) It's important to start out with a piece of pipe longer than needed, since it's easy to cut bits off, and hard to put 'em back!

There have been some questions about the use of copper tubing, as related to health issues. I've tried to find out what, if any, risk playing a copper whistle poses: The nutritional RDA for copper is something like 10-12mg, and you're not going to absorb that much by blowing into a copper whistle. There is a condition called Wilson's disease where copper apparently poses a larger risk.

Note as well that it's not necessary to use copper pipe. Any easily-available tubing will work just fine. I remeber Paddy Keenan talking about making whistles out of TV arial antennas. Differences in the diameter of the tubing will make small differences in overall length and hole placement, so keep this in mind when selecting your tubing and drilling the holes. Work carefully, and don't be afraid to experiment.

Any time you cut the metal tubing, it leaves little bits of metal ("burrs") stuck around. Take all of these off with a file, &c. They interfere with the windway, and generally make your life difficult.

The design i've come up with is an adaptation of the Clarke brand tinwhistle, which uses a simple wooden block inserted at the end. (NOT the new 'Sweetone' model, which has a plastic mouthpiece.) It's quite instructive to examine the differences between the Clarke brand and the other, plastic-headed brands. My whistles end up being a sort of hybrid, sharing features of each type.

I'm not going to delve into the finer points of playing here, but you might want a fingering chart to give you some idea what you're aiming at.


The Mouthpiece

This is the important part. In general, the Clarke mouthpiece is a good place to look if you're unsure about something.

The first thing to do is to make one end of the pipe as square as you can, for a length of about 1 1/4". I do this by whacking the pipe with a hammer, on the concrete floor in my basement. The cross-section won't have corners as sharp as the Clarke, but that's ok. All you really need is one flat(ish) side, which will be the top of the windway.

Now, take this side, and cut a slit across it, about an inch from the top. The slit should go just about all the way across the pipe, and should be about 3/16" wide, or maybe 1/4" for larger whistles. The lower edge of the slit is called the lip, and it's the place where the sound is made. To do this, it needs to be in the path of the incoming air. What i do is as follows: take a large nail punch (about 1/4" across) and start hitting the lip with a hammer and this punch. Watch carefully, and try to get the lip to go straight across the top of the tube. This is important. If you sight through the mouthpiece of a Clarke whistle, you'll notice that the lip is curving across the windway, since the tin has just been pushed down. This is what we want to avoid. You want the lip to be as straight as possible.

 __________
|          |    
|          |    This is what the mouthpiece should look like.  Hammering 
|          |    the lip straight makes a 'v' shape, which bends down 
|__________|    inside the tube.  Looking through the tube, the lip  
|__________|    should be straight.  Now, use a small file to sharpen the 
|\        /|    edge of the lip, top and bottom.  Not a razor-edge, but  
|  \    /  |    make it thinner than the wall of the pipe.
|          |

The next step is to make the fipple (wooden block) which defines the windway. Get a piece of hardwood, preferably with one flat face, which will be the top of the block. It helps if the block is 4-5" long, so you can hold it while carving. Carefully whittle away the wood, until it fits tightly into the mouthpiece. The windway should be 1/16" to 1/8" high, and fairly flat (if you got the end of the pipe nice and square). The most important thing here is that the windway have approximately the same height all the way along, and that, looking through the bottom end of the pipe, you be able to see a small crack of light through the mouthpiece. I generally find it best not to push the fipple all the way up to lip-hole, but to let the tube overhang it by a small amount.

You can test whether the mouthpiece works by blowing through it. It's a bit tricky when the fipple is sticking out the end of the tube by a few inches, but holding the whistle sideways, like a flute, and covering the end of the mouthpiece with your mouth, it should be possible to sound a note. Blowing harder sounds the octave, and you might be able to get still another octave. It takes a fair bit of practice to make a decent fipple, and you might have to make 2 or 3 per whistle, and choose the best-fitting one, &c.

The fipple/windway is the most important step in getting a decent tone. If the tone isn't solid enough, it often helps to take the fipple out and sand down the top, to increase the height of the windway, and let more air pass through. So it seems better to make the fipple so that the windway is quite shallow, and then steadily strengthen the tone by sanding it down, until it plays where you want it.

Once you can get a sound out of it, leave it alone for the moment. If you want to make a 2-section whistle, you can cut off the mouthpiece part, about 1/3 of the way down the pipe, and solder a copper pipe joint to the mouthpiece section. These are pretty inexpensive, and fit tightly enough to make the whistle tuneable to some degree. (If you're not using plumbing pipe, you can often find tubing in a variety of sizes at a hobby store, and use this to join the sections.)


Tuning & Fingerholes

This part is easier, but can get fairly tedious. Unless you have perfect pitch, i strongly advise using a chromatic, electronic tuner for this. A general note: the whistle gets sharper as it warms up, so before cutting any parts, blow through the whistle for a minute or two, and make sure of the pitch when it is warm.

The first thing is to cut the pipe to length. If you used enough pipe, it should be flat of the note you want. (Without fingerholes, it sounds the lowest note. ie. no fingerholes = all holes covered.) To sharpen the note, you have to cut the pipe off at the bottom. Cut off only a small amount at time, so as not to go too sharp. As you approach the desired note, use a file instead of a hacksaw, so you can really have control over how much metal gets taken off the bottom.

Once you have the pipe tuned to the correct key, carefully measure the lip-to-foot length of the pipe. Assuming you play the whistle with your left hand on top, and numbering your fingers (1=index finger, &c), the holes are placed as follows: L1 (the top hole) goes 44.7% of the way down from the lip to the foot. The holes go down as follows: L1=45% L2=52% L3=61% R1=69% R2=75% R3=85%. I arrived at these figures by measuring a number of commercially-available whistles of different sizes. The proportions were quite uniform. However, there is a lot of variability permitted in fingerhole size vs. position: moving a hole up a bit lets it be smaller. (A good candidate for this is R2 on a low-G whistle, which tends to be quite large, unless you 'fudge' it upwards a bit.) Also, the diameter of the tubing will make a difference in hole placement and size.

Cut each hole with an electric drill. The important thing to keep in mind is to make each hole smaller than you need it. Once all the holes are cut, get out some round files and some gloves. It's time for some elbow grease. You now have to open up each hole to the correct size. Start with the bottom hole. (A good idea is to stick in some of that plastic coat-hanger rod protector, to keep the files from scratching the bore of the pipe too badly. Take it out when playing the whistle, though, since it flattens the pitch, confusing the heck out of you. :) Play the bottom note, which should be on pitch. Now, remove your R3 finger, and see what note it plays. If the note is flat, the hole is too small, so open it up a bit with a round file. (If it's sharp, it's too late, time to start over. If you're happy with the mouthpiece, though, you can re-use it: cut it off and use a pipe joint to add a new barrel.) Opening the upper edge of the hole moves the center of the hole upward and minimizes the final size of the hole, so try to open holes upward, instead of making them bigger all around. Keep going until the note is on pitch. Then do the same for the remaining holes, R2, R1, L3, L2, L1, in that order.

You have some control here over the 'voicing' of the whistle. Blowing harder raises the pitch of a given note (i'm not talking about jumping the octave, here), so pay attention and try to make all the notes on pitch with the 'correct' breath pressure for you.

Another thing to do is smooth the edges of the fingerholes, so they're not too rough to play comfortably.


The Mouthpiece, Revisited

Once you've got all the holes done, it's time to finish the mouthpiece. It's a good idea to do this last since you can clean out all the dust, &c that you get while filing the holes out. If the whistle is in two sections, this isn't a worry: you can finish the mouthpiece whenever you want, since it's short enough to clean by itself, and the body of the whistle is then open at both ends for cleaning.

Cut away the bottom part of the mouthpiece so it forms an angle that you can get into your mouth. Insert the fipple (still long & sticking out, i hope) where it plays the best, and drill a small hole through the mouthpiece from side to side. This should not damage the windway; it should go through the body of the fipple.

 _____________     ______       Find a nail that fits snugly through
|             |___/             the hole, and cut it to length so that
 \                              it fits flush with both sides of the
   \      o                     whistle.
     \___________________

Now is the time to cut the fipple to size. Remove it from the whistle, and cut off the excess, and sand the outer face (where your lower lip goes) smooth. An idea here is to roughly cut away the back of the block, then stick it back into the whistle and use a power sander to grind the fipple down to be flush with the end of the pipe. (I use a 2" sanding drum on an electric drill for this.)

I use 5-minute epoxy to glue the mouthpiece together. Actually, if you use a nail through the mouthpiece, the glue serves more to seal the edges of the fipple against air leakage, rather than providing any structural support. Put some glue in the mouthpiece (staying well away from the windway) as well as in the nail holes, and push the fipple in place. Then push the nail through the hole, and wipe away any excess epoxy. Once the epoxy cures, it's done!

Sanding the metal to remove any paint or grime makes the whistle quite attractive. An appropriate polish really makes it glow! Decoration is up to you: paint, engrave, whatever, to your heart's content! :) I generally give the mouthpiece a light coating of clear nail polish, to help seal the wooden fipple.


That's all! Please send any comments, questions, suggestions, anecdotes, &c. you might have, so we can learn from each other!

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This page was last revised on 12th August 2002, by Eric Reiswig.
ereiswig@telus.net