Introduction: Make a Thumb Piano (Mbira)

About: I have always loved the feeling of finishing the construction of an object and if I don't have something I need or want I usually give it a go to build it from what I have. Usually though, I look at a boring o…
This is a basic guide for building a Thumb Piano, or Mbira. They have been made for centuries all over Africa (and a few other places) and vary a lot in shape, size and sound. They belong to a group of instruments called "Lamellophones" which are percussion instruments, although the sound an Mbira makes sounds more like a string instrument or "chordophone".

The last three steps in this instructable show you how to make some slightly different Mbiras to the one the instructable is about.

As a person living in Southern Africa, I have seen many of these over the years but never personally owned one, so I thought I would give it a try to make my own.

The type of Mbira in this instructable has a resonator box, a chamber that does the same thing a guitar's resonator box does; it allows the sound to "bounce around" inside and there is only one hole in the front of the instrument for it to escape from. The effect this has is the pitch of the instrument will be lower and the vibrations (and sound) will last longer for more pleasing notes.

These are quite fun to make and you have quite a bit of freedom in the design, the shape of the box will be the main thing to change to make the instrument look more appealing. You may also add a coat of your choice to it to make it look better and more personalized.

I am afraid I cannot really play these yet, only make them so I cannot tell you how to do that, but you will have loads of fun just playing random notes!

Experiment with a few designs. The purpose if this guide is not for you to follow specific things like the size of the Mbira or the number of Tines (the things you pluck); but rather to look at the important rules of making one that ensure that it will function, then doing your own project with the details up to you.

The Mbira is a basic instrument, but be prepared to spend a long time making yours! To make a decent one you will need about 5 hours. To make a really good one you will need more than 12.

The real beauty of this instrument is that I did not need to leave my house to find the materials I needed for it. You can make one out of anything!

Sadly I cannot record a video of any of mine being played because I do not have the right equipment for that and I need 2 hands to hold and play it, but here is a video of a similar Hugh Tracey Mbira:

Please vote for this in the woodworking contest! I would really appreciate it! :D

Step 1: What You Need:

This instructable is on the first picture in the Introduction, it is the easiest to make and was my first Mbira ever.

The materials you will need are:

- Spring steel strip (I found mine in a scrapyard a few months before I made the instrument) I used a windscreen-wiper spring from a car and it worked perfectly. You could also use a car dipstick or just flatten a piece of stiff wire with a hammer (This is what I have done for all my other Mbiras since this one)

- Wood sheet/board (I used plywood, but non-ply would work too and have a more clear sound and feel better to hold. It does not make a big difference,though, and the ideal thickness of the wood for an Mbira of this size is about 2~5 mm.

- Thin Binding Wire, this needs to be strong and hard to break by twisting. It will be used to hold the tines under tension, so it is very important to use strong wire.

- 2 Nails/ pieces of wire of about 2~4 mm diameter.

- a strong metal tube of diameter 2~5 mm (Mine was an old radio aerial off a car)

- 1mm thick metal sheet (I used aluminium because it is easy to cut and drill)

- Wood glue.

The tools you will need are:

- Pliers
- A hammer and anvil (or something similar to an anvil, I do not have one so I used a second hammer.)
- A drill (I used a dremel with drill-bit)
- A small drill-bit of about 1~1.5 mm diameter
- Something to cut a hole into the front wooden face with. I used a drill to make a few holes, poked the middle part out, then used a rotary dremel with a sandpaper attachment to enlarge the hole once it could fit into the hole made by the drill.
- Sandpaper appropriate for the type of wood you use
- A hacksaw to cut the pieces of wood from the sheet/board
- I found a sandpaper cylinder attachment on a dremel helps a lot with neatening up the wooden edges, but you do not need one.
- A metal file (again, not entirely necessary if you have sandpaper, but it is easier to use in some places.)

Depending on the type of Mbira you make, the materials and tools needed will vary.

Step 2: The Box/resonator

The box in this simple Mbira is rectangular and easy to get right. It has 6 sides: 2 faces and 4 walls.

I used a scrap piece of plywood for the box parts and while it is not a very attractive-looking wood, it still worked well and I was pleased with the result. I have marked the dimensions I used in the first picture, but you may use any dimensions you like. I had to make mine small because the metal I had available for the tines limited the size of the instrument.

The shapes are pretty straightforward and easy to achieve, I used a hacksaw and some sandpaper to get them to the desired shape.

Cut the 6 rectangles from your sheet/board, then smooth off the edges and make sure that they are straight and that the walls are all the same height.

Only ONE of the 2 faces must had a hole in it. This hole should be placed just below halfway down on the face, as shown in the first picture. To make this hole, I drilled 8 holes in a circular pattern into the wood, then broke out the wood in the middle. Then I used a dremel tool with sandpaper (Picture 3) to enlarge the hole and make it look neat.

Once you have trimmed the pieces to all fit together, place them together and make sure that everything looks tidy. Glue the walls onto the BOTTOM face (the one without a hole in it) and leave the glue to dry. Cut 4 small triangles (optional, for extra strength) and glue them into the corners of the box to hold the walls at 90 degrees to one another. This should make it more difficult to break if the Mbira is dropped.

Do NOT glue the front face on yet!

While we wait for the glue to dry, let's make the tines...

Step 3: The Tines (Keys)

Mbiras use tines to generate sound vibrations, in the same way a guitar uses strings. Each tine produces a different pitched note and they are arranged in this Mbira from lowest in the middle to highest at the sides. This makes the instrument easier to play.

This particular one uses 8 tines, however you may choose how many you would like to have.

I did not take pictures of the flattening process because it requires two hands, but the basic idea is to put a piece of wire or a spring-steel strip onto an anvil or another solid metal object, and strike it with a hammer so that it flattens between the hammer and the metal. In my Mbira I used a strip of spring steel so there was no need to flatten it, I just prefer the look of flattened ones.

Once it is "flared" out at one end (the end that will be plucked by your thumbs), sand or file it so that it is smooth and looks uniform. This will make it easier to play for longer without hurting your fingers.

The lengths of my 8 tines from left to right were:
45 mm    1
55 mm    2
62 mm    3
58 mm    4
60 mm    5
56 mm    6
52 mm    7
46 mm    8

The tines are mounted with a different length sticking out of the top for each one, so that allows tines of the same length to generate different sounds. Take note of the placement of the tines in the other steps.

Step 4: The Faceplate Assembly

This Mbira requires a thin metal sheet on either side of the wood where the wire will be threaded through, to make it stronger so that the wire does not break the wood when tightened.

The faceplate assembly consists of:
- 2 thin 1mm rectangular metal sheets (faceplate and backplate)
- A piece of 2mm dia. wire/ a nail
- Another piece of 2mm dia. wire/ nail
- a small metal tube (mine was 5 cm long with a diameter of 5 mm)
- Lots of thin binding wire (mine was 1mm diameter)

To begin, cut two rectangular pieces of sheet metal to the correct size so that they fit onto your mbira as shown on mine. (mine were 55 mm X 27 mm.)

One of them needs to look nice, that is the faceplate. The other can look rough since it will never be visible, it is called the backplate.

Place your frontplate in the desired position on the Mbira. Use my pictures for reference of where that should be.
Then mark with a pen or pencil, holes in the places shown. Use a very small drillbit to drill the holes through. Drill through the faceplate and the wooden front face at the same time, so that the holes match up well. Then hold the backplate under the frontplate and do the same thing. This is much easier than measuring every time.

If you use a nail for the top tine holder, like I did, then clip the head of the nail off with a hammer and some pliers. It can stick out of the sides like mine to prevent it from falling out of the wires that will hold it. You may also bend the ends if you use a thinner nail, to achieve the same.

Cut 4 pieces of thin binding wire. Mine were about 4,5 cm long each.bend them into a "U" shape and drop them into the holes as shown in picture 2, with the second nail/piece of wire in place. Place the backplate on the back side of the face.

Twist the two ends of each piece of wire together, to make an "X" shape behind the face, then twist them more to tighten them. The larger wire/ nails must not be able to move.
Once this is done, it should look like pictures 3 and 4.

Next you will need to drill another set of holes, this time to hold the tensioning tube over the tines. I drilled 10 holes to fit wire between the tines and another hole at each end of the tube. See the last picture for more detail. Next we will fit the tines, then the tube goes on top of them to create tension in them.

Step 5: Attaching the Tines and Completing the Instrument

Place the tines carefully over the two horizontal pieces of wire/ nails. Take careful note of the placement of them in the first picture! This allows them to vibrate properly.

Once they are loose on top of the faceplate, thread a long piece of wire through the tube. (Mine was about 18 cm long)
bend the two ends of this wire down and push it through the two outer-most holes in the faceplate. At the back of the face, twist the two ends of the wire together like you did before, and make sure that the tube is against the tines as TIGHTLY as possible.

Then, start with the other holes you made. Make more "U" shaped pieces of wire, in this Mbira you will use 5, each of them about 5 cm long. Put them through the holes as shown in the completed front face above. Twist them behind the back of the face, and make sure once again that the tube is pressed TIGHTLY against the tines. This tension is what allows the instrument to function. If a key is loose, twist the wire closest to is a bit more at the back, this will pull the tube closer to it.

Once the tines are all in place and firmly held there, you may glue the front face onto the rest of the resonator box.

Congratulations! :D Your Mbira is complete. Now have fun for the next few days playing with your new creation!

Step 6: Other Ideas!

Here are a few of my Mbiras, each is unique. The following steps in this instructable show you other ways of making similar Mbiras, and also how to burn wood patterns.

Step 7: Mini Mbira

This was something I made for my girlfriend, to be used as an earring or necklace piece, but is also a playable musical instrument. Well... Sort of! It makes sounds but I would not call them "music".

I flattened some pins for tines and used balsa wood for the frame. Completed, the resonator box measures 3 X 3 cm.

Step 8: The Bottle Kalimba

This one was original intended to be a traditional Zimbabwean Shona Mbira, but I did not have the right equipment to temper the thick wire and make the larger tines, so I used the 9 lightest ones and put them on a resonator box. With one difference...

I moved the hole from the front face to the top of the instrument, and made it possible to fit the top of a Coca Cola bottle inside, to amplify the sound made. It worked!

This was just an idea I had and I think it turned out to work pretty well.

Something worth noting on this one is the much simpler mounting of the tines, a "U" shaped piece of wire is used for each tine and they are all just pressed directly to the frontplate. This takes less time to do but I do not know how well this would work if you did not use flattened wire as tines.

To make it look a little more interesting, I decided to burn the back face with a magnifying glass. This is simple and fast, but hard to get neat. First lightly draw a pencil outline of what you want to burn into the wood, then follow it to burn the shapes into the outer layer of wood.

PRACTICE on a scrap piece of wood first if you decide to do this!

Step 9: Heart Mbira

This is the Mbira of which I am most proud, it took me over 15 hours to make and it turned out awesome! I made it as a surprise gift for my girlfriend, she loves Mbira music so I wanted to make her a one-off special Mbira unlike any other in the world.

I used a better wood than ply, I think it make have been cherry but I am not sure.

This one also uses wire to hold the tines directly to the faceplate, and the tines were made from a wire coat hanger flattened with a hammer. There are many pictures in this step to help you if you got stuck at any point in the construction of your own Mbira.

This one has a large resonance chamber and is therefore louder than the others.

Around the heart-shaped hole on the front face are some basic tribal flame swirls, I drew those on lightly in pencil before using a soldering iron to carefully burn the shape into the wood. This just makes the front face look a little more intriguing and interesting. I also added in a larger stainless steel frontplate to make it look more uniform, as well as making the 7 tines form a heart shape and shaping the resonator box vaguely like a heart too.

On the back face, I also used a soldering iron to burn the wood. Here I first drew a Jasmin flower on paper, then after I was happy with that, redrew it onto the back face, then used the soldering iron to shade it in. I had to redo it a couple times because you need to do everything in a circular motion so as to avoid black dots being burnt in from stopping. 

I DEFINITELY recommend you PRACTICE on a spare piece of wood before you do this on your own Mbira. 

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