How to Make a Clay Whistle 

  • Technique by Chris Henley

    Below you will find a sequence of photographs with accompanying text that describes the fundamentals of a clay whistle making technique. I discovered quite by accident sometime around 1970. It is simple and works every time, if you follow the sequence. However, there are a few variables that come into play. Generally, the more plastic the clay, and the smaller the inclusions (grog/sand) the easier it is to form the more delicate parts. I have never tried this technique with polymer “clay”. However, I have had reports from others who say they have had some success.

    I have tried to point out the other variables as they pertain to the process in the accompanying text. You will probably have to fiddle around some to get yours to sound, but don’t be discouraged! I have tried to distill the technique to the essential elements. It lends itself to considerable variation. So, experiment, push the limits, keep trying! Remember, it’s just clay.

     

    1. Form a pinch pot. Most any size will do. Just keep in mind that the chamber size will be one of the factors that impacts tone. Try to keep the wall thickness as uniform as possible; it will serve you well at a later stage.

    2. Pinch the edges of the pot together. Just the edges. The purpose here is to form the basic chamber.

    3. You are making a hollow form with as much interior volume as you can.

    4. “Sew” the edges together by scoring.

    5. Smooth the scored edges. You can use any kind of tool that will accomplish the task. Just your fingers will do. The goal is to get an air tight, sealed, hollow form.

    6. Once you have the form sealed you can begin to form and shape it. As will become apparent, the Fat Taco or Empanada shape you end up with at this stage lends itself well to a variety of designs. Mine tend toward the organic, or critter forms.You don’t need to do any forming at all if you just want something that will make a tone (s). However, if you do plan to form or attach anything, this is the time to do it. My suggestion is to just learn to make the whistle and then, when you have mastered that, Let the Rumpus Begin! Here I’m paddling the shape. You can be very aggressive or, as a friend of mine says, “Spank It !”

    7. When you get the shape and form you want…..after all the attachments have been made, then, and only then can you safely pierce the form. What you see at the left illustrates the tool and the method I use to form the wedge to split the air. The real whistle makers have a term for this part of the whistle, but I don’t know what it is. Anyway, take the blunt end of a dowel or needle tool and, holding it at about a 45 degree angle to the surface of the form, push it into the interior (between 20 and 60 degrees will work, too). Don’t push it all the way through both sides. It is important that you pull the tool out at the same angle that you pushed it in. You just want to put a hole in one wall. A clean, sharp (squared) edge on the dowel, will produce a clean hole and a sharp wedge. Be sure you check to see if the little “pill” of clay that is formed on the end of the tool doesn’t re-plug the hole when you extract the dowel. I like to push the “pill” into the hollow form and have it as a rattle.

    8. Here you see the hole that is formed by the blunt end of the needle tool. Note the distance it is from the “tip” of the form (Near my ring finger). This distance is critical….too far from the tip makes it very difficult to direct the air over the wedge that has been formed by pushing the tool through the surface at an oblique angle. you can compensate by extending the air slot, but stick with these general proportions until you get the hang of it. What you have formed here is a wedge-shaped hole in profile (see photo #13). The thin edge of this wedge is the far edge of the hole….the edge nearest to my left thumb, in this photo.

    9. Now you are going to form an air passage (slot) to direct the air from your mouth over the hole you made in the previous steps. I suggest you push the “tip” up like you see at the left. Doing this makes this part of the form a bit thicker and facilitates cutting the air slot. If the clay you are working with is very groggy/sandy you may need to make a substantial area for the air slot.

    10. It is crucial to make the air slot parallel to the far edge of the hole you punched with the blunt end of the tool. By making this air slot, you have, in essence, formed the “mouthpiece” for your whistle. I do this by holding the piece up to eye level and pushing the needle through the thick part of the “tip” until it touches the far edge of the hole. This is a guide hole. Put a series of guide holes in the tip exactly like you did the first one….be careful not to angle the needle up or down as you do this. When you have 3 or 4 of these guide holes made , then carefully move the needle back and forth (left and right) while holding it as parallel as possible to the far edge of the hole This creates an air slot that is parallel to the edge that forms a wedge. It directs the air across this wedge and creates the dynamics that produce the sound.

    11. Note that the needle tool is pushed through the “tip” and touches the far edge of the hole. As noted above, repeat this 3 or 4 times, so that you have formed a line of independent guide holes for the slot.

    12. Here is the air slot you have created by moving the needle tool right and left, thereby removing the clay from the 3 or 4 guide holes you made in step 10. If this air slot angles down into the chamber , or up over the hole you probably won’t get a sound other than a lot of huffing and puffing. It has to be like Goldilocks said: “Just Right!” The idea is to split the air you blow through this slot. The far edge of the hole is the wedge that does the splitting. Don’t make this a round hole. It has to be a flat slot.

    13. This is a cut-away to show the relationship of the hole and the air slot. The line represents the air direction. It is, incidentally, the same direction that you push the needle tool through to make the air slot. The left end of this line touches what I’ve been referring to as the far edge of the hole and the wedge. The line passes through the air slot on its way to the wedge, where it is split, and hopefully produces a pleasing sound.

    14. Here is what you get when you are finished with the above steps. If you have done it correctly, and the whistle gods are happy, and you have done a good deed, it will whistle for you when you blow through the slot. Obviously, what you see here is an un-adorned form. I’d stick with this until you get the whistle part down. Once you get it to whistle you can pierce the chamber to get multiple tones. The additional tone holes can be placed anywhere you want to put your finger. As I mentioned somewhere earlier, the size of the chamber impacts the initial tone. Small chambers tend to produce very high tones. They usually require a good blow to get the sound. A larger chamber produces lower tones and often will only sound with soft, gentle breaths.

    15. If you don’t blow, it won’t go!. (Sorry, Johnny C.)If it doesn’t whistle now, it will not, and I really mean this, it will not miraculously start whistling after it is fired. If you are prissy about putting wet clay in your mouth then find a geezer to test it for you. Remember, this is a wind instrument. You have to pass wind through it to get it to work. Geezers are good at this. If it won’t whistle check the following:
    1. Hole plugged or wedge distorted.
    2. Air slot is not parallel to far edge of hole. Typically, beginners make a round hole instead of a slot.
    3. Check edge of air slot that is nearest the hole. Sometimes, when forming, it gets ragged and needs to be carefully cleaned. Be cautious in doing this and don’t enlarge the slot or change its angle relative to the far edge of the hole.
    4. Geezer is out of wind.
    5. Start over….it’s only clay!

    16. Here is a little critter that has the air slot incorporated into its own mouth. The tone/note holes are near it’s booty, but you can’t see them in this view.

    17. Side view of 16. Remember, you have to do all the modeling before you pierce it for the whistle or you run the risk of distorting the alignments of the whistle hole and air slot.

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