Homemade Traditional Finnish 5-string Kantele




About: Experienced user of the SST(Slap S*** Together) method.

I was surprised to see there was no instructable for making a kantele, so I decided to do one myself.

The instructable is not a complete how-to, it shows basic guidelines on making the instrument and leaves room for creativity. Common sense is needed when reading.

Please read the notes! It is of utmost importance! The tag notes patch up my faulty drawings quite a lot.

In pic 1 you can see a very basic kantele model with wooden tuning pegs.
Pic 2 shows my (still a little unfinished) kantele, which has been made from some junk 2x4 pinewood(and it looks like a wooden shoe, I hear!).
Pics 3-5 show the works of a local kantele maker J. Väätäinen.

Additional information and legend:

The original story of the Kantele is related to Kalevala, the Finnish national Epic. According to the epic songs the first Kantele was made by Väinämöinen, the wise old seer. He took a giant pike jawbone and tail hair from a demonic horse to make the instrument. Luckily nowadays the construction is less of a hike.

Many different sources point to the fact that traditionally each household had one kantele. It's supposed that the kantele was property of the head of the family. The instrument was often made and played by the same person, not mass produced by skilled carpenters like today. Traditional kantele was never an instrument of professional performers.
This is my first instructable, so be merciful! And sorry about the stunted English.
Correct me freely, if you see errors :)

And let me know if you make a kantele, I'd love to see what kinds of instruments people come up with my instructions!

Step 1: What You Need

-some DRY 2x4", no branch spots if possible. 1m should be enough, there's a lot of room for error.
-wood glue
-tuning pegs of your choice(5mm metal pegs for zither instruments are recommended and this, get a tuning key as well)
-piano wire/guitar string(not too thick 0,20-0,50mm)

-chisels(straight and curved)

NOTE: This instructable is written in the sense that the recommended zither pegs are used.

Step 2: Basic Outline

Pic 1 introduces the basics. This kantele has wooden pegs installed, so it's not exactly the same as the one we're discussing. It also has a hook in its tip instead of the sharp tip the other pics show.
Pic 2 shows the kantele from top, as you would be holding it on your lap.

Saw the outline as illustrated in pic 3. The inner lines show the section that will be hollowed out from below.
The shorter side is about 5-10cm shorter than the longer one. Best measures are found by trial and error, as usual. There are no "right" measures.

Step 3: Hollowing

Turn the instrument over. Take your hammer and chisel and start forming the sound chamber.

The wall thickness depends on the wood you're using. If it's strong and hard like birch or hickory you can go as thin as 3mm, for softer woods I recommend at least 5mm, just to be sure the thing won't break. Again, trial and error.

Step 4: The "ponsi" and "varras"

"Varras" is a round, wooden or metal rod that holds the kantele strings on its body. You can easily make one from a whammy bar.

"Ponsi" is the part that holds the "varras" in place. It also acts as an arm rest when you are playing the instrument.

Make the ponsi from a piece of 2x4. It is best to first drill the hole for the varras(see pic 2), then make the bigger recess. The varras-hole diameter is determined by the material the varras is made of. A wooden varras needs to be thicker than one made from iron, too thin varras might bend or break when the instrument is tuned.

Unlike in the picture, do not do any other shaping yet! Very important! You will have a hard time gluing the part in the main body afterwards! Trust me, I know by experience ;)

Step 5: Glue the Ponsi on the Main Body

The title says it all. Apply glue and position the ponsi on place. Then clamp it tightly, making sure the ponsi sits evenly on the body. Wait a day or two for the glue to dry. Then you can start shaping the ponsi however you like.

Pic2 shows(rather crappily) a possible ponsi shape from the side.

Apply whatever finishing touches you want, sanding, painting, firing, etc.

Step 6: Tuning Pegs and Stringing

Drill five straight holes for the tuning pegs and screw them in place.

Insert the varras in the ponsi. Pictures 2, 3, 4 show how the varras end of the string is wound up.

The peg end of the string is easier, all you need to do is insert the string in the hole, tighten a bit and rotate the peg clockwise, making sure the string gets on comfortable level for playing.

Step 7: Tuning and Playing

The tuning of the instrument is simple and usually based on the pentatonic scale. Many of the traditional melodies stay in this limit of five tones or can be accompanied with chords using these five tones. The following table shows three basic tuning schemes in tone intervals.

First Type (Minor) 1 1/2 1 1
Second Type (Major) 1 1 1 1
Third Type (not Major neither Minor) 1 ? 1 1

Other way, if you didn't understand the first one(I didn't :D):

Diatonic D-major (d–e–fis–g–a) or minor (d–e–f–g–a).

The strings live a little and you might have to tune your kantele a couple of times on the first day, but the tone will settle after a while.

When played the instrument is usually placed either on a table or held on the lap with the shortest string closer to the player.

There are two different basic principles of playing. Melodies are played with fingers of both hands so that each finger is attached to a single string. Simple tunes are played by picking strings one after another, but often several strings are picked at the same time. This allows polyphony in playing.
The other way of playing consists of damping some strings with fingers of the left hand and strumming strings with the right hand. This allows to play chords. These two techniques are often combined with each other.



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    16 Discussions


    Question 1 year ago

    Hola! Estas? XD
    Te consulto el instrumento es hueco por detras no tiene tapa?
    Y se podria usar una sola pieza para hacerlo? Saludos esta genial tus instrucciones!

    1 answer

    Reply 11 months ago

    ¡Gracias! No entiendo español, entonces uso un traductor.
    Puedes dejar el instrumento abierto desde atrás.


    4 years ago on Introduction

    I am hoping to try making a small kantele soon. Is spalted maple O.K. for this? It is only a tad bit effected by the spalting.

    1 reply

    Reply 2 years ago

    Sorry for the super late answer! The hardness of the wood is the important part. Softer woods give you a more mellow tone, hardwoods make the instrument louder(seeing your instructables page makes me think I don't have to go into detail here :D).
    Spalted maple would make an exquisitely beautiful kantele. I hope you still have some left!

    Unfortunately I have no kantele of my own(yet). I asked my friend to provide pictures of his kanteles. But soon I will have my workspace in order(I moved to a new house some time ago) and I can continue the project. If you want to see kantele construction and hear some kantele playing, I recommend this short video:

    I does a better job to explain how to make a kantele than my instructable.

    8 years ago on Introduction

    ohh finlands national instrument from national story kalevala old genius man called väinämöinen make kantele with giant hauki's(fish) chin bone the story says old wizard väinämöinen and bad wizard louhi fought sampo the wonder machine have 3 tubes one gives salt second grain and 3rd money well i stop there sorry my bad english iam from finland

    1 reply

    8 years ago on Introduction

    pictures along the process of the build, as well as a finished product would be extremely invaluable :-)

    1 reply

    8 years ago on Introduction

    I think I follow what you are doing and it looks like you have made a good start on this. I guarantee your English is much much better than my Finnish so I will just applaud your mastery of the language.
    I would think a short history of the instrument would be nice to include and any comparable instruments in the mainstream. It generally reminds me of a lap guitar so I would love to hear one. Keep on building and keep us up dated.

    1 reply

    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    Yay, thanks! I tried to include some history on the intro, but the text turned out a bit cheesy and pompous, so I gave up on it :D