Introduction: Homemade Marimba Mallets
If you know anything about playing percussion (apart from just hitting stuff), you'd know that playing the all-time-best instruments come at a cost. Sticks and mallets are so darn expensive for a ball and a stick. So welcome to my guide on making your own mallets which do sound rather fabulous. I hope you enjoy.
RocketScientist, inspiring and impressive. I look up to you, good sir.
Steps 2-5: Preparing the Shaft
Steps 6-7: Preparing the Core
Step 8: Assembly
Steps 9-12: Wrapping
Step 13: Repeat steps 2-12 three more times
Step 14: Evaluation
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Step 1: Materials and Tools
-Wooden dowel, ideally, birch or rattan but it can be hard to come by. I used 9.5mm Tas Oak. I believe most commercial mallets are 8mm. You'll need enought, obviously, for however many mallets you are making. Generally, 40cm mallets are good, so a 0.8m or 1.6m length would be ideal for 2 and 4 mallets respectively.
-Chair tips, the things you put on the ends of legs of chairs to stop them skidding. I think I used 19mm size, leftovers from the cajon project. Anything much over 19mm will result in a mallet way to large. I used rubber, plastic ones would give a different tone.
-Larger wooden dowel, to fit in the chair tips.
-Yarn, Wool or Cord, there are no real definitions here, I used thin 4ply wool
-Glue, I just used PVA, you could use epoxy or whatever you feel is strongest.
-Small saw (or large, it doesn't really matter I guess)
-Sandpaper, fine and coarse
-Drill/Drill press (not pictured)
-> Drill bit the diameter of the shaft (not pictured)
-Tape Measure/Ruler (not pictured)
-Safety gear - glasses, ear protection, etc. (not pictured)
Step 2: Preparing the Shaft - Sanding
Take your fine grit sandpaper and run it up and down the dowel several times, applying light pressure. Make sure the ends are evenly sanded as well. Tap the dowel on something soft but firm to get rid of most of the dust and run your hand up and down. If it feels smooth and you are satisfied with it, move on.
Note that most shafts in commercial mallets are not 'finished' with oils or finishes, or if so, very lightly. Ergo, the shaft of the finished mallets will feel as they do now.
Step 3: Preparing the Shaft - Marking
This is a simple but defining moment in your mallet making process.
Mark along the shaft for the lengths of your mallets. As said earlier, 40cm is a pretty good length, perhaps a bit longer for those with larger hands.
Step 4: Preparing the Shaft - Cutting
Cut at your mark with the saw. Try to make the cut as vertical as possible, as it reducing the sanding needed later.
Step 5: Preparing the Shaft - Checking Length
This makes an ideal time to check the length of your shaft before you cut any more. Hold the shaft in a normal playing position, both with one and two mallets, and see how it feels. Try miming some strokes.
Step 6: Preparing the Core - Marking and Cutting the Large Dowel
Stick the large dowel into the chair tip and mark it. Cut at the mark, again aiming for a vertical cut.
Step 7: Preparing the Core - Drilling the Large Dowel
Mark the centre of the dowel, either by estimate or by fancy geometric methods. I just estimated.
The hole should go about 2/3 the depth of the dowel so place the drill bit next to the dowel to see how far down to go. This point can either be estimated while drilling (I did it this way), or you can wrap a piece of tape around the point so you have a visual indication of how deep to go.
All of my holes were off centre, but as they were all uniformly imperfect, they ended up all the same and worked fine. So don't panic if they're a tad off!
This was done at a school workshop, apologies for the lack of pictures.
Test this with the shaft. If you're happy with the way it feels, move on.
Step 8: Assembly - Glue, Tip and Sand
Put a drop of glue (about the size of a pea) into the drilled hole and insert the dowel all the way.
Push the chair tip onto the larger dowel.
One of my large dowels was a bit smaller than the rest for some reason, so one mallet's chair leg tip was not as tight as I wanted it to be, so I just used a small strip of paper to line the chair tip before pushing it on to the large dowel.
To finish, use the coarse sandpaper, followed by the fine sandpaper, to smooth the bottom end of the shaft so you don't give yourself splinters while playing.
Step 9: Wrapping - Start the Wrap
Let me begin by saying that I'm no expert on wrapping, I just picked up my knowledge from a few sources which I recommend checking out:
http://www.bostonconservatory.edu/sites/all/files/potter_mallet_wrap.pdf (This one is very, very good. Definitely worth clicking)
I'm a leftie so you may need to flip the hand orientations.
You'll want to begin by wrapping the loose end of your yarn around the shaft of the mallet at the base of the core (see pic).
Wrap it around two full times then bring the yarn over the top of the core, right in the centre. From here (from leftie POV, everything in bold can be opposite-ified):
1. Hold the mallet shaft in your right hand, the bottom resting on your lap or between your legs.
2. Turn the mallet 90 degrees counterclockwise with your right fingers.
3. Use your left hand to bring the yarn over the existing wrap making a cross in the centre of the top of the core of the mallet.
4. Turn the mallet 45/135 degrees (your choice) counterclockwise with your right fingers as in step 2, but with a different angle.
5. Repeat step 3.
6. From here, just keep turning and wrapping trying to fill the largest gaps in the wrapping.
Step 10: Wrapping - Keep Going
Once you've got most of the mallet covered, instead of wrapping the yarn in the dead-centre of the core, wrap about 1/3 cm to the right to create a small halo-like circle on the top of the mallet. You can see the first off-centre wrap in the picture, going from the top left to the bottom right. I don't really know why it exists, maybe to reduce the yarn slipping off the core, but it makes the next step easier.
Its best to have the instrument at hand so that you can test how the mallet sounds, either as a general sound or in comparison to other mallets. To do this, wrap the yarn around the shaft 6-8 times so that the yarn remains tight around the last core-wrapping, hold the mallet in a playing position and hit a bar. Obviously, more wraps will make it softer and less will give it a harder tone.
People have different methods of keeping track of wraps. Some count the number (mind-numbingly painful, but pays off), some measure how much they've wound by armspan. I simply wrap until it looks about right, test it and refine it from the sound it creates. In a sense, it could give a better result, but it does depend on your musical ear.
When you're happy with how your mallet sounds/looks/tastes, move on.
Step 11: Wrapping - Sewing the Top
When you are satisfied, cut off about an armspan's worth of yarn and thread the needle onto the end. If any step was 'hard' (rather than 'time consuming'), it would be threading the needle. Impossible.
Anyways, follow the following steps:
1. Push the needle into the top of the mallet, on the inside edge of the circle made in step 10. It should come out on the outside edge of the same circle. Pull tightly. See images.
2. Rotate the mallet counterclockwise by a tiny little amount and repeat the process.
3. Work your way around the top of the mallet until you are back where you started.
4. Move on to the next step.
Beware, for this step and the next, of creating slip-knots which become really tight and impossible to untie. This happened to me in this very mallet being photographed and I was nearly unable to finish it. To prevent this, move the needle slowly and steadily, untangling any twisted yarn.
Step 12: Wrapping - Sewing the Bottom
Bring the needle to the base of the core. In a similar fashion to the top, push the needle in and poke it out a short distance upward. Turn the mallet in small increments counterclockwise and continue until you've gone all the way around.
To finish the mallet, bring the needle back to the top, push it back in as in step 11 and tie a knot. This is achieved by pushing the needle through the loop created by the yarn BEFORE it is pulled tight.
For a more posh result, instead of simply bringing the yarn to the top of the mallet, push the needle into the mallet on the way up. It will probably come out before reaching the top, so pull it through, then push it back in where the yarn came out, still upwards, until you've reached the top. I'm sure it barely makes a difference, but it feels pro when you do it this way.
Step 13: Finished Homemade Mallets
Congratulations. You now have a mallet that you can hit stuff with, with a (hopefully) beautiful tone and nice feel.
Now make 3 more.
<A sound comparison will be uploaded in the coming weeks, when busy-ness levels decrease>
Step 14: Evaluation
Here are some of my thoughts on the mallets:
1. Sound lovely, if a bit tinny and thin. Perhaps could be solved by having a harder, smaller core and more wraps.
2. Heavy, not just at the head, but for the shaft too. When I weighed the mallets, they came to the same weight as the commercial Inaki Sebastian Medium mallets, but they were heavier in the shaft and lighter in the core. This is not ideal. A better weight distribution could probably have been achieved with thinner dowel and a heavier, more-wrapped core.
3. The shaft was too thick. 9.5mm feels noticeably different to 8mm, especially with 4 mallets. I haven't done 8mm with Tasmanian Oak, so I don't know how strong it would be, but I'll be sure to try that next time.
4. The shaft felt really good with a light sanding. I found this surprising. I expected it to be full of splinters and flaky bits.
If anybody does decide to take up this project, I wish you all the best of luck, show us the results of your toils!
If you have any comments or suggestions, I'd love to hear them!