Introduction: Building an Aztec Drum

About: Retired Electronic Design Engineer. Member of The MakerBarn.

This is an interesting project that is easy to build, yet looks complicated. It is basically a sealed wooden box with tongues cut in the top and a sound hole cut in the front. When struck, the tongues vibrate and make a pleasing note.

It is believed the origin of this device is the ceremonial drums built by the Aztecs. They cut tongues in the side of hollowed out logs.

Step 1: Build a Box

The drums can be built in about any size. The size is mostly driven by the lumber you have on hand. This drum was 6-1'2" wide. about 6-3/4" tall. and 14" long. It was made from River Birch acquired from a local sawmill. The board I made it from was rather thick, about 7/8". If I did it again I think I would plane it to about 5/8" or so. One of the reasons for using the heavy wood was that I was building this for my Grandson, AKA "El Destructo".

The box can be built using any joinery you are comfortable using. I made this box using Box Joints. For details on making the box please see my Instructable "Making Box Joints". The box can be made from any kind of wood, but the top should be hardwood for better sound. Cut the top and bottom a little long. If the box is not exactly square, you make need the extra length. You will be able to sand off the extra length later.

The drumsticks are made using small superballs, drilled and glued to hardwood dowels. For details on making the drumsticks see my Instructable "Making Perfect Hole in Superballs"

In the photo above you can see the box sides cut and test fitted, waiting for glue.

Step 2: Make the Sound Hole

I cut the sound hole a bit smaller than the superballs I used on the drumsticks (1-1/4"). This was to prevent El Distructo from losing the drumsticks inside the drum. Round over the edges of the hole with a router.

Step 3: Glue-up the Sides

The blue tape is not required, but it does help prevent glue from getting in places you don't want it. Glue stains can make finishing difficult. When finished putting on all the clamps, the assembly should look like a porcupine.

Step 4: Layout the Tongues

Using your best drafting skills and a bit of imagination, layout the tongues on the top piece. I stepped away from the edge enough to prevent the tongues from touching the side. Then I drew a line across the center. The next step was to decide on a usable offset, in this case 1/2". A line was drawn 1/2" inch to the left of center for the top pair of tongues. Another line was draw 1" to the right of center for the center tongues. The last line was 1-1/2" to the left of center for the bottom pair of tongues. This is what I chose, your design might be totally different, and that would be excellent. I made not attempt what so ever to tune the tongues, that would be way out of my level of skill.

The tongues can be square on the ends, but I used a template to mark them out with rounded ends. I've seen drums with various unusual shapes, but I like to keep things simple.

Step 5: Drill Holes for the Tongues

Drill holes through the top where each tongue starts. This makes it easier to start the cuts and also help lessen the likelihood of cracks forming. I used a 3/8" Forstner bit.

Step 6: Cut Out the Tongues

In this case, cutting out the tongues will allow the drum to speak.

Use a saber saw or a scroll saw to cut out the tongues. Take your time, this part is a bit tricky.

Step 7: Clean-up the Tongues

Using some 1" wide cloth sanding strips, or strip of paper backed sandpaper. Cleanup the saw makes and round over the edges a bit. If you had a tough time cutting the tongues, this is your chance to clean them up a bit.

Step 8: Glue the Top and Bottom

Before gluing the bottom on, be sure to sign and date it on the inside. No telling, you may become the "Stradivarius" of Aztec drum makers.

Make sure the glued surface are gap free. Spread glue on the top and bottom of the sides and clamp the top and bottom panels in place. Let the glue dry thoroughly before sanding everything flush.

Step 9: Round Over the Edges and Finish Sand the Drum

The router table is a good way to radius the edges. It makes it look nice, and it is safer for the kiddos.

Finish sand to whatever level you need for your finishing technique.

Step 10: Stain and Finish

Finish the drum as you would any project. I didn't stain the drum, I just gave it a few coats of brush-on lacquer. I wet sanded with 400 grit paper between coats. Lacquer is a good choice for items used by kids and it drys fast. Oil finishes have dryers which can be toxic so they should be avoided if it is for kids.

Step 11: Install Some Feet

It's a good idea to install some rubber feet to keep the drum from sliding around and/or damaging the surface they are set on (like Mom's new coffee table).

Step 12: Time to Start Your Recital

Here's the finished drum. It's important to note that the dimensions can be whatever you want. The attached video give you an idea what the drum sounds like.

These drums make great gift and craft fair items. Let's see what you can make.

Box Contest 2017

Participated in the
Box Contest 2017

Makerspace Contest 2017

Participated in the
Makerspace Contest 2017