So, you want to learn how to make a cajon drum. It’s not going to be entirely easy, but it’s guaranteed to be fun and doable. Before you shop for the best cajon drums, you might want to try this DIY project. This article shares the general steps for building this popular percussion instrument and more.
Table of Contents
- 1 A Brief History of the Cajon
- 2 What Exactly is the Cajon?
- 3 The 5 Steps for Making a Cajon
A Brief History of the Cajon
The cajon is the brainchild of West African slaves, who were brought by Spanish traders to colonial Peru to work in gold and silver mines. The Spanish colonial government at that time forbade them to play drums because they were afraid that musical gatherings might lead to social unrest.
The solution? Their resourcefulness led them to create the cajon using whatever materials they could find. In this case, it was shipping crates. This percussion instrument allowed them to express their discontent and keep their traditions alive through music.
In the late ‘70s, the Spanish flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia discovered and introduced the Peruvian cajon to the Europeans. Since then, the cajon has been widely used in many artists’ shows and found its way to mainstream T.V. shows, such as the “MTV Unplugged” sessions in the ‘90s.
Now that you got an overview of its history, let’s discuss the cajon in greater detail in the next section of this article.
What Exactly is the Cajon?
Cajón, which is the accurate spelling, is the Spanish word for drawer (cajón) or box (caja). As what its name suggests, the cajon is a rectangular wooden box that’s often used to accompany an acoustic guitar.
The front face of the cajon, which is called the tapa, creates different sounds depending on what area you hit with the side of your hand or your open palm. If you want a high pitch sound that’s similar to a snare drum, try hitting the upper edge of the front surface. Hit the middle if you want a fuller and more resonant sound.
In the back of the box, there’s a circular hole that allows the sound to escape and create a bass tone. It’s often positioned on the center of the back plate, but sometimes you’ll find it on top, bottom, and one of the sides.
There are several factors that could affect the sound produced by this instrument, including:
- Where the sound hole is positioned
- The type, quality, and thickness of the wood, plastic, or synthetic materials used
- The kind of snare and snare tension
Cajons are mainly made of wood, but there are others that are made of plastic. Manufacturers prefer hardwoods, such as Beech, Birch, Mahogany, and Oak, because they have the best sound quality.
Beech is a good wood for making cajons because it creates a wide range of tones. Meanwhile, manufacturers use Birch and Mahogany if they want to get a distinct cracking or popping high tones and a thick, deep bass sound. Drummers like Oak cajons because of their volume. But if you want an all-purpose cajon, get one that’s made of Maple.
The standard dimension of a cajon is going to be different for every manufacturer and model. Generally, traditional cajons measure around 12-inch (width) x 18-inch (height) x 12-inch (depth).
Three Types of Cajon
The Peruvian cajon is regarded by many as the original drum box. The construction and design of this type of cajon is simple. It’s just a hollow wooden box without any snare mechanism that’s able to create a wide range of tones.
The Peruvian cajon is mainly used as an accompaniment. The sound it produces is described as dry, which means it doesn’t have a ring or sustain. It usually sounds better if you play it together with other Peruvian cajons.
Most of the cajons available on the market today are considered a Flamenco cajon. Inside of this cajon, you’ll find snare wires or guitar strings running up the back of the tapa. This internal snare mechanism helps it produce a rattling sound or snare effect.
The Snare cajon is considered the modern cajon. Similar to the Flamenco cajon, this type of cajon has a full set of snare wires or strings that are stretched across its front playing surface from the inside. Some models have a knob that adjusts the tension of the snare wires to create a wide range of sounds, from soft to loud.
We hope you learned more about the cajon. In the next section, you’ll finally learn how to make a cajon drum.
Let’s get started!
The 5 Steps for Making a Cajon
Step #1: Gather the Materials You Need
Some well-made and high-quality cajons are generally made of dense and solid wood, while other cajons are made of plywood for all components. Whatever materials you use, remember that there are no good substitutes for high-quality materials. Make sure you’re going to use wood that’s reasonably straight, not warped, and free of other defects.
You also have to consider the thickness of the wood. Most cajons are made of wood with two levels of thickness:
The tapa (striking surface) is made of 5-ply or 3-ply plywood, mainly 2.5 to 3 millimeters (0.1 to 0.12 inch) thick. You could also try a 4-millimeter (0.2 inch) thick wood, but it might not have enough resonance for your needs. You want to use a thinner wood for the tapa to make sure it vibrates and resonates.
For the other sides of the box, you can use thicker types of woods. Let’s say around 9 to 12 millimeters thick.
Step #2: Cut the Wood to the Right Dimensions
Measure, mark, and cut your choice of wood as accurately as you can. Don’t rush yourself, so you don’t spend so much time correcting mistakes later.
When it comes to the exact measurements, it’s really up to you to decide. To give you an idea, most modern cajons measure around 48 x 30 x 30 centimeters (18.9 x 11.8 x 11.8 inches).
You could also try the following dimensions:
- Top and bottom panels: 30.5 x 30.5 x 1.3 centimeters (12 x 12 x 1/2 inches)
- Side panels: 30 x 46 centimeters (11.8 x 18 inches)
- Back and front panels: 30 x 48 centimeters (11.8 x 18.9 inches)
We recommend for the back panel to be 4 millimeters thick and the front panel to be around 2 to 3 millimeters thick. For the top, bottom, and sides, the panels should be 5 millimeters thick.
Step #3: Create a Sound Hole
The sound hole location will depend on the quality of sound you want to achieve. For instance, choose:
- Center-back if you want a louder and punchy sound
- Back-bottom if you want more sustain
- Side if you’re going to use the cajon for playing purely acoustic music
Many prefer a cajon with a sound hole on the center-back because it offers many advantages. One of its biggest advantages is you don’t have to concern yourself with installing a microphone inside the box. You just simply place a microphone at the back of the cajon.
Once you’ve decided on the location, it’s time to cut the hole. You can use a jigsaw or circular saw to make a hole measuring about 101 to 127 millimeters (4 to 5 inches). Then, sand the edges of the wood with a file, sandpaper, or hole sander.
Step #5: Glue the Wood Panels Together
Take the wood panels for the top, bottom, and back, and then glue them together. Put clamps on them to make sure they stay together while you let the glue dry overnight.
You don’t really want to glue the front wood panel to the box frame. Instead, use screws that grip tight. By doing this, it’s easier for you to remove it if you need to adjust the snare wire or guitar strings. (We’re assuming you already already attached the back wood panel using wood glue.) Plus, it allows the front wood panel to have just the right amount of vibration.
You could also use screws designed for wood, if that’s what you prefer. Make sure they’re properly tightened. If not, they could become loose and vibrate when you start striking the front surface. You could apply glue on the screws to avoid this.
Step #5: Add Your Snare Wires or Guitar Strings
Should you use snare wires or guitar strings?
Most of the cajons on the market are fitted with snare wires. They’re cheap, flexible, and easy to remove (by lifting them out of the box).
Meanwhile, others prefer string cajons because they’re supposed to have a better sound quality. You can also fine tune them by adjusting the tension of the strings at the bottom of the box with an Allen screw.
For this article, let’s focus on building a cajon with snare wires:
- Cut your snare wires (16-strand, 13 inches) in half. You can use an angle grinder or a wire cutter for this.
- The wires will have a sharp edge, so make sure to polish them with a hand-held sander.
- Fix each half snare just at the top of the halfway mark on the triangle block. (Place your triangle block 1.5 centimeters or 0.6 inch at the back of the tapa.)
There are different ways people install the snare wires in the box. Some people even make their cajons with an adjustable snare wires, so they can play with or without the snare. You can basically do whatever you think will help your cajon sound better and make it easier for you to play it.
So, there you have it, guys. Remember, these steps on how to make a cajon drum serve only as your guide. Feel free to tweak the design, dimensions, and materials to meet your needs and preferences. And, don’t forget to have fun along the way!