How to Make a Kalimba

kalimba is a great beginner instrument that is easily accessible to the majority of people. But did you know that making your own kalimba is also a very easy project?

In this article, I will show you how to make a simple wood kalimba, covering all the materials and tools you will need, which should be doable even for the most DIY averse individuals out there!

So grab your saw and your tape measure and let’s get to it!

You will need a few tools and materials for this method but the end result should be almost identical to the kalimbas you can buy in stores and online!

Materials you will need

The following list of materials is not gospel and there’s a degree of personal preference so feel free to swap out any as you see fit.

  • Sheet wood such as plywood
  • Square dowel rod
  • Round metal rod, steel, or brass works well
  • Thin sheet metal, steel is preferred
  • Hex bolts or similar fasteners with nuts/washers to suit

Tools/Equipment you will need

Again, these tools are not must-haves but will give you the best results without the need for a full workshop of specialist equipment.

  • Measuring tape or ruler
  • Pencil
  • Small hand saw such as a hack saw or coping saw
  • Wood glue
  • G-clamps or similar
  • Drill with appropriate drill bits
  • Files and sandpaper
  • Paint and paintbrushes (optional)

Step 1 – Constructing the Body

The first component of the kalimba that we will make is the body or baseboard.

The exact size and shape is completely up to you. The main consideration here is how many tines you want your kalimba to have, obviously the more tines, the wider your body will need to be.

To keep this tutorial simple, I will be making a 5 note/tine kalimba so my kalimba doesn’t need to be particularly large.

Take your sheet wood and measure and mark out the outline of your kalimba, repeat this on another section of your sheet wood, and cut both out using your saw. These two pieces will be the top and bottom of your kalimba body.

Next, measure and mark the side panels of the kalimba. The length of these should match the length and width of your kalimba top/bottom panels.

The width of the side panels is up to you, for best results you should size these to suit your hands.

You should now have 6 panels; A top and bottom, and 4 sides.

To improve the sound of the kalimba, the next step is to bore a hole in the top panel, you will need a hole boring drill bit to make this task easier. As always, size and location are completely up to you, I chose a 1″ diameter hole and located it roughly in the center of the panel.

Before joining the panels together, there’s one last step we need to do. 

Take two hex bolts and thread them through the top panel at either side. The exact placement isn’t important but you want to be close to the top, leaving room above and below to attach two lengths of dowel later.

If you want to make sure the bolts stay secure, you can glue them into the top panel.

Now it’s time to join your panels together! Grab some square dowel and cut 4 lengths that are the same width as your side panels.

Using wood glue, join the side panels together using the wooden dowels at each corner to hold it all together.

Attach the bottom panel and top panel next, again using wood glue. Take your clamps and evenly place them around the sides while the glue dries. (make sure the thread of your bolts in your top panel is facing up and out of the kalimba body, not inside)

Congratulations! You’ve got the beginnings of a kalimba now!

If you want to paint or varnish your kalimba, now is a good time to do it. Similarly, it may be worthwhile to sand down all the edges and corners to smooth them off if you wish.

Step 2 – Constructing the Bridge

Next up we need to make the bridge, which will be where the tines are connected to the kalimba.

The bridge will be made up of 3 main parts and you’ll need more square wooden dowel as well as round metal bar.

First, take your square wooden dowel and cut a length as wide as your kalimba. Glue this down near the top end of the kalimba, above the bolts from earlier, and clamp down while the glue dries.

Take a second length of dowel and cut to the same length, next you’ll want to cut a notch along its length on one side, a V shape will work well. Basically, this will act as a channel for your round metal bar to sit in.

Now take your metal bar and cut it to the same length. File and polish it down to ensure it is as smooth as can be, we don’t want any roughness that will affect the sound.

Glue the dowel to the top panel of the body, making sure it is parallel with the dowel at the top that we previously glued down. You’ll want to glue this dowel below the bolts but above the soundhole.

Glue the metal bar into the channel of the dowel and clamp and allow to set. 

Now for the last part of the bridge. You’ll need more round metal bar and your drill and appropriately sized nuts and washers for the hex bolts from earlier. 

Note: the metal bar must be wider than the bolts for this part to work.

Cut the metal bar to the same length as your two wooden dowel sections. At either end of the rod, drill a hole that is slightly wider than the bolt’s diameter (this is why it is crucial to size these components correctly).

Be sure to file down and polish the metal bar at this point for the best results!

Now screw on a nut to each bolt, then place the metal bar on top, the bar should rest on each nut. To hold the bar in place, screw on two more nuts above, don’t tighten up yet, however.

Step 3 – Making the Tines

The tines are perhaps the most important part of the kalimba and a large part of the sound will be decided by how these are made and the material you use.

The beauty of this kalimba design is that it is easy to switch out and replace the tines whenever you want, so you can experiment with different sounds!

I will be choosing a standard approach and my tines will be made from steel. 

Taking your sheet metal (or whatever material you decide to use), decide what width you want your tines to be, and mark out accordingly before cutting them to size. The length is not important yet, we can sort this out later if required.​

Once each tine is cut to size, give them a good filing and polishing, paying particular attention to the end that we will be plucking. The last thing we want is for a sharp edge here to cut our thumbs.

Step 4 – Completing the Kalimba

Now take each tine and run them through the bridge, we want to sit each tine on top of the uppermost dowel, under the metal rod, and finally on top of the lowermost dowel with the metal rod glued in place.

Once you are happy with the placement of each tine, adjust the height of the metal rod to hold the tines down, we want a slight bend here, but not overly so.

Now all that’s left to do is tune your kalimba!

And that’s all there is to it! You should now have a working kalimba!​

Final Thoughts

As you could tell, although this is a more advanced method than some other tutorials out there, it’s actually relatively easy overall and the end result is far better, in my opinion.

So now that you know the basics, why not try making some more extravagant kalimba designs!