Picture of Thumb Piano
I saw one of these somewhere a while back and always thought it would be fun to play with. A quick Google came up with several including the one in this picture. It's available online for about $33. I'm no kind of musician and I've never built a musical instrument before but this looks simple enough. I'd rather just make one.

Step 1: Materials:

Picture of Materials:
Looking at the image I found on google there is no reference to tell exact size but I'm not really worried about making it accurate. I'll guess it looks to be about 5" x 7" x 1".

For most of the parts I was looking for stuff I had sitting around. This is the parts list for what I ended up with.

(2) - 3/16" plywood - 5" x 7" for the top and bottom
(2) - 3/4" x 3/4" x 3' pine - 5" and (2) 7" for the frame
(2) - 1/4" dowel - 2-1/2" to support the keys
(1) - 3/8" aluminum rod - 4" to hold down the keys
(1) - 3 1/2" nail - cut to 3-1/4"
5/8" x 18 brads - optional
(2) - #6-32 x 1/4" T-nuts
(2) - #6-32 x 1" round head bolts
street sweeper bristles - enough to make 9 keys about 2-1/2" - 3-1/4" each.

I had to buy the T-nuts and bolts but the rest I was able to scrounge. The "keys" were made out of street sweeper bristles. They're easy to find if you get out and walk much, just keep an eye on the street.
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jgoodman13 made it!5 months ago
Thanks so much for the instructable! I went to the thrift store and found some wooden bowls then made the tops. They sound great!
jim.read.95 months ago

Really nice build and very clear instruction, thanks a lot I'm going to make one. I've ordered some electricians fish tape and downloaded a free smart phone tuning app from the Google store called Pano Tuner. Cheers and thanks - Jim

TinyBotics1 year ago

1) If I were to make an alto kalimba, do you know the relative sizes for the box and the tines?

2) Do you think it would be okay to use an old metal rake for the tines?

3) Do you think it can be tuned for the C3-C4 range?

My kalimba is actually in that range, the dimensions are about 9'' by 12'' (keeping the 3/4'' height). The lowest key (C3) is about 2.5'' long, measuring from the aluminum rod. I tuned up from there. Hope that helps.

When I made this, I found that very heavy-duty zip ties actually work pretty well. A problem that I found, though, was that the t-nuts would not stay put in the plywood, because of the pressure of the keys. I ended up just using a regular nut underneath the plywood with some washers. I found it to be much more secure.

Pickles50003 years ago
Any ideas on what to use apart from street sweeper bristles?...
After a thorough search of my suburb i found one...
I used the steel from some old windshield wiper blades. Similar to the rake tongs (mentioned in other comments) just a little flimsier. I was pleased with how they sounded. Good luck!
I think you could use chimney sweeper
msmith653 years ago
i couldn't find any street sweeper bristles so i used some metal fingers from an old rake
Timsan6 years ago
Having the aluminium rod means you can adjust the tuning if need be. You can even move the tines around to create your own custom tunings.

For example, if you use 15 tines (prongs), you can have a 2 octave major scale:
G E C A F# D B G A C E G B D F#

Or you can use an 11 tine setup to get a pentatonic scale:

The 8-note kalimba is an easy place to start. It's usually tuned to the major scale:
C A F D C E G B.

Have a dig through http://www.kalimbamagic.com for more information on the types of kalimba, tunings and lessons on how to play it.

There's a stack of videos here:
I particularly like the one called "First Look Inside"

I'm amazed at what you can do with this little thing. I think I'll be making 3 or 4 of these little beauties!
Truly, truly beautiful. I play Bass for blues, swing and rock, but that melody and the tone touched me so much. beautiful!
Timsan Timsan6 years ago
Just to clarify those tunings, the bold G in the middle is the longest tine. The tunings are in the key of G, but that's entirely arbitrary. You can tune it up in any key you want.
bigredlevy5 years ago
i made this one as a present for my brother. i used spring steel wire i bought from a hobby shop, and a nice piece of aluminium to mount the tines with screws for individual intonation.
did you use the spring steel wire for the keys?
Yeah. The wire was a bit thick, though. It wasn't very loud, but had quite a nice tone.
If you use smaller wire for the keys, the instrument will be louder, but the note will decay more quickly; this is due to more 'damping' with the air.

If you're keen on electric instruments, check this out

Yuri landman is my favorite instrument designer.
thanks, i'm glad i found a substitute for street cleaner bristles.

Just curious as to how this came out. Does it sound OK?

I have a buss bar from a house fuse box laying around somewhere and have been itching to do something with it. It looks a lot like the aluminum bar you have in your image.

you mean one of these http://www.tangible-technology.com/power/p2/8_buss_bar_5a.jpg right? i think that would work fine. the advantage is that you can tune each note individually.
the problem i had with mine was the gauge of spring steel wire. i think mine was too thick, so the keys weren't as loud as i would have liked.

i tuned mine by ear using a piano. this would do http://www.pianoworld.com/fun/javapiano/javapiano.htm
builderkidj4 years ago
Whats a thumb piano?
jakenzi3574 years ago
awesome! Good job.
darkdragonv6 years ago
Have that same tuner..lol!
hahahha lol SAME!!
amcasiano6 years ago
Thanks for giving me the idea to make my own kalimba. Keep it up!
BobsDogHouse (author)  amcasiano5 years ago
Very Cool! It looks great! Thanks for posting a picture.
This is great! definitely going to make one, is the steel you used for the keys 1/4 or 1/8 inch wide? It looks 1/8 but I can't decide which to use, since 1/4 seems to wide...
BobsDogHouse (author)  TehLonelyOne5 years ago
The steel I used was about 1/8 inch wide but the width doesn't really matter as long as it's wide enough to be "plucked" comfortably and narrow enough to fit and be tuned easily. I can imagine that tuning a very wide strip might be difficult but 1/4 would probably be OK.
CatMan8 years ago
Great Idea! my uncle brought one of those from Africa, when i was a kid i loved playing semi-african music on it. i've been collecting street-cleaner-bristles for other projects, but i'll defenetly use some of them for this project! i might use a premade box, being lazy, and I also like recycling stuff.
Oledoug CatMan5 years ago
We are way out in the country and have no street sweepers but one thing we have used is the small stainless steel about 1/8" wide piece of stainless steel that is in a automobile wiper blade. They are the dickens to cut but make a wonderful sound. Check with your local garage and have them save you some old wipers as they replace them for folks. Doug
CatMan Oledoug5 years ago
man, you read my mind, I discovered those a few months ago, and used them while building my anealling oven for glass-blowing. they are great because they are stainless. I didn't bother to cut them, just bent them and broke them. great stuff indeed, and for free !
yeah5686 years ago
Heh, our local science center had like a workshop making these before. Basically, it was just a block of wood with two rubber bands holding the metal pieces in place. Wasn't as fancy as this, but it still works. Good instructable though.
b4k4hakujin8 years ago
Street sweeper bristles? I'm pretty sure we don't have street sweepers in downtownColumbia, SC. If we do I've never seen one. Is there anything else I could use? Rake teeth maybe? Even though rakes are kinda $$$ for ones with decent metal teeth.
BobsDogHouse (author)  b4k4hakujin8 years ago
Rake teeth sound fine, maybe a bit wide though. The sweeper bristles are only about 1/8" wide but there's lots room for wider bristles. What ever you use, as rashfreedom said it just needs to have some spring in it.
I hang around auto parts stores a lot. would the thin metal pieces inside a windshield wiper work?
I know this is a bit late, but yeah - i just made one out of them and it did work.
I'm not sure, I don't have any old wiper blades to look at but it sounds like a possibility. Just make sure they're a fairly springy not "bendy". Also as I recall from changing my wiper blades, they're a bit sharp so you might want to blunt them a bit. Good luck and if you build one, post a picture!
ClemensY2906 years ago
how do you tune this? do you just put a certain amount of the piece of metal on the side you play from the thing that holds them down?
umm, okay. just look at it this way: the more the key (metal piece) is sticking out from where it touches the "nail support part", the lower the note, and vice versa. Just refer to an already tuned musical instrument to get the right pitch for tuning your thumb piano. hope that helped :D
Quinns8 years ago
Cool! I love making my own instruments and i'd love to do this one... but i live in australia and dont know what to use for the 'keys' any ideas?
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