How to Make a Metal Whistle

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Shepherd playing a metal whistle at the top of Wabi Di
Shepherd playing a metal whistle at the top of Wabi Di (Image: mkarstad@stock.xchang)

The Irish pennywhistle is one of the simplest instruments to learn to play, and it's also easy to make. All it takes is a length of metal pipe, a wooden dowel, some hand tools and an electric drill. This simple whistle takes only a few hours to make, but the quality of the sound rivals that of high-priced catalog models. These instructions will make a metal whistle that plays in the key of Low D.

Things You'll Need

  • 24 inches of 7/8 inch copper pipe Type M, or
  • 24-inch shower curtain aluminum rod with .029 inch wall thickness
  • 2-inch piece of 13/16-inch hardwood dowel rod
  • Hacksaw or jeweler's saw
  • Ball-peen hammer
  • Sandpaper
  • Metal file
  • Metal vise
  • Epoxy cement
  • Pitch pipe
  • Electric drill with variety of bit sizes
  • Masking tape
  • Pencil

Cut and deburr a 24-inch piece of the metal tubing. Set it aside.

Sand the hardwood dowel rod until it can be pushed into the metal tube using strong finger pressure. The easiest way to do this is to wrap sandpaper around the end of the dowel and twist it back and forth.

Cut a 1 1/16-inch plug from the sanded end of the wooden dowel.

Measure 3/32 inch across the diameter of the wood plug and mark a line. Using coarse sandpaper, trim down the curve until the wood is flattened to the drawn line. This plug will fit inside the mouthpiece of the tube. The flattened side creates a passageway for the air into the tube. Varnish or seal the wooden rod to reduce the amount of moisture it will absorb when the whistle is played. Set it aside to dry.

Flatten top of wooden dowel as shown
Flatten top of wooden dowel as shown

Measure 1 1/16 inches from the mouth end of the tube. Using a pencil, draw a 3/8-inch-by-19/32-inch rectangle on the top of the tube. Cut along the two long sides of the rectangle with a hacksaw or jeweler's saw. File away the metal between the two cuts until the window is completely cut. Deburr the metal. Using a jeweler's file, sharpen the lip edge of the window.

Cutting diagram for window.
Cutting diagram for window.

Using a small ball-peen hammer, carefully depress a triangular section of the metal pipe just below the sharpened lip. The lip and the depressed area will separate the airflow when you blow into the end of the tube, which is what creates the whistling sound.

Diagram showing sink area for tin whistle
Diagram showing sink area for tin whistle

Temporarily push the wooden plug into the mouthpiece end of the whistle body with the flattened section facing up.

Grip the whistle in a vice grip with the hole side facing up. Tighten your grip firmly. Using a small ball-peen hammer, carefully tap the top the mouthpiece end of the whistle until the opening measures 1/16 inch.

Secure the wooden plug in place with epoxy cement or other glue. Using a small metal drill bit, drill a hole into each side of the metal pipe and into the wood. Insert a short brad through the metal and into the wood. Seal it with epoxy to further ensure that the wooden plug is securely in place.

Check to make sure that the seal around the plug is airtight except at the top. If there are any light leaks around the edges of the wood, fill them in with epoxy or with slivers of wood if necessary.

Check the pitch of the whistle by blowing gently into the end of it and comparing it to a Low D on a pitch pipe. The length of the pipe should produce a note below that note.

Trim away pieces of the pipe from the end opposite the mouthpiece in small slices, checking the pitch after each cut. Continue cutting slices from the end of the pipe until the pitch is slightly below low D.

Switch to a metal file and continue to shorten the pipe, checking the pitch frequently until it matches a low D blown on the pitch pipe.

Completely deburr all cut and drilled edges.

Measure the length of the whistle from the edge of the lip to the far end from the mouthpiece. Make a note of the measurement.

Calculate the distance for the finger holes on the tin whistle using the following percentages. 1st hole: 44.74 percent of the measurement taken in Step 1. 2nd hole: 52.47 percent of the Step 1 measurement 3rd hole: 60.38 percent of the Step 1 measurement 4th hole: 68.82 percent of the Step 1 measurement 5th hole: 74.93 percent of the Step 1 measurement 6th hole: 84.10 percent of the Step 1 measurement

Lay a strip of masking tape along the top of the flute, and draw a straight line directly down the center of the tape. Measuring from the lip of the window, use a pencil to mark the center of each fingering hole using the measurements calculated above.

Center punch each hole, then drill the holes starting with a 1/16-inch drill bit. Enlarge each hole carefully by using progressively larger drill bits. Check the pitch frequently by tooting the whistle until the tone is close to pitch.

Finish the whistle with a light coat of lacquer or polyurethane.

Tips & Warnings

  • Always work with a whistle that is warmed to room temperature. The pitch can vary significantly between a cold whistle and a warm one.
  • Two light coats of spray lacquer will seal the metal so that the copper does not touch your lips.
  • Always wear eye protection when working with drills and files to prevent injury from metal filings or dust.

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