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How a Traditional Didgeridoo is Made

Murruppi with a selection of hand made didgeridoos

Traditionally, a didgeridoo was made from a eucalyptus tree that was eaten out by termites. In the northern part of Australia, where the didgeridoo originated, the type of eucalyptus tree was usually the Wooly Butt gum, or, another kind the Stringy Box gum. Termite hollowed out trees can be found across much of Australia, but, most are located in the northern part of Australia. Other species of trees which termites eat out are Blue box gum, Grey box gum, Yellow box gum, Iron bark, Bloodwood and Mallee. Some tribes in North Western Australia also made didgeridoos out of bamboo.
Contrary to popular conceptions a didgeridoo does not have to look 'chunky' or have a big flair on one end of it to be a good one. Neither does it matter whether it is bent or straight, chunky or thin, expensive or inexpensive, elaborately painted or unpainted; it has got nothing to do with whether a didgeridoo is better than another. In actual fact many traditional ones were very lightweight, because, they had to be properly eaten out by the termites i.e., they had to have a large hole down the middle and thin walls. Thin, hard walled didgeridoos were believed to possess the best sounds. As a matter of fact, good sounding didgeridoos can be made out of plastic, glass, ceramics and other hard tubing that possess excellent sounds. The proof, however, of a good didgeridoo is in the playing.
In my experience, termite eaten eucalyptus (gum) trees are usually found in poor soil and where temperatures are constant. Termites do not like it too hot or too cold. Neither do they like light. I think that this is why they eat up the middle of trees, its dark there and cooler than the surrounding environment. Also, an abundant supply of food for the termites can be found on the inside of trees. It is well known that some northern termites which build their nests on top of the ground do so in a north south direction. The nests are flat on both sides and always face the sun. The flat sides act as solar panels to keep the insides of the nest at a constant temperature of 31 degrees, regardless of what the outside temperature is.
That land speaks to me when I go looking for logs that are suitable for making didgeridoos. Evidence of termite mounds are a good indication that hollowed out trees are in the area. Also, some termites build a secondary nest up along the trunks of the trees, which is a good indication that they are busy in the area. Sometimes, however, there is no evidence at all, because, many termites build their nests underground. In which case you have to knock on the tree with your tomahawk to see if it is hollow or not.. Usually, if you find one hollow tree in the area there are likely to be more. Contrary to some peoples ideas you should make a didgeridoo out of a living tree rather than a dead one, because, dead hollowed out trees usually have cracks in them and do not play very well, where as, green wood can be treated so that it doesn't crack.
After a suitable log is found, it has to be cleaned out on the inside. After eating the inside of the log out, termites leave a kind of honeycomb structure.. This loose waste product can be removed by repeatedly lifting the log up and thumping one end, usually the wider end, down onto a hard surface. The honeycombed structure will usually fall out of the log leaving a decent hole in the middle. Water can then be sprayed through the hole to get rid of any excess rubbish.
If you look at the end of a cut log you can see 'layers' in the timber. Inside is the hole, then the dark wood surrounded by the lighter coloured wood and then the bark of the tree. If there is not much dark timber left (because the termites have eaten it all) then you will only be able to take the bark off down to the lighter timber. If, however, there is adequate dark timber left you may sculpt down to it if you like. I usually prefer to sculpt the didgeridoo so that light timber is left on the lower third and the dark timber is shown on the upper two thirds.
To sculpt the didgeridoo I use a tomahawk and an old car spring that I have sharpened. I then use sandpaper to finish it off for a smooth finish. A timber sealant is then brushed over the finished product so that it does not crack. Traditionally, a stone axe, sharp shells and the dried leaf of a fig tree would be used to make the didgeridoo (and other wooden artifacts). To seal the timber, animal fat or oil was rubbed into the timber, which was then heated over the coals of a fire and polished.
The traditional process is quite long, and, if used today would not be cost effective. When only one didgeridoo was needed such a method was adequate, however, with its popularity today contemporary methods are required.
Finally, a mouth piece is made from bees wax. It is required for two reasons. One, to make it smooth and comfortable for your lips to rest on, and two, the bees wax can be shaped to the size and shape of your mouth after warming it. The bees wax hardens again when it cools.
Djirrbal/Ngadjonji Tribes
Rainforest Area. North Queensland. Australia
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