How to Make Wooden Xylophones

By Mary Osborne ; Updated September 15, 2017

Things Needed

  • About 15 feet of 1¼- to 1½-inch cedar or hardwood
  • 5 feet of 1-by-3 inch softwood, such as pine
  • Manual or electric saw
  • Measuring tape
  • 1½-inch finishing nails
  • Hammer
  • Glue
  • Plane
  • Drill and ...-inch drill bit
  • 2-inch finishing nails
  • Stain, oil or varnish
  • Package of thick rubber bands
  • Two 12-inch long wooden dowels, ½ inch in diameter
  • Sharp knife
  • Two 2-inch wooden balls (for mallet ends)
  • Sandpaper
12-note Xylophone

Wooden xylophones are percussion instruments that have a long, rich history. Found in Africa, parts of the Americas, Indonesia and Malaysia, just to name a few, wooden xylophones commonly consist of a series of varying lengths of wood, which are sometimes suspended above open holes, dried gourds or even metal tubes to create a more resonant sound when the instrument is played. The wooden slats or keys are tuned and are typically fastened to a horizontal frame. Wooden, rubber or plastic mallets are used to strike the tuned wooden keys to create melodies and harmonies.

Frame Assembly (Click for a larger image)

For the frame, cut two 24-inch sections from the 1-by-3 inch stock. Cut the remaining stock into one 8-inch piece and one 4-inch piece. Sand all four pieces of wood. Nail the 24-inch runners onto the 8-inch and 4-inch sections using the 1½-inch finishing nails. (See Frame Assembly illustration.) Before nailing, add a line of glue to the sections where each will come into contact the runners.

Orient the frame as shown above in the Frame Assembly illustration. Starting 1½ inches from the end of one of the 24-inch runners, nail 2-inch finishing nails down the upper surface of the runner at 1¾-inch intervals. On the other runner, start 2½ inches from one end and nail the 2-inch finishing nails at 1¾-inch intervals. Allow about an inch of each finishing nail to stick up above the surface. The nails are positioned differently on each rail because on one runner the wooden slats will fit BETWEEN the nails, and on the other runner the wooden slats will go THROUGH the nails. (See Nails, Slats and Rubber Bands illustration below.)

Lengths of Wooden Slats or Keys (Click for a larger image)

Cut slats or keys from the cedar or hardwood. Each key is a different length, as shown in the "Lengths of Wooden Slats or Keys" illustration. Plane each wooden slat or key to a thickness of 1 3/16 inches on the ends and 9/16 inch in the middle. The scale of the finished xylophone will vary depending on the type of wood you use to make the slats.

Nails, Slats and Rubber Bands (Click for a larger image)

Drill a ...-inch hole in each slat about a quarter of the way in from one end for the "nodal" point. The nodal point on the wooden keys is the point of minimal vibration. The nodal point allows the rest of the bar to vibrate more freely. Sand the keys. Stain, oil or varnish the pieces of the xylophone, and allow them to dry thoroughly.

Hitch the wide rubber bands along the protruding finishing nails on each runner. The bands keep the wooden keys from touching the frame and allow for a clearer, more resonant sound. Hitch one rubber band around the first nail, twist around the second nail, then hook the rubber band on the third nail. You'll need four rubber bands for each runner using this method. The bands must form a taut, springy surface on which the wooden keys can rest. (You may find you need to hook and twist the bands around more or fewer than three of the nails to achieve sufficient tautness.) Place the finished keys in their appropriate spots on top of the rubber bands along the runners. The undrilled end of each key will rest on one runner between two nails, while the drilled end will fit over a single nail in the opposite runner. (See the Nails, Slats and Rubber Bands illustration.)

Drill holes in the wooden balls, or widen any existing holes (if you're using large wooden beads, for example). Pare down one end of each of the wooden dowels using a sharp knife so that one of the balls will fit onto it. Round and sand the other ends of the dowels for a comfortable fit when you hold them in your hands. You may want to pare the shafts with the knife as well before sanding, depending on whether you prefer a tapered or rounded handle. Fit and glue the balls onto the pared dowels. Allow the glue to dry.

Tip

The hard mallets will create a clear, sharp tone. If any of the wooden bars have a dull sound, try repositioning them on the runner.

Warning

As with any woodworking project, use care when sawing or cutting wood. Always wear protective eyewear when you use a saw. When paring the dowels with the sharp knife, wear a pair of work gloves for protection.