making elderberry flutes



Anyone can make these ~ with my supervision & his brother's help, my three year-old carved his stick with a screw-driver, filed the inside & rounded out his holes with a Swiss Army knife.  They are very satisfying, & to make them you first have to find an elderberry plant that's given off some sticks.  The fresh ones have endangered Elderberry Beetles in them, so you must make sure the sticks are old & dry.  It's a great simple activity that can lead to further studies in Botany, Ecology, Native Cultures, Music, Woodworking, & Entomology.  At least for the older kids.  For Free, it's a chance to work at "Tooling."  We made these in an hour with much elbow grease. 


The Elderberry Flute has "2 voices," & sounds different from each end.  Unlike most flutes, which are played at the side of the mouth or straight down, this is played at a diagonal.  You'll hold it between the middle &  side of your mouth, pointing towards the floor three feet in front of you.  Instead of a blow, it will just take the tiniest puffs, very subtle.  Advanced players will hum into it, creating a didjeridoo-effect.


Traditionally these were made using sticks & sharp stones, but today they're made with tools.  Elderberry is all over the United States & very easy to find.  They have yellow flowers, purplish berries & serrated leaves.  You can print this picture, but I'd consult a field guide to be sure.



1 Elderberry Stick, about 1" wide

Hand Saw or serrated knife ~ I keep a steak knife for this & don't let the kids help

1 screw driver, flat-head is easiest 

1 pocket knife

Optional: round metal file.


How To:


1  Use a hand saw to make the ends flat.

2  Slowly carve out the inner red pith with the screw driver.  

3  You'll need to turn the stick upside down frequently to tap out the saw dust.

4  Really try to get it all out.  Go slowly, turning the stick as you go.  It's easier to go slowly with soft pith than to go fast & compact the pith.

5  Find the middle of the flute & place your thumb there.  Now place your four fingers opposite, with 2 on either side of your thumb.  Mark those places.  They should be about one thumb-print width apart for the person who will use the flute.

6  When it's hollow, use the pocket knife to carve out 4 small holes.  I just started the holes so the knives wouldn't slip, then handed them to the kids to finish.  Again, have them go slow so they don't crack the wood.  The larger the hole, the more musical it will be & easier to learn.

7  You can now look at your flute & see if the bark should be stripped off.  If it looks nice how it is, you can just carve a bit off at the ends.  This helps it to play.














Yesterday we sat with one hundred rain-soaked families at UC Davis to carve these.  Apparently all California Native tribes made this exact instrument.  I think only one person in the room was able to play theirs, but the docent, Antonio Flores, was able to take each person's flute & play any number of lovely local songs.  We got a kick out of one, which asks "Toyo" for help to win & beat an opponent at hand games.  We've been asking "Toyo" for help to play our flute.  He warned us that it might take months before we hear anything.  That's okay, though ~ the flutes themselves are simple but hard to make, so the result is so satisfying & beautiful we don't mind.  We've been practicing & figure we might need to build up some muscles we don't know about.