Introduction: African Kalimba (Thumb Piano)

Each note of a kalimba, mbira, kaffir piano etc. is a separate idiophone, and in orchestral terms, the instrument as a whole belongs in the bar percussion family (specifically: lamellophones). Furthermore, the thumbs are not exclusively used, as some instruments are played with the thumbs and other fingers also.

Thumb pianos traditionally consist of a wooden board to which metal tines of varying lengths are affixed. Some have mechanisms for readily tuning the tines to different scales. The longest tines are typically in the center, with shorter (and thus higher-pitched) tines arranged alternately in ascending order towards both sides of the instrument. The thumb piano is most commonly held in both hands, with both thumbs being used to pluck tines either simultaneously or in turn

Modern variations of the instrument may have more than the traditional array of 15 tines, with as many as four fully chromatic octaves, making the playing of more complex music possible. The thumb pianos are made of different woods, either with only a sound board or often with a resonant chamber. Those with hollow resonating chambers for increased volume, often have two holes on the back that can be used to create a vibrato as the fingers cover and open these holes.

Materials Needed:

(1) Box - a small cigar box works well
(2) 1/4" x 5" long dowel
(1) 1/2" x 5" long dowel
(2) #10 x 1-1/4" long bolt
(2) #10 wing nuts
(7) mini hack saw blades or coping saw blades or a mixture of both
Wood stain
Polyeurothane (if desired)

Equipment Needed:
Drill gun
3/32" or #10 drill bit
2-1/2" Door knob cutting bit

First cut your dowels to 5" lengths. Cut the 2-1/2" door knob hole into the bottom portion of the box lid (approximately 1/2" from BOTTOM edge of box. Drill 3/32" holes about 1/2" from each end of the 1/2" dowel. Sand all parts to smooth finish.

Stain the box and dowels.

Glue one 1/2" x 5" dowel about 1/2" from TOP edge of box (centered). Glue other 1/2" x 5" dowel about 1-1/2" from 1st glued dowel (centered).

Place 1/2" dowel in center of the two glued dowels and follow pre-drilled holes to drill holes into box lid.

Remove the metal pegs from the saw blade ends. Cut your saw blades various lengths. There is no specific length so I cut my longest (middle tine of the piano) about 4-1/2" long. Then cut the other 6 blades about 1/4" to 1/2" shorter (varying in length).

Insert bolts from the inside of the box and loosly place pre-drilled dowel on bolts. Slide blades into place. I place the longest in the middle and then shorter blades to both sides of the 1st blade but you can put them in any order you wish.

Push 1/2" dowel down snuggly over the blades and screw wing nuts onto bolts. Continue to screw wing nuts and apply pressure until snug to box. Your blades should line up with the top 1/4" glued dowel and run 'wild' in length over the larger hole in the box.

Glue box closed to eliminate any vibration of the lid and box.

I made this model for my grandson. I found the box at a hobby store (it was actually a wooden purse). I removed the wooden purse handle. There could be all types of tines used for different sounds ~ experiment and enjoy!