Making an Atabaque (Afro-Brazilian Conga)




About: I love instruments. I want to make my living making them. I am working towards that goal tweaking and revamping my drums. I have to inform you though, i wont be posting more instrument building methods, it h...

The Atabaque is an Afro-Brazilian conga drum that is used in the Martial Art/Dance/Game of Capoeira, and the Afro-Brazilian Religion of Candomblé. The steps provided in this instructable are for making a rope-tensioned, as opposed to a lug-tensioned drum. If you wish to bring axé (energy) into your roda, or call upon the Orixas (protective spirits of Candomblé), this instructable will give you the information that you need to build your own Grande Atabaque! Muito Axé!


Step 1: Gather All of Your Materials

Materials needed for this over all are:
100 feet of Manila rope
9 boards of Maple that are .5" thick, 8" wide, and 40" long
1 Bottle of Titebond 3 wood glue, or any other water resistant glue
1 Can of Marine Varnish, or any other wood protectant
1   1 1/2"x1 1/2"x20" Black Walnut turning square
1 22" round of Cow Rawhide
2 16" inside diameter steel rings that are 1/4" thick
1 15.5" inside diameter ring
2 Ratcheting tie downs
1 can of black spraypaint
1 gigantic 55 gallon plastic bag
1 pot large enough to boil water for 3 hours strong
1 table saw with a blade you can angle and rip fence, or 1 large woodworkers plane
1 small plane
sand paper
wood screws
wood putty
1 large bucket or long planter trough (no holes)
1 hammer
1 screw driver

Step 2: Cutting the Boards

First, take one of your boards and cut it down the middle the long way. Choose one of these thinner boards to be your template board and first stave.

In order to create a round body for the drum, the edges along the sides will need to be at an angle of 10 degrees for 18 staves, so I devised a way to get the stave cut out of the board with the bevel at the same time.

A  small distance from the top, draw the top, middle and bottom widths at 58mm, 80mm, and 22mm wide, with the distance between the top and bottom widths 1000mm (1M) and distance between the top and middle at 457mm. this will be your template 

Then get a second board and angle the saw blade to 10 degrees and placed the rip fence at a distance equal to the width of the second board away from the point of contact of the saw blade. Then line the drawn line of one side of the template board with the straight edge of the other board and tape it down with gorilla tape. Then run it through the saw, lift the tape, turn and repeat for all of the other sides of the template.

Trace the template twice on each board, next to each other with a gap between to allow the saw blade to rip the boards , and then repeat the cutting method for the template with the new staves.

Step 3: Forming the Shell

Next, for ease of forming, lay the staves side by side, wide ends together and wide ends up. Roll a lot of gorilla tape over it. A lot. Then flip the entire assembly, apply some water resistant glue to the valleys  in-between the staves that the beveled edges create, and let the splayed, narrower edges stay dry. Roll the staves into each other, and tape or wrap shut. Allow the glue to dry for double the time, a lot of moisture and heat will be used.

Unwrap the new drum flower from tape a day after it was applied.

 Set up the large boiler with water and make sure its really steaming. As its boiling, turn your attention to the shell again, and place some steel rings and/or banding around the already glued portion, securing it in place with screws. Then place the large plastic bag over the drum, and place the entire assembly over the pot, and let it steam for 3 hours.

Quickly, bend the rest of the wood together after the steaming, using either rope, or ratcheting  tie downs. Tie downs can be hooked together to help tighten the staves, and they work well, they also stay in place better, but you better be strong to do it to the end because it gets tough. Also if your tie downs or rope slip, add resistance by putting screws in its path (you can use wood glue or putty to fill that gap close to the end of construction). Let the drum dry 2 days before loosening it a bit and applying glue to the bent legs then tightening it back up. Let the glue dry for double the time to allow the glue to cure well and get strong, there is pressure built up in the legs. Trust me; the double time drying makes a difference.

Step 4: Finishing the Shell

The shell is going to be an 18 sided polygon, so you’re going to want to plane the edges into a rounder shape, as well as planning the bearing edge of the drum into a round lip by taking away the large sharp edge, and then shaving it into a quarter round lip.

Sand the entire shell smooth, and follow your sealants instructions for use.

Step 5: Making the Stand

Take your plywood, then cut out 1 16”x16” panel and 2 16”x12” panels. Create a 3 sided box with it, using square strips of wood to join them together (by drilling into them). Find the center of the top panel and create a 10” hole. Finish the stand with any sealants.

Step 6: Making the Pegs

Take the turning squares and cut them using any kind of saw, preferably a band saw, into wedge shapes, allowing for a flat portion to help resist breakage of the ends when hammering the pegs down.

Step 7: Heading the Atabaque

Get your hide and submerge it in room temp water for about 8 hours. During this time, get your rings and rope together. get one of your large rings and begin making loops around it like these pictures illustrate. 
Place the other large ring under the drum.

Loosely thread the rope under the bottom ring and through the top loops, and do not yet tie the ends together.
when the hide is done soaking, lay it flat on the ground and put the last ring in the middle. punch small holes around the edge (for ease of application) using a hammer and screwdriver on wood and thread small rope through it, cinching it up after you are done.
Now push the hide/ring combo through the vertical ropes on the drum and over the mouth of it. Get rid of the small rope and wiggle the skin and rings down a bit to get some room between the lip and the rings. tighten the verticals, and tie the ends together and let the skin dry un-tightened. it is normal at this point for the skin to suck into the drum as it dries, it will tighten up when the pegs are added.
After 3 days of drying, drive the pegs between the bottom ring and drum shell and tighten the skin. The atabaque is ready to be played!



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    19 Discussions


    6 years ago on Step 7

    First, great job on this. It look sweet!

    A couple friendly suggestions for anyone attempting to reproduce this (or any other rope-tuned drum).

    While your technique for looping the rings is suitable and effective, I have found that you deal with less slippage when using the Mali Weave technique. It is more secure and once in place, the rope is almost as tight as braided steel cable.
    Please see my instructable here for a little tutorial on creating the Mali Weave.

    Also, if you are using a stave construction technique like your process, I highly recommend have an adjustable angle square for double checking your angles as even some of the best table saws are inaccurate in providing the perfect angle.

    One last thing, traditionally these shells were not sealed or stained by urethane type materials. I did a little research on the traditional production of the djembe and the aishiko and found that once the shell has been carved to the smith's specifications, it would be soaked for several days in teak oil or some other natural sealant which provided protection for the wood and a beautiful color. The draw back is the need for a 55 gallon drum of teak oil, but this is info, not instruction.

    All in all, I like what you have done and as soon as I get my shop set back up, I will be working on stave made bongos, a conga, and my long awaited aishiko.

    Keep on drumming!


    7 years ago on Introduction

    This is a fantastic project, and the result is beautiful!!


    8 years ago on Introduction

    I would like to pay you to build an atabaque or two for me with burn-in designs...lemme know...


    8 years ago on Step 2

    Thanks for the heads up - you probably saved me a load of trouble.


    8 years ago on Step 2

    Hay Chapa, I have one more question ;)

    In the description, it sounds like you are cutting the staves to have straight edges - so a straight line from the narrow bottom to the widest point in the middle, and then another straight line to the top?

    Is this how you did it or, did you curve them at all (if do I can't work out how you did it on the table-saw)? It just seems like maybe there should be some curve to the staves, so the drum is curved, rather than angled in the middle? Maybe the drum just curves anyway when you steam bend it?

    I am going to be cutting up my staves on a bandsaw (I don't have a tablesaw) so making them curved seems kinda logical, as long as they are all the same?


    8 years ago on Introduction

    Hi sorry i have a question what kind of thickness did you use on the rope and whats the total that you spent on the project; price for supplies and also how long did it take you to finish the atabaque?


    8 years ago on Introduction

    How much did you spent chapa de frente on all this project?


    8 years ago on Introduction

    Great, thanks for that very useful and informative. I have one question - I understand that the Atabaque is usually made from Brazilian rosewood which has a density of 1200kg/m3 and Maple has a density more like 755kg/m3. How is this going to effect the sound?

    I know it is practically impossible to get hold of Brazilian Rosewood now, as it has become a protected species and exports from Brazil prevented by law. Did you consider any other woods hen you planned this drum? Have you compared the sound to another Atabaque?

    Thanks again,

    2 replies

    yes, it is normally made from Jacarandá do Pará. now, i didnt use it because of the expense (but amazingly, i do have a place to get it from here in AZ, woodworkers source). normally, you would use fire to bend the wood (much like bending a barrel), but this method may be more accessible to people, and since maple isnt oily i knew that steaming would work.

    there are a few different woods that get lumped in and named Brazilian Rosewood, and the one you are thinking of is Jacarandá da Bahia

    Now, the sound is great, but its much deeper than other atabaques not due to the wood used, but simply how large it is, but i do believe that it vibrates more freely than the jacarandá. but since there are no others of this size around me (i set out to make a super large one, just because i could) i cant give that a direct answer. i imagine it is a slightly less focused sound, a lot rounder of a base, and it can hang with other atabaques, but traveling from group to group (in Capoeira), each class likes there atabaque a little different.

    I dont know if you would know this, but people make atabaques out of pine at an increasing rate now, and they are very nice. Mestre Barrão of grupo axé capoeira prefers them from a student of his, that i have spoken to and actually recommended i make my first one (small one) out of pine because it resonates well for a nice round and deep voice.
    another wood i thought of was ash, but it sucks to plane, in my experience. i should still do it though.

    Chapa-de-frente, thanks for the reply. Sounds very encouraging. I have been wanting to make one for a while but have been ummin and ahring about what wood to use. I imagine pine would sound very different, but if there is mestres out there who recommend it...

    I think I will try and go for some fairly dense UK native hardwood then, and see what we get ;) Have been looking for some boxwood, which might be nice - but may also have just found a source of holly - which is also quite dense and strong. I haven't had many problems with ash in the past (I guess it depends on the particular grain structure you get) - so I might even go for that.

    Thanks again.


    8 years ago on Introduction

    Not only is this instructable interesting to me, it was also very well organized with plenty of pictures and information, so you got my vote for the contest!

    Also, can you make another instructable for a set of Congas?!


    1 reply

    8 years ago on Introduction

    Great instructible!!! As a player in a Canadian bateria I'm always looking for interesting and especially 'home cooked' percussions. This is going on my to-do list for the winter. Thanks!


    8 years ago on Introduction

    Gostei! (I liked it)
    Publica um "instructable" em português. (Publish an instructable in portuguese)
    Assumo que falas português. (I presume you are portuguese speaking)

    zetÓ (Pt)


    8 years ago on Introduction

    Great instructable. And that is one beautiful looking Atabaque. Thanks for sharing.

    why is there a false false thing over some of my steps? i was on another (non internet) computer and wrote most of it in microsoft word. does it do that after pasting?