Saturday, April 18, 2009

How to build a simple Low D Whistle

This article contains 3 sections:

1 - General low D pennywhistle construction instructions
2 - Exact dimensions of my copper (water-pipe) instrument
3 - Exact dimensions of my aluminum (shower-rod) instrument



I set out one morning in early 1997 to make a low whistle in the
key of D and had it completed by noon, using only hand tools
(except for an electric drill).

There are only two components: a length of 7/8" outer-diameter
regular copper water-pipe & a short piece of 13/16" outer-diameter
hardwood dowel-rod. Both items are available at any hardware store.
Note: even though the outside diameter of the tubing measures 7/8"
and the inner diameter doesn't actually measure 3/4", this type
pipe is known in the plumbing business as "3/4 pipe". Also, there
are two types of such pipe -- Type "M", which is the desired
"thin-wall" & most commonly available variety and type "L" which
is thicker walled and best avoided. The desired wall-thickness is

If folks knew just how very easy it was to build such low
whistles, there would be more around. It's frightening how much
some of these things cost in the music catalogs -- and to think
they still have the nerve to call them PENNYwhistles! This whistle
sounds JUST as good as any of the commercially made low D
instruments I've played (noticeable better than at least one) & is
not a "makeshift" affair or "beginner-quality" instrument by any

It took far longer to write-up these instructions than it did to
construct the whistle itself.


The entire instrument remains cylindrical --- the only "flattening
or contorting is a small depression in the area just down-wind of
the mouthpiece "window" & a flattening on the top part of the
mouthpiece, upwind of the "window".


- Cut & de-burr a 2 foot length of the copper tubing.



The dowel will not quite fit inside the copper tubing & it must
be reduced in diameter a small bit. I simply used coarse
sand-paper wrapped around one end of the (still un-cut)
dowel-rod and then rotated the rod with one hand while applying
pressure on the sand-paper with the other hand. Keep testing the
fit & stop when the dowel fits inside the tube without having to
hammer it in (ie. when it can still be pushed in with strong
finger pressure). This sanding goes rather slowly & may take a
few minutes. Cut the plug so it's 1-1/16" long.




This flat creates the "wind-passageway". Mark the desired area
to be removed with a sharp pencil & sand away the wood up to the
pencil lines, according to the specs below (put the sand-paper
on a flat surface & hold the plug while sanding).


End-view of wood plug / /\ \
(much enlarged) , take off 3/32" here* ,

| |

| |

\ /
, ,
~ - ~

* IMPORTANT LATE NOTE (6/20/98): I now prefer to take AT LEAST
3/32" off. More troubles seem to occur with less taken off than
with more. Also see notes in "some hints and suggestions"
section towards the very end of this article.


This illustration is much enlarged & not necessarily to scale.

| ---------
| locate| |
| this| w |
| wooden plug cut| i | "sink"
| inserted directly| n L| area
| inside this over the| d I| (see def-
| protion of end of| o P| inition
| the tubing the| w | below)
| wooden| |
| plug| |
| ---------
plug ends
Make the "window" 3/8" by 19/32". here
Cut & file as cleanly as is possible.

Mark out the location of the window with a pencil and carefully,
using a hacksaw (or jeweler's saw if available), make the two
longer cuts. Then carefully file away the copper between these
two cuts 'til the desired "window" is created. De-bur
everything. Using a small file, somewhat "sharpen" the "lip"
(downwind edge) of the newly created "window". It shouldn't be
made anywhere near "knife-sharp".


DEFINITION: The area just downwind of the "window" may have a
name but I don't know of any, so a definition might be called
for here: This area is the roughly triangular-shaped area
adjacent to the "lip", and is that area sunk" or lowered to
achieve proper "whistle" tone & volume. Let's call it the "SINK"



I used a very small brass ball-peen hammer to depress this area
and make the "sink". An alternative might be to use a
pencil-shaped piece of hardwood, hit with a hammer.

--------- \
| | \
mouthpiece | w | \
end of | i L| \
instrument | n I| "sink" ,
| d P|
| o | /
| w | /
| | /
| | /
--------- /

The "lip" splits the airflow and creates the whistle's whistle.
I find that with this instrument, the best sound comes when the
"lip" is a bit BELOW "mid-way" when you peer into the mouthpiece
end of the instrument. Here's an attempt to illustrate this:
This "lip" should be as straight across as possible when viewed
through the wind-passageway.


note the flattened top of tube

PS: This is
supposed to * * * * * * * * *
be round * wind-passageway *
(except *______________________________________
for the * ^lip *
flattened *************top*of*wood*plug******************
top) **************************************************


If (once the next two steps have been performed) you don't get a
good sound, don't be afraid to sink the edge even lower. If you
go too far, a rod can be inserted inside the copper tube to coax
the the "lip" back up. Some experimentation bending this "lip"
up and down is inevitable. It's not that difficult however to
get a good tone that is balanced nicely between high and low
range. The important thing here is -- if you don't initially get
a good tone, do not give up! Keep diddling with the "lip"
position, perhaps even sand off a bigger "flat" on the wood plug
etc etc. Occasionally I get a tinwhistle that simply will not
toot with reasonable adjusting -- what is called for here is
persistence! Have never had one that eventually couldn't be
whipped into line!

PS - Another way to raise the "lip" a bit is to lay the shank of
a small (less than 1/8") drill-bit along the upwind, long, side
of the mouthpiece's "window' & carefully pry up on the "lip"
using a wide-bladed screwdriver. The drill-bit shank acts as a
sort-of "bridge" to help ensure that the upwind edge of the
"window" is protected & not flattened or scrunched by the
levering action of the screwdriver.



Temporarily insert the plug in it's proper position. Lay the
whistle horizontally, with holes facing up & carefully clamp the
bottom 3/4 of the mouthpiece in a vise (jaws padded with a few
layers of masking tape) & tighten fairly hard - but not hard
enough to appreciably distort the mouthpiece. Now carefully &
evenly flatten that part of the copper tube directly over the
wood plug with a hammer, until the wind-passageway is about
1/16" tall or a tiny bit more.

This flattening process may distort the rounded part of the tube
so that the dowel plug no longer fits tightly. Careful
hammer-tapping should beat the tubing back into shape while
maintaining the desired flat on top.



I use epoxy cement for this. Other types of waterproof,
"filling-type" adhesives should work nicely as well.

Important things to look for: Make sure that the downwind end of
the plug is located just below the left hand end (upwind end) of
the "window". Be sure that the plane of the plug's "flat" is
lined up with the general plane of the "lip". Use enough cement
to ensure that any potential gap between the wood plug and the
copper tube will be completely filled. Use small screwdrivers as
wedges to push the plug down hard against the floor of the
copper tube. When the cement is set, further secure the plug by
drilling, setting and cementing in two small brads, cut to about
5/16" long, through the copper and into the wood on both sides.
When set, file the protruding ends flush with the tubing.
Late ps: I now use Eric Reiswig's method of drilling a
continuous hole all the way through the tube/wood-plug & then
cementing in a tightly fit finishing nail. See link to Eric's
whistle-making article below.

Sight down the instrument by looking into the open-end, towards
the mouthpiece end, with a lightbulb at that end. Check that there
is no light coming in through cracks or spaces where the wooden
plug meets the copper. If there is, carefully plug these gaps with
adhesive or sealant and if need be, thin slivers of wood. The
only light coming through should be in the area of the



A chromatic type electronic tuner is very helpful here. If you
don't have or can't borrow one, this task can still be
adequately accomplished by very carefully comparing the low D
note to a known standard (pitch pipe, tuning fork etc).

Always start with a tube that produces a pitch below low D &
proceed by hacksawing off very small pieces of the tube - all
the time testing the pitch. When the pitch gets close to low D,
it's time to start filing. Do this evenly and carefully,
checking the pitch very frequently.

One important note -- It's really amazing just how very much
difference in pitch there is between a cold tinwhistle and a
room-temperature one! Somewhere near half the way to the next
note! Always have the whistle at room temperature and always
make sure it has been warmed by playing for at least a minute
before attempting any tube pitching or hole sizing.

All cut or drilled edges should be completely de-burred.


(For an easier method, using a photocopier, see the appendix)

Once you have the tube of your low D copper whistle cut to
the proper length to sound a low D note, carefully measure
the distance from the mouthpiece "lip" to the right hand end
(open-end) of the instrument.

The center of the 1st hole (the hole nearest the mouthpiece)
should be located 44.74% of this overall "lip" to open-end

The center of the 2nd hole should be located 52.47% of this
overall "lip" to open-end measurement.

The center of the 3rd hole should be located 60.38% of this
overall "lip" to open-end measurement.

The center of the 4th hole should be located 68.82% of this
overall "lip" to open-end measurement.

The center of the 5th hole should be located 74.93% of this
overall "lip" to open-end measurement.

The center of the 6th hole (the hole nearest the open end of
this whistle) should be located 84.10% of the overall "lip"
to open-end measurement.

How to convert these percentages into actual measurements:
- First move the percentage's decimal point two
units to the left (ie: 44.74 becomes .4474)
- Then simply multiply this number by the
"lip" to open-end distance

I have built several identical instruments and have found that
even if built to the same exact dimensions, the overall pitchs
often vary instrument to instrument! This must be due to slight
variations in tubing wall thickness, diameter etc. For this
reason I am hesitant here to give exact instrument length & hole
placement dimensions here. This "percentage" method is very
straightforward and easy to use.



- Lay a length of masking tape down the top, center of the
instrument, from near the mouthpiece "window", almost to the
open-end. Carefully draw a line representing the exact top,
center-line of the whistle. As exactly as possible, pencil where
each of the six holes are to be located. Carefully center-punch,
then, using a 1/16" drill-bit at first, drill through each of
the six fingerholes. Because of the extended finger stretch with
this low D whistle, I slightly position the 6th hole (the one
nearest the open-end) a tad off of the centerline (by no more
than 1/8"). Makes for a bit easier fingering.

Progressively enlarge each hole with bigger & bigger drill bits
until each hole is almost up to pitch. Careful tooting of the
instrument at this point will give you a good idea of what the
proper hole size of the finished instrument should be in your
case. It's always far easier to enlarge a smaller hole than it
is to reduce the diameter of a larger one! Proceed slowly -
using the "all fingers FIRMLY on" low D note as your base
reference. A chromatic type electronic tuner is of great help in
sizing the holes. Lacking that, just enlarge the holes slowly,
maybe over the period of a few days. Don't be in a hurry. Flat
notes will become apparent the more you play the instrument.

If a hole is inadvertantly enlarged too much, it's not fatal -
To correct one mis-drilled hole I cut out a rectangular piece
around the offending hole & carefully fashioned a "plug" (cut
from a piece of junk piping) to fit into this rectangular hole.
Once soldered in and filed smooth, a new hole was drilled. This
wasn't a fun proceedure, but it didn't take long and was not
that hard to do.


That about completes the low-D pennywhistle. I prefer to cut an
angle off the mouthpiece end -- like so: (this is not the least
bit critical)
_________ ___________________________________________
| ~~~
cut \
angle \
here \________________________________________________


I applied two coats of polyurethane varnish to the exposed part
of the wooden plug to soak up less spit.

When the copper is buffed and polished highly, this thing not
only plays nicely, but looks great!

One quick note about playing this large & finger-stretching
instrument -- I've seen it gospelized that that it must be
played with the mid-section of each finger covering the holes. I
am a long-time bagpiper & am fully aware of such fingerings and
their benefits, however I maintain that it's necessary to use
the mid-section part of your finger on the right hand ONLY and
not the left hand. The left hand holes can be covered easily
with the fleshy first-sections of the ring, middle and index
fingers, which should be held in a somewhat straightened

Let me know how your low D tinwhistle turns out. If you have any
suggestions after having built one, please contact me! I have
been diddling with end-blown tinwhistle making for a long time &
while by no means an expert, have had a lot of fun.

Dennis Havlena - W8MI
webpage -




- Procure a "regular" tinwhistle and carefully measure the
distance from the "lip" to the open-end of the instrument. I
prefer to use a Clarke or Cooperman whistle for this purpose.
The key is not important. It seems to make no difference if the
whistle is cylindrical or tapered (I found this fact surprising,
but it's true). Plastic-mouthpiece whistles work too -- but
their mouthpieces may not photocopy as clearly.

- Once you have the tube of your low D whistle cut to the proper
length to sound a low D note, likewise measure the same "lip" to
open-end distance of it.

- Divide the low D instrument's measurement by the "regular"
instrument's measurement --- This will give you a number
something like 1.74 that we'll call the "enlargement factor".

ie: low D whistle's "lip" to open-end measurement enlarge-
------------------------------------------------ = ment
"regular" whistle's "lip" to open-end measurement factor

- Set the photocopy machine so it utilizes the biggest possible
paper size. Lay the "regular" whistle, holes down, on the
photocopier, then set the photocopier's enlargement control for
1.74 (or whatever figure was obtained in the above operation) &
make a photocopy of the smaller tinwhistle.

- This should yeild a copy which is enlarged to the same size as
your copper low D tinwhistle. Verify that things are OK by
comparing the dimensions of the copy to that of the real

- The copier at our library has provision for using very large
paper, but not all machines can do this. In which case, just
make two copies (left half, then right half) & carefully align
the two halves & tape 'em together.

- Cut the paper lengthwise down the instrument, cutting the holes
in half. Run a strip of masking tape down the low D whistle's
length then carefully align the paper's open-end with the
actual whistle's open-end & mark the exact hole locations.

This method also gives you a pretty good idea of what the hole
size should be. Nonetheless, you should still drill the holes
small and enlarge each carefully to the desired pitch.




I am including the info below along with the caution that due to
slight variations in the copper tubing, no "true low D pitch"
can be guaranteed when using the following dimensions. It may be
that your instrument turns out to be right-on-pitch, or it may
be a small bit high or low of low D. So - if it's not absolutely
important that you be at an exact D note, these dimensions below
will give you a very nice instrument somewhere in the very close
neighborhood of low D. If you desire a true low D pitch, ignore
this section and instead follow the instructions in the first
part of this article above.

My low-d tinwhistle measures 21-7/8" from the "lip" to the
open-end (the overall total length being 23-5/16").

I normally dislike the metric system, but find that, in this one
case, it can be used to advantage in describing where to drill
the finger-holes.

This illustration is not at all to scale.

The "O" represents the six finger-holes.

The top figure is the distance (in millimeters) from the "lip"
(down-wind edge of the window in the mouthpiece) to the
centerline of each hole.

The bottom figure shows the finished hole diameter in inches in
my case. ALWAYS make the holes several sizes smaller than
indicated here & work up in size, all the while watching the
pitch closely.

250mm 292mm 336mm 383mm 417mm 468mm |OPEN
O O O O O O |
9/32" 5/16" 5/16" 11/32" 3/8" 5/16" |

- Follow the "DRILLING THE FINGERHOLES" instructions in the
article above, using the millimeter measurements indicated in
this illustration.

- Mouthpiece, "lip", "sink" and "window" dimensions and
construction are the same as in the main article above.


RE The toxicity of copper:

Elsewhere on the net in a tinwhistle-building article it has
been suggested that copper is poisonous and should not be used
for musical instrument making purposes. The former statement is
undeniable but the latter doesn't seem based on reality. It is
completely inconceivable that anywhere near a toxic quantity of
copper could ever be leached, abraded or absorbed into the
system of a copper whistle player!

A very small amount of copper (about 2 ounces during an average
lifetime) is essential to human nutrition & there's no way that
even this small daily amount could be transferred by playing a
copper tinwhistle.

Nonetheless, not wanting to be a slave to polishing anything, &
also objecting a bit to the mild copper smell imparted on one's
hands after playing, I opted to apply a coating to the whistle.
A sprayed layer of high quality gloss black enamel followed
(when completely dry) by a spraying of a good quality clear
lacquer makes a seemingly durable & not easily chipped finish.
Makes it look rather like a giant Clarke tinwhistle.

On another instrument I had great luck by simply polishing the
copper nicely, then spraying it all with clear lacquer. I've
been assured by an experienced coppersmith that this should
prove a durable finish.


If the "low-D stretch" is just too much and you don't expect
to do a lot of playing with others, I can highly recommend
building a low whistle pitched in the key of E. This is much
easier to finger, having a finger-span some 1 3/16" shorter
than the low D whistle, and it still strongly retains the
distinctive low-whistle sound.


Last comment: Since making the above low-D pitched tinwhistle,
I have made quite a few others including very sweet toned
versions using lengths of thin-walled 1" outside diameter
aluminum shower-curtain rod ($3.79 for enough to make two low D
whistles -- at local hardware store -- The brand of the rod I
use is "Jones Stephens Corp. 5' shower rod - Part No. S02-071").
(Anyone else see this brand in their local stores?)




NOTE: The same cautions apply here as mentioned in the first
paragraph of section #2 above.

I have been doing a lot of experimenting with low D whistles
made from shower-curtain aluminum rod. The desired
wall-thickenss is.029". Although I still quite like the copper
model, I now much prefer these featherweight aluminum
pennywhistles which:

- are easier to work with (being thin-walled aluminum)
- are easier to voice "
- are easier to tune (they warm up much quicker to one's breath)
- have a very pleasing & substantial tone
- have a finger-stretch 3/16" less than the copper whistles
which, believe it or not, is noticeable
- So far don't seem to need any lacquered or painted coating

These aluminum whistles weigh just 3 ounces as compared to the
copper version which weighs 9 3/4 ounces.

My aluminum low-D tinwhistle measures 541.5mm from the "lip" to
the open-end (the overall total length being 578.5mm).

The "O" represents the six finger-holes.

The top figure is the distance (in millimeters) from the "lip"
(down-wind edge of the window in the mouthpiece) to the
centerline of each hole.

The bottom figure shows the finished hole diameter in inches in
my case. ALWAYS make the holes several sizes smaller than
indicated here & work up in size, all the while watching the
pitch closely.

243mm 285mm 327.5mm 374mm 406mm 456.5mm |OPEN
O O O O O O |
11/32" 3/8" 13/32" 5/16" 7/16" 23/64" |

- Follow the "DRILLING THE FINGERHOLES" instructions in the
section #1 above, using the millimeter measurements indicated in
this illustration.

- In general, most of the construction techniques detailed in
section #1 above can be used in building this aluminum whistle.

- Mouthpiece, "lip", "sink" and "window" construction are the same
as discussed in section #1 above, except substitute these

|<----- 37mm ----->|
| _ ___ _
| | |
| 13mm | | 15mm
| | |
| _ |___| _

| |<- 7.25mm

End-view of wood plug / \
(much enlarged) , ,
This plug is made from Sand off a "flat" here
a short section of 1" | that measures 17mm * |
diameter dowel rod. across the top (a to b)
See the section | |
entitled, "Sizing
the dowel rod plug" \ /
in section #1 above. , ,
~ - ~

Flatten the top of the mouthpiece til the wind-passageway's
heigth in the center measures 1.75mm. Refer to "Peering into the
mouthpiece end" in section #1 above.

* See note towards the very bottom of this article in the
"some hints and suggestions" section.



Whistlemaking, while very easy to do, is not an exact science.
Most of my whistles work fine right off the bat, but I do get the
occasional stubborn one. I have not yet had one that couldn't
eventually be coaxed into excellent playing. My very worst one was
made into probably my very best one simply by making the
wind-passageway larger! It's funny - a proceedure to correct a
particular problem might work like a charm one time, but not work
at all the next! I think this is simply because there are so many
variables with whistlemaking. Don't let all this talk scare you
from trying though, I've had far more successes than initial

A word about being brave:
I'll occasionally get an instrument that's ALMOST ok -- for
instance it might have a nice low note, be in pitch, but the
sound is too airy! it's awful tempting to leave it as it is and
settle for some airiness (Look at how nice Clarke's with their
airy tone sound!). My point here is don't settle for less than
what you want even if it means risking losing the nice low note
and/or the good pitch. It's your instrument, you made it, you
tell it what you want it to do - not the other way around. If
your ruin it, so be it! Try again using your newfound knowledge
and experience to avoid some of the earlier pitfalls. Be brave!


Any low whistle is apt to have problems with the low note or
two sounding weak. In my experience this is best cured by one
or more of the following steps:

- Enlarge the "wind passageway" from the suggested dimensions
by carefully sanding off more of the flat on the wood-plug.
Don't worry about ruining the plug as another can very
easily be made if you go too far. This step has, by far,
produced the most dramatic positive improvements for a
number of problems.

- Weak low note(s) can very often be corrected by (gonna
sound like a broken record) adjusting the lip....sink it
lower, raise it up a bit, experiment with the
straightness/curviness of the lip's leading edge, dull it,
sharpen it etc. Also, check that your window
size/dimensions are as suggested (I have found window
size/dimensions to be not THAT critical -- will work over a
fairly wide range, but none the less it's best to try to
make the window as close to the dimensions/shape detailed
in my article).

- Make sure the downwind end of wood plug is positioned
directly below the upwind edge of the window.

- Make certain that there are no metal burrs on the edges of
the window anywhere. Although not as critical, make sure
that the soundhole edges are likewise completely de-burred.

- If any low note except "D" is weak, it may be due to the
fingerhole being too small. Enlarge the hole "downwind" --
being careful not to file off any of the upwind edge of the


- Make sure that the wood plug fits the coutour of the tube's
inside closely. Any airleaks here can negatively affect the
sound/tone. Such leaks can easily be detected by covering
all the soundholes with opaque tape (like electrician's
black tape) & peering down the instrument with the
mouthpiece end held up to a bright light-bulb. Carefully
applied dabs of silicone rubber sealant can be used to plug
any such gaps. make certain that any excess sealant is
removed before it cures.

- Excessive "airiness" in tone seems to be most easily
corrected by a combination of enlarging the wind-passageway
and diddling with the lip & window.

I'm afraid these hints & suggestions are all the help I can
offer for getting a balky instrument to play properly. The key
word is EXPERIMENT! I know folks who might have a particular
problem may want some more concrete advice, but the above few
paragraphs (along with the recommendation to experiment
relentlessly) will have to do for now.


Mcwey said...

would sure like to see a picture of the flute and mouth piece??
Thanks for all the work!

Goatboy said...

A great site. However, like McWey I also would enjoy seeing the missing pictures since they really help with the directions.