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.



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    21 Discussions


    7 years ago on Step 4

    I have read that the flue should be hand carved in spiral pattern.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    There are some kind of lumber that is worst for the construction or all of the trees can make good Djembes?


    8 years ago on Step 7

    If I use two rings, is an x-ray film head possible? Or should I just cannibalize a conga/bongo for the upper ring and run rope thru the bolt holes?


    8 years ago on Introduction

    LOVE it. I had a dead tree fall on my fence knocking it down. One of the drought victims. I knew eventually it would come down (the tree) but it hit my fence when it did. So I decided it was a gift for a drum. Anyway, I cut it all up (thinking drum as I worked) and then repaired the wood fence. Unless you knew what to look for, no one would be the wiser about where I got my drum blanks from. :D Thanks for the 'ible. I shall use your direction. My tree was dead and dry for at least a couple years before throwing itself into my yard for my use. :D

    There is at least one more tree that is dead. Hm, actually three more. Two in my yard that are oak. One long dead pine in the woods outside my yard. Is pine usable? Or should I just make table bases out of it and cut the oaks down? They are not so wide as the pines.


    Yes I'm fairly certain. I must admit I rushed things a little.

    I won't claim to be a carpenter but my grandfather certainly is. He's taught me most all I know and helped me extensively with this project as well as my marimba.

    Any oval warping(most likely "problem") will be minimized, first, by the nice symmetrical, even hollowing. As an added bonus, if it DOES shrink a bit, with continued drying, it'll do so quickly, with all that interior wood removed.
    From the look of that downed log.. it's either spent a good deal of time lying down already, or the trunk was dead and weathering BEFORE it fell. Just judging by the bark condition about halfway up the fallen log.

    If cracks are going to develop, you should know within  a few weeks.

    Second, At worst, it will require a slight adjustment to the tension ropes. The head and ring don't care about round, oval, square...

    Anyway, I guess I'm saying, Treat a drum shape like this, the same way as you would with a bowl. IF you're worried it's too green... carve the rough shape, let it sit a few weeks, then finish. You'll know it's ready for finishing, by how the wood works. Green and seasoned are VERY different beasts.

    As a personal question... bark off drying? Is that based on the type of wood? personal technique? folk tales? "that's how my grand pappies grandpappie taught him"? I ask because I was taught to dry timbers bark-on. To slow the drying, and a few other magicks of wood, to reduce chances of checking. It has worked good for me so far, But I'm always willing to learn more!


    yeah i worked (kind of) at this youth art program in chicago. For a field trip (hence kind of) we went to the Chicago urban forest project. They collect any trees the park district or private owners cut down, mill it, and sell it. In doing so they save trees from a low level recycling (woodchips, paper). They really know their stuff, and though i might be taking what they said out of context, they said it is better to let a log dry slower for longer to avoid cracking. They use a kiln to dry their wood, but they mentioned someone who packs freshly downed logs in cardboard boxes filled with sawdust and leaves them in his basement to dry. Also, i'm not sure how desirable it would be for a djembe, but they also mentioned someone who lathes out bowls green, then lets them dry and warp. I think the thinness prevents cracking in that case. btw, i once chiseled out a bowl, end grain, and it is ALOT more difficult and time consuming then i expected. Its certainly do-able, but perhaps not ideal.

     I removed the bark because I was impatient for a project to work on and wanted it to dry quicker. I assumed I would be able to get away with this because the tree had been down for quite some time before I got to it. Additionally it came down during a storm so you're probably right with your "dead and weathering" guess.

    Thanks for your comment! You've got a lot of good advice there so I'm probably do a copy and paste sometime soon. (If you don't mind.)

    I enjoy wood working but I'm far from professional. And oddly I consider myself to be more of a mallet percussionist (marimbas, xylophones, and vibraphones) rather than drummer. So this project was quite a learning experience for me.

     I was actually going to make some over the summer.

    Since bongos are smaller, you should consider making them on a lathe. I'm just learning lathe working but I don't think bongos would be too difficult. If you don't like the lathe idea ... hammers, wood chisels, and patience will work!

    And, as with djembe s, I presume a thinner shell will give you more volume.

    Finally, remember to take lots of pictures and make an instructable!


    9 years ago on Step 4

    i don't have a would you suggest i best hollow out the log?


    9 years ago on Step 3

    an easier way would be to use a lathe but not everyone has access to one


    9 years ago on Introduction

     Ah! Marimba's and Djembes.. :)
    I'm from South Africa - I played in my High-School Marimba band for about 4 years, and nothing beats tapping out a good rhythm on a hand-carved Djembe with your friends playing marimba around you. 

    I don't think I would have the willpower/energy to make my own Djembe, but this is a cool instructable! 


    9 years ago on Introduction

    Health and Safety brigade here - if you're doing this kind of fine work make sure you use a new chain and don't wear jeans - wear chainsaw safety trousers! Or alternatively don't use a chainsaw!  Working in a job where we fell a lot of trees I'd really recommend you don't unless you've got a lot of experience with one.

    Great ible though! I love the finished product - we've got about 2,500 trees coming down in feb (Before the bird nesting season) and I'm tempted to ask for a chunk. I can probably do this with a hand chisel though rather than a chainsaw! :D


    9 years ago on Introduction

    I love the ible!  I've always wanted one, and always wanted to make one :D

    I would recommend (request) that you put the knotting instructions here on instructables - if those websites go down, there will be no record of how to do those steps.  Perhaps request from the author of the website permission to repost their instructions verbatim (with copyright notice, image watermarks etc.)

     About 30 work hours including cutting down the tree. I did the entire project (minus cutting up the tree) between finals and Christmas.