Introduction: Pvc "TOOTOPHONE" -- a Musical Reed Instrument

About: I'm a refugee from Los Angeles, living in backwoods Puerto Rico for about 35 years now and loving it. I built my own home from discarded nylon fishnet and cement.
This is the first of an evolving series of tootophones that I have made.  I leave it up for historical interest, but suggest you try the "Tiny Tootophone"  for the basic mouthpiece, and the "Tootophone Sax and Trumpet" for some interesting body variations using x-ray film.  This PVC design is not even in my "top ten" list any more.  My latest tootophones have only one fingering hole.  

The body of this tootophone is made of 1/2" CPVC pipe, which is used for hot water plumbing and is of a smaller diameter than 1/2" PVC pipe. 

The tootophone is similar to a soprano recorder in terms of size and finger spacing.  The mouthpiece is heat formed to make it a little narrower than the CPVC pipe.

The reed is cut from a piece of plastic from an old flat screen monitor I disassembled.  Just about any semi-stiff, clear packaging plastic will work to make a reed that vibrates. 

I have always liked the idea of playing saxophone, but found the bamboo reeds to be frustrating to get sounds out of.  For some reason, these plastic reeds are a lot easier to blow.  Being less frustrating to blow, the tootophone is more fun to play, at least for a beginner.  Being more fun to play, I play more, and that's what it's all about.  Tootophones are fun to play. 

Figure maybe a dollar in material and many hours playing around.  This is very cost effective entertainment. 

Be sure to check out the audio files at the end, to hear what the tootophone sounds like. 

Step 1: Finger Hole Spacing

The distances between holes are copied from a soprano recorder.    The holes are not all placed on the center line down the pipe.  Since some fingers are longer than others, the holes have a little sideways displacement to increase comfort while playing.  When penciling hole locations, hold the pipe as you would while playing it to find and mark a comfortable side displacement for each finger hole.

There are seven finger holes and one hole for the thumb on the opposite side of the body -- the same as on a recorder. 

On a recorder, double holes at #6 and #7 help get half tones.  I elongate my holes and just half-close them when needed. 

Step 2: Shaping the Finger Holes

After drilling the appropriately sized holes, I use some sandpaper wrapped around a piece of 5/8" wooden dowel material to modify the hole.  That makes it easier to seal the hole with one's finger, reducing unwanted squawking sounds.

In the raw hole, there is a pocket of air inside the hole underneath the finger.  I like to bring the finger down a little lower, thus reducing the pocket of air and turbulence inside the tootophone body.  It probably results in a cleaner sound. 

I made a special tool to get inside the drilled finger holes and scrape the burrs from inside of the tootophone body.  (A tiny knife with a bent end, made of stainless steel welding rod.)  That, too, reduces turbulence and makes the instrument easier to play. 

Step 3: Safety While Heating PVC

We love plastics for what they do for us, but plastic manufacture and decay tend to pollute the environment and negatively affect our health.

Vinyl Chloride, one of the components of PVC, is carcinogenic. When it is locked up in the polymer, however, it is much safer to be around. In my years of experience working with PVC, I have not noticed any adverse effects on my health from being around it.

Always work in areas with good ventilation. If you do get caught in a cloud of smoke, hold your breath and move to clean air.

When heating PVC with a gas stove or propane torch, try not to let it burn. Smoke from burning PVC is bad. With experience one burns it less and less. Don't panic the first time you do burn some. It scorches, but doesn't immediately burst into flame. Move the material away from the flame and try again. Don't breathe the smoke. Smoke avoidance comes naturally for most people.

While heating PVC over a gas flame, keep the plastic an appropriate distance from the flame to avoid scorching the surface before the inside can warm up. It takes time for heat to travel to the center of the material being heated.

Keep the plastic moving, and keep an eye on the state of the plastic. When heated, the PVC material is flexible, like leather. Beyond this stage, you risk scorching it.

A word from James, the plastic engineer -- "Just a word of warning, PVC can handle some high heats but if it catches fire, you wont be able to put it out, it does not need oxygen to burn so don't do this inside".

I do work inside, but my house is made of cement and has good ventilation. MAKE SURE THAT YOU HAVE GOOD VENTILATION. PLAY WITH FIRE -- CAREFULLY.

Step 4: Heat Forming the Mouthpiece

One can make a mouthpiece that works just by cutting a piece of pipe at an angle, giving the straight cut a little curvature with a file, and putting on a reed.  In pursuit of the ideal mouthpiece, my preferences have led me to doing some heat forming first to narrow the width of the mouthpiece and reed a little.  That allows me to make reeds that are long and narrow, which I find easier to control, especially for high notes. 

I use a wood forming tool, which fits inside the pipe to help give proper form to the soft plastic.

As with any plastic heat forming, try to avoid burning the material, which creates toxic gasses.  See the safety warning step. 

Step 5: Shaping the Mouthpiece

The reed is held down to the cut surface by one's lower lip.  If the cut surface is straight, the part of the reed that is supposed to vibrate will touch that surface and have no room to vibrate.  Thus, the cut line needs to be modified to have a slight but continuous curve to it so that no matter where your lip presses down on the reed, like a tangent line on a circle, the tip of the reed will still be able to vibrate. 

Water from spittle and condensation are hard to avoid.  When water gets between the reed and the contact surface of the mouthpiece, it can stick the reed to the mouthpiece and stop it from vibrating.  That kills the sound. 

To minimize that problem, minimize the contact area between the reed and mouthpiece by filing the plastic down some. 

Step 6: Forming the Reed

Semi-stiff clear plastic that is used in packaging products can work as reed material.  What I am using now was salvaged from a junked flat screen monitor. 

Hold the mouthpiece up against the plastic so that you can see through the plastic and mark the contours of the contact area with a fine point marking pen.

I mark and cut just the area that is going to be taped to the mouthpiece.  I cut the rest of the reed after it is taped down.  Try to cut it close to the mouthpiece tight so excess material won't irritate your tongue or lip.   Use fine sandpaper on the edge of the reed to round any sharpness that might irritate your lip. 

Step 7: Heat Forming the Joint Connector

You need to connect the mouthpiece to the body with a connector sleeve.  I make the connector out of 1/2" PVC pipe that is 1 1/2" long.  It needs to be widened a little bit for the CPVC pipe to fit, so I heat it and then push a piece of the CPVC pipe into it to stretch it out a little.  To heat it, I hold it with needle nose pliers over a propane torch flame, being careful to not burn it.  After forming, cool it off by dipping it into water, and then tap the connector off of the pipe with a block of wood and a hammer if you can't get it off by hand. 

Trim with a knife, or use a file to round off any rough edges. 

Step 8: Reed Protector Cap

The reed is delicate and you want to protect it when not being used, especially in travel. 

The cap is made of 3/4" PVC.  It has four slits, making four fingers which flex outward to hold the tootophone by the joint connector sleeve. 

Step 9: Playing Tips

The tootophone is a very intuitively played instrument.  You can get the same notes with different lip and finger positions.  It is like riding a horse, instead of driving a car. 

Playing the tootophone is a lot like singing, only silently, without using the vocal cords.  Think of how your Adam's apple goes up and down as you sing high or low notes.   Also, the volume of air inside your mouth changes as your tongue moves. 

Changing your lip position also affects things, and you have to clamp down tighter on the reed for the higher notes.  Allow the whole reed to vibrate for the lowest notes.  Shorten the length by moving toward the tip of the reed with your lip.  You can get a range of high and low notes without even using your fingers. 

When you get into fingering, it helps to be familiar with standard recorder fingering.  "Singing" the note while fingering it at the same time sometimes produces a cleaner note than singing alone.  Also, you can do rapid effects with the fingers that you can't do with mouth action alone.   

I usually bleed a little air off to the side of the mouthpiece while playing.  It helps me control my breathing so I don't get tired out from playing and helps me stabilize long held notes, also. 

If you are careful to not damage the reed, you can occasionally bend it out a little and clean off saliva build-up with your fingers.  Saliva can stick the reed down and kill the sound. 

This link will take you to some recorder fingering information, which might give you some fingering hints.

Step 10: Sample "music"

Click the MP3 file below to hear what a tootophone can do. 

(The digital collage is part of my  "Party After The Concert".)