Introduction: Willow Whistle

Picture of Willow Whistle
Ah the good old days, when a kid could spend hours entertained by nothing more than a stick.

In this Instructable I will show you how to make the classic willow whistle. Make one for your kids. They'll be amazed to learn that cool toys can be made by hand out of a stick.

I made a short video of the whole process. It's only a minute and half long, and makes this Instructable much easier to understand. Highly recommended.

I think most people have heard of willow whistle, but how many people have ever actually seen one? I think the art may have all but died out a generation or 2 ago. Leave a note and let me know if you have had any previous experience with willow whistles.

Step 1: Get a Willow Stick

Picture of Get a Willow Stick

To make a willow whistle you need only 2 things, a knife and stick.

Get a willow branch with green bark. I am sure that plenty of other tree species will work. The important thing is that you need to be able to slip the bark off the wood without damaging the bark. Try to find a stick at least 1/3 of an inch thick.

Willows love water and are commonly found along streams and ponds. You might think of a willow tree, but bush shaped willows are probably even more common.

Step 2: Cut a Notch in the Stick

Picture of Cut a Notch in the Stick

Cut a notch across the stick. Cut into the stick about an inch or so from the end. Make a shallow, V-shaped cut through the bark and into the wood just deep enough to leave a mark. Because of the curve of the stick, the shape of the notch comes out roughly eye-shaped.

Sometimes it works better if the front edge of the notch is actually more straight up and down into the branch as opposed to angled in.

Hint: In step 4 we will remove the bark from the stick. I find that the little buds on the stick which will later turn into secondary branches sometimes make the bark more difficult to remove. I usually try to place my notch so that I cut out one of these buds. By removing one bud, I usually have enough room to make the whistle without any additional buds in the way.

Step 3: Cut a Ring Around the Stick

Picture of Cut a Ring Around the Stick

Move back from the notch another inch and a half or so and cut through the bark in a ring around the stick.

Step 4: Remove the Bark

Picture of Remove the Bark

Remove the bark (all in one piece) from the ring forward.

I find that if I tap on the bark a little with my knife, it will loosen up. Grasp the stick above the ring with one and and below the ring with the other hand and twist. The bark should come loose from the wood with a satisfying crack.

Slip the bark of the end and set it aside.

Step 5: Extend the Notch

Picture of Extend the Notch

With the bark removed, extend the notch from step 2 straight down into the wood at the front edge and back maybe a half and inch or so.

Carve away at the notch until it is down to the center of the stick.

Step 6: Whittle the Air Channel

Picture of Whittle the Air Channel

Whittle a flat plane on top of the stick in front of the notch. When the bark is replaced the air will travel into the whistle though this channel.

This is the final cutting step. The finished shape of the stick should look a like the photo.

Again, I think the video demonstration is much easier to follow. I recommend taking a minute and a half to watch it here.

Step 7: Slide the Bark Back on and Give It a Blow

Picture of Slide the Bark Back on and Give It a Blow
Slide the bark onto the stick back into its original position.

The whistle is now finished. Just blow down the channel created by the removal of wood in step 6.

Sometimes you may have to twist the bark just a little to get the whistle to sound right.

Congratulations. You have just transformed a stick into hours of entertainment.


Jaxton Maez (author)2013-09-16

Your video is a bit unclear. Like its very glitchy. But good instructable. We're I live we don't have very many of those trees. What other trees work?

shoemaker (author)Jaxton Maez2013-09-16

You'd just have to experiment and find trees where the green bark can slip off in one piece.

Eli9232 (author)shoemaker2016-05-22

I used fresh cut aspen and it worked fine.

bobbyflay2019 (author)2015-04-09

Did anyones work?

Carol YatesW (author)2014-12-21

I grew up in WA state and my grandpa who was born in MO used to make these for us when we would go camping. I don't think he used willow, but perhaps maple. Thanks for sharing this instructable, I needed to have all the steps in my memory bank.

Jaxton Maez (author)2013-09-16

Ok , thanks!

Master97865 (author)2013-06-30

I've tried this multiple times but with thinner sticks, and it hasn't been working. The sticks were about 1/4" in diameter. Do you think it a bad thing that they're so thin?

shoemaker (author)Master978652013-07-01

I have made very thin whistles, but they are a little more difficult to get just right. You have to make a much smaller nick mark in the bark. They also tend to be more finicky about getting the bark aligned back on the stick. You may have to play around a little, but it should work with thin sticks. However, it might be good to practice with some thicker sticks.

jamob (author)2013-02-12

I have no hickory trees near me, I cannot find any willow trees besides weeping which I don't believe is the one used in the video and elderberrys are poisonous I hear? Any suggestions on what to use or wish to correct me?

shoemaker (author)jamob2013-02-12

I have used weeping willow trees lots of times. They work great. However, it might not be quite the right time of year for making willow whistles. It is best in the late spring when you have new growth that is still green.

jamob (author)shoemaker2013-02-12

Oh that's great I know where a ton of those trees are! Thanks for the info!

VikingLord13 (author)2009-03-26

my stick has a TON of knots in it, is that bad? I have been trying to "twist" the bark off, and its not coming. any help?

Sounds kinda' like trying to slip the hide off a live Wildcat to Me..HAR.! G-g

snoopindaweb (author)2012-10-14

Spring time also makes the bark slip loose easier. As You say, near water is best. Thank You. G-G

woody558 (author)2009-04-18

Can anyone give me a list of what trees will work?

gonefishin1963 (author)woody5582012-04-29

i have made them out of hickory i did not know about whillow

kobimaru (author)2009-06-04

Are there any working trees native to Houston, Texas? Thanks.

DAxXxBOMB (author)kobimaru2011-07-31

I live about a hour north of Houston and there is Bamboo growing in a few areas, you could probably find some near or around Houston, i have also seen it grow around Spring and the Woodlands so you might be able to find some there.

yoyology (author)2010-06-08

Thanks for bringing back memories. My maternal grandfather made us wooden whistles one summer in Minnesota. He was a great tinkerer. Would have loved Instructables. :-)

WickedFabala (author)2010-03-16

ur video is private :(

harley_rly (author)2010-01-27

thats cool, ive gotta try this

allen65 (author)2009-10-14

I used to make willow whistles win I was a kid. But my whistles wear onaverage about 3in long by 3/8in thick the smallest Iever made was 1.5in long & 1/4in thick great  jobin telling how to do it and nice photos

red-king (author)2009-10-12

 my father showed me how to do this last year... nice instructable.

matrix828 (author)2009-08-17

does anyone know any decent tree's in england, near welwyn garden city? i will be very greatfull :) ~Operator99

spankysmom (author)2008-07-18

When I was little my dad used elderberry branches. He would hollow them out with a coat hanger and add holes under the V cut. This allows for several different pitches. I make them for my grandkids now. What a symphony with seven out-of-tune whistles marching around the yard. We are ready to upgrade to recorders. Your video is very well done.

bruno13069 (author)spankysmom2009-01-23

We did that at scout camp one summer. I had one that you could cap the end with a finger and get a different clear pitch. We destroyed an elderberry bush in a week making these. :(

JCLightning (author)2009-01-23

As a kid, my dad showed me how to make one but have since tried but could'nt get it to work. I thank you for the reminder. I'm sure my grandkids will thank you, also. FYI, I 65.

g-tech (author)2008-07-24

i remember reading about these in the book my side of the mountain( great book by the way) and I've try several times to make on but didn't succeed, but i might try again with the knowledge from this structable

killerhamster (author)g-tech2009-01-21

lol same that was an amazing book

apareigis (author)g-tech2008-10-16

I didn't read all the detail. The best results are in spring when the sap is running. Also if you cut the wood completely at the notch (not the bark) after reassembly you can slide it in the bark ala trombone. The soft tapping crushes the bark, squeezing slipery sap between the bark and the wood. Making it easier to slip appart. Which also means its easier after a spring rain, then a dry week.

dombeef (author)g-tech2008-10-02

Me too i was a LONG time ago .did you see the movie?

thebboy (author)g-tech2008-08-15

love that book. i studied survival skills for a week after that book. (and that's saying a lot) great instructable by the way.

aceman 569 (author)2008-10-11

There is a way to solve the drying problem: oil the wood. Just like wooden piccolos, etc. Every month for three months after you make it and then after that every sic months. You could probably find it a music shop somewhere. It's called bore oil. (You should probably ask the clerk just in case you pick up the wrong thing though.)

phildavi (author)2008-10-03

lots of nostalgia!

nibbler125 (author)2008-10-02

sweet another way to tourture my parents

tcabeen (author)2008-07-24

I had no idea this could be so simple! Brilliant!

pyro13 (author)2008-07-22

Could you whittle wholes in the bark cover to get different pitches?

shoemaker (author)pyro132008-07-23

I have tried a little, but could not make it work. I am sure it can be done, but I don't understand whistle physics. Anybody else care to share?

KenW (author)2008-07-19

If you are looking for 'old-time stuff' check out the "Boy Mechanic" (1913) from Lindsay Publications. Fun book but some of the things could be hazardous to life and limb. 8-)

totally_screwed (author)2008-07-17

I saw a guy make one of these while we were talking (we were talking about coracles - the little traditional half-walnut shell shaped boat as found in the UK and elsewhere), but he didn't explain the steps, or why he tapped the bark and I stupidly thought it unimportant. Later I tried to replicate it, but I just couldn't get it to work. Thanks for explaining the process!

puffyfluff (author)2008-07-17

Never heard of one of these. Nice instructable!

xACIDITYx (author)2008-07-11

This is pretty cool!

I loved the part when you said They don't contribute to global warming. It's pathetic that everything we do, even making a whistle, has to be said that it has nothing to do with global warming or risk being called part of the problem.

shoemaker (author)xACIDITYx2008-07-11

That was my attempt at humor. I agree with you that everything has to have a global warming aspect these days.

xACIDITYx (author)shoemaker2008-07-11

Oh. Well it was funny, so if you were going for humor, you achieved it! =p

puffyfluff (author)xACIDITYx2008-07-17

I agree. I had a great laugh.

xmascarol (author)2008-07-17

My dad always made these for us in the spring out of maple saplings up at the cottage. 1940's He said he used to make several of them, each year, 1915-1925 and keep them by his bedside in a glass of water so they wouldn't dry out so fast. Then in 1976, the Bicentennial year, we got him to sit at a little booth at the local festival, along with 2 of my kids, and make dozens of them for people that came to watch. Dad also made the boys each a soap box scooter in the 60's with old roller skates, and the girls got orange crate doll houses. He was a great recycler!

docwiltbank (author)2008-07-17

My Uncle Frank taught me how to make willow whistles when I was a kid 30 years ago. Every family reunion he would sit in the shade and make them for all the kids. He passed away two years ago. So, me and my cousin Brad took up the tradition last year of making them for the kids. It took both of us a few tries though before we got one to work as it had been too many years since Uncle Frank had taught us how. They sure are fun.

heathersharmony (author)2008-07-17

Wow! Thanks for bringing back the memories! When I was a kid growing up in Northern Michigan we had alot of Willow on our acreage. When Grandpa came to visit we would talk him into making willow whistles for us. While he tapped on the bark to loosen it he would sing a dutch song about something flying over the sea. I wish I could remember the song!

trogabird (author)2008-07-14

In the early 50's dad taught me to make these out of a hickory limb about 3/4 inch in diameter. You can also use (fishing cane) .

FireBAT (author)2008-07-14

Very Nice, Fun Instructable! It's great to be able to make a toy out of just a stick. You do have to be careful with your stick choice- some wood tastes better than others. Keep up the good work!

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