A couple or three years ago, my son and I took a rainy afternoon and did a really fun afterschool project; making cane whistles. Since then we have made tons of these; to play with, to give to friends and for him to sell at craft fairs and various festivals in our little town. Now that he is a little older, we’ve worked out a bit of an assembly line where he uses a small fine toothed hand saw to cut the notches, I do the whittling/knife work and he assembles the pieces.
The cane pole whistle thing started more than 40 years ago with my grandfather, (can it really be that many?) who would sit outside the back door of the house and make whistles for us from cane. Truthfully, I’m not sure if it was cane or bamboo or what the difference is, but he always called it cane. Oddly (or not so much if you know me), I still have the whistle my grandfather made and that’s what we used for our prototype for our very first one. We drove to the end of a nearby road where we knew there was a cane stand and plucked a couple of dried poles. Once back home, Joe had a great time banging them on the ground to make them break apart… as any 5 year old would! We picked a good solid looking section that was open on one end and still had the cane joint intact on the other end. When you are selecting your section, it’s important that you choose one that tapers from large to small so that your reed can fit snugly all the way down. If the cane pole section is broken off (or cut) with the plugged end larger than the mouth end, the taper will be going in the wrong direction and you won’t be able to get a tight enough reed fit on the inside, nearest to the flute hole, to make it whistle. The reed will fit at the entrance, but the inside will be too small once the cane section begins to get bigger. If air is able to escape anywhere along the path to the flute hole, the whistling sound will be lost. It’s also important that the end is plugged. I can’t explain why this is the case, because all the whistles in the stores have open ends, but if these are open on the end, they don’t work.
On the open end, using a hand saw, cut a vertical split about 1 inch in and make it a little less than a quarter of the depth of your cane section. Then with your pocket or Exacto knife, whittle a flute opening that is approximately 1/4 inch long. It’s important not to go too deep with the flute opening so that the reed doesn’t have a gap there. The depth will vary depending on the size of the cane pole section.
For the reed, you can either choose a nice straight branch or a wooden dowel from the hardware store. Store bought dowels may not be authentic, but they are SO much easier because they don’t have knot holes in inconvenient places, don’t have any taper and they are nice and soft. We’ve made these whistles to sell at craft fairs and festivals and for the large number we were producing, finally just picked up some dowels in a couple of different increment sizes. Because the reeds are relatively short, (somewhere in the 1/2 inch range) one dowel will make a lot of reeds. The fit is better and glue is rarely needed. Whichever type of wood you choose for your reed, whittle it to fit as if you were making a plug for your whistle, then flatten down the top so the air blown in will travel across the top of the dowel/reed and out of the flute hole. You’re looking for only a millimeter or two of gap. Make sure that it is long enough to go from the blowing end, all the way to where the flute opening starts. Tap the reed gently into the hole.
In this example we used an oak branch and after tapping it into the hole, we saw that the branch just wasn’t seating tight enough along the bottom and the edges. The picture below is looking into the flute from the long end and you can see a little of the gap on the right side. It was much more evident when looking at it than it seems with a picture. Since air had room to go places other than just through the flat, millimeter size opening on the top, our whistle didn’t work. Although we had what looked like a tight fit from the end, it wasn’t tight enough on the inside where it met the flute opening… that’s where the dowels make it so easy.
Ultimately we took a little glue and sealed all the holes for this particular whistle. There’s nothing wrong with that and it’s still a satisfying end product in what is truly a lost art.
Some of our tips for successful whistle making:
- Check your cane pole section for splits. Even the most tiny splits will keep it from working properly.
- Make sure the taper of the section goes from large to small. The mouth end being bigger and tapering down from there. (think about how a cork is shaped to fit, your reeds are the same concept)
- A couple of store bought dowels enable you to make them without using glue and production goes much faster.
- Always make sure one end is plugged. If you have a pole section with both ends open, just whittle a plug for the bottom end.
- When making whistles out of very skinny pole sections, the whistles will need to be shorter. Cut the natural length of the section in approximately half and re-plug the end hole. The really skinny whistles make a very cool high pitched sound!
- Pole sections that have an outside diameter bigger than your index finger are harder to make whistle. I think it must be the volume of air that is required for the bigger space?
- If the pole section has any of the loose, papery inner lining on the inside, clean it out as best you can. Bits of debris like that can keep the whistle from working. If a whistle has been working OK and then quits, look into the flute hole and see if some of that has been blown loose. A small bottle type brush or opened up paper clip can generally pluck out these obstructions, just be gentle.
- Look for other things to make whistles from; PVC pipe, large gauge drinking straws, the outer casing of a cheap disposable ink pen or mechanical pencil (cheap=thinner, softer plastic), etc. Even spent shell casings can be made into whistles if you have access to an angle grinder or other “adult only” cutting tools.
Let us know what you’ve found to turn into a homemade whistle!