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 email@example.com
*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!
A ruler marked in cm and mm, as well as inches
Electric hand drill or drill press
Drill bits in 1/32" (0.75 mm) increments
Sand paper (120- to 220-grit)
Small flat or triangular file with sides about 1/4" (6-7 mm) wide
Large flat-sided metal file about 1 1/4" (3 cm) wide
Rat-tail (cylindrical) file about 1/4" (6-7 mm) diameter
Flat-bladed screwdriver with blade about 1/4" (6-7 mm) wide
Sharp metal punch for setting holes for drilling (a large pointed steel screw
or bolt will also work)
Fine-point permanent marker
Steel bar with flat end about 1/4" (6-7 mm) square
Hack-saw with a metal-cutting blade
Chromatic electronic tuner or (for those with a good ear) electric keyboard.
You can try to tune the whistle to another wind instrument, but I don't recommend
it because you can't play both instruments at once to hear the beats when
notes are out of tune.
Optional but recommended: Table vice (handy for holding the pipe--be
sure to add padding to the metal grips so you don't scratch the copper)
Optional but recommended: Pipe cutter (an inexpensive hand tool that
gives a nice, straight end to the pipe).
1/2" copper plumbing pipe ("type M" in US)--You only need 12-inches (30 cm)
for a whistle, but you might want two or three times this much, just in case...
Copper connector (sleeve) used to join two lengths of 1/2" copper pipe (use
the kind of connector that has a "stop" hammered into middle of the connector;
my measurements take this into account)
5/8" Hardwood doweling: a 12-inch length is plenty. (Get 9/16" dowel instead,
if you can find it)
Two-part epoxy resin (having the consistency of honey, safe for putting in
your mouth when dry)
Conventions and Notes
In these instructions, "up" refers to the end of the whistle or fipple closest
to your mouth (while you are playing). "Down" refers to the end closest to
your feet. "Front" refers to the side of the whistle with the fipple and
finger holes. "Back" refers to the side without holes.
You might be able to use metric-sized copper pipe instead of standard US
1/2" pipe, but all the other dimensions will probably change a bit.
I sincerely apologize for my "unitary schizophrenia" (there's an oxymoron!).
My tools are all sized in "English" units, but I prefer to use metric units
for all my measurements because it is easier to scale them up or down to
build whistles in different keys.
Whenever I file, sand, or polish copper, I wear a dust mask. I have found
that fine copper dust dust or powder irritates my throat and lungs. You probably
don't want to swallow it either. However, I believe the amount of copper
you ingest from playing a finished whistle is minimal (please let me know
me if I'm wrong!).
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
Measure and cut off a piece of pipe 6.2 cm long (using the pipe cutter if
you have one).
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
Cutting the fipple hole
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.
Measure up about 1/8" (4 mm) above the first line and make a dot.
Use the punch to set a hole at this dot and drill a 1/4" (6mm) hole at this
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.
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
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
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.
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
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:"
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.
Cut off the head of the screw with a hack saw.
Insert the exposed body of the screw into the chuck of an electric hand drill.
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
(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
Mounting and adjusting the fipple
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).
(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.
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).
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.
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,
Note: some of these adjustments are irreversable--if you adjust too far,
you will have to create an entirely new fipple
If the note is too breathy, some air is missing the lower edge of the fipple
hole. Try one of the following:
Slide the fipple plug about 0.5 mm toward the fipple hole. (If you go too
far, use the screwdriver to push the plug back out and try again.)
Look down through the wind channel. The lower end of the channel should line
up with with the bent-in edge of the fipple hole. If can see a wide gap between
the two, you can try bending the lower edge of the fipple hole down
slightly (this is tricky!). You can also try making a new plug with
a shallower channel.
If the note tends to "break" and go into the upper octave rather than the
lower octave, try one of the following:
Slide the fipple plug up about 0.5 mm (away from the fipple hole).
Try deepening the entire channel in the fipple plug slightly (say: 0.5 mm).
Try bending the lower edge of the fipple hole up with a screwdriver, then
smooth the edge as necessary.
If the note has good tone, but is not loud enough, try one of the following:
Deepen and/or widen the upper end of the channel in the fipple plug.
Make sure all surfaces are smooth and even.
Widen the fipple hole slightly with a small file (work on both sides). Be
careful not to make the hole too wide or the whistle will become breathy.
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)
Place the fipple in a vice and cut the exposed end of the dowel off flush
with the end of the copper pipe.
Clean out the upper end of the channel in the fipple plug so that you can
clearly see its lower edge.
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).
Smooth the cut surface (wood and copper) and the outer edge of the pipe using
first the large flat file, then the sandpaper.
Blow off all loose dust and clear out the mouthpiece again.
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).
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.
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.
Your fipple is now complete! (except for the polishing).
Tuning the whistle
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!)
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
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
Use the punch to make pilot "dents" to guide the drill bit at each of these
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.
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.
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.
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:
Always warm up the whistle before tuning it by blowing through it for a few
Try to use the same breath pressure for all notes, so that a note does not
seem sharper or flatter just because you are blowing differently. This is
especially tricky for the highest notes (high A and above), which often have
to be blown harder to keep them from being flat.
Try each note in both the low and high octave. In some cases you may have
to compromise on hole size and placement.
For the higher notes (A and B especially), you will have to work out a compromise
because they will play rather flat in the high octave unless you open them
up a bit wider than would be optimum for the lower octave. This may be something
that might be solved by optimizing the hole placement, but I have not yet
found any placement/hole size combination that will completely eliminate
The tone of any given note is controlled primarily by the size of the uppermost
open hole and it's position on the whistle. It is also affected by all the
open (or closed) holes below it. This is why you always drill holes and tune
the notes starting at the bottom of the whistle.
Enlarging a hole makes the note sharper. Drilling a smaller hole creates
a flatter note.
Moving a hole up the whistle makes the note sharper. Moving a hole down makes
the note flatter.
Given the above, if you want to make a whistle with larger holes, you will
have to move all the holes down a bit. This applies to individual holes as
well--if you move a hole down, you have to make it larger to get the correct
Also given the above, if you want to make a whistle with smaller holes, you
will have to move all the holes down a bit. This applies to individual holes
as well--if you move a hole down, you have to make it larger to get the correct
Smaller finger holes make for a more quick, responsive whistle, but they
also make a quieter whistle. Conversely, larger finger holes make a louder
whistle (and perhaps one with a mellower tone), but it won't feel as "quick"
There is no way to use hole size and placement to compensate for a whistle
that is cut too short or too long--the tonic note will always be off.
If you want to make a hole slightly larger, but don't have a drill bit of
the next size up, you can use your existing bit to widen the hole (sideways
or up the whistle). However, the resulting holes won't look as neat, and
you need to make sure you can still easily cover them with your fingers.
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
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
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...)
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.
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
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.)