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How to build a curly box-didge, and how not to

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BACKGROUND
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
 
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Hi there,
Inspired by your design, i tried to build a compact serpentine didg for myself. I made mine out of beech wood. The channels were carved out using an angle grinder fixed with the King Arthur's Lancelot carving disc. I then glued and bolted the 2 pieces together. Unfortunately i haven't been able to get it to sound like a didg. One lesson i've learnt is not to start with the hardest. Like your project, mine is a work in progress as well.
dimdiode (author)  Building all the way8 months ago
hi. I would really be interested to learn more about your didge, and how you went about the design, and build. I am always intrigued by the various methods of construction of these versions of didges, and am particularly interested by curly didges. I recently built a box didge, about A3 in size, 40mm deep. Then I built an A4 version, 30mm deep. The larger sounds just like a didge, but the smaller one needs an adjustment to the mouthpiece. I think I can get it to work. Then it's a matter of finishing it off. I'd be very pleased to know more about your work, you can contact me direct if you like, on cab_brill@btopenworld.com
Hi
I can send you pictures. Unfortunately, i did not document the process as i built along. But i can send you drawings. There can be a lot we can learn from each other. Cheers
dimdiode (author)  Building all the way8 months ago
The drawings and any pictures would be very interesting. Like you, I didn't take intermediate pics as I built the box didge - don't know why.

You can send anything to my email, as mentioned previously.

Looking forward to seeing what you did, cheers
spanner196911 months ago
I think this is a great 'ible and one that shows the flaws very well so that others who are following this can then adapt it well.

I think WELL DONE is in order.
dimdiode (author)  spanner196911 months ago
Many thanks for that, it's appreciated. I am still working away at this project, as and when I can, and with a workshop being sorted out in my garage, I should very soon be able to make better headway. In the meantime I am also working on a box didge made up from flat plywood components. It won't look as curvy and 'organic' but it will again test the water to see what works. thanks again,
Good job - it helps others to know what does NOT work in addition to what works in creating a project.

I made a straight 6-foot bamboo digeridoo some years ago, but did not realize they could be folded like a brass horn. Now I want to make a box didge as well.

The cut-away design reminded me of Weishample's Parasaurolophus horn. I wonder if they sound similar.

http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/dinosaur/2011/02/how-parasaurolophus-set-the-mood/
dimdiode (author)  CatTrampoline2 years ago
wow - I have to confess I've never heard of a Parasaura - thingamabob, but now you point it out, there are some similarities, for sure. I am putting a little sound sample online as soon as I can get it recorded, and then you'll be able to decide.

The design of the airway was intended to achieve two main goals, which were to get 6-7 feet into 2, and allow the airway to get wider as it got longer, which meant shorter folds near the mouthpiece, and longer folds towards the outlet.

It's a fascinating business trying to imagine what will work - empirically, then trying it out in reality. My next design is completely different, but with the same goals.

Many thanks for your interest and comments.
gnach2 years ago
This is a tutorial on how to make a (what for it) ...prototype. This is R&D, that's Research and Development, kids. And this is how it gets done. You think it out, draw it up, lay it out and build it. And then with the gleaned wisdom you do it again.

Now for my 2 cents worth. Firstly, I don't know what I'm talking about, I've never built an instrument but have played a few. It's not so much the graduating column of air, straight pipes can be tuned to play real nicely, like a flute. but two major characteristics come to mind. The first you've hit on and that's thickness or better yet, thinness. Carving and shaping the outside is very doable. The other, and you did touch around it, is resonance. MDF is just too fluffy (along with funky glues), not enough rigidity to it, and if it can't vibrate, it doesn't sing. Try to find some Baltic Birch plywood (Europe or  America) or a mahogany ply like Okume (SE Asia). The glue could also play into it. A hard glue like CA (superglue) or epoxy should be better than PVA. You don't want anything to dampen the vibration.

And remember, if at first you don't fricassee, fry, fry a hen!
dimdiode (author)  gnach2 years ago
hi gnach. Thank you for taking time to give feedback. Indeed you are quite correct that a very straight pipe can make a didge - I have a Meinl plastic didge which is not a lot more than a plastic drain pipe with a small constriction at the mouthpiece, and a small flare at the outlet. Yet it's a great didge.

I think you are absolutely correct that the fibrous nature of the MDF is a big problem - but as I mentioned, I honestly didn't know MDF was so fibrous until I started to cut it up.

I will be working on a chipboard didge, and a plywood version, this summer (I only get to work outdoors, as I don't have a workshop.) As it happens, I did a lot of experiments with glues, and found that if left, PVA goes very very hard, and virtually transparent. The only research I haven't made with glue is how it reacts over time with prolonged exposure to hot breath.

Thanks again for your comments
ilpug2 years ago
I have never heard of a box didge before... what a great idea! I have a normal one that I can play, well, not very well. This is really creative! One question, how does one hold it to play?
dimdiode (author)  ilpug2 years ago
Hi, thanks for your interest. My intention, originally, was that the player would hold the instrument with the widest part of the body horizontal to the floor, one hand on either narrow edge. However, most players found it more comfortable to hod it cradled in the left hand, and steadied by the right hand, with the widest part of the body held vertically. So it looked a bit like a very over-inflated bugle.

My next version will have a totally different layout, in which the mouthpiece, instead of being on one of the narrow ends of the 'box' will be at the top of one of the long sides, and it will be played a bit like a very over-inflated saxophone. But that's a whole different project. Though a project based on and having learned a lot from this one.

Thanks again.
ilpug dimdiode2 years ago
I can't wait to see the next version, keep it up.
Kiteman2 years ago
What an excellent project - this is an example of true Making. I love the evaluation and analysis, and the ideas that others could use to take the idea further. Well done.

I know you said it wasn't perfect, but I (and I bet others) would love to hear what it sounds like anyway.
dimdiode (author)  Kiteman2 years ago
Many thanks for your input, it's really appreciated. I am planning on recording the sound of the didge, sooner rather than later, and will append the sound, or maybe even a little movie, as soon as I can.

Thanks again.