Monday, November 4, 2013

How to Make a Clay Whistle: A Beginner's Pottery Project

This is a picture and a drawing of a clay whistle for comparison.
A Clay Whistle Photograph and Design Plan
Walking into a pottery studio as a beginner can be a bit intimidating. There's a lot to learn, from basic handbuilding and throwing techniques to more advanced firing and glazing concepts. However, do not be discouraged!

A clay whistle project can be created in your first few days, even if you're just starting out.

The basic building techniques you should use and understand for this project are wiring off clay, wedging, pinching, paddling, and attaching pieces by scoring and applying slip.  Once you understand these basic techniques, you can master the art of making a working clay whistle!

Understanding How Whistles Make Sound

Before beginning, it's important to understand a few concepts about how whistles work so you can sketch and plan your project.

This whistle will work much like a flute. According to Mark Shepard on An Intro to Flute Acoustics, "Nearly all musical instruments are made up of two basic elements: a generator, which gets the vibration going, and a resonator, which amplifies the vibration and modifies it to create the sound of the instrument" (2001, para. 1).   For this project, the mouthpiece and "wedge" will be the generator, and the hollow form will be the resonator.

This is a diagram of the inside of a clay whistle.
The player will blow air that passes through a canal until it hits a wedge of clay that splits the air, causing the sound. The air will alternate between escaping out of the whistle and being forced into the whistle, which will cause vibrations in the form.

Make a clay whistle

Creating the Resonator of the Whistle; The Hollow Form

The basic idea in making the hollow form is to create enough space for the air to resonate.  The instructions here are for creating one pinch pot and sealing the end, then creating a flat surface for the generator.  Alternately, you can create a second pinch pot of the same size as the first and attach them together to form a hollow sphere.

  1. Wire off 1 - 2 pounds of clay.
  2. Wedge your clay and cut it into 1/2 pound cubes.
  3. Form balls of clay from the cubes.
  4. Wrap all but one of the balls in plastic (to keep them moist), and use the last one to create a pinch pot the size of your hand.
  5. Smooth and pinch the pot until the walls are 1/4 inch thick.
  6. Close your form by applying slip to scored edges. The closed edge is the bottom of the form.
  7. Lightly tap or paddle the top of the form in order to create a flat surface for the whistle's hole.

Creating the Whistle's Mouthpiece

The mouthpiece is the piece of the whistle the player will use for blowing air into the form.  Be sure it is smooth and has a straight slot on one side.  The air passing through to the wedge will need to be "shaped" as a rectangle in order to properly split between the form and the wedge.  It's a strange concept to think of "shaping" air, but by shaping the hole in the mouthpiece, the air can be "shaped."
The mouthpiece of a clay whistle is a cube or cylinder.

1. Use about one cubed inch of clay to create a smooth cube or solid cylinder.
2. Poke a thin, rectangular hole in the mouthpiece, like a shortened slit for a piggybank.
3. Set the mouthpiece aside.

Attaching the Mouthpiece to the Whistle

The mouthpiece must be aligned with the slit created in the hollow form, and it must be carefully attached to the form.  You don't want it to fall off or become out of alignment with the wedge while drying or while in the kiln!

  1. Insert a fettling knife (or popsicle stick) into the hollow form just under the top of the "lid."
  2. The top surface of the knife should touch the bottom surface of the hollow form's "lid."
  3. Remove the knife.
  4. Create a slot at the knife's opening that's the same size as the slot in the mouthpiece.
  5. Insert the knife into the mouthpiece, then into the slot in the hollow form.
  6. Push the knife through both slits so it just touches the lid of the hollow form, as before.
  7. The knife now sits where air will later pass through the whistle.
  8. Slip and score the mouthpiece to attach it.  Use extra coils of clay as needed to make a smooth connection.

Creating the Generator; The Whistle's Hole and Wedge

The hole and wedge are the pieces of the whistle that will allow sound to be generated.  Notice the shape of the hole and wedge in the following figure.

  1. Use a needle tool to cut out a small square of clay where the air hole meets the hollow inside of the form.
  2. Create 90 degree angles straight down into the form. You will be able to see the fettling knife's top surface.
  3. After the square is cleanly cut and you can see the surface of the fettling knife, create a 45 degree "slide" from the back edge of the square hole up towards the back of the hollow form. It's at this point the air will be split to make a sound. Use the top of the knife as a guide.
  4. Be sure to use the needle tool to clean any clay out from below the edge of the wedge that sits below the level of the air canal.
  5. Practice blowing softly into the mouthpiece and adjusting the angles until the wedge and air canal are aligned and the whistle makes the desired sound.
  6. Practice with all of the 1/2 pound balls of clay you've wedged. When the basic forms and whistles are complete and working (and you've cleaned the clay from around your mouth), let the clay become leather hard, then decorate your whistle before bisque firing.
  7. Remember to glaze carefully so as not to plug any of your whistle's holes with glaze.

Even if it's your first day in the pottery studio, once you understand basic handbuilding techniques, you can begin making your first clay whistle.


Shepard, M. (2001). An Intro to Flute Acoustics. Retrieved from

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.

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