Intro to Kalimba Design

THE PARTS OF A KALIMBA

Kalimbas are simple instruments, and there are countless ways to make them using purchased and found supplies and materials. The section below is a general overview of the different kind of materials that can be used.

These are the essential parts of a kalimba:

  • Sound Board
  • Key/Tine Material
  • Tension Mechanism
  • *Buzzers/Jingles
  • *Resonators

It is extremely important that the keys/tines are secured tight enough to the sound board that they will not rattle or buzz. Properly secured keys are essential to making a nice sounding kalimba. In order to make sure that the keys are going to be properly secured, it is helpful to consider the combination of materials being used to make the kalimba. A brief description of each of the “essential parts of a kalimba” will help clarify this point.

SOUND BOARDS

  • Sound Boards can be made of many different materials. The simplest choice is a solid wooden board. There are definitely exceptions, but in general anything that measures about 3-6 inches wide, ¾” thick, and 5-8 inches long will work well. (Keep in mind that if you buy lumber in a store that it will be labeled using nominal measurements, so a 4” x 1” board will actually measure approximately 3½” x ¾”).
  • There are benefits and disadvantages of using different kinds of wood. Soft woods such as pine are easy to cut and drill by hand, and they are lightweight, however because they are so soft it can be more challenging to properly secure the tines to a soft wood sound board. Although it requires more effort to cut and drill hard woods such as poplar, maple, and oak by hand, their hardness permits more ways of securing the tines to the sound board.
  • Other kinds of kalimba bodies can be made from found-materials such as large sardine cans and cigar boxes. There are a wide variety of kalimbas that use a sound chamber by making the kalimba out of a wooden box, or by mounting the soundboard to a can, coconut shell, or gourd. The hollow sound chamber tends to naturally amplify the sound, and also changes the character of the sound.

KEY/TINE MATERIAL

  • Kalimba keys can be made of almost any springy long-shaped material.
  • Large sized bobby-pins (used for hair) are easy to find, easy to work with, and give a nice sound when mounted onto a pine or poplar board. One benefit is that their ends are already finished with a soft tip. They are relatively thin, so it is easy to mount them, however they are also fairly quiet. This is a good option for a kid-friendly project.
  • Craft sticks/popsicle sticks are a very kid friendly choice of key material. They make an airy wooden sound that resembles a wooden xylophone more than a typical kalimba. Not all sticks are created equal, some will make a much better sound than others. Finding the best sounding sticks is part of the fun of using them as kalimba tines.
  • Electricians’ fish tape is an ideal material for kalimba keys. It comes in easy to manage coils housed in a plastic dispenser. Replacement coils are also available, but it can be a hassle or a danger to deal with un-contained spring steel. It appears that the three most readily available dimensions are ⅛” x .045”, ⅛” x .062”, and ¼” x .030”. Many people like the comfort of playing the ¼” wide tines. The ⅛” x .062 offers the most volume, the ⅛” x .045” is not as loud as the .062”, but is generally easier to play.
  • Street Sweeper Bristles (broken off pieces found on the street): I don’t have any personal experience using these but I know that many people have been successful using them. Here is a video that you may find interesting or helpful:
  • Rake tines: Again, I haven’t found the need to use this material but it would certainly make a nice choice if you had a broken rake or couldn’t find fish tape for some reason.
  • Windshield wiper blades are often made with stainless steel strips inside. If you can find enough of them, these strips can be made into excellent kalimba tines.
  • Worn out saw blades are very springy and work well, but obviously this should only be an option for people who can grind off the teeth to make the keys safe to play.

TENSION MECHANISM
Most tension mechanisms involve a cross bar (tension bar), hardware for securing the cross bar, and a bridge to transmit the vibration from the keys into the sound board.

  • Electrical “grounding bars” are the simplest and least elegant tension mechanism available. They come in a variety of sizes for less than $10. This method is really good for beginners because each key can be tuned individually, and it is also easier to space the keys evenly.
  • Rods and eye hooks: The benefit is that you get a very clean looking design without having to drill through any metal. However, I have found that compared to rods and eye hooks, it is easier to get proper tension using screws mounted through metal bars or tubes. Other kalimba makers have found great success using this method, I have not.

There are a variety of ways to create a tension mechanism using screws mounted through metal bars, rods, or tubes. The most common materials to use are steel, aluminum, brass, and hardwood:

  • The benefit of this style is that you can create a very sturdy tension mechanism.
  • Wood screws or sheet metal screws work best with pre-drilled holes, and are nice because there is nothing showing on the back of the sound board. This method is not as durable compared with using machine screws, but if the screw-holes eventually wear out the kalimba can be modified to use the machine screw method.
  • Machine screws with washers and nuts can mount through the sound board and create a more sturdy and durable mechanism. Using this method, you should consider whether or not to countersink the hole in the back or allow the screw to protrude.
  • Steel comes in a variety of alloys, the one most available in hardware stores is “plain” (1018) steel. It is relatively easy to drill through using standard tools, is very sturdy, and the chips and particles created from drilling and sanding tend to fall to the ground or table rather than float into the air. Plain steel will develop a patina  from oxidation (rust). Galvanized steel rods have a layer of zinc that will greatly reduce rust. Plain steel bar measuring ⅛” x ½” is probably the most economical material for the tension bar, and steel rods or galvanized steel rods are probably the most economical for the bridge.
  • Aluminum comes in a variety of alloys and is readily available in hardware stores. It is easier to drill through than steel, although the alloys available in hardware stores are not as strong. I prefer to use a wet sanding process with aluminum because the dust is light enough to float into the air, and breathing aluminum dust is a health hazard. Wet/dry sand paper is available for this purpose.
  • Brass comes in a variety of alloys and is available in some hardware stores. Keep in mind that the type you are likely to find in the hardware stores is known as “free-machining,” and it has a small amount of lead added to it, which makes it easier to work with. This shouldn’t be an issue for adults who have safe work habits, but you may want to avoid using brass in projects that involve children. Brass is strong and resists corrosion, and many people like its appearance.
  • Hardwoods such as oak, maple, walnut, ash, and hickory can be used to create a sturdy tension mechanism. It is the easiest kind of material to work with, but durability may suffer depending on how much tension is created. The more tension, the more likely the keys are to compress the wood, which would require the tension to be adjusted. Despite this, I think hardwoods are a great way to get started with kalimba making, to use for quicker projects, or for projects with children.

The bridge can be made of any of the materials listed above. There are numerous ways to keep a bridge in place, including glue, making a groove in the sound board, held by tension alone, and putting pins in the sound board to block them from sliding. The physical properties of the material the bridge is made of will tend to effect the character of a kalimba’s sound.

  • Steel bridges may corrode over time and interfere with the vibrating of the keys, so whenever possible choose the galvanized steel.
  • Aluminum bridges may give the kalimba a more open or plucky sound (in a good way), however they are prone to getting damaged when adjusting kalimba keys that are already held under tension. The corrosion that develops on aluminum doesn’t seem to be as problematic as the kind that develops on plain steel.
  • Brass is a really nice material to use for bridges. It resists corrosion, and because it is harder than aluminum it isn’t as prone to being damaged while adjusting the keys.
  • Hardwood is adequate for bridges, but the problems with compression should be considered against the ease of working with it to decide if it is worth using hardwood for bridges. Also, it often creates a more woody sounding kalimba, which is neither good nor bad, just different.
  • Plenty of other materials will work for bridges, including found materials such as coat-hanger wire and metal nails.

BUZZERS/JINGLES (Optional)

Kalimbas originated in Africa, where buzzers are traditionally attached to kalimba-type instruments. Kalimbas outside of Africa often do not have any buzzers or jingles, so you may consider this feature to be optional.

  • The buzzers can be made of natural objects such as shells, found objects such as metal bottle caps, or any variety of beads.
  • I often make buzzers using certain combination of washers, and I also make my own out of pieces of sheet metal.
  • The buzzers may be attached directly to the sound board, or they may be attached to a piece of sheet metal that has been secured to the sound board.
  • Washers, beads, or small pieces of aluminum cans may be placed directly onto the key, resting between the tension bar and the bridge.
  • The buzzer or jingle is a great way to add character to the sound of your kalimba while also creating a more decorative appearance.

RESONATORS (Optional)

Kalimbas are relatively quite instruments. This is one of their benefits, but sometimes you may want to play with more volume. You can get more volume by placing your kalimba inside a resonator. Large gourds were the traditional choice for resonators in Africa, but there are other choices too.

  • Tying them down on top of large metal cans or cardboard boxes.
  • Wedging the kalimba into a styrofoam (expanded polyethylene) cooler. Foam coolers make incredible resonators. They are also easy to find, inexpensive, light weight, and easy to decorate.
  • Building resonators out of wood or masonite (high density fiber board).
  • building gourd-like resonator out of fiberglass.

Do you want to make a kalimba, but don’t have the time or interest in designing your own? You can click here for a pdf of plans for building a simple yet sturdy kalimba using materials commonly found at a hardware store.

In the next section of this page (coming soon!), I will give examples of how these various materials and methods have been used to make an assortment of kalimbas.