Making a Penny Whistle


   Penny whistles are probably the easiest of the flute type instruments to learn because the "fipple" does the work of generating the tone instead of the lips of the player doing the work.   Embouchure is something that is not even considered when playing the penny whistle.  All of the expression of the instrument must be accomplished with the breath and the fingering.  This makes it a difficult instrument to play 'expressively' because the main ingredient in the shading and shaping of the notes, the embouchure or way you position and use your lips, is missing.  You can hold your lips any way you want to.  You can even clamp your teeth into the mouth piece if you want to and it will make almost zero difference in the tone.  The control of the breath and air pressure within the instruments are the sole means of getting "soul" into the music.  I guess that is why you do not come across good penny whistle players very often.  I myself am only a mediocre player and still learning the finer points.



About the construction

    You can make a penny whistle from almost anything.  Copper tubing, PVC pipe, any metal tubing will work.   The one in the illustrations is made from an aluminum tent pole.   The key and the level of difficulty in making the penny whistle is the construction of the fipple.  The approach i make is a permanently located fipple, or note producing parts.  This particular whistle is in the key of "G" and it is a very low key for penny whistles.  I never saw one for sale commercially this long.   To my limited knowledge, the Bb is the longest and lowest of the penny whistles produced commercially buy such mfgrs. as General, or Oak.   I imagine you can have one made special however at a price.
The whole reason i got into this stuff in the first place is because i wanted an "A" penny whistle and could not find one for all the years i looked for it.  I finally did a 'cop out' construction by taking the fipple off of my Bb and putting it on the new pipe i found for the "A" whistle i was making.   The construction mentioned here however provides it's own fipple construction and it is non-adjustable, once it is built, there is NO tuning the whistle.

 

   To make the fipple shown here, i drilled a 1/4" diameter hole first.  Then with a wide knock out punch and a hammer, i beat the lower edge of the hole down so that the edge was lower than the round contour of the tubing.  See the shot above and you will see that 'flat' area has been actually been forged that way by hitting it with the punch and hammer.  Once it has been moved down toward the center of the tube, i filed it rectangular, as shown.  It is worked out with a square file to 1/4" deep and 3/8" wide.  Once the hole is rectangular and the sloping angled area you forged, has had the angle dressed and finished with a file and sandpaper, you are ready for the plug.   This is the hardest part and you may end up making more than a couple b/4 you get it right.  Experiment and develop what works best.
    The plug is made of hardwood and extends all the way from the end to the nearest edge of the hole.  It has an air channel cut into it that is the width of the rectangular hole and about 1/32" deep.  This air passage will be directed at the edge of the fipple's beveled lip to produce the sound.  Make it extra long and move it forward and backward to get the best tone.  That is nearer to the rectangular hole or farther away.   When you have the proper sounding location dimple the side of the tubes as shown above to keep it in place.  Dimple it in at least two places.  A bit of clue may help seal the plug.   Grind it as shown to make a mouth piece more comfy and to really do it up nicely use heat shrink tubing on the end for a cushioned grip for the teeth.  (in case you are a biter)

 
  Maximum and minimum finger spread
    Once you have the fipple finished and it produces a clean clear sound then you are ready to tune the "Fundamental" pitch of the whistle.  The whistle shown in this illustration is in the key of "G".  This is probably the lowest pitch whistle will be able to play, as the spacing between the holes gets longer and longer as the length of the whistle increases.  Unless you have hands of a concert pianist, you will have problems with anything lower than a low "G".   All the "G" whistles i had ever seen, before making this one were only 9" long.  This one measures about 3/16" under 18" long.   In a general sense, doubling the length will produce a tone of half the frequency.  The longer the whistle, the lower the tone.  The little short "G" whistle has it's own special challenge.  It is so short that the 6 finger holes only span the distance of 4 fingers.  See the shot at right and you see that a shorter whistle than a high "G" would be on the other side of the difficulty scale from the low "G".   Stretching for notes on the long whistle is just as difficult as squeezing 6 fingers into a 4 finger area.  So it looks like "G" is a good practical limit in both directions for your whistles. 

As you can see, it could be a real challenge to put six of my fingers into a space that is only 4 fingers wide.  First hole is lined up with my little finger and the 6th hole is by my index finger.   Tight squeeze to play this tiny whistle.

 

Hole Spacing Guide

Below is a chart showing the ratio of the top edge of each finger hole to the sharp edge of the fipple.  Multiply the musical length of the whistle by the ratios shown to locate "top edge" of the hole.  Remember this is not to the center of the hole, only the top edge counts.
1st hole
2nd hole
3rd hole
4th hole
5th hole
6th hole
.845
.746
.683
.599
.520
.449

These ratios relate to a tube with an inside diameter of 11/16" or .688"   (17.48mm).   Different size pipes will gererate slightly different ratios.  Generally speaking the smaller the tube, the smaller the ratio.  A small G whistle, one octave higher will have ratios that are 1.28% smaller than these ratios, with it's .413"  (10.49mm) diameter and shorter length.  These ratios should work well enough for anything you build as the final tuning of each hole will correct any errors.

 

More about installing holes

The over all length of the whistle is not as important as the "musical length".   The musical length is the distance from the far end of the whistle to the sharp edge of the fipple lip.   In the long G whistle we are making here, that distance happens to be 15.98" (40.59 cm).  When making the whistle you want to be sure to make it Longer than it needs to be so that you will be able to tune the fundamental.  The fundamental is the lowest tone that the instrument is capable of making.   Using an electronic tuner, keep removing material from the end of the whistle to shorten it to the point it produces a clear ON PITCH G note.  When you have the "G" note perfect you are ready to put in the finger holes.

Selecting hole sizes and locations

You have a choice of what size holes you want to use on your whistle.  Bigger holes make louder whistles, smaller holes make softer quieter sounding instruments.  It is a trade-off and entirely up the the player.  Experiment and see the differences.  Make one flute with small holes,  3/16" dia to 1/4" dia (4.763 mm to 6.35 mm) and then make another one with larger holes,  1/4"
 dia to 3/8" dia (6.35mm to .525mm).  Then play the two and you see what i am talking about.  It is not easy to explain unless you experience it your self.   Because i use ratios calculated to the near side of the hole, the actual hole dia. does effect the equation of : 
                                           "LxR=NE"
     Where L=musical length, R=ratio for specified hole, and NE=nearest edge of specified
     hole.   However when laying out the actual center line for the hole location you must add
     one more item to the formula, the radius of the hole.  So then the formula for the hole
     center line would be: 
                                          "LxR+.5D=C"
     Where: L and R are the same data and D=diameter of the finger hole you wish to use and
     C=the location of the hole's center.   This can be expressed more simply as: 
                                            "NE+r=C"
     Where: NE=near edge of hole, r = radius of finger hole, and C is hole center location for
     drilling. 

 


        Lets just walk through putting the 1st hole in the whistle shown at the top of the page: 

1.  Determine musical length.   This happens to      be 15.98" or      (40.59cm) 
2.  Select diameter of finger hole you wish to      use.  Lets  make it 1/4"   diameter (6.35mm). 
3.  Determine the ratio for the hole  you want to      install.     In this case it is .845% 
4.  Multiply the length of 15.98 by the ratio of      .845 and  obtain the  distance to the near      edge.  For  the example  we are using the       product equals 13.50" (34.29) 
5.  Add the radius of the hole, in this  case it is      half of 1/4"  or 1/8"      (3.175mm) to the hole"      calculated edge  distance: .500+.125=13.625"      or (34.61cm). 

     Measure from the knife edge, down the whistle to this point and make a line, going half way around the flute.  The center of the hole
will fall on this line somewhere.   Exactly where is up to you.  Everybody has different fingers
and what you need to do is hole the flute like you were playing it and observe where the finger corresponding to the hole you wish to install falls most comfortably.   Keeping your finger on the middle of the line you drew, move it radially around the flute to find the most comfortable position on the line.  Then mark
that radially and the intersecting of this line with the one locating the axial distance will be the center point for your finger hole. 

         Always start laying out and installing the finger holes from the "farthest" to the nearest.    Never the other way around or you will have difficulties.   Repeat the steps for locating and installing the next hole, and continue for all six of them.   If you did everything correctly you
will have a very nice little instrument you can carry with you almost anywhere and play  when ever you wish.  This particular one was made from a discarded tent pole so you see, you can use almost anything to make a penny whistle. 
Using plastic PVC will present different problems making the fipple because you can not bend down the area of the tube that forms the knife edge of the fipple.   It has to be constructed a little differently and the design of the plug will have to be altered too, to introduce an angle upward.



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