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How to Make a Kalimba-Gourd Thumb Piano

Clean, dry gourds make good resonators for musical instruments.
gourd image by Darko Draskovic from Fotolia.com

The Kalimba, or thumb piano, is a percussion instrument. The user creates the sound by stroking flat pieces of metal with their thumbs. Adding a resonating board changes the pitch of the instrument and volume of the sound it can produce. The instrument originates in Africa, where the word "Kalimba," meaning the handheld instrument, can be heard in several Bantu dialects. Gourds are frequently used as the resonating box for the Kalimba, but almost any hollow, resonating container can fulfill that function.

Clean, dry gourds make good resonators for musical instruments.
gourd image by Darko Draskovic from Fotolia.com

Things You'll Need

  • Craft Knife
  • Two Bolts
  • 1/4-Inch Wood Stock
  • Wood Burner (Optional)
  • Drill
  • Sticks Or Dowel Rod
  • Stain
  • Sand Paper
  • Flat, Thin Pieces Of Metal
  • Paint
  • Saber Saw
  • Large, Dry Gourd
  • Gourd Saw
  • Glue
  • Two Butterfly Wing Nuts

Select a dried gourd with a good, deep bowl or a shape that you like. Place it in a pan of water, and drape it with a wet towel. Let it soak for about 15 minutes. Scrub off dirt and loose skin, using a piece of steel wool.

Use a fine-line permanent marker to mark where you plan to cut the gourd. You can either cut off the top or cut it in half, depending upon the shape of the gourd. Wear a face mask to keep from breathing the dust from the gourd, as it can be irritating to the respiratory system. Make a slit in the part of the gourd you plan to cut away using a craft knife. Insert the blade of a small electric saw into the slit, and carefully cut away the unwanted part of the gourd. Gourd saws are made especially for this task.

Clean out the inside of the gourd, removing the dried seeds and pith. Scrape the insides carefully so as not to damage the gourd, and give it a light sanding. You may want to save the seeds to use for other craft projects or to plant.

Place the gourd, cut edge down, on the quarter-inch wood piece. Trace around the gourd with a pencil. Mark a circle in the center of the board, making sure to leave at least three inches of solid wood on one end of the board. Cut out the board, using a saber or jig saw. Drill a small hole in the center of the marked circle, and use that as the entry point for cutting out the circle using your saw, or simply use a door knob attachment for your drill to make the hole.

Check the fit of the board over the cut end of the gourd. Sand or trim with a craft knife till you have a nice, tight fit. Set the gourd aside.

Glue two sticks (dowel rods, natural sticks, trimmed edges from one inch wood stock, whatever you have on hand) parallel to each other about two inches apart across one edge of the board. Place another piece of wood in the middle space. Drill a hole through each end of the wood and the board. Insert a bolt from the underside of the board, and fasten it with a butterfly wing nut. Glue the heads of the bolts on the underside of the board so they do not fall back out.

Cut or find five thin strips of metal three inches to 10 inches long. The actual size will depend on the kind of metal you can find and on the size of your Kalimba. Some types of metal that have been used to make the keys include pins, needles, bobby pins, bicycle spokes, tines from leaf rakes, flattened nails, and thin pieces of sheet metal. The important thing is that the metal have a little bit of spring to it after it has been attached to the board.

Loosen the wing nuts center stick on the top of the board. Slide the pieces of metal under the stick, letting the long end poke out over the hole. You can leave the back end a bit long, as well, so you have some extra for tuning. Make the center piece the longest, the next two a little bit shorter, and the last two on the outside the shortest. You can use more pieces if you wish. Some Kalimbas have a full octave range.

Tighten the wing nuts. Glue the board to the gourd. Allow the glue to dry, then add any decorative touches you want to the gourd and the face board. Some ideas are lightly carving the gourd, wood burning the gourd, painting or staining the whole instrument.

Tune your Kalimba by ear or by using another musical instrument or an electronic tuner. Tuning is done by sliding the strips of metal forward or back under the stick to make them longer or shorter. Make sure the wing nuts are securely tightened before playing, otherwise the strips will not resonate properly.

Tips

  • Beginner piano music should have some tunes that will be playable on your Kalimba.

Warnings

  • Check metals for toxins. Some industrial items are not intended for contact with skin.

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