This is a basic guide for building a Thumb Piano, or Mbira. They have been made for centuries all over Africa (and a few other places) and vary a lot in shape, size and sound. They belong to a group of instruments called "Lamellophones" which are percussion instruments, although the sound an Mbira makes sounds more like a string instrument or "chordophone".

The last three steps in this instructable show you how to make some slightly different Mbiras to the one the instructable is about.

As a person living in Southern Africa, I have seen many of these over the years but never personally owned one, so I thought I would give it a try to make my own.

The type of Mbira in this instructable has a resonator box, a chamber that does the same thing a guitar's resonator box does; it allows the sound to "bounce around" inside and there is only one hole in the front of the instrument for it to escape from. The effect this has is the pitch of the instrument will be lower and the vibrations (and sound) will last longer for more pleasing notes.

These are quite fun to make and you have quite a bit of freedom in the design, the shape of the box will be the main thing to change to make the instrument look more appealing. You may also add a coat of your choice to it to make it look better and more personalized.

I am afraid I cannot really play these yet, only make them so I cannot tell you how to do that, but you will have loads of fun just playing random notes!

Experiment with a few designs. The purpose if this guide is not for you to follow specific things like the size of the Mbira or the number of Tines (the things you pluck); but rather to look at the important rules of making one that ensure that it will function, then doing your own project with the details up to you.

The Mbira is a basic instrument, but be prepared to spend a long time making yours! To make a decent one you will need about 5 hours. To make a really good one you will need more than 12.

The real beauty of this instrument is that I did not need to leave my house to find the materials I needed for it. You can make one out of anything!

Sadly I cannot record a video of any of mine being played because I do not have the right equipment for that and I need 2 hands to hold and play it, but here is a video of a similar Hugh Tracey Mbira:


Please vote for this in the woodworking contest! I would really appreciate it! :D

Step 1: What You Need:

This instructable is on the first picture in the Introduction, it is the easiest to make and was my first Mbira ever.

The materials you will need are:

- Spring steel strip (I found mine in a scrapyard a few months before I made the instrument) I used a windscreen-wiper spring from a car and it worked perfectly. You could also use a car dipstick or just flatten a piece of stiff wire with a hammer (This is what I have done for all my other Mbiras since this one)

- Wood sheet/board (I used plywood, but non-ply would work too and have a more clear sound and feel better to hold. It does not make a big difference,though, and the ideal thickness of the wood for an Mbira of this size is about 2~5 mm.

- Thin Binding Wire, this needs to be strong and hard to break by twisting. It will be used to hold the tines under tension, so it is very important to use strong wire.

- 2 Nails/ pieces of wire of about 2~4 mm diameter.

- a strong metal tube of diameter 2~5 mm (Mine was an old radio aerial off a car)

- 1mm thick metal sheet (I used aluminium because it is easy to cut and drill)

- Wood glue.

The tools you will need are:

- Pliers
- A hammer and anvil (or something similar to an anvil, I do not have one so I used a second hammer.)
- A drill (I used a dremel with drill-bit)
- A small drill-bit of about 1~1.5 mm diameter
- Something to cut a hole into the front wooden face with. I used a drill to make a few holes, poked the middle part out, then used a rotary dremel with a sandpaper attachment to enlarge the hole once it could fit into the hole made by the drill.
- Sandpaper appropriate for the type of wood you use
- A hacksaw to cut the pieces of wood from the sheet/board
- I found a sandpaper cylinder attachment on a dremel helps a lot with neatening up the wooden edges, but you do not need one.
- A metal file (again, not entirely necessary if you have sandpaper, but it is easier to use in some places.)

Depending on the type of Mbira you make, the materials and tools needed will vary.
<p>Does anyone know what notes the mbira in this instructable plays?</p>
<p>Yes I am wondering that too and also hi <em><strong>Clammy</strong></em></p>
<p>Here is a Diatonic Kalimba I made using spaulted maple and stainless steel bars, screws and tines. It has 15 notes and two full octaves. I love your post and It makes me want to do one on this subject. Thanks so much!</p><p><a href="https://www.pinterest.com/pin/514184482433443801/" rel="nofollow">https://www.pinterest.com/pin/514184482433443801/</a></p>
<p>Hi.... Nice post! </p><p>You can also use what they call steel electricians &quot;fish tape&quot; for making the tines. It come in 1/8&quot; and 1/4&quot; widths and also available in stainless steel.</p>
<p>this is really great! May I make a small suggestion? Instead of having to wire the entire plate down, why not use industrial contact cement? That way the only part needed to be wired are the tangs and bars. Even then, the bars can also be soft welded in place, so again, no need for all the wiring. Then only the tangs need that so they can be also tuned:) I think less wire will also add to the tone on the lid part of the box. Love your art work!! Also, try a better glue, and good exterior wood glue holds much better and will last longer after all that hard work:) I love this and am going to try a larger creation in clay, (the voice box) then add the tangs etc. Will be a challenge:)\</p><p>Cheers!!</p>
Can you make an instructable on how to play it?
<p>I keep on trying to think on how to explain it; its really intuitive once you get that 'AHA!' moment. The tuning also plays a role on the atmosphere of how you might think the correct way to play it is. What do you mean, how to play it? Do you mean holding it, tuning it(I tune mine by ear, so its intuitive, which I prefer over concert scale tuning) or simply holding it? </p>
<p>I am sorry to disappoint you, but I can't really play it myself haha. There are clips on YouTube that will show you how to play one of these. I wouldn't be able to record me playing now anyway, since I gave them to my girlfriend who is on another continent. ^^</p>
<p>If you don't mind doing a lot of hammering, you can make decent tines out of bike spokes - it's not spring steel, but it's pretty high tensile. You can even leave them mostly round at the top end - just with a bit of flat so they don't roll around.</p>
<p>I am always on the lookout for projects to do with my middle school shop students. This great! I will build a set with my next group for sure. Thanks for posting such a great 'ible.</p>
<p>Thank you! I thought your name looked familiar hahahah ^^ I have seen your instructables too, thanks for being a great part of the community dude! ;D</p><p>Perhaps you can find some other cool ideas in other things I have made here ;)</p>
<p>Well done!</p><p>For many years, I have used steel leaf rake tines. I usually get them free from neighbors, free or very cheap at garage sales, or find them driving around on trash pick-up day. </p><p>The tines are spring steel and their width is perfect for a thumb piano. And depending on the notes I need, I can cut 2 or 3 from one tine. </p><p>These rake tines are pretty tough - a hacksaw works, but slowly. Much better is a hand grinder with a cutoff wheel. </p><p>Be sure to smooth over any burrs or rough spots so you don't tear up your thumbs...</p><p>Having some &quot;thumb&quot; now!</p>
<p>Thanks! And I wish I could find an old metal rake, but I only have access to plastic ones hahaha ^^</p>
<p>awesome! but could you please put a video? it would be cool to hear what it sounds like ;)</p>
<p>I would love to! but unfortunately as I mentioned above, I cannot record it because of the technology I have. :/</p>
<p>Great idea! A very innovative, and ingenious idea. I might make this sometime, voted! :D</p>
<p>Thank you for the feedback, it means a lot to me!</p>
<p>Nice men, I want to make one of this to make some kind of musical toy. Thanks!</p>
<p>You're welcome :)</p>
<p>I just made mine literally three days ago! (I used windshield wiper blades too)</p>
<p>Great work man! :D This one was my first so I did not really worry about making it look good, I just wanted to see if it would work! ^^ But yours is a work of art, congrats ;)</p>
<p>Wow, very cool! </p>
<p>Thank you very much! :D</p>
Great job! I'm definitely going to try building one.
<p>Cool dude, please post pictures if you do! ;D</p>
I played rugby with a few guys from S.A. They introduced me to biltong. I think that's how you might spell it. I'll definitely send a picture when it's completed. Thanks.
<p>Yes, biltong ;) and great!</p>

About This Instructable




Bio: I have always loved the feeling of finishing the construction of an object and if I don't have something I need or want I ... More »
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