Introduction: Build Your Own Djembe (and End Table)

Long ago I was a member of my high school's Drum Circle where we played African drums. As a college student, that's one of the things I miss most. So given my hobby of building musical instruments (marimba), the logical solution was to build my own djembe.

I could buy one. You can find a cheap one for around 200 US dollars. But what would be the fun in that?

Additionally, Percussionists are notoriously protective of our instruments (As all musicians should be). The problem is drums and mallet percussion instruments like the Marimba and Timpani are very large, very expensive, and about waist high. So other non-percussionists frequently mistake them for tables.

This Djembe is going to fix that problem by doubling as a table. This is an easy fix, all you have to do is place a glass top on it.

First you have to decide what "build" means to you. To me it means carve up a tree myself.
However, if you prefer you can buy ready made djembe shells from suppliers such as African Rhythm Traders. If this is the best option for you, you can skip the next few steps of the instructable. However this instructable will focus on making the shell, and I'll refer you to some other sources for tying the ring knots and verticals.

Step 1: Identifying a Tree

If you are going to carve up a tree to make your djembe, there are a few good things to look for.

In my search, I looked for a tree which had already fallen.
The advantage is, half the work is already done for you and the lumber has already started drying (more on that later). The disadvantage is worms. If the tree has been down for some time, worms will have already started decomposing the material by burrowing holes in the material. This can be fixed later, so don't let that scare you.

Regardless of the tree's condition, try to get material from as close to the base as possible. For one, the diameter is larger, which will allow for a larger drum. Two, the "heart" of the tree is bigger (see pictures). I suggest you section off 2 or 3, 40 inch lengths to make your drum out of. 40 inches leaves plenty of work room and the additional logs can be used to make more drums, or as backup material.

Step 2: Drying the Material

Once you have your logs, you'll need to stand them upright somewhere outside to air dry. If your wondering why this is so important, as wood dries it shrinks non-uniformly in all directions. So if you start carving too soon, you could end with a warped djembe. So here is your air drying checklist.

1. Protection from rain.
2. Raised off the ground (so air can get under the log).
3. Standing upright.
4. All tree bark removed.
5. Time.

Time could be anywhere from a week to three months depending on whether the tree was freshly fallen.

Step 3: Dimensioning and Carving

You should be able to get an idea about what kind of diameter you'll be getting out of your log. The drum diameter, waist diameter, and flue diameter all in ratios of 1 to 1/3 to 1/2 respectively. To figure out how tall your drum needs to be, look at this table. Alternatively, you could look here, to find some common dimensions of various African drums.

So to recap the dimensioning process:
Drum Diameter - diameter of your log
Waist Diameter - 1/3 of your drum diameter
Flue Diameter - 1/2 of your drum diameter
Height - dependent on preference and but usually twice the drum diameter.

With "ideal" dimensions in mind you can begin carving the log. How you go about this is up to you, but my preferred method is a chainsaw. I suggest you start with the flue, and carve the upper portion later. Remember you're just trying to get the general shape at this stage.

This is probably a good place to add I don't suggest using a chainsaw if you're inexperienced. Ask for help from someone who knows what they're doing. Or just get creative. You can find other ways to do this.

Step 4: Hollowing

The shape of the interior will follow the shape of the exterior. It's also OK to start this step with the exterior roughly cut and shaped with the chainsaw. There is a good rule of thumb to remember here.

"The thinner the shell, the louder the sound."

So to you and me this statement means,

"Make it as thin as possible!"

As a side note, this mantra has inspired several composite (Fiberglass, Carbon Fiber) djembes.

Here I'm aiming for 1 inch thick. It can be further hollowed later.
My method here is using a chainsaw to break up the interior. Then I used a hammer to drive a steel pipe of about 2 inch diameter all the way through the drum. The steel pipe method will let you take out large amounts of material at a time. I suppose this goes without saying but this process will create mounds of sawdust as evidenced by the pictures. Also, the interior can be left a little rough. It does not have to be smooth, I think I read somewhere roughness gives a better tone.

Step 5: Final Shaping

With the exterior roughly cut, and the interior hollowed, now would be the time for final shaping and getting the exterior looking "pretty". A few tools you might find beneficial here:

1.) Electric Planer - Removes material faster than a sander and helped me with shaping the flue.
2.) Sander - Gives a smooth finish and can be used for making small adjustments to the shape.
3.) Wood Chisel - Helped me shape the waist.

Additionally you can use wood putty to fix any worm holes, if you have them.

The picture shows my djembe after I was happy with the surface finish and final dimensions.

Step 6: Drum Parts, Stain, and Varnish.

Now would be a good time to get yourself a drum head and plenty of rope (80 to 100 feet, 1/4" diameter) to tune with later. If you make your drum head from animal skin you'll have to keep the skin lubricated and covered, kept away from sunlight to lengthen the life of the drum head. I decided for my application that was more trouble than I really wanted. So I opted instead for a synthetic drum head. I'd recommend searching If you go this route, keep in mind a 13 inch drum head (as in my case) refers to a 13 inch drum shell.

In the mean time, do any staining or varnishing you want to your drum!

Step 7: Mounting the Head and Tuning

You will need a metal tuning ring (two if you used real skin) to fit around your drum head. You can buy this (again from African Rhythm Traders), but I made mine from some spare steel and painted it gold.

Rather than explain how to tie the knots on the ring, make the verticals and so on, I'm going to take the easy and perhaps lazy way out and give you links to other people who have already said and demonstrated this better than I can. If I get enough requests I may type up my instructions, but I'd only be echoing the people behind the links below.

Knotting the Rings


Step 8: Conclusions, and Retrofitting Into a Table

To turn your djembe into a table, all you need is a round piece of glass cut about a inch larger than your drum diameter. The glass takes any pressure applied to it and disperse it evenly across the rim of the shell. So it's the shell bearing the weight rather than your nicely tuned drum head. When you want to play it just take the glass off and set it aside. However, don't forget this is a musical instrument and if you plan on using it as such you need to keep it out of sunlight. So you might want to use a small sheet of cloth between the drum head and the glass just to protect it.

I've had my drum finished for almost a month now and I'm quite happy with the result. I'm getting decent clarity between high and bass tones, and it performs well as a really cool table as well.