Making Music with Clay: How to Make a Ceramic Ocarina

ocarina-695

All kinds of musical instruments can be fashioned from clay, with one of the simplest being the ocarina. Flutes, whistles and ocarinas are known as airduct flutes and they come in many shapes and sizes. Their common characteristic is an airduct assembly, which makes it easier for a novice to play, since it removes the requirement that a player carefully position their mouth and lips in the precise way necessary to get a proper tone.

The ocarina project we are presenting today makes an ideal ceramics lesson plan for teachers incorporating basic handbuilding skills. Or it can be a fun project for those who need a break from their regular studio work. Check it out and start making music with clay! – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.


 Gather Your Pottery Making Tools

  • Metal rib with a serrated edge
  • Sponge and cup of water Countersink – found at hardware stores; used to make nice beveled edges on the finger holes
  • Tool with a nice flat blade – for smoothing the clay and shaping the sound hole
  • Popsicle sticks Drill bits or a hole-cutting tool to make the finger holes

This article is one of the many ceramic musical instrument projects in From Mud to Music, available in the Ceramic Arts Daily Shop.


1

Make Music with Clay

Before you get started, bevel the tips of your popsicle sticks to make them effective cutting tools. If you have access to an electric bench sander, you can easily put beveled edges on the ends of your sticks. But you can get similar results by rubbing the edge of the stick over a sheet of medium grade sandpaper held on a flat surface.

3Shape a piece of fresh clay into a smooth ball. A pound of clay will make an ocarina about the size of a medium orange. Cut the ball in half through its middle. Pinch the two halves into bowl shapes. Cradle the clay in one hand and shape it with the thumb and index finger of the other. Turn the clay in your hand frequently and keep the thickness of the wall as even as possible. If the clay begins to dry and crack, use your sponge and water to remoisten it.

2When you have finished the first half, open the other half in the same fashion. Compare the diameters of the two pieces as you go.

When the two halves match up perfectly, fuse them together into one hollow shape. Use the serrated rib to rough up the rim of each half and paint on an even coat of water. Allow the clay to soften a bit before joining the halves.

4Press the halves together. A slight twisting motion will strengthen the bond. Meld the seam with your fingers followed by a small, flat spatula-like tool, as shown. Use the fingers of both hands to remove surface imperfections. Use a dampened sponge to keep the clay moist and free of cracks.

5Create a flattened bottom by pressing the hollow form onto the table surface. Set aside the body of the ocarina to create the mouthpiece.

6The mouthpiece shown below is approximately 1 inch wide, 1 1/2 inches long and 3/4 of an inch thick. Notice that the mouthpiece shape has squared sides with a slight taper from back to front. The mouthpiece is thick enough to allow for the later insertion of the beveled popsicle stick to create the windway. The shape of the mouthpiece can be smoothed after it has been attached to the body. Lay the mouthpiece next to the body to determine the best place for attachment.

7Use the needle tool to thoroughly score the end of the mouthpiece and the area where the mouthpiece will be attached. Brush on a liberal coating of water. Allow the clay in this area to soften. Set the mouthpiece and body on the table and press them together. The mouthpiece must be aligned with the flat side of the body.

After the mouthpiece is attached, pick up the body and smooth away the seam. Complete this step thoroughly to minimize the risk of cracking later. Carefully insert the popsicle stick into the mouthpiece to create the windway. Care must be taken to ensure that the stick passes through the mouthpiece parallel to the top and bottom surfaces and squarely with the sides. Slow even pressure is best.

8With the stick used to create the windway still in place, use another beveled-edge stick to cut the aperture, or window, on the underside of the ocarina. The aperture should be located so that the side closest to the mouthpiece is just inside the interior of the wall of the body. If the hole is cut too close to the mouthpiece, the aperture will be blocked by the wall. Make a squared opening and remove the small piece of clay. Cut all the way down to the stick underneath. Make clean, squared cuts on all four sides.

9Next, with the beveled edge of the stick facing down, make a square cut at a 45° angle, moving toward the mouthpiece, as shown in the illustration. Press the stick in until it reaches the other stick. Follow through, removing the small piece of clay. Your objective is to create a sharp beveled edge on the side of the aperture farthest from the mouthpiece. This sharp edge splits the air from the windway and creates the sound. Carefully withdraw the stick from the windway. Bring the ocarina to your lips and give it a test blow. If it whistles, you can move on to the next step. If there is no whistle, reinsert the stick in the airway and check the sharpness of the bevel.

10Withdraw the windway stick, being careful to keep the stick flat. Do not raise or lower it, as this will misalign the bevel. Use a drill bit or a hole cutter to create the finger holes on the top of the ocarina. Use the countersink tool to smooth the edges of the holes. It is most common to create 4-6 holes, but you may do as you like. Depending on the precision of your mouthpiece assembly, at some point as you add more holes, your ocarina may stop sounding. If this happens, either adjust your windway and bevel until it works again, or fill in your last finger hole and declare success! If you want to tune your ocarina to a specific scale, cut and tune one hole at a time. Enlarging a hole raises its pitch, so start small and enlarge each hole until you achieve the pitch you want.

11You can fire and finish your ocarina in almost any way imaginable. If you elect to glaze it, be careful not to get any glaze in the windway, which will clog it. It is also advisable not to glaze the beveled edge of the aperture. Very slight changes to your mouthpiece assembly can alter the ocarina’s sound, or make it stop working altogether.

This project makes a great lesson plan for K-12 teachers as it combines not only visual art and music, but also history. Ancient examples of these instruments have been found in China, India and throughout the Americas, and the pre-Columbian inhabitants of America created some of the most complex and acoustically advanced instruments known to this day. In addition to the how-to instruction it presents, From Mud to Music is also loaded with information on the history of these instruments.


**First published in March 2013
Comments
  • I tried this project with my high school students and although it looked relatively simple, very few of us were able to make ones that actually made sounds. We checked several web sites and YouTube videos for helpful tips but sadly, this project disappointed most.

  • I agree with you, I had the some problem I could not make it work, we tried every webb and youtube you can find

  • Here are things to check if the ocarina doesn’t work:
    1. check the angle of the mouthpiece. move the angle up and down and see if you get a sound
    2. check that the mouthpiece hasn’t gotten pushed in too close to the sharp beveled edge – pull it out and away a bit or adjust the beveled edge back some. you can push and compress the edge against the stick to strengthen and sharpen it.
    3. check that there aren’t any little or large burrs of clay inside the hole. cleaning up inside the hole can also alter and strengthen the sound.
    4. Check that the beveled edge is still sharp. If you blow on the whistle too much the moisture in your breath can degrade the sharp edge
    5. the square hole may be too small. use the stick to flatten and widen and square off the edges
    6. sometimes the pinch-coil body is just too thick. when you make the first opening with the stick it sticks into the body instead of making a straight line into the cavity itself. or you have placed the blowpiece too close to the messy edge where you have joined the two pinch pots and there is not a clear air flow path to create a sound.
    I taught high school ceramics for 30 years, and this was a popular and successful project. I usually had to help about a third of the students to get the whistle to blow. I have also done the project with success with 11 year olds and about half of them needed help. I loved having them take the basic whistle and make it into an animal or something sculptural once the basic whistle has been made. the kids were wildly creative with this.

  • As an alternate, make the ball (golf ball sized), then cut a sharp edged hole in the ball ( I use a plastic drink straw with an angle cut, twisted into the clay for the cut), then make a short tube (about the same inside diameter as the straw),and attach the tube so that it blows across the hole almost perpendicular. You can hold the tube in place before attaching to test placement and angle. If it whistles, use that angle to attach.

  • This is so exciting. I have wanted to make whistles for a long time but other stuff gets in the way and the whistle project gets forgotten. THANK YOU so much for doing an article on whistle making with instructions!!! Great suggestions from people who have already done this. I feel sorry for those who had the bad experience of the whistles not working…gotta go back to the drawing board folks! I can hardly wait to get started on at least ONE of these little treasures!!!

  • Unfortunately, many of those who have difficulty getting the sound from the ocarina or potato pipe may not check back here. For those that have, let me add one tip, or emphasize one. I wrote the article, above. The key is splitting the airway. That is, when you blow (lightly) the air has to hit the end of the bevel so HALF goes up and out and half goes down and into the ocarina. If you look in the end (mouthpiece) under a bright light, you should see what looks like a rectangle that’s white on the top and black on the bottom. If the rectangle is all white, the bevel is pointing too low and all the air is going out the top. If the rectangle is all black, the bevel is too high and all of the air is going into the ocarina. “Tune” it with your Popsicle stick. You don’t have a lot of time. The clay is hardening. Do several test blows as you go.

  • Это чудо! Лепить свистульки- одно удовольствие, но сколько бы разя не пробовала, но звук так и не получился, но я буду снова и снова пытаться. Большое Вам спасибо за мастер-класс!!!

  • great article Daryl, I just did this with middle school kids.
    The samples i have made for myself always work ,but wouldn’t you know when I did it with the kids there were some I just could not get to whistle, even using all of the adjustments.
    I adapted the angle, the sharpness, peeking through, etc. etc. and still had trouble.
    I DID finally find a solution though, and it wasn’t one i have seen mentioned anywhere… I carved out a bit of clay from the place where the windway meets the sound hole. the part of the opening opposite from the beveled edge. I think some of that end of the pinch pot edge got pushed up a little and maybe it was deflecting air up, even though you couldn’t see an obstruction when you peeked through the windway opening.
    adjusting the windway angle itself didn’t make a difference but when i carved away a curve shaped slice suddenly the ocarinas began to whistle…Visually I imagine this was allowing enough air to move downward into the ocarina to balance out the amount of air moving upward. so this might be another clue to fix the stubborn ones. ( it’s hard to describe the location but it was inside… on the inner side of the pinch pot, not the exterior surface, right at the opening where the windway air will flow over to the beveled edge.)

  • Alexandra, I think this is what you posted, translated into English. “It’s a miracle! Sculpt whistles-a pleasure, but how much smashing did not try, but the sound and did not work, but I will try again and again. Many thanks for your workshop!”

    My response: Please keep trying. I didn’t get any sound the first time I made a whistle, either. If you don’t live in the U.S. you might have trouble getting a copy but the book, Clay Whistles…the voice of clay by Janet Moniot was very helpful to me. It is available at amazon.com for $15US.

  • Thanks, Stephani! I haven’t looked at my copy of Janet Moniot’s book, “Clay Whistles…the voice of clay” in years but I dug it out today. She addresses what you’ve described among her list of eleven problems that can arise in whistle making. Her list: Debris in the air duct, constricted air duct, air duct too open, air duct cut at wrong angle, sound hole cut too far from inside wall, sound hole not cut next to inside wall, poorly defined opening, blockage under bevel, bevel too low, bevel too high,sound hole too big, sound hole too small,extra clay in sound hole, not enough “drop” and bevel at the wrong angle.

  • Thank you very much for this; I was able to create one very quickly, and even in my hurry it works! Your tip about splitting the airflow was essential. Even though I butchered my opening I achieved a lovely sound. So fun, and I can’t wait to give it a go with my classes.

  • I have done this porject for years with all levels of ability and with all ages. The joy on their face when it sounds is amazing! Even the severely disabled girl in an electric wheel chair loved it!

    It can be a bit tricky and younger kids need more support to get it to sound but SO worth the time and effort.

  • 1. ——-  2. /3.————–
    ——.                          
                                        |
                _____________/
    Three things: 1. a clear airway, 2. from above you should see a square of air, not a clog of clay or the front wall of the whistle, and 3. A nice sharp bevel (45 degrees) on the back edge of that square hole. I’ve made so many of these with students of all ages. The look on their faces is priceless when it whistles, I love it!

  • I have done these type whistles with 5th grade students for about 5 years and each year I am able to refine the lesson with more success. I found your tip for the Popsicle sticks this year and made about a dozen sets. They were a life saver. I had many students in each class able to place the blow hole by themselves with success. Of course, all were excited about the whistles and they tend to blow them too much in the clay step and mess up the alignment. By using the sticks, they could repair and realign their own blow hole. I was so glad to discover your post. On another note, students will be glazing their animal whistles over the next few weeks. Check out my blog for some photos toward the end of the month. http://www.khyman.blogspot.com (Art on my hands)

  • Great project! I have been teaching whistle making in clay to my youth class (8 yrs – 16 yrs) for over 12 years now. When I first started the project looked sooo easy! I made one or two whistles before class and figured I knew how to teach it. Surprise! I had 15 kids in the class, in about 30 mins everyone had the whistles roughed in, and none whistled. I spent the next hour making corrections and adjustments. Finally all worked! I just wasn’t familiar enough with what problems and adjustments had to be made. Since that disaster I have built hundreds of different designs and sold them at craft shows. So my advice is to be completely familiar with the procedure by making more then just 2 as I did at first. Kids love em when they work!

  • Must the air opening be rounded instead of square? Oddly enough, I have a leather tooling tool with a beautiful 45 degree angle that would work wonderfully, err, if it would still produce a sound. I have been having trouble getting the sound the other way as well. I will not be deterred though so you will probably be getting more questions until I accomplish the task. Also, has anyone tried this in polymer clay as well? I can only imagine the design you could get with that.

  • another question…….How thick does the beveled edge have to be? Could it be that I’m making it too thin or too thick? Would the thickness of a playing card be about right?

  • Terri asked: “Must the air opening be rounded instead of square? Oddly enough, I have a leather tooling tool with a beautiful 45 degree angle that would work wonderfully, err, if it would still produce a sound. I have been having trouble getting the sound the other way as well. I will not be deterred though so you will probably be getting more questions until I accomplish the task. Also, has anyone tried this in polymer clay as well? I can only imagine the design you could get with that.”

    Your patience and persistence will be rewarded, Terri. I haven’t tried to make a whistle from polymer clay but it should work. The beauty of that is that you can do several “test toots” without worrying about deforming the mouth hole, as you might when tuning a whistle made from pottery clay.

    As to the shape of the blow hole (the hole you blow into), it could be rectangular or round. The key factor is that the air you blow into the hole has to split evenly when it crosses the beveled edge in the air hole at the top of the whistle; half of the air goes into the whistle and half goes over the top of the beveled edge. If you look into the blow hole you should see that it is aligned so the bevel is exactly in the middle of the blow hole. It is also critically important that the bevel is shape. That is, it comes to a nice, clean taper from the edge at the back to the edge closest to the blow hole. The air hole can be round or rectangular, I suppose. I like to use the sharpened Popsicle stick but other tools will work as long as they help you make that all-important AND PROPERLY ALIGNED bevel.

  • Terri also asked, “How thick does the beveled edge have to be? Could it be that I’m making it too thin or too thick? Would the thickness of a playing card be about right?”

    As you make whistles (one note) and ocarinas (multiple notes) you get more skillful at shaping the instruments and thinning their walls. A well made whistle that has a smooth interior and a thin wall of even thickness will sound better than one with a thick wall and a rough, uneven interior.

    The beveled edge of the air hole starts at the thickness of the whistle’s wall then tapers at a 45 degree angle to a fine edge. This sharp edge is what splits the air. If you don’t get a sound from your whistle, 1. adjust the position of the beveled edge so it is in the middle of the blow hole opening and 2. scrape the bevel so it is nice and sharp.

  • DARYL BAIRD, Thank you so much for your thoughts. I will be working on this for a couple more hours today and hopefully have success. Then, there’s always tomorrow. I’m not giving up. I love this project. I’ll post my success as soon as it happens…..

  • DARYL BAIRD, Success! After 4 days of obsession, I have an ocarina that works! What I was doing wrong is that the air hole was too far back from the bulb piece. So, that when you looked directly into the air hole, you could see the bulb wall. I pushed the bulb wall back toward the mouthpiece until it disappeared from sight and it whistled. I then made the air hole more square than rectangle and sharpened it up as much as I could while still pliable. After firing, (in a designated toaster oven as I was using polymer clay, I let it cool and used round beading files to smooth everything out even more, sharpening the 45 degree angle more and with each effort, the sound cleared. I will continue to work on hold placement and such but for the first effort, I’m pleased. I’m sure that it has a different sound than if I had used the more organic clay, but the design possibilities in polymer clay make it worth the effort for me. Thanks for the encouragement.

  • Terri D. wrote: Success! After 4 days of obsession, I have an ocarina that works! What I was doing wrong is that the air hole was too far back from the bulb piece. So, that when you looked directly into the air hole, you could see the bulb wall. I pushed the bulb wall back toward the mouthpiece until it disappeared from sight and it whistled. I then made the air hole more square than rectangle and sharpened it up as much as I could while still pliable. After firing, (in a designated toaster oven as I was using polymer clay, I let it cool and used round beading files to smooth everything out even more, sharpening the 45 degree angle more and with each effort, the sound cleared. I will continue to work on hold placement and such but for the first effort, I’m pleased. I’m sure that it has a different sound than if I had used the more organic clay, but the design possibilities in polymer clay make it worth the effort for me. Thanks for the encouragement.

    Terri, congratulations. Perseverance is rewarded. Now you can express yourself with whistles in the shape of many, many things and the decoration possibilities are limitless. If you haven’t found it already, look for Janet Moniot’s book, “Clay Whistles, The Voice of Clay.” It helped me.

  • Thank you so much for the knowledge and encouragement. I am a multimedia artist and love learning something new. I’m already thinking how I can apply leather, and design. Maybe wood, maybe even cement! LOL……but it will be great! When I completely finish, I’ll be posting them on my website and will give you the heads up. It will make you smile…….

  • For the past few years our Physical Science, Music and i have done teaching across the curriculum making Ocarinas. The mouth piece and the bevel have to be adjusted to meet exactly. Don’t give up too fast. You can patch bad holes and start the cuts over.odd thing is that most instructions say to have no debris in the air escape hole but some of the messiest holes make the perfect sound.
    sharon FCAHS Art instructor

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