For a fun project that can be made quickly using minimal hand tools, these tone tubes are sure to hit the right note. Lately, I’ve been all about the simple projects. Like my spinning tops, this bamboo whistle is about as easy to make as it gets. And, depending on how hard you blow them, they can create multiple different tones. Let’s make some noise!
The only materials you’ll need for this project is bamboo, wooden dowels and a little wood glue. As you probably know, bamboo is a fast growing woody grass that forms hollow, segmented tubes with an internal divider at each segmentation joint. In other words, the perfect material for making whistles.
I harvested a handful of bamboo stalks from a friend’s yard. Since shrinkage can sometimes cause cracks when drying, I allow freshly cut bamboo to stand vertically against a wall for several weeks before using it. To reduce the chance of splitting, dry bamboo indoors and out of direct sunlight.
Of course, you can always just buy bamboo poles at a craft store and be done with it. Be sure to pick through the batch and weed out the ones with splits and cracks. However, it can save you a decent amount of money to cut and dry your own. Especially if you want several stalks.
You can go larger or smaller, but I’ve found inside diameters of 3/8” to 3/4” to work very well. And unless you have big lungs and an enormous mouth, you might want to avoid using larger diameter bamboo.
Start by cutting dry bamboo into sections. Each section can become at least one whistle. If you cut right on a joint you’ll expose two closed ends. Cut near a joint to expose one closed end and one open end.
Each whistle needs one open and one closed end, so position your cuts accordingly. The closed end should be reasonably air tight. I’ve made several batches of whistles over the years with different bamboo varieties and all have had sufficient natural dividers. But – if yours doesn’t – you may have to plug one end with a piece of dowel.
The overall length of the whistle is arbitrary. For best results, I’d recommend at least 5 inches. I’ve made them up to 18 inches long, with most falling in the 7-11 inch range.
Notch Yer’ Grandpa’s Whistle. Actually, It Just Might Be.
Transforming the bamboo section into a whistle begins by cutting a notch near the open end of the tube. First, use a hand saw (or coping saw or similar) to make a perpendicular cut about 1/2 – 3/4 inch from the open end. I make this cut about 1/3 of the way through the outside diameter.
Next, make an angled cut – located further from the open end – to approximately the same depth. The angle isn’t critical; I try to eyeball about 45°. It just needs to angle back towards the closed end of the tube.
Refer to the photo above for a better understanding of how the notch should be cut. I always cut mine by eye; there’s no need for ultra precision. Once you get the feel for where to cut, you’ll be making working whistles every single time.
Use a screwdriver to carefully pop out the wedge shaped chip. If needed, use a knife to refine the bottom edges of the notch. The notch can come to a point, but I have the best luck when the bottom of the notch has a flat section about 3/16” – 1/4” long.
How Now Round Dowel?
Between the open end of the whistle and the notch, you need to install a piece of dowel having one flat side. Start by finding a dowel that’s the right size to fit into the end of the whistle. You may need to sand or shave a slightly larger dowel down to the correct diameter. You can even use a stick from the back yard. The important thing is that the dowel or stick be a good fit without a lot of air gaps. If the dowel has to be forced, it’s too big and may end up cracking the bamboo.
Insert the dowel to the halfway point of the notch opening – maybe a tad farther – and mark it with a pencil.
Cut a flat spot on the dowel from the mark to the end. I do this with a carving knife. You want the flat to end up close to the same height as the bottom of the notch. So insert the dowel into the whistle several times during the process to gauge your depth.
Thar She Blows!
Ideally, the perfect placement is so that the end of the dowel is even with the perpendicular end of the notch. But that’s not always the case, especially if you make the notch too long. So you’ll have to tune up the whistle to find the sweet spot.
Insert the dowel – flat side up (towards the notch) – until the end of the dowel is even with the start of the notch. You can now test the whistle by blowing in through the clearance created by the flat on the dowel.
Move the dowel in and out a little to find the location that produces the best tone(s).
Bamboo Whistle Assembly
Trim the dowel a little bit longer than needed then glue it in place. After the glue has dried, trim it flush with the end of the whistle and cut a comfortably shaped mouthpiece. Purse thy lips and blow.
After cutting the mouthpiece, I’d recommend sanding a round-over on all cut edges. Whistles are fun. Bamboo splinters in the lip are the exact opposite.
Not Just Whistling Dixie
Honestly, I haven’t been able to pinpoint exactly what factors allow most of these whistles to produce more than one tone. Most of them can emit 2 or 3 different tones (one note at a time), depending on how hard you blow. Some are capable of 4 or 5. But, amazingly, some of my whistles can produce 6 different notes! And that’s just straight whistles, without finger holes!
Many variations are possible. I can even play “Taps” with perfect note intervals on at least one of my whistles. Experiment with different sizes and lengths. Maybe try drilling one or more holes along the pipe and playing it like a recorder.
I don’t mean to be a blowhard but, you’ll find these whistles to be so easy to make that it’s possible to churn them out in only minutes a piece. If you need some great items to sell at the next craft fair – or just a fun way to spend time with the children – this project has you covered.