How to Make a Clay Whistle
(also called an ocarina)
Note: A nozzle is not technically needed for the whistle
although it provides a handy place to stick your mouth while you're blowing into
At this point, blowing into your whistle should
produce a single tone. If it does not, here are some likely problems and
Improper Opening Placement
In this figure, examples 1 and 2 show improper opening placements. The whistle will sound best when the opening begins directly above the spot where the nozzle enters the clay body.
[Example 1 may work... I haven't researched it well enough. Example 2, though, is a whistle killer.]
When forming the angled cut of the whistle opening, it is easy to push the surface down into the hollow cavity. This leads to poor sound quality. It is much better to have the inside surface of the clay (at this angled cut) in-line with the nozzle, see the figure to the right.
To correct this situation, cut open the whistle and push the angled cut back
into place. Reseal the whistle with some clay slip and continue.
I have found the size of the opening to be an important factor to sound quality. As seen in the figure to the right (looking down at the top of the whistle), a small opening gives no sound or poor sound. As the opening gets larger, the sound suddenly improves. I have read in some places that the opening should be a square and my experience tends to affirm this. Still, you might try enlarging the opening if you are having difficulty getting your whistle to sound good.
Note: It's a good idea to put all the holes in the clay
before it is too hard to re-work the nozzle and opening. If the
whistle sounds good at it's highest pitch it will also sound good at it's lowest
pitch. The reverse is not always true.
Vary the Hole Sizes
If you put more than 1 hole in the whistle, you may want to consider making the holes different sizes. This will maximize the number of tones it will produce. For example, if you make 2 similar holes you will have 3 tones. From low to high these tones are "both holes closed", "one hole open", and "boths holes open". However, if you make the holes different sizes then you will have 4 tones: "both holes closed", "small hole open", "large hole open", and "both holes open".
Whistle versus Ocarina
An ocarina is a multiple-tone whistle.
Eventually, you will want to tune your ocarina so that you can really play music with it.
The 3-Hole System
An octave is 8 notes. To achieve 8 notes you need at least 3 holes all with different sizes. If 0 represents a closed hole and 1 is an open hole and hole size goes left to right for larger to smaller, an octave scale is
For those mathemeticians out there, this is like binary counting.
See the animated figure on playing the scales.
The 4-Hole True Octave System
A visitor to this website pointed me to another site deplicting the 4-hole octave scale. I've reproduced the fingering here.
When cutting holes in your
ocarina for the 4-hole system, follow the method described above: cut one hole
at a time going from low pitch to high pitch and following the fingering system.
Clay Shrinkage Issues
Rule #1 (well, a small number) in Clay: Clay Shrinks
When firing your ocarina to, say, Cone 6 the clay will shrink about 10 to 12% in each direction. This will markedly decrease the volume of the whistle (about 30%) resulting in a higher pitch. A carefully tuned pre-fired ocarina will be out of tune after it is fired. I suspect that's one reason why commercial ocarina makers use molds rather than hand-building.
I know of 2 ways around this problem:
1) After many years of building whistles you know exactly what size the wet clay body should be and what size to make the holes. Needless to say, this requires serious planning before making an oddly shaped whistle body.
2) Make a Re-tuning Slit in the ocarina body. This is a thin slit opening and, effectively, acts as a variable-sized hole. While playing the ocarina, the Re-tuning Slit is partially covered with your thumb to the correct amount that DOE truly sounds like DOE.
While the clay body is wet, cut the
Re-tuning Slit and leave it open while cutting the normal fingering openings.
After the ocarina is fired, determine how much the slit needs to be covered to
perfectly tuned the ocarina. Either mark this position or permanently cover the
slit (glue on a cover).
Note: I haven't actually tried out this technique out.
Once your whistle is tooting, you may wish to decorate it. You can
carve into it, paint it, or add to it. I like to add shapes to
whistles. For example, below are pieces to turn a whistle into a Bird
Flute. Note, the bird head is hollow and the whistle works by blowing into
Here is an example of a dinosaur-shaped
GreenVerdugo.com has detailed instructions on making Ocarina: the most detailed instructions I have ever seen. I mean, really really really detailed instructions.
Website about Making a Clay Whistle
A different simple straight-forward technique. The website features good photographs and clear explanations.
A Japanese Ocarina
This site is interesting not only because it's manufacture technique is a bit different BUT it also goes into the technical workings of ocarinas.
Thanks to Spencer for pointing this site out.
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