Didgeridoos are intriguing and fascinating instruments. They make a wide range of sounds, and in the hands of an expert they almost ‘speak’ to you. There’s also a broad range of the types of music played on didges, from the ultra traditional, to mind-boggling rock, and everything in-between. If you don’t believe me you only have to look at YouTube to find a massive amount of wide-ranging didge virtuosity. It’s wonderful; it’s incredible. And I want to do it too!
I am a beginner didge player, being encouraged and guided by the great guys at Banbury Didgeridoo Club, in central England. These guys are awesome players, but thankfully they are also patient teachers, and my stumbling and bumbling doesn’t put them off their stride at all.
As well as learning to play the didge, I also have a fascination with making them - I guess whenever I find a subject interesting I ask myself: “I wonder how they do that, I wonder if that’s difficult to make?” This attitude has led me down many a rat-hole or dead-end, but it’s also rewarded my curiosity by occasionally turning up something I can build and enjoy constructing.
The very best didges are those from trees which have had the branches hollowed out by termites eating the dead internal material, leaving essentially a tapered, hollow wooden ‘pipe.’ I believe it is generally accepted that some number of thousands of years ago, a hollow branch was found and somehow an aboriginal chap decided to blow down it to see what happened. I guess it’s possible that a wind was blowing, and the branch was making a noise all on it’s own, and the aboriginal chap decided he’d have a go at making the noise himself. I don’t know, it seems like a nice story, and maybe it happened some way like that.
These days wooden didges which have not been termite hollowed tend to be made by the process of splitting the branch lengthways, usually with a band saw, then hollowing both halves, and then gluing the halves back together again. I make it sound real easy - let me tell you, it isn’t! But that is not the subject of this ‘ible.
Even more recently, there have been other developments in the world of didge making, with plastic didges (which are really incredible, if you haven’t heard one I recommend you check it out.) There are also didges, which are carved into incredible sinuous curved shapes, even spiral ones! – which often cost somewhere to the North of $300, and there are also things called ‘box’ didges which really look just like that, a rectangular box with an airway which travels up and down the box 2-3 times, depending on the note you want to achieve. Box didges are great in that they compress a 7-foot didge into a compact and easy transportable package. The only problem is that (in my opinion,) they look awful! In my view, if you’re going to try to make an instrument, which should sound lovely, it should look nice too.
As much as I enjoyed helping my friend Simon to make a traditional straight(ish) didge, I decided I was looking for something more compact, more easy to transport and heft about. I decided that although I already have a straight didge, the one I wanted to make had to be something different.
So, I decided I wanted to experiment with making a ‘box’ didge, but I didn’t want just a boring overgrown cigar box, I wanted something much more like the carved, sinuous models. The only trouble with that plan is that I can’t carve, and I couldn’t afford to buy a big lump of exotic timber, and then make a big mess of it. I also have a very limited array of power tools available.
Now I needed to find a methodology of construction, which would allow the cutting of an air channel out of a lump of material, then cutting the outside shape to reveal the final product. I could not afford a large, thick piece of timber, even to cut with a jigsaw, so it quickly became obvious that I was going to have to make up the large lump of material from smaller thinner sheets, as a form of lamination. At this point I quickly decided upon MDF, because it’s cheap, easy to cut, and easy to sand for a smooth finish. The downsides (discussed later,) were completely overlooked (not recognised) at this time, and plywood was ignored due to cost constraints. This issue would come back to haunt me in time - so, beware of making snap decisions, and try to think out ALL the options fully before setting out on a project.
The methodology chosen for this project was mostly driven by my lack of sophisticated tools. I was pushed down the route of cutting a fundamentally 2D airway, because I pretty much only had a jigsaw to work with. How it would have been different if I had access to tools like a router ? - it would have made all the difference in the world.
Initially I spent a lot of time evaluating plans drawn in 2D in Adobe Illustrator. Eventually, after a number of false starts, I decided upon a design which I felt offered the right blend of airway shape, and outside form. It was going to be fairly sinuous, and if the build went to plan I would have a nicely shaped didge. I set off on my voyage of discovery, in the making of what I call, my Hobbit(© JRR Tolkien) Didgeridoo. If Hobbits played didges, they’d play ones like this.
In this ‘ible, I will make the assumption that you know nothing about how to cut something out with a jigsaw. OK, that may seem insulting to most or even all of you, and I do apologise for that, but without starting at first principles, I reckon there will be people who wonder how I got from place A, to place B. I hope everyone is OK with that. It also will point out with painful clarity, just how limiting this methodology would eventually prove to be!
Materials and tools
I bought a slab of 11mm MDF (medium density fibreboard) which was to be cut into 4 strips about 300mm wide, and 500mm long.
I bought a slab of 7mm MDF, which was cut into the same size slabs, though I would only be using 2 of them.
I used a good cordless drill
I have a very cheap (£21) jigsaw – which proved very adequate
Clamps are an imperative – I used between 2 and 8, for various tasks
Sanding blocks (those foam ones covered in sandpaper, or aluminium oxide paper)
You’ll need plenty of PVA woodglue
A hole-cutter is useful, but you could alternatively use a large diameter spade bit
A sharp knife is useful
A vinyl cutter is very handy, but if you are good at drawing, you can just do that
Transfer tape for the vinyl
To get the ball rolling, I drew the design for the airways in the didge, on my Mac. I made the design 100% size, as I was going to cut it out on my little vinyl cutter.
It took many attempts at drawing this design, and in fact this example is the second one I committed to beginning manufacture. My first attempt was much narrower than this design, and although I made the vinyl pattern, and cut out the wood, (which was a nice plank of mahogany I have had lying around for years,) it eventually became obvious that the air channel was just way too narrow for the project to work, so it was abandoned.
Eventually after numerous experimental shapes, I concluded that I needed to go a lot wider than earlier plans, which would mean that I would have to cut the vinyl design out in two halves, because although my cutter can go to 600mm length (which is fine,) it can only do 200mm wide, which I concluded was way too tight for this project.
I finally arrived at a shape I thought would work – in which the airway got wider as it progressed from mouthpiece to outlet. If I had stopped and thought things through at this point, I might have decided to make the part of the airway nearest the mouthpiece a little narrower, but we’ll cover that in the conclusions.
In preparation for cutting, I glued all 4 of the sheets of 11mm MDF together, and clamped them tightly until they dried. This formed the large lump of material I was looking for. This great lump of MDF was to become the internal part of the didge, and was going to need hollowing out to make the airway.