15 Minute Beach Bamboo Whistle

A few weeks ago we got to spend some time in Ventura. What a beautiful spot, despite the (record, just saying) low temps and rainfall. The beach there is fantastic — uncrowded, great sand, interesting driftwood, rocks and seaglass, surfers and fisherfolk to watch, and tons of friendly dogs for Copper to play with. Nothing can top the Whidbey beach, but there’s sure a lot to love in California.

Now don’t get me wrong; I can nap in the sand with the best of them. But there is no better playground than the shore and between kites, metal detectors, sand castles, rock and shell hunting, driftwood collecting, raft and fort building … well, you get the idea. Down in Ventura I added a new activity to the list — carving whistles from bamboo driftwood. Super fun and super easy. All you need is a penknife and a chunk of bamboo, which seems to be everywhere, even up north. I guess the closed cells just float so well they get around.

Here’s how to do it and impress the heck out of every six year old in the neighborhood. Sorry if the older kids give you the “Dad head shake” — comes with the territory.

1. Find a chunk of bamboo with an intact “cell.” The hollow center is closed off wherever you see a raised band going around the outside. About a 1″ diameter piece works well, but it’s not important to be exact here. The length between the bands is also not that important, as short as 6″ will work. 10″ will start to give you a nice deep tone.

2. Cut the piece on the inside of one band and the outside of the one above it. This leaves you with a tube that is open at one end and closed at the other. If you have a saw handy that makes for quick work, but your penknife will do the job. Just make repeated, deep angled cuts in a ring around the piece and eventually you’ll carve away enough that it snaps easily. Then just clean up the edges with your knife. Being able to do the whole project with one tool is part of the fun!

3. A few inches away from the open end, cut a notch. The cut should be vertical on the side facing the open end and slope up maybe 25-40 degrees toward the back. The notch should go about a third of the way into the tube. Perfection here is less critical than you’d think so don’t worry about it too much.

Starting to look like a whistle! But if you blow into the open end now, you’ll note that — nothing interesting happens. You need to direct the flow of air so that it is concentrated onto the sharp back edge of your notch — this is where the magic happens. So….

4. Find a solid stick with a diameter a bit larger than the inside of your tube. We’re going to make a plug that goes all the way from the open end of the tube to just about the front (vertical) edge of the notch. Make a mark on the stick and start whittling it down to fit. Test a lot, because you don’t want it to get too skinny — it should fit into the tube snugly enough to stay on its own and block most of the airflow. Don’t make it too snug though or you’ll break your bamboo trying to push it in. Don’t cut it to length until you’re happy with the fit — it’s much easier to shape the plug while you still have a “handle” to hold onto.

5. Once you’ve got a good fit, shave just a bit off of one side of the plug to flatten it out, creating a channel that will direct airflow onto the notch. This is the one step that can have a big impact on the sound, so start with a small channel and keep testing it out until you get something you like. Small air leaks around the sides don’t matter as long as the majority of the air hits the notch.

That’s it, you’re done! If you want to adjust the sound, the notch and the channel are the key levers. It’s actually pretty easy to get a really rich tone; WOO HOO!

I’ve tried adding holes along the body to change the pitch (like a recorder) but have had mixed results. It works, but can make the sound a lot less consistent — I’m not quite sure what the trick is here yet. Always more to figure out and explore with this kind of thing.

PS. Bonus Dad skills: acorns and blades of grass make killer noise too, albeit a bit more shrill than the bamboo. You’re welcome!