Making an Affordable, Easy Kora
Making an Affordable, Easy Kora
If you're not all too interested in the motivation for this project you can just skip this part.
I go to an IB school and as part of our curriculum we have to do a Personal Project. Since I am really into music and am looking at doing something with it as a carrier choice, I wanted my Personal Project to be about music. At that time, in music class we were doing a unit on world music and as a joke, I said I would build a kora (more on what exactly a kora is later) for my Personal Project. Of course, that ended up not being a joke and I actually decided to make one.
The kora is a west African string instrument which, according to the reliable source Wikipedia, is classified as a "double-bridge-harp-lute" because it fits into all those characteristics. It consists of 21 strings and is incredibly hard to play. Hear one of the best kora players of today, Toumani Diabete, play my favourite kora song in the YouTube video attached.
A kora typically consists of:
- 21 strings (nylon or traditionally, strips of hide)
- Calabash for a body
- Goat skin top
- Bridge (hardwood)
- Neck (hardwood)
- Tuning rings/pegs (machine heads, fiddle tuning pegs, zither pins or traditionally, leather rings)
- Hook (eye bolt or traditionally, an iron ring)
Now, for the sake of making my project more interesting (and because the cost of making a real kora in the Netherlands is a little extreme), my kora is made of mostly second-hand materials and build in a non traditional method. Essentially, the aim is to create a kora which retains the physical shape (for the most part) but with easily accessible, cheap materials.
One last thing; all my measurements, inspiration and a few of the adaptions to traditional kora building are credited to Dennis Havlena, an instrument maker whom I found online. You can find his website (which has some really cool stuff) here.
Grab your materials
- Ignore the irrelevant stuff
For this project you are going to need a number of things.
- A body
- This can be of any shape really but I would recommend either a hemisphere, a cuboid or a cylindrical container
- It must be hollow and not have a lid
- Idea: If, however, you opt to go for a box which has some kind of fitting lid (cookie tin, for example) you can use this instead of the skin replacement mentioned below. Just make sure it's stable. Also, it means you won't need glue (it'll hold itself)
- The length or diameter of the front side should be between 30 and 40 cm (11.8 and 15.5 in)(mine is 38 cm)
- Tip: Consider the fact that it is being used as the body for a instrument and thus it must resonate sound in an efficient manner
- Tip: Do some scourging at a second hand store and see what useful things you can find
- Wooden bowl
- Hard plastic container/bucket
- Tin box (cookie tin etc.)
- A gourd (just like a traditional kora)
- Metal lampshade (this is what I used. I found it at a junk store)
- 2 handles
- They should be long enough to cover the front of kora and then some (at least 5 cm I would say)(see photo from Dennis Havlenas plykora above)(mine are 50 cm long)
- Make sure they are a good size for you to grip with your three back fingers (pinkie, ring and middle)
- Tip:When you are looking for suitable objects consider reusing old handles (e.g. broom sticks)
- Broom stick (I used one which a friend gave me)
- Wooden dowel rods
- Drum sticks (I have a lot of those lying around...)
- Suitable sticks (I would recommend you sand these extensively)
- Plastic rods/sticks
- Thin plywood strips
- One large eye bolt
- Think that 21 strings need to be tied to it
- 0.3 cm (1/8 in) thick wood sheet of which the length and width is equal to the diameter or the length and width of the front of your body
- This will replace the skin of the kora but if you can get your hands on some, by all means, go ahead just be aware that I do not include instructions on how to attach it to the body and that a weaker body (like my land shade) might not be able to hold that kind of pressure. Go to dennishavlena.com for advice on using skin if you decide that that is indeed the way you want to go
- A wooden beam of approx. 5 x 7.6 cm (2 x 3 in) for the small side. This is how I did mine but traditionally, they are 2.54 x 2.54 cm (1 x1 in). If you are using any kind of tuning pegs other than my design, use the 1 in neck. The length has to be calculated based on the diameter/length of your body. Seeing as the bridge is 94.4 cm (37.1 in) down the neck and it should be approx. in the middle/top of the body, the length of the neck should be 94.4 cm + 1/2 the length of the body +10 cm. This is a little different to the way in which I measured the length of my neck but this is more accurate and also very similar to the way I did it. My neck is 132.4 cm (52.13 in)
- Remember, it's better (in this case) for the neck to be too long as opposed to too short
- 0.6 cm (1/4 in) thick piece of wood measuring 230 x 52 mm (9.06 x 2.05 in)
- This will be the bridge piece as well as its brace
- A small piece of card of 7 x 7.6 cm (2.76 x 3 in)
- A small piece of wood of 12.5 x 13 x 0.6 cm (4.92 x 5.12 x 0.25 in)
- This will become the other bridge piece
- I found this the hardest material to source. Your strings should be made of nylon or something very, very similar. The thinner gauges are the easiest to find and can be sourced at a fishing equipment store. For the thicker gauges you may have to look online or in a gardening tool shop (they use nylon with thick gauges for weed whip which is probably the best thing to use)
- Be aware that these lengths will leave you with a lot of excess string
- You will need
- 1 x 2 m of 0.45 mm (0.018 in) fishing line
- 2 x 2 m of 0.51 mm (0.020 in) fishing line
- 2 x 2 m of 0.59 mm (0.022 in) fishing line
- 1 x 2 m of 0.61 mm (0.024 in) fishing line
- 4 x 2 m of 0.74 mm (0.029 in) fishing line
- 6 x 2 m of 0.79 mm (0.031 in) fishing line
- 1 x 2 m of 1.02 mm (0.040 in) weed whip
- 2 x 2 m of 1.27 mm (0.050 in) weed whip
- 1 x 2 m of 1.65 mm (0.065 in) weed whip
- 1 x 2 m of 2.41 mm (0.095 in) weed whip
- Tuning pegs
- Now this is a tricky one. For those who can afford them, let alone find them, I strongly recommend getting 21 zither pins as they really are the best choice (Dennis Havlena has good instructions on installing these). Also, the use of zither pins means that the neck has to be 5 x 2.54 cm (1.97 x 1 in). You could also opt for machine heads but these are even more expensive and some of the neck measurements may need to be redone (also keep in mind that the thinner the neck gets, the stronger the wood needs to be; 21 strings creates a lot of tension!). I (for the sake of making my project more creative (and because it's cheaper), designed my own tuning pegs and will be including instructions on making and installing them.
- For my tuning pegs you will need
- 21 6 mm (0.21 in) wing nuts
- 21 6 x 16 mm (0.21 x 0.61 in) eye bolts
- 21 6 x 80 mm (0.21 x 3.15 in) machine screw (the kind with the flat bottom)
- 21 8 x 40 mm (0.24 x 1.57 in) plastic expansion anchors
- Some super glue
- Some strong tape (duct tape is probably best but I used electric tape and it's holding just fine)
- If you find a better design, show me by leaving it in the comments below
- Some type of thick, spreadable glue
- Some wax for the neck and the handles (optional)
- Some good music to chill to
Some tools you might need (not necessarily) include
- Access to a laser cutter (you can do by hand but I used a laser cutter)
- Access to a hand saw or an electric saw
- A pen and/or a pencil
- A drill (a pillar drill is even better) with some drill bits
- A metal cutter (if you plan on using an aluminium lamp like me)
- Sand paper/sanding machine/belt sander
Super important note
When I started writing this, I had not yet completed the project. However, since then, not only have I finished the project, but I have noticed that there are some extremely important flaws with my tuning pegs. Due to this, my kora has been rendered to a fancy looking project of which some strings play and some don't. I strongly recommend the use of the 1 in neck and the zither pin tuning pegs mentioned above and as shown by Dennis Havlena. The instructions for my tuning pegs will remain here (for the sake of my school project). I'm sorry if this makes interpreting these instructions any harder. Note that if you do end up going to Dennis Havlena's page for instructions of the zither pins, you will also be needed 21 nails (not too fussy on what type or anything, see dennishavlena.com) and that my Comment/How-to still includes a lot of handy tips that Dennis Havlena doesn't really explain.
Because this Comment/How-to is still relevant for using the zither pins, I shall state at the beginning of each step whether the step is still usable (Usable), needs to be adapted (size-wise and such)(Needs adapting) or no longer applicable at all (N.A.).
- Drill the hole in such a way that the hole does not exceed the lines drawn on earlier.
- Drawn on lines
- So you are aware, none of the diagrams done in MS Pain, like this one, are NOT to scale.
- Top this, and I'll give you a cookie.
Needs adapting: Size of card should be 7 x 2.54 cm (2.76 x 1 in)
For the body, you will be marking where you need the two holes for the neck, drilling a hole through the body in one corner of the future hole and then using either an electric saw, a hand saw or (in my case) a metal cutter to make the holes. Also, you shall be cutting a sound hole if necessary (mine already had one!)
- Begin by getting the piece of card mentioned in the materials list.
- Put it 9mm away from the edge of the body and trace the piece of card as in the photo.
- Use a measuring tape or some other method (string, for example) to find the spot where the other hole, which should be parallel to the first, must be cut.
- Repeat step two for the second hole.
- Now, fasten the body down and use your choice of equipment to cut the holes.
- Use the electric drill to drill into one of the corners of your hole. Make sure the drill bit you use is big enough to allow you to use the tool of your choice to cut later on. For example, with the electric saw, make sure the hole you create is large enough to accommodate the blade. Also, make sure you drill the hole in such a way that the hole does not go outside the lines drawn on earlier.
- Use your tool to cut out the hole. If necessary drill more holes when you reach the other corners (in the event that it isn't possible to turn. Try to be relatively accurate when cutting but don't get too worried about cutting it a little too big or inaccurately because these errors are ones which can be corrected by glue to stick it into the neck (which I recommend doing even if you get the size just right) and by sanding or just more cutting if it's too small.
- Cut any bits that still need cutting and give any rough edges a good sand.
- Repeat for the second hole
- For those of you adding a sound hole, you should repeat the process of cutting the neck holes but in a very similar manner. Traditionally, the sound holes are either circular or teardrop-shaped although it really doesn't matter. The last statement also applies to the position of the hole; you can put it anywhere on the body.
- Cut a piece of card to the correct shape and size (try to make it a decent size but still not too big. 7.62 cm (3 in) in diameter is a decent size.
- Trace it on the body and cut using the same method as the neck holes.
- Sorry no pictures, I didn't have to make one... My lamp shade had a small one.
- If you'd like, you could add some tacks to try imitate the art done on traditional koras like the picture above
- Top view
- I painted mine red as this is traditionally the color of this bit. If you also want to do so, you can just use a red white board marker. It keeps the cool wood look...
- Center line: drawn with pencil
- 9.5 cm down from the top
- Line at the top
- Line at the bottom
- Ignore the fact that this photo was taken just before stringing :)
- ...and ignore the lack of a raiser. I didn't realize I needed one until later. Let me tell you, ripping of the bridge was really not an enjoyable experience...
There are number of important things on the front. This includes the "skin", the handles and the bridge. For my kora, I designed a very simple brace to go along with the bridge to give it extra support and essentially get rid of the need for a guy wire.
- Prepare the pieces
- The handles which will eventually become your kora handles must be flattened on one side to a certain level as seen in the image above. You could do this using a belt sander, a sanding machine or even a manual sanding block but this would take en extremely long amount of time. I used a stationary bandsaw available at school to cut this as it was quick and easy.
- The piece of wood which is to become the front must be the same shape and have the same dimensions as the open side of your body. Due to the fact that I have access to a laser cutter at school, I used this very useful tool to cut my wood into the front I needed. Because my body's soundhole was a little small, I decided it was best to include two small sounds holes at the front. You may choose to do the same. I have included my laser cutting files (SketchUp) including those of the bridge and brace in case you have access to a laser cutter and wish to use them (note that rescaling may be necessary for the front). If laser cutting is not an option for you, you may wish to use a saw (electric or manual) to do so.
- The whole bridge piece consists of 3 individual pieces; the bridge itself, the brace and the piece giving it height and, traditionally, adding some protection to the skin. The The latter piece should already be to size as it is included in the materials list. Lets call it the raiser. For the brace and bridge, I really recommend laser cutting if possible because it simplifies things. Note that the slits to slide them together (like a 3D paper christmas tree) are a little too small in the laser cutting files. Also, the slits for the strings must be expanded by sanding or scraping with a knife. For those with no access to a laser cutter, again, I suppose you must do it by hand. See the above photo for some measurement details (provided by Dennis Havlena).
- Assemble the bridge
- Begin by slotting the bridge and the brace together so as to create a "+" sign at the bottom. If they do not fit snugly, add a little bit of thick glue so as to keep them really solid.
- Then, find the center of the raiser and stick the center of the bridge to this point using the thick glue.
- Putting the front together
- Find the centerline of the front as in the photo above and then measure 9.5 cm (3.74 in) down that line from the top of the front. Mark this spot with a little line as in the photo.
- Measure a line of 10.8 cm (4.25 in) and a line of 8.9 cm (3.5 in) at the bottom as in the photo.
- Place the center of the raiser (including everything stuck to it) on the spot marked in the step 3.1 and draw around so you know where to stick. Make sure the bridge piece itself (the one with the slots for the holes) is facing upwards (when held upright)
- Place the handles so that they intercept edge of both lines (left handle on the left edges, right on the right) and trace around them so you know where to glue. Make sure the handle bit (where you grab) is pointing up.
- Now apply the thick glue to the bottom of the raiser and place it in the lines you traced earlier. Make sure the side of the bridge piece with 11 slots is on the LEFT when looked at from the front! I actually made the mistake of sticking it on the wrong way and thus having to cut an extra slot by hand. Not fun...
- Wait a bit.
- Repeat step 3.5 but then for the handles. This should result in the completion of the front.
Needs adapting: The measurements still apply
Once you have acquired the piece of wood necessary for the neck specified in the materials list, all you have to do it drill 21 hole (that sounds worse than it is) and make a few markings for later. Also, you will be screwing in the big eye bolt
- First of all, just for clarity, decide which one of the 7.6 cm sides of the beam will become the back and mark it with a Little B (reference to the drum solo by The Shadows)
- Now for this bit, all markings will be done at the back of the neck
- On the right side (of the back), draw 11 crosses at 1 cm (0.39 in) in at the following distances from the top
- 40 mm (1.57 in)
- 78 mm (3.07 in)
- 121 mm (4.76 in)
- 160 mm (6.3 in)
- 243 mm (9.57 in)
- 315 mm (12.4 in)
- 384 mm (15.12 in)
- 448 mm (17.64 in)
- 508 mm (20 in)
- 564 mm (22.2 in)
- 615 mm (24.21 in)
- On the left side (of the back), draw 10 crosses at 1 cm (0.39 in) in at the same following distances from the top
- 201 mm (7.91 in)
- 279 mm (10.98 in)
- 350 mm (13.78 in)
- 417 mm (16.42 in)
- 479 mm (18.86 in)
- 537 mm (21.14 in)
- 592 mm (23.31 in)
- 643 mm (25.32 in)
- 664 mm (26.14 in)
- 690 mm (27.17 in)
- Make a marking that goes around the whole neck at 84.9 cm (33.43 in). This will mark the top of the body.
- On the right side (of the back), draw 11 crosses at 1 cm (0.39 in) in at the following distances from the top
- Now for some drilling. Using a pillar drill (preferably; a an electric drill will do just try and keep the lines straight), drill straight down and all the way through the neck on all the x's marked. Make sure that the drill bit you use is just a tiny bit smaller than the screws that will be used for the tuning pegs. This is really important as otherwise, the pegs will turn when the string is on as the hole will not be tight enough. In the event that the hole is too big (as mine are), you can use nails to keep the pegs from turning as in photo.
- If you'd like to give it a wax, this would be the ideal time.
- Next, measure the height of your body from the point drawn in step 3 and make a mark anywhere under that. Try and make the mark somewhere towards the middle but its not too important if it's very precise or not. Take your large eye bolt and screw it in here. Make sure the eye itself is facing sideways as opposed to up/down.
Tuning pegs: Prep
In this step, you will be preparing the pegs for the neck. It's a short step.
- Put some superglue on the highest threads (towards the head) of the screw and quickly screw the wing nuts up to the very top (towards the head) with the wings sticking up when the screw is held with the head up.
- Wait for it dry
- Repeat 21 times!
Putting the body and the front together
The important thing about this step is getting the alignment between the body and the front correct. Apart from that, it's simply a matter of applying glue, sticking them together, applying pressuring and waiting
- Make a mark at the very edge of your body at the same level as the center as the neck hole which you wish to go at the top.
- Applies only to those with a hemisphere body: Place your body in some kind of pot or something to give to some balance
- Apply thick glue to the rim of the open side of the body. If this is not an option (due to very thin edge etc.), apply thick glue to the edge of the front (not too much) and place the body face down on top
- Lower the front onto the sticky rim of the body making sure that the top of the centerline drawn on the front earlier aligns with the mark drawn on the body in step 1
- Apply pressure (books or other heavier things) on the front and leave it to dry.
Putting the body with the neck
This step is also very simple.
- Slide the neck through the body until the body reaches the line marked on the neck. Note that the marked line goes for the top of the body and not actually the neck hole on the body (see photo).
- If your neck has a really snug fit, use the thick glue just to seal it off and keep it secure. If your neck is loose, use lots of thick glue to stop from moving. Keeping it neat will be hard. I recommend having something to spread the glue which is not your finger or the tube. Also, if you think your hair might be dragged through the glue as I did with mine, tie it up. Trust me, I've been trying to take out the glue in my hair for days...
Tuning pegs: Installation
Here, you will be putting in the tuning pegs in the final assembly step before stringing. How exciting... You will need your super glue and the 21 little eye screws.
- Begin by putting all 21 screws through the holes drilled in the neck earlier. You will want the wing nuts on the backside of the neck. Screw them all the way.
- Apply a good amount of superglue to the very end of the screw (away from the head) and place the plastic expansion anchors over the screw.
- Wait for them to dry.
- Take your eye bolts and screw them 1 cm down from the tuning peg and 1.5 cm from the nearest edge of the neck. These eye bolts will function similarly to the nut on a guitar; it will guide the strings and keep it down.
The instrument is done! Congratulations! Now to string it...
Stringing the kora
- It could get a little messy...
N.A. although I found that I prefered my choice of knot over Dennis Havlena's
You've built the instrument and all you need to do now is string it!
The most important thing is the order of the strings. Follow the information below. It includes the string gauge as well as the tuning of the string.
Left side from front view
High pitched end (closest to the body)
- 0.51 mm (0.022 inch) fishing line C#
- 0.51 mm (0.022 inch) fishing line A
- 0.74 mm (0.029 inch) fishing line F#
- 0.74 mm (0.029 inch) fishing line D
- 0.79 mm (0.031 inch) fishing line B
- 0.79 mm (0.031 inch) fishing line G
- 0.79 mm (0.031 inch) fishing line E
- 1.27 mm (0.050 inch) weed whip C#
- 1.27 mm (0.050 inch) weed whip B
- 1.65 mm (0.065 inch) weed whip A
- 2.41 mm (0.095 inch) weed whip D
Low pitched end (furthest away from the body)
Right side from the front view
High pitched end (closest to the body)
- 0.45 mm (0.018 in) fishing line F#
- 0.51 mm (0.020 in) fishing line E
- 0.51 mm (0.020 in) fishing line D
- 0.61 mm (0.024 in) fishing line B
- 0.74 mm (0.029 in) fishing line G
- 0.74 mm (0.029 in) fishing line E
- 0.79 mm (0.031 in) fishing line C#
- 0.79 mm (0.031 in) fishing line A
- 0.79 mm (0.031 in) fishing line F#
- 1.02 mm (0.040 in) weed whip D
Low pitched end (furthest away from the body)
- Stringing the kora begins by measuring out how much string you will need. Do this by laying the kora down in front of you (on your lap works well) and holding the roll of nylon a fist away from the large eye bolt. Pull the other side over the top of the bridge and pinkie length past the tuning peg in question. Cut with scissors. You may be left with some excess string.
- Next, tie one end of the string to the large eye bolt using the same knot used to tie nylon guitar strings to the bridge. Dennis Havlena recommends the fisherman's double clinch knot but I found this too complicated and not all that more efficient. Besides, I was already familiar with the knot for nylon guitar strings. There are many videos on the internet on how to make this knot and it is a really simple knot which you will never forget once you do it the first time.
- Once tied, pull the string through the dedicated slit in the bridge (some filing may be necessary if the slot is not big enough to accommodate the string.
- Now, pull the string through the intended little eye bolt and bring it through the gap in the plastic expansion anchor. See the image for any odd terminology.
- In the case of the string slipping, pull the string through the gap and tuck it under the flap. You will most likely have to do this. Also, this only works for the fishing line and the 1.02 mm weed whip as the other weed whip is just too thick. To avoid slippage from these wrap some strong tape around the top of the anchor so as to hold it shut and not allow the string to escape. Surprisingly, this works well.
- Now you can turn the tuning peg. Turn until it is fairly tight. Worry about tuning later.
- If (due to drilling holes too big) your pegs are slipping, use the nail method I mentioned in an earlier step to stop this from happening. It makes tuning very difficult as the nail must be removed every time but at least it keeps the tuning peg in place.
- Do this for all 21 strings and your homemade kora is complete!
Tip: Don't turn so much that the plastic expansion anchor is touching the neck as this could possibly break the superglue bonds between the anchor and the screw. If it's getting too close, take off the string, move the peg and put the same string back on (so don't cut it).
Sit back and enjoy your kora!
Now that it's all strung up, you actually own a full size kora. Enjoy it and maybe one day, you'll be as good as Toumani Diabete! I hope you learnt a thing or two about koras in this Comment/How-to and please leave any feedback in the comments below.
Acknowledgments, Credits, and Bibliography