Birth of a Didgeridoo: A Journal in Photos and Words

This is a journey of a didgeridoo in the making in photos and comments. I’ve been wanting to do this project for awhile now, telling the story of how a didgeridoo is made so now here it is. As I work on it I will continue to add photos and commentaries until the didgeridoo is done. At the end, I plan on making a sample video of what the didge will sound like. The didge is one I’m making for a couple in Kansas. The wood I’m using is a yucca stalk, which is the flowering part of the yucca plant. The main reason I wanted to do this project is because many people ask me “how is a didgeridoo made?” This journal, I hope, can be an answer to that question.

Many thanks for coming along on this journey. Let’s begin…..

Day 1

20181112_155412vignette.jpg

The stalk started off as a eight footer but since I need to make a D didgeridoo, I had to cut it down to around six feet to start with. This photo was taken just before I split it with the box cutter and the one butter knife you see in the photo. I usually use two butter knives but they were in storage somewhere. It didn’t take long to split it since the shell is fairly thin, which makes the making process a bit of a challenge - to hollow it out without breaking or compromising the shell.

20181112_161123vignette.jpg

Splitting is done now. The one butter knife worked! It’s pretty bug eaten at the top end but has a fairly solid bell end. I think this is gonna be a good one with lots of resonance!

20181114_140954vignette.jpg

And I’m done for the day. Got most of the material from one side out using my trusty 20mm gouge. The material in yucca is super soft - like a stringy, spongy material which makes it fairly easy to get out. Occasionally, I come across actual hard wood spots on the inside. This didge has a couple of these. Next step is to start the finish work with a smaller (about a quarter inch) gouge.

As you see, I do pretty much everything by hand. I like doing it this way mostly because it’s my meditation while creating. I get to really know the didge inside and out so by the time it’s shipped, it’s not just another instrument but rather a creation going out into the world to make more happy people.

Day 2

20181114_161222vignette.jpg

The bug eaten bit of the second side. A lot of the top end of this didge was chewed up by a beetle. I know this for a fact because I found the body inside (sorry for “ew” factor). There are a lot of tracks and plugs left behind which makes my job a bit easier……At least until I get to the bell end.

20181114_150442vignette.jpg

I have three main tools I use to hollow out a didge. The two you see here are the 20mm gouge and the quarter inch gouge. The third tool isn’t pictured but it’s a linoleum cutter which looks like a nasty claw from some prehistoric critter mounted in a handle. I use it to get the bulk of material out. It does a great job as you may imagine. The 20mm gouge is used to get the remaining material out while the smaller quarter inch gouge is used to do the detail work on the inside.

20181114_201016vignette.jpg
20181114_201114vignette.jpg

And day 2 is done. I finished after dark but the didge is well on it’s way. I hadn’t planned on it but I got the second side mostly hollowed out. The red bit in the photo on the right is one of the hardwood spots I mentioned earlier. It’s not super hard but it is wood - about the hardness of bass wood so it’s easy to carve.

The next step is to do the detail work on the second half. See ya’ll tomorrow.

Day 3

20181116_133009vignette.jpg


So I had a fatality today. I was doing some of the detail carving on the inside when I heard a snap. My quarter inch gouge is now in two pieces. I ended up finishing the detail work on the inside with a smaller gouge. It took a bit longer but the inside is done. You can’t really tell the work I’ve done from the photos but at least you know what the inside of a yucca didge looks like now.

20181116_150817vignette.jpg
20181116_150648vignette.jpg

Day 4

20181117_131358vignette.jpg

Time to glue up. This part of didge making is a race to see if you can get the didge back together before the glue dries. The steps are

  • Spread the glue evenly along the joint of one half

  • Put the two halves together and try to keep them together (more of a challenge than it seems)

  • Get the hose clamps on and tightened before the glue decides to dry.

Working with yucca and agave can be a special challenge because sometimes the shells are super soft and thin as is the case with this didge. But in tightening the clamps, I didn’t hear an cracking noises so it’s all good.

20181117_134448vignette.jpg
20181117_134740vignette.jpg

And it’s tea time while I wait for the glue to dry

20181117_135631vignette.jpg

Day 5

2018-11-23_19.16.02.jpg
20181122_132822-768x1024.jpg

Took the hose clamps off today and started the making the mouthpiece. The wood I’m using is poplar. It’s not the prettiest wood nor the hardest but it is a nice wood with a good consistency. Below are photos of the steps I take in cutting out the “doughnut” and gluing it on to the didge. It’s definitely not the quickest or most efficient way to do things but it still works in getting a nice comfy mouthpiece.

After cutting out the mouthpiece, I sand the inside diameter to the size I want which is usually around an inch and an eighth give or take a 16th of an inch. After the sanding, I’ll glue the mouthpiece doughnut onto the didge and secure it with electrical tape to hold it on tight. Seems like an odd thing to do but it works every time. Next up, sanding……lots of it.

Day 6

SANDING!

2018-12-01_14.02.43.jpg

And taping the bug holes with painter’s tape so when I pour the epoxy through the inside, it stays inside. I call this step blue measles.

2018-12-01_13.59.52.jpg
2018-12-01_14.01.21.jpg

Day 7

Today is the first coating of epoxy on the inside. After mixing the epoxy, I poured it down the mouthpiece end so I can get a nice even coating and better coverage around the mouthpiece joint where it’s most critical. After the pour, I capped the ends with plastic bags to keep the epoxy in. At about four hours, I take the bags off and let the didge bask next to a warm heater to expedite the curing.

Day 8

Tuning day. So when this didge started out, the original stock was about seven and a half feet long. I had already cut about 18” off the bottom which sacrificed a beautiful large bell and took the stalk down to about six feet. The piece I cut off with the big bell will be used later for another didge later on. Since the stalk is so skinny, i knew I was going to have a fairly low note. It turned out to be a low Bb and I needed to make a D didge. So, I used a Japanese pull saw to tune it by cutting off the length bit by bit until i got a D. What was a six foot didge is now just under five feet tall.

The next step is pouring a second coating of epoxy through the inside from the bell end to get a nice even coating throughout the didgeridoo and to fill in any spots that were missed in the first coating.

Day 9

2018-12-01_14.08.48[1].jpg
2018-12-01_14.09.19[1].jpg

So, I poured the second coating of epoxy through the inside of the didge and I made a boo boo for the first time in eight years. As it was curing, the didgeridoo was laying next to a heater and the epoxy hardened faster than I had planned. I ended up with a buildup that I had to sand out. It wasn’t too bad to work with since it wasn’t completely cured but cured enough to sand nicely. All in all, it took about half an hour to sand it out. Sometimes even the pros don’t get it right but that’s how you learn.

After sanding out the boo boo, I put on the first coating of epoxy on the outside. I’ve removed the tape from the holes so it no longer has blue measles and did some final sanding to get a nice surface. Nature’s paintbrush has blessed this didge with some really sweet spots. It’s going to be a beauty I think….. We’ll know soon!

2018-12-01_14.09.49[1].jpg

Pamela Mortensen

Performer, musician, composer and mad scientist of sound and soundscapes. Mostly plays didgeridoo but also plays keyboard, sings and loves synthesizing sound both digitally and organically.