Instructions for making a copper pennywhistle in the key of D

Copyright: Kim Fulton-Bennett, 1997. Non-commercial reproduction of this document is encouraged; please leave author's name in the document.

If you have suggestions or improvements to this technique, please let me know at

*A tip of the hat to Eric Reiswig, whose online whistle-making instructions served as an inspiration and basis for this design.

Last updated: 2/27/97

What you will need:

You can make a fine whistle with just simple hand tools and materials that you can buy at any hardware store!



Conventions and Notes

Making the fipple

Note: The fipple is the hardest part of the pennywhistle to make. I often make more fipples than I need, and end up throwing out a quarter to a half of them because I'm not happy with their sound...

Cutting the fipple pipe

  1. Measure and cut off a piece of pipe 6.2 cm long (using the pipe cutter if you have one).
  2. Deburr the ends (use pipe cutter tool). Then smooth both ends of pipe using wide flat file and sand paper.

Note: the sharp ends of the cut pipe can slice your fingers, so caution is advised.

Cutting the fipple hole

  1. Measure up 3.2 cm from one end of the pipe and make a line with the permanent marker. This will be the lower edge of the fipple hole.
  2. Measure up about 1/8" (4 mm) above the first line and make a dot.
  3. Use the punch to set a hole at this dot and drill a 1/4" (6mm) hole at this spot.
  4. Use the small file to shape this round hole into a neat rectangle about 1/4" (6 mm) long and no more than 5/16" (7.5 mm) wide (see picture below). It is important that the all the edges, inside and out, are as smooth and neat as you can make them.

    Note: For a lower whistle, such as a C, make the fipple hole slightly longer (7 mm); for a higher whistle, make the fipple hole slightly shorter (4-5 mm). In either case, the lower edge of the hole should still be 3.2 cm from the end of the pipe.

  5. Place the flat-tipped metal bar on the lower edge of the fipple hole and tap on it with a hammer to bend the copper in about about 1-2 mm, as shown below.

  6. If the bent-in edge is curved rather than flat, use the screwdriver to reach in from the top of the fipple and make the edge as flat as possible (see below):

  7. Use the small file to create a smooth, beveled "cutting edge" about 2 mm wide on the outer, lower edge of the fipple hole (see picture below). This edge must be as smooth and straight as you can make it.

  8. Use sand paper to smooth the upper end of the tubing above the fipple hole, inside and out. This is where your lips will contact the metal, so you don't want sharp places...

Making the fipple plug

  1. Take the 5/8" hardwood dowel and reduce it's diameter to fit snugly inside the copper pipe. The final diameter should be about 9/16" (if you can get 9/16" doweling, please let me know).
    I reduce the diameter of the dowel using a "poor-man's lathe:"
    1. Screw a 1/8" wood screw about into the exact center of one end of the dowel until only about 15 mm is left exposed.
    2. Cut off the head of the screw with a hack saw.
    3. Insert the exposed body of the screw into the chuck of an electric hand drill.
    4. Hold the hand drill horizontally and run it while holding coarse sand paper next to the doweling. Make sawdust until the dowel is thin enough so that a piece of pipe (without burrs or lip) fits snugly over the dowel.
  2. Now cut off a 1 inch (2.5 cm) piece of your (newly lathed) 9/16" dowel and smooth the ends with the flat file.
  3. Decide which side of the plug should have the wind channel cut into it (I'm not sure which side is best: going "with the grain" gives you a smoother surface, but may this side be more prone to swelling).
  4. Use the large flat file to flatten the side of the dowel where you will cut the wind channel. The flattened area should be trapezoidal: about 1/4" wide at one end and about 5/16" wide at the other end of the dowel (see picture below).

  5. Use the small file to cut a channel into this flattened surface. This channel should be about 2 mm deep at the wide (upper) end and 1+ mm deep at the narrow (lower) end (see picture below). Make sure the surfaces and sides of this channel are as smooth and flat as possible.

  6. (optional?) Seal the wind channel and lower end of the fipple plug with epoxy or some other hard, waterproof sealant (I'm not sure if this makes much of a difference).

Mounting and adjusting the fipple

  1. Insert the plug into the end of the pipe above the fipple hole. The narrow, shallow end of the channel should be pointed toward the fipple hole. Sight through the channel to make sure that the lower end of the channel is parallel to the lower edge of the fipple hole. Slide the plug into the pipe until the lower end of the plug is even with (directly beneath) the upper edge of the fipple hole (see picture below).

  2. (At this point, you need to try out the fipple to see how it sounds when attached to a whistle, or at least a pipe cut the correct length.) Measure and cut a 23.3 cm piece of pipe for the body of your whistle. Deburr, file, and sand the ends so they're not sharp.
  3. Slide the fipple (with plug) into one end of a copper connector sleeve. Slide the long length of cut pipe into the other end of the sleeve (see below).

  4. Wipe the dust off the fipple, then blow into the end. You should get a clean, if slightly weak note (roughly D one octave above middle C). The point here is not to check the tuning of the note, but to test the timbre of the fipple--whether it makes a clear tone or a breathy one.
  5. If you're happy with the tone produced, continue to step 6 below. If you want to try adjusting the sound, here are some suggestions (this is art, not science):

    Note: some of these adjustments are irreversable--if you adjust too far, you will have to create an entirely new fipple

  6. When you are happy with the sound of the fipple and you are sure the fipple plug is in the correct location, secure the plug by denting the copper pipe around the plug using a punch. I usually make three dents: two dents 5 mm above and to either side of the fipple hole and a third dent on the back of the fipple, about 5 mm above the end of the plug (see picture below).

    Note: this method works much better than glue, which will not stand up to differential expansion and contraction of the wood and copper.

Shaping the mouthpiece (the part of the fipple that goes in your mouth)

  1. Place the fipple in a vice and cut the exposed end of the dowel off flush with the end of the copper pipe.
  2. Clean out the upper end of the channel in the fipple plug so that you can clearly see its lower edge.
  3. Use a hacksaw to cut off a triangular section of the pipe and dowel. Start the cut at the end of the fipple, with the hacksaw blade parallel to and about 1-2 mm below the lower edge of the wind channel. As soon as you have a cut a small slot that will keep the blade from slipping, tilt the hacksaw blade to cut downward at about 45 degrees (see below).

  4. Smooth the cut surface (wood and copper) and the outer edge of the pipe using first the large flat file, then the sandpaper.
  5. Blow off all loose dust and clear out the mouthpiece again.
  6. Mix a good two-part epoxy and spread it over the exposed wooden end of the fipple (and the copper around the edges). In choosing the epoxy, remember that this stuff, when hardened, will be going into your mouth. The epoxy should be the consistency of honey (and is about as easy to control). You want to apply enough so that it will mound up, creating a nice, smooth surface, but not so much that it will flow off the wood into the mouthpiece or down the sides of the fipple (see below).

  7. Set the fipple so that that the wooden surface is level as possible and let the epoxy harden overnight. If a little epoxy flows onto the sides of the fipple you can flake it off with a screwdriver.
  8. Attach the copper connector sleeve permanently to the fipple by using the punch to make dents in either side of the sleeve, where it contacts the fipple.
  9. Your fipple is now complete! (except for the polishing).

Tuning the whistle

  1. If you haven't already done so, cut 23.3 cm of copper pipe and smooth the ends (better to be slightly too long than too short!)
  2. Attach your fipple to the end of the cut pipe and blow gently and steadily. Once the copper pipe has warmed up to your breath, compare the note with a tuner or electronic keyboard. It should be a D, one octave above middle C.
  3. Use a ruler to make marks at the following distances from one end (the bottom) of the whistle.

    Note   Hole      Distance     Proportion     Diam. 
    E      Hole 1:    4.7 cm      0.177          3/16"
    F      Hole 2:    7.2 cm      0.272          9/32" 
    G      Hole 3:    8.6 cm      0.324          1/8"
    A      Hole 4:   11.2 cm      0.423          7/32"
    B      Hole 5:   13.1 cm      0.494          1/4"
    C      Hole 6:   15.0 cm      0.566          1/4"

    1) The ratio labled "Proportion" in this table is the distance from the bottom of the whistle to the center of the finger hole devided by the total acoustic length of the whistle (the distance from the bottom of the whistle to the lower edge of the fipple hole--in this case, 26.5 cm).
    2) This table lists just one possible set of hole positions and sizes. Many different position/size combinations are possible. See the "Notes on Tuning" below for suggestions on how to adjust these factors to create your own hole arrangements.

  4. Use the punch to make pilot "dents" to guide the drill bit at each of these locations.
  5. Starting with Hole 1 (the mark closest to the bottom of the whistle), drill a hole slightly (about 1/16") smaller than the size shown in the table above under "Diam." Use the rattail file to clean up any burrs from inside and outside of the hole.
  6. Blow into the whistle with the hole covered. This should give you your low D (in tune). Now lift your finger and play the new note (low E). Check it against your tuning standard. It will probably be a bit flat. If so, choose a drill bit 1/32" larger and open up the hole slightly. Check the note again. Remember that there is no easy way to make a hole smaller if you open it up too far (creating a note that is too sharp). See "Some notes on tuning" below for details.
  7. When the note in the low octave is in tune, try playing the same note one octave up, and check the tuning of this note as well.
  8. Repeat this process for each of the holes, starting at the lower end of the whistle and working your way up to the top.

    Some notes on tuning:

  9. When you have all made and tuned all six holes, use the rat-tail file to clean up any remaining burrs from inside and outside the whistle. Then take a small piece of sandpaper and wrap it into the shape of a small cone (about the size of a pencil tip). Work this around in each of the finger holes to smooth them out, until they feel good on your fingers. Start with 80- or 120-grit and move up to 180- or 220-grit.

Finishing the whistle

After you have finished all tuning and shaping, you are ready to make the whistle shine. The trick is to keep that shine on the copper for more than a day. I'm sure there are other ways to do this, but here is one that I have worked out. I highly recommend using a DUST MASK for this stage of the process, even if you haven't used one for previous steps

  1. Start by buffing the entire whistle with a extra-fine-textured green plastic scouring pad. Use this pad to work out any gouges or sandpaper scratches and to do final smoothing around the edge of the finger holes. You can work on the fipple too, but stay away from the epoxy-coated area, which scratches easily.

    Note: You can buff either parallel to the long-dimension of the whistle or at right angles to it (by twisting the pipe within the pad), but not both. You get a different sheen depending which direction you buff, and you can decide which you like better...)

  2. Now buff the entire whistle again using extra fine (000) steel wool. Buff in the same direction that you used with the plastic pad, and stay away from the epoxy. When you are done, you should have a really nice shine. While you are doing this final polishing, wear gloves or hold the whistle in a cloth to avoid getting fingerprints on it. When you are done buffing, wipe off the entire whistle with a clean paper towel or cloth.
  3. To keep the shine for more than a day, I have found that several coats of a wax finish works best. Right now I am using Minwax wood finish. I apply at least three coats, letting each coat dry (about 10-15 min) and then buffing it out with a soft cloth before applying the next coat. I generally do not wax the part of the fipple that goes in my mouth, so the copper in this area ends up turning brown. The wax coating eventually wears through, especially where fingers contact the whistle. At that point, you can buff it out again (if necessary) and wax it again.

    Note: I have tried nut oils, lacquer, and thin epoxy, but have found that they are much more of a hassle and take longer to dry. Furthermore, with the lacquer and epoxy I have had adhesion problems. Other waxes, such as car waxes may also work, but I haven't done much long-term testing with these.

    Another alternative is to let it go. I rather like the look of copper after it darkens. I've also been experiamenting with various compounds to create reddish or greenish patinas...

    Congratulations! You now have your own copper pennywhistle. It may not have the same tone of the store-bought models, but it has your spirit in it... (And you can make others in different keys, if you need them.)

    Happy Whistling!