Sunday, 4 March 2018

Four Whistles For Four Seasons

Of all the outdoor skills that one can learn I'd say making whistles is one of the quickest and easiest to get to grips with. It also helps that there are several different types, all needing a different approach.

It also occurred that you could learn one in each of the seasons, well there's only one that is limited to just one but this spreads them out nicely to learn mastery of them. So here are some, ahem, notes...


I noticed in a recent quarterly Scouting magazine that they have featured an Elder whistle how to within the pages. Well as I did this  how to for the launch of a Victorinox Scout badge sponsorship I thought I'd put it on here too. 

They sponsored the Scout section's Survival Skills Badge with the original how to article  a little way down this page. It was a challenge to come up with some practical how to articles that would feature the company's penknives, but not compromise a badge that, by and large, would need a fixed blade knife. As well as the whistle activity I did chopsticks too as I thought that both were simple and came under the 'Little Book of Whittling' sort of umbrella. I also made the chopstick making  into a page on here as well (the Scout how to pdf is here). 

So to start you will need a knife, saw, scissors and an optional awl to make this whistle, so as Swiss army knives mostly have these tools in I plumped for  a Victorinox Huntsman for the badge how to, but equally I would be happy using a fixed blade Mora or a smaller whittling knife (such as a Ben Orford Sloyd knife) because however simple the project there's always a chance that a folding knife could do so in the direction of your fingers if you are unlucky.

First of all select a suitable piece of elder (Sambucus nigra), it should be damage free and around the diameter of a 20 pence coin or so. You can use a lot of (non-toxic) woods to make whistles but elder has the advantage of being soft and has pith running through the middle which negates the need for a drill. There is supposed to be a small amount of toxicity with Elder but it has been hollowed out and used since the dawn of time to blow fires into flame so it's up to the individual to research it.


Having selected the wood use the/ a saw   to cut a length typically  about  5-6cms. Once the saw or any other tool is finished with, fold it carefully back into the body of the knife and always think twice, cut once when using it. 


Once the length has been cut, the ends will probably need a quick tidy up. Either use a controlled thumb led cutting action with a blade, or my preference would be to use the scissors.


After tidying up the ends, remove the pith. A thin stick will do this but you could practice some knife skills by pointing a stick and cutting some slots in the other end which will act like a chimney brush as you push it through. The awl can be used to scrape out any pith left over. The inside needs to be clear but if you blow into it to clear any debris, draw breath before putting your mouth to the tube to blow  or you'll breath bits in! 

If preferred the bark can be stripped off using the awl but equally the whistle will work perfectly well with the skin on. If it is left on I think they look more rustic and aesthetically better with the contrast of the sound hole when cut  later.

Next, using the small knife blade, cut a notch as shown about a centimetre from one end. It needs to go a little way through the wood and into the pith. 


Once this is cut a shallow slice about a centimetre further in from the notch back towards the end is needed. Again like the 'barrel' the sound hole needs clearing out.


Next select some sticks that are around the diameter of the inside (where the pith was). The next stage is to push a stick a little way into the tube at the opposite end to the sound hole, it may need bevelling at the end to help facilitate an easier, and snug fit. Cut off the waste wood with the saw snug to the whistle as shown above.


The process to form the actual whistle is similar but the end must be sawn flat and a slice of about 2 mm taken off the top (remove the wood a little at a time). Insert this into the end no further than the sound hole's straight cut and then cut the stick with about 3cms of waste protruding, this is so that you can test the whistle and adjust the slice depth if it doesn't make a sound.

Once a whistle sound is produced (it will sound a little bit like a policeman's whistle) cut the waste wood off snug to the whistle body. a little PVA glue may be needed if the fit isn't very snug.

During the badge launch the whistle how to formed the basis of a competition.

I've read that Elder whistles will only work for a little while before they dry too much and stop, I've not really found that. There's a fungus called jelly ear  ('confectionery' recipe here) that also has an alternative name of Jew's ear which alludes to the story that Judas hanged himself in an elder tree after betraying Jesus. This seems fanciful as I personally doubt that the branches would have taken the weight but that said, I've seen elder tool handles made by a local woodworker near me which are a tough as nails. A slightly different elder whistle how to version appeared on the Scouts Survival Skills badge distress signals information sheet here in May 2015.

The pith filled wood of the Elder tree does lend itself to whistle making but something like Hazel (Corylus avellana) is also a good wood for making a whistle from and the process is very similar to that used for Elder.

The length I initially cut a piece from was perhaps a bit old (although still viable) and I've also cut a fresh piece too as a contrast. I cut the lengths using a  work bench and then turn the work bench on it's side to drill the chamber. This is the difference between an Elder and Hazel whistle is that with the latter you don't drill all the way through, this negates the need to plug the end with a wooden stopper.


Once the chamber is drilled, complete the whistle as per the elder one and drill an optional hole through the end of it to put a lanyard through...Make sure you don't drill through the chamber. Another option is to make a double whistle.

It doesn't have to be just the previously mentioned woods  of course. When I helped Bushcraft and Survival Skills cover Bear Grylls' investiture as Chief Scout  I made a whistle for Bear out a piece of seasoned Wild Service Tree (Sorbus Torminalis) which again is non-toxic which can be seen hanging around his neck just under his silver wolf.

This is the Spring whistle but technically is all year round.


Elder whistles are fairly easy to make, mainly due to the fact that the removable pithy centre makes for a ready made barrel shape that just needs tweaking. A Sycamore whistle is still the classic whistle design but is a little more fiddly to make in my opinion. They are also season specific and can only be made in the Summer months when the sap has risen.

Start with a length of wood at least a pencil diameter. I call it a Sycamore whistle but any sappy, non-toxic wood can be used

This stage can be done later but I'm used to doing it now. Like the Elder whistle a sound hole needs cutting. This is formed  around a centimetre-and-a-half by carefully making a right angled cut a couple of millimetres or so deep, followed by shallow angled cut about a centimetre or so in length at one end as shown in the above picture.

Now you need to score around the Sycamore length as shown, the opposite end to the sound hole if already cut. This will be the whistle's length if you choose to cut the waste bit off. Make sure that the scoring has gone through the bark.

If there's a bit that you will come a cropper on it's this part. Holding the waste end of the Sycamore you need to gently tap the soon-to-be-whistle part all over, this process breaks the bond between the bark and the wood inside. As mentioned earlier if you cut the sound hole now it can be damaged by this action if you aren't careful.

Once you are satisfied that you have tapped the whistle's surface in it's entity hold the whistle and waste parts in both hands and gently twist whilst trying to slowly slide the whistle bark off. If all goes well you should feel and maybe even hear a little 'pop' sound as the bark tube yields.

This is the alternative stage to but the sound hole cut it. Slide the bark sleeve back on and cut as detailed earlier.

If you've got through the bark removal stage unscathed the rest of the construction stages are fairly easy. This stage is the formation of the chamber which is done by extending the initial shallow angled cut that formed the sound chamber with a few careful knife strokes. You don't have to remove a lot of wood but the sound of the whistle will be influenced by the amount taken.  

And finally a few knife strokes on the part between the start of the sound chamber and the end where you will blow. This forms the channel for the air you blow to enter the chamber. You'll remove about 1-2 millimetres but as with any projects like this remove less and then go back and remove more if needed.

And this is you finished Sycamore whistle. As I mentioned before you can leave the waste bit on, cut it off or indeed make a double whistle with differing sound chamber sizes. I find that this is the one whistle design that doesn't have a good longevity as the outer bark tube tends to dry and therefore shrivel over time.


Whilst it is possible to occasionally find acorn cups on the forest floor to use for a whistle at any time of the year, outside of this season they can often be a bit manky. If you can source one great, if not there is an everyday substitute but more on that in a moment.

The short stem of the leaf and the long stem of the acorn tell us that this is a Pendunculate Oak (think of a pendulum). It's Latin name is Quercus robur. The stalk arrangements of Sessile Oaks (Quercus petraea) are the other way round.

Pull the acorn from the cup. I aim for a fairly deep one as I find them easier to hold as a whistle, small ones are a bit bothersome.

 The 'Urban acorn cup', or one litre fresh juice carton lid. Actually pretty much any plastic lid will do as long as you can get a seal on it, but more later. Metal lids tend to be a bit sharp around the the rim to hold.

To make the cup/ lid into a whistle place the cup/ lid between index finger and thumb as shown above.

Place the other index finger and thumb (as shown) and postition your digits until you have left a small inverted triangular gap at the top between your thumbs whilst making sure that the rest of the cup/ lid is sealed and airtight. You may have a bit of trouble with the last detail if the lid is too big.

Place this arrangement to your pursed lips so that your thumb knuckles are to your mouth (as shown) but with a slight gap at the top so that you can blow air towards the inverted triangular hole. You may find that you need to re-adjust your thumbs a couple of times but it is quite shrill when you get it right. This whistle appeared a few years ago on the Scout Association's blog and obviously the lid is all year round and not just Autumn!


As well as contributing to the Scouts Survival Skills badge I also did a few articles in the past for Scouting magazine (and the Cub supplement) and as I live fairly close to the magazine offices in Gilwell I occasionally went up to see one of the editors.


On one such trip one of the staff came over to our meeting and showed the editor and I the above tweet which was of a scouter who had tried, and liked the tin can whistle which was featured in the Dec 2011/ Jan 2012 issue of Scouting (on pages 34 and 35). The magazine can be found online here.

Tin cans are of course readily available all year but I made the article with a Christmas twist as this time of the year does sort of dictate a seasonal article which can be a challenge. The idea being to try this at Yuletide because there will be lots of empty cans about the place. They are easy to make if a little fiddly to hold, read on...

First off you'll need to cut open a washed and empty drinks can so that you can cut a couple of strips out of it. To play it ultra safe you can clamp the can, hammer a nail in, remove it and then cut the can open with scissors. I prefer to put a single scissor blade on the neck with my fingers on the other side, lift the can, hit it down sharply causing the blade to penetrate.

For this example I've cut two strips approximately 3 cm and 6 cm long and roughly 1.5 cm wide. I find the cut metal is safe to handle but don't run a finger along a cut edge. There are a few wavy bits to the strips, this doesn't matter.

Fold the shorter strip around one end of the longer strip as shown. The end that is sticking out is about 2 mm deep. Don't make the wrap too tight as the small gap (shown in the above right hand side picture) will become the mouthpiece where you blow when finished.


Once done fold the 2 mm strip backwards as shown to secure the folded strip. We are viewing the underside of the mouthpiece above to show the fold.

Now to the last stage where we start forming the sound chamber. Bend the end of the longer part where it meets the folded mouthpiece to roughly form a number seven shape as shown.

Then slowly and carefully bend the length backwards to form a fairly circular sound chamber. If it's not perfectly circular it's not the end of the world...

...The trick is however to make sure that the sound chamber forms up around 2 mm from the previously made mouthpiece which forms the whistle's sound hole. The sound chamber is made by your finger and thumb as you pick the whistle up forming an airtight seal.

As long as you pay attention the metal edges and corners shouldn't cause you any problems. Do be careful if you need to use scissors to trim up any part of the strips as thinner bits can be sharp and cutting very small bits can see them fly away.