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The "Low-Tech" Whistle: How to Make a PVC Whistle

how to make whistle tips

A PDF version of this guide is available here.

Brazilian translation here, thanks to Adriano Soriano Caetano.

Sticky. I have too little time and too many things to do. Sorry, but I have decided not to reply to email regarding whistle making any more. All I know is in this guide, and I think this guide is clear enough :-) Updates (if any) will only cover new or updated whistle plans. If you need help, please go to Chiff and Fipple. Sorry folks, but I'm overwhelmed!

Sticky. Mr. Richard Cooper reports that he'll make and sell Low-Tech whistles to raise funds for Sifra Homes.


I attended my first tin whistle workshop on St. Patrick's Day Festival 2004, where Inis Fail 's Luca Crespi taught me the golden rule: it must not be played like a recorder.

Like many beginners, I suffered from Whistle Obsessive Acquisition Disorder. The problem was, I couldn't find a whistle I really felt comfortable with. How can you possibly play an instrument you don't like?

In my view, the reason for WOAD is twofold. First of all, the poor quality of many low-cost whistles: you're forced to try out several whistles until you're lucky enough to find a good one. Secondly, I found out that whistles are not like recorders, which more or less share a similar sound. A Susato Kildare, a Dixon polymer and a Clarke Sweetone are completely different instruments, each with its own character and peculiarities.

Another problem is that I have a good musical ear, and I can't stand badly tuned instruments. This is often an issue with low-cost whistles.

I live in a smallish town in northern Italy, Verona (ring a bell? Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, the Two Gentlemen. ), where the tin whistle is virtually unknown. Even Generations are difficult to find. When I eventually stumbled across one, it was a horribly out-of-tune, shrill, squeaky thing that put me off. I brutalised it until I made it playable, but I wanted something better.

I was forced to order my whistles abroad, without a chance to try them out beforehand. Very annoying.

Make One Yourself

I'll save you the sad story of a year spent trying to get a whistle I liked. At the end of that year, I was nearly satisfied with a Dixon Polymer. a Susato Kildare. a Clarke Sweetone and a Meg.

The Dixon has a lovely tone but, in my humble opinion, is a bit too quiet in the first octave. The Susato is loud, but it sounds too much like a recorder! (I actually love recorders, but that's another story.) Both are reasonably in tune, but they could be better. I didn't like the sound of the Sweetone back then; now I do, but tuning is still an issue.

I wanted a whistle that was sweet and easy to play like a Dixon, but louder and cheap. Unfortunately, I couldn't find it. (Yes, I'm a fussy kind of person. )

A recent addition to my collection is the Dixon Trad. What a fantastic whistle! Had it been available back then, I probably wouldn't have tried to make my own. Read on, though.

Driven by frustration, I decided I'd try and make a whistle myself. However, I had no power tools like a drill, a bench vise, a lathe and what have you. Besides, most whistle making tutorials assume that you use copper pipe: hard luck, without proper tools! PVC is widely available though, so I decided I'd give it a try.

After some experiments (all of which, amazingly, produced playable whistles), I came up with a design that is easy to reproduce and works very well. I call it the `Low-Tech Whistle' because I only use very simple tools and materials.

Low technology, but high quality sound! Low-Tech Whistles in the key of D boast the following features:
  • are very easy to play
  • have a sweet tone, very similar to that of a Dixon Polymer; but you can make it breathy if you wish
  • the volume can be made constant between the two octaves
  • require little air; I estimate at least 25% less than other whistles
  • the notes in the second octave don't need tonguing; but of course you may tongue if you prefer
  • C natural can be obtained with both oxx ooo and oxx xox
  • in addition to D and G, can also play in A without half-holing: G# can be obtained with xxo xxx (first octave) and xxo xox (second octave). Besides, Bb can be obtained with xox xxo (first octave) and xox ooo (second octave)
  • are almost unbreakable: won't bend or crack even if sat on or stepped on
  • unlike metal whistles, the tuning is less sensitive to temperature changes
  • are ridiculously inexpensive, and fun to make!
Of course, there are defects, too:
  • the gray-ish or white-ish colour of PVC is not particularly attractive, and black pipe is not easy to find;
  • if wooden parts are used, the whistle could be clogged by moisture. There's a way to prevent this problem, though.

If you're dissatisfied with cheap whistles, try to make a Low-Tech whistle. I'm confident to say that you'll get a very nice instrument. Furthermore, the design is very forgiving: it's almost impossible to fail.

Sounds too good to be true? Don't take my word for it, try it yourself!

The great thing about making your very own whistle is that you can get it exactly how you like it. You can customise everything to suit your needs: hole placement, loudness, type of sound, tuning. Moreover, you can't imagine the feeling when you realise that you've built an instrument that sounds better than several you find in shops!

Materials and Tools

Here is the list of materials and tools you will need for a Low-Tech whistle in the key of D:
  • about 40 cm of PVC pipe. Optimally, the bore (= internal diameter) should measure between 9 and 13 mm. The pipe thickness must not exceed 1.5 - 2 mm. A three-metre length cost me 2 Euros.
  • a wooden or plastic stick that has the same diameter as the bore of your PVC pipe, or slightly more. Plastic is highly preferable, as it's impervious to moisture. A 1-metre beechwood stick cost me 0.5 Euro.
  • scissors, or another pointed object. 1 Euro.
  • medium and/or fine-grained sandpaper. 1 Euro.
  • a cutter, or a very sharp small knife. 1 Euro.
  • a hacksaw, one blade for metal and, if possible, one for wood. Alternatively, a kitchen jagged knife. 1 Euro.
  • a ruler that measures in cm and mm. 1 Euro.
  • a pencil. 0.2 Euro.
  • (optional ) white glue and adhesive tape. 1 Euro for both.
  • (optional ) a small file. 3 Euro.
  • (recommended ) a well-tuned musical instrument to tune your whistle against; good musical ear, or a friend who has. If you're a perfectionist (I am), a chromatic electronic tuner (around 20 Euro) or a tuner program for a smartphone.

In addition to the materials, you will need:
  • a very little amount of craftsmanship. I'm usually awkward when it comes to making things: if I can make it, everybody can make it!
  • at least one hour of your time, and no rushing. Haste makes waste, bad whistles, and even bleeding fingers.

All of these

items are cheap and commonly available at hardware stores. Craftsmanship and patience are within your reach if you're, say, 12 or older.

The PVC pipe I use has external diameter (e.d.) = 16 mm, bore = 13 mm, wall thickness <= 1.5 mm. It is used for electrical conduits. I suggest that you do not use pipe with bore larger than 13--14 mm, unless you want to make alto or low whistles.

It doesn't matter if you use different pipe: just make sure that you use thin (less than 2 mm) and stiff pipe. In fact:
  • the wall thickness defines the quality of sound. More than, say, 1.7 mm will make the whistle too breathy;
  • soft or rubbery plastic will dampen the vibrations. As a result, the whistle will be too quiet or will sound dull.

I once thought that the material did not count that much, but evidence made me change my mind. Not all PVC pipes are created equal. I obtain consistently better sounding whistles using one brand, but you'll get reasonably good results with any brand of thin and stiff pipe.

Schedule 40 half-inch PVC pipe, commonly available in the U.S.A. might be too thick. Whistles made of this pipe are playable, but very breathy. Luckily, there's a solution; please see Dealing with Thick Pipe. Schedule 200 irrigation pipe is probably a better choice. Thanks to Floyd Brigdon for this information.

People also reported that CPVC pipe, used for hot water plumbing, works well. It's available at Home Depot and Lowe's stores.

In my opinion, using aluminium or copper pipe isn't worth the effort. They're much harder to work with, and you basically can't make a whistle unless you have power tools. Besides, I was given a couple of fine home-made aluminium whistles, and they sound exactly the same as my PVC whistles. (I expected them to be louder.)

Now you're ready to try this at home - better, in the garden or wherever it doesn't matter if you make a bit of a mess with PVC scraps and sawdust. But, beware.

Hacksaws, scissors and cutters have sharp blades. If you don't pay attention, you may slice your fingers: it hurts like hell. Take care, mind your fingers, wear protective gloves. And if you don't believe me, then ask my left thumb.

Also, do not breathe wood and PVC sawdust: I'm pretty sure it's not healthy.

PVC Health Issues

You should be aware that PVC might be dangerous for your health. Please have a look at the Wikipedia page on PVC.

However, I talked to a chemist friend of mine and asked for his opinion on the matter. He said that all PVC pipes sold in Italy are chemically inert. They must be extremely stable, as they must last decades embedded in walls. Therefore, it's very unlikely that a whistle made with this PVC will release nasty chemicals.

So, I assume that using PVC for whistles is pretty safe. Besides, all PVC, ABS and in general plastic whistles on the market don't ship with a health certificate, do they?

How to Get your Favourite Sound

The following figure shows the names of whistle parts:

The most important part of a whistle is the mouthpiece. Its dimensions define the sound of the whistle:
  • a short mouthpiece (e.g. 20 mm) makes for a highly responsive whistle, but consumes slightly more air;
  • a long mouthpiece (e.g. 30 mm) provides some backpressure and needs less air, but makes the whistle less responsive;
  • a wide windway (e.g. 10 mm) makes the whistle louder, the sound becomes a bit breathy, and more air is needed;
  • a narrow windway (e.g. 7 mm) makes the whistle quiet, the sound becomes sweet and clear, and less air is used;
  • a short window (e.g. 3 mm) makes notes in the second octave easier to play, while making first octave notes softer;
  • a long window (e.g. 5 mm) makes notes in the first octave more solid, but notes in the second octave need some push;
  • tiny variations in the windway height - tenth of a mm! - have a dramatic effect on the sound: the higher, the breathier.

Take this information into account when you decide what your whistle will sound like.

Other factors influence the whistle volume. Big holes make the whistle loud, small holes make it quiet. A whistle with a small window and big holes will sound louder and sweeter than a whistle with a big window and small holes. Blowing harder also increases the volume and sharpens the pitch! When you tune the whistle (see below), you'll have to decide how hard to blow it.

For any given pipe bore, the lower the key (that is, the longer the pipe), the quieter the whistle. Instead of just enlarging the windway, you should experiment on the width-to-length ratio of the window. For example, on a C whistle an 8 x 5 mm window produces a much better sound than a 10 x 4 mm window.

My favourites D whistles have a 20-mm-long mouthpiece and a 7.5 x 4 mm window. The tone is sweet, the volume is fairly loud, and the two octaves are well balanced.

The Art of Tuning

Let me start this section with a witty remark by whistle teacher Brother Steve.

The same concept is stressed upon by a renowned flute maker, Doug Tipple, who writes in his flute pages.

I quote these wise words completely. In fact:

Due to the physics of the instrument and the way it's played, cylindrical whistles cannot be exactly in tune. And don't complain: uncorrected cylindrical flutes are even worse, not to talk of bagpipes.

First of all, the player's blowing pressure can alter the pitch of a note by a third of a tone, or even more. Secondly, with cylindrical whistles the second octave is slightly flatter than the first octave. Third, the whole tuning is affected by air temperature.

Fourth, and this may sound strange to you: a few notes should be tuned purposedly flatter than their "right" pitch (G and C sharp on D whistles, for instance). This way they will sound better. It's a complex subject called temperament.

All this blurb to support my opinion: checking each note on a chromatic tuner is not a great deal. I suggest that you use the tuner for only one note: the key note of the whistle in the second octave. For example, the second D on whistles in the key of D; you'll tune the other notes by ear. Trust your ears! Take your favourite blowing pressure into consideration, and warm up the whistle for at least 20 seconds beforehand.

Finally, bear in mind that high-pitched notes stand out much more than lower-pitched notes. While flat high notes sound really horrible, sharp low notes may go nearly unnoticed. Keeping all this in mind, you may want to tune the second octave D (or the equivalent base note) just a bit sharp, e.g.\ 5 cents. The second octave will sound in tune, the first octave will sound slightly sharp.

Whistle Plans

A first approximation of the hole positions is given by the following table. It specifies the hole positions as a percentage of the lip-to-foot length, calculated from several soprano D whistles I made. For example, the first value (42%) is calculated as:

distance of first hole from the lip / lip-to-foot distance.

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