How to Whittle a Pan Flute

Whittler Rick Weibe teaches how to choose the proper pocket knife and how to whittle a pan flute.
By Rick Wiebe
December 13, 2012
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With a pocket knife and some readily available materials, most of which can be gathered from nature, beginning carvers will produce fun and attractive whistles. 
Photo Courtesy Linden Publishing

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One of the signature projects whittlers enjoy working on is the whistle, and Whittlin’ Whistles (Linden Publishing, 2012) addresses each and every detail of successful whistle making. Designed to be understandable to both younger readers and adult beginners, the book features numerous full-color instructional photos for each project and provides a strong emphasis on safety and tool care. Discover the basics of selecting the right pocket knife and learn how to whittle a pan flute in this excerpt from Chapter 1, “Whittlin’” and Chapter 5, “Tube Whistles Without a Fipple.” 

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Whittlin’ Whistles. 

Whittlin' (I know, the "right" way to say and spell it is "whittling", but somehow "whittlin'" just seems more appropriate), is what we call carving when the only, or at least the main, tool that is used is a knife.

Some modern adults freak out a bit when the word "knife" or "sharp" is used, and their children are going to be involved. However, whittlin' is far safer than activities that kids do all the time. Yes, it is possible, even likely, that a whittler will cut themselves, but the injury will be minor compared to the kind of thing that can happen while say skiing, or cycling or swimming. I am unaware of anyone who has ever needed a lifeguard while whittlin'! No one has ever broken a bone in my class either.

Mostly when we say "knife" in conjunction with whittlin', we mean a pocket knife. And what a wonderful device that is! It is practically a magic wand. With a pocket knife ordinary sticks can be transformed into wonderful and useful things. A pocket knife folds up and is safe in a pocket when it isn't in use, but is there when a whittlin' fit strikes. These fits strike me quite a lot, and if I didn't have my knife with me I would be very frustrated.

It is important to have a good knife. A good knife will not be cheap. Pay the price. Call it an investment in mental health, because poor tools will drive you nuts! This is not to say the knife has to be really expensive. Knives that are excellent for the projects in this book are available for $25 or so.

Today, good knives are made in many countries, though the ones made here at home or in Europe tend to be on the more expensive side.

A good knife is not usually a big knife. The right knife will be large enough to grasp but not so large that it is clumsy. A two to four bladed knife is the way to go, with the smaller blades available for most of the work. A larger blade is useful when a little extra reach is needed, or when cutting off branches. No knife is a good substitute for an axe or a machete, both of which are also useful to whittlers at times.

Avoid "multi-tools" for whittlin', and bulky, multi-purpose knives with corkscrews, unless you want blisters.

When you use the knife make sure it is sharp, since there is less force required working with a sharp knife than with a dull one. Always ask yourself "what happens when (not if), this knife slips when I am cutting this way?" If the answer is "I will bleed!" cut some other way! It is far better to take the time to turn the wood around so that you can cut in a safe direction than to take the time out­—never mind the pain—to put on Band-Aids. Do not cut down on your leg! Cut down on a board or log or something that doesn't matter if it gets nicked.

Consider getting a cut resistant glove for the hand that isn't holding the knife. They are available from carving suppliers that can be found on the Internet.

Think! Think safety. Keep thinking while you work.

Pan Flute Whistles Without a Fipple

Almost everyone has used a bottle as a whistle, by just blowing over the end. The same thing can be done with a piece of cane, bamboo, or other natural tube. Just make sure the end is plugged, either by leaving a joint of the cane on or holding a finger over the open end. You can cut a bunch of tubes of cane, about the same diameter, with a joint left on one end to act as a plug. Then tune them to each other in a scale. Lash them together with some sticks and string to make a pan flute.

This will take quite a bit of time, and a good ear. Tone deaf people are going to have trouble with this. Some extra hands to help while the lashing is taking place are useful too. This makes a good project for a rainy day at camp. Waiting for fish to bite is a good time for this or other whistle projects too.

It is even possible to add a second row of tubes with sharps and flats tuned in. I have heard some really nice music played with a flute made this way.

The native people who live in the Andes make some very nice music using flutes made just like this.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Whittlin’ Whistles, published by Linden Publishing, 2012. Buy this book from our store: Whittlin’ Whistles: How to Make Music with your Pocket Knife. 

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