English Pendant Ocarina by Carrie Michael


The ocarina is an instrument that still remains beautiful today but connects us to the very roots of art and music. With this project, I will share how I make a whistle from metal clay, and then tune it to create a musical instrument.

Project: Carrie Michael
Photos and illustrations: Carrie Michael
Editing: Joy Funnell and Jeannette Froese LeBlanc

Project Materials and Supplies

WHITE COPPRClay (optional)
thick paste made from COPPRclay™
(optional) fireable gemstones

Tools, Supplies, & Equipment:
Cards or graduated slat set
Cutting tool such as an x-acto® knife
Worksurface, such as a self healing mat
Flexible tissue blade (optional)
Domed surface to use as a drying form, a small gravy ladle works well
Drinking straw
Water brush or paintbrush
Cardboard scraps, and packing tape (optional)
Tuner (If you don’t have one, there are lots of tuning apps available.  If you own a Mac computer garage band works well.)
Ceramic firing vessel
Magic Carbon by Cool Tools
Kiln paper
Stainless Steel Wire Mesh Cloth (optional)
Jewelry kiln
Brass brush
Needle files (optional)
Scouring pad
Polishing paper (optional)
Rotary tumbler and steel shot (optional)
Long jewelry tweezers (optional)

Reference Photo:

Much of the terminology used in this project is defined by this illustration for ease of reference,it may help to refer often to this photo.carriemichael_ocarina_02

Project Step-By-Step

Step 1

Forming the body of the Ocarina
Choose a drying form carefully keeping in mind the dimensions of the firing vessel to make sure the finished ocarina will fit inside.  An ocarina with a larger interior will have a deeper sound, and a smaller one will have a higher pitch.  A curved dome shape is ideal for sound vibration.  Small or medium sized gravy ladles work well.

Roll the clay out 8 cards thick for strength.[3] Carefully lay the rolled clay on top of the chosen drying form, trim to shape, and let dry completely before removing. [4] Repeat to make the other side.  Even walls are desirable for sound quality, so rolling the clay to an even thickness is advised.

Step 2

Pendant Clasp
Make a pendant clasp.  Roll clay out 6 cards thick, and cut into a long strip with a flexible tissue blade or other cutting tool.  Drape over a straw, or the handle of a paintbrush, pen, or stylus as a drying form. [5] Set aside until later.

Step 3

Airway Stick
Construct an “airway stick” to form the mouthpiece.  The size of the airway stick is tricky, and depends on the size of the ocarina.  A basic guideline is almost 1.5 mm thick, about 1/4 inch wide, and the finished piece should be at least 1/2 inch long, so make the airway stick larger originally.  I made my own airway sticks out of COPPRClay™ and filed them to shape after they were fired.  You could also construct your own from thin cardboard scraps wrapped with packing tape. (See the next steps for a photo including the airway stick.)

Step 4

The windway exit needs to be rather narrow to focus the air for optimal sound, approximately 5 cards thick.  The ocarina will not sound right if the windway is too narrow or too wide.  The entrance to the windway can taper open a bit, that part can be taken care of later.

Roll clay for the mouthpiece 12 cards thick, trim, carefully wrap around an airway stick and seal closed. [6] Set it aside until it is firm, but not fully dry.  Carefully remove the airway stick before it gets stuck as the clay shrinks.  Once it is finished drying, you can trim it to the desired length with a cutting tool, making certain to leave the mouthpiece at least 1/2 inch long. [7]

Step 5

This is the most difficult and important part.  The sound hole should be placed near the wall, but not right at the edge, and the size of the opening will affect the quality of sound.  The opening should be squared precisely with the windway, neither larger nor smaller.  If the window is too large, or too small, it will not whistle properly.  Start with a rectangle a bit less than 1/4 inch long and enlarge later as needed. (See illustration.)

Once the bottom dome and the mouthpiece are dry the “voicing” can be cut and attached.  Use the airway stick as a guide to draw with a pencil, then cut out a space for the mouthpiece and the sound hole. [9]

If the sound hole is too large, it will sound weak or not at all with tuning holes uncovered.  If it is too small, it will sound weak or not at all with holes covered.  If the angle of the labium isn’t acute enough the sound will also be weak or easily overblown on low notes.  The labium needs to taper almost to a point, and be at a 45 degree angle to the windway.

Cut out the sound hole and carve the labium.  The airstream needs to be directed through the mouthpiece directly at the beveled labium so that it cuts the air evenly in two.  Carefully trim the lip to a blunt edge on the outside of the bottom dome, and bevel it a tiny bit on the inside as well.

Attach the mouthpiece by dampening the areas to be joined with a brush, and adding thick paste.  Be careful to not get excess paste in the windway, and gently remove any with a needle tool or thin scrap of cardboard.  Add more clay and paste until it stays in place.  Before drying, test to make sure it is aligned properly.  Remember the 45 degree angle.  Look into the mouthpiece with the convex part of the dome part on top, the labium edge should be visible at about halfway through the mouthpiece, a bit lower is okay too. [10] Make sure it whistles by cupping the convex part of the dome gently in your palm and blowing into the mouthpiece.  If it sounds good, finish attaching the mouthpiece and add paste to make sidewalls on the outside to help direct the wind into the labium.  [11]  Test the sound again and set aside to dry.

Add more paste and clay to refine the voicing, being careful not to get any in the windway.  Repeat until finished and allow to dry completely.

Touch up the interior.  Carve the area surrounding the soundhole to make sure it is slightly beveled. [12]

Step 6

Alignment of the tuning holes
Try to get the top and bottom of the two halves to line up perfectly, it will reduce warping in the kiln.  Carve or sand the edges if necessary.  Mark an edge where they will align with a pencil.

Draw small dots with a pencil on the top dome to determine where you want the tuning holes to be.  They should be placed as far away from the voice as possible, and never directly opposing the voicing.  Holding the entire thing gently in your hand might help to determine where you want the holes to be, but keep in mind that the ocarina will shrink quite a bit in the kiln.  Carefully carve small starter holes before you secure the two halves together.  [13] Making them too small is better than too large, they can always be carved larger when tuning.

Step 7

Putting the puzzle together
Using a brush, wet the edges of both too and bottom domes where they align.  Carefully join them, keeping in mind the pencil mark for where the pieces should meet best, and that the mouthpiece should be on the opposite side of the tuning holes. Twist lightly as you join to get them to stick together a bit.  Holding the entire piece in the center, wet the edges again, and fill in any gaps with paste to finish connecting the two halves. [14] Allow to dry.

Add clay around the mouthpiece to make a pleasing shape.  [15] After it is dry you can carve it, and carefully widen the entrance to the windway a little if desired.  Also clean up the edges to make them smooth.

Roll out and cut a long thin strip of clay, 4 cards thick, about 1/4 inch wide.  Wet the joining edges of the ocarina again and apply the strip of clay all the way around over the seem to finish sealing.  [16] Smooth with a damp brush, adding paste if necessary.  Allow to dry.  Refine the seem and attach the pendant clasp with paste, then allow to dry again. [17]

Step 8

If possible, carve with the tuning holes facing down so the clay falls on the work surface instead of into the ocarina.  Shake scraps out if they fall in.

Start with the smallest tuning hole and make sure it is in tune before moving to the next largest and so on.  The larger the hole is, the higher the pitch will be.  Try to make it in tune with itself before firing in the kiln, as it will likely stay in tune when finished, though higher in pitch because the clay shrinks.

The metal warms changing the sound as the ocarina is played.  A good solution to this would be to wait to tune until it has warmed up… But as the ocarina is still clay at this point, breath will add moisture to the clay.  The moisture will soften parts, as well as building up and clogging the windway.  Be very careful with the voicing and windway while tuning, it may be advisable to stop and let it dry in between holes.  Waiting until it is fired to tune it would avoid that problem, but it is much easier to carve metal clay than it is to file fired metal.

To start, use a tuner to determine the lowest note.  Completely cover all the tuning holes on the pendant with your pointer and middle fingers of each hand.  Turn your tuner on, and blow gently into the ocarina, as if blowing a kiss.  Blowing too hard will blow the note away.  Uncovering holes individually, or in combination with each other opens more notes. [18]

Carve the first hole so the sound it makes is one note higher on the “major scale” and so on.  “C” is the only major scale without any sharp or flat notes, so if you don’t know the scale based on your lowest note, then look up the relevant scale before tuning.

For example, if it happens to be in “C major,” then the notes should be C,D,E,F,G,A,B,C for a 4 hole English pendant.  Carefully carve clay from each hole until the notes match, possibly undercutting on the larger holes so they don’t get too big to be easily covered by fingers.

Reference STEP 5: Voicing if the ocarina doesn’t sound right on low or high notes.  The sound hole may need to be carefully carved slightly larger, or the labium angle might need to be adjusted.  If either of those things are done, the tuning should be rechecked.  Making the sound hole larger may change the lowest note, altering the scale of the entire ocarina.  Any stray bits of clay that could be blocking the shape of the windway can ruin the sound.

Once it is in tune, if it sounds good even on the highest note, and it is desired, a thumb hole can be added to the back to make a 5 hole pendant.  Make note of where your right thumb rests when holding the ocarina naturally, and carve a starter hole.  This hole would be “D” when uncovered.  If that still sounds good, another thumb hole can be added on the other side, tuning it to one note higher, “E.”

Step 9

With the ocarina finished, the pendant part can really begin!  Lightly carve a drawing on the front, add some paste and fireable gemstones, free sculpt a design, or appliqué more clay on top.  If a stone setting is added, it should not pierce through the outer ocarina wall or it will alter the sound of the ocarina, possibly even making it not work.  [19] [20]

Step 10

Add a layer of magic carbon to the firing vessel.  Carefully wrap the ocarina in kiln paper and set it inside.  [21] The ocarina should be placed on it’s narrow edge with the windway horizontal and parallel to the base of the firing vessel to keep the ocarina from collapsing.  If the front has a design on it, the kiln paper should be a little loose around the design so it doesn’t pull and distort as the metal clay shrinks.  Placing it with the smallest tuning holes down and the largest up can help reduce distortion of the holes.  The kiln paper provides support, and if placed well keeps carbon from getting in the ocarina interior, which could warp the shape as it shrinks.  It also prevents the carbon from making hot spots and marking areas of the copper, provided that all carbon is kept out of the kiln paper barrier.  Carefully add carbon around the kiln paper.

Place a formed to fit stainless steel wire mesh cloth, or more kiln paper, over the top of the ocarina to keep the rest of the carbon out.  Add more carbon over the top before placing the lid on the vessel.  [22]

This ocarina was fired in a Paragon SC2 kiln, slow ramped at 500 to help prevent distortion, at 1650F for 3 hours in “magic carbon” from cooltools.us

Step 11

Once it is done, brush, burnish, and polish like any other metal clay piece.

After it is fired, brush it with a brass brush and soap, then check for imperfections.  Areas may have warped in the kiln, it might be necessary to file, possibly add clay, and fire in the kiln again.  The labium may have warped in the kiln as well, and as a result, the ocarina may not sound right.  Use a metal tool to burnish it back into position, and file if needed. [23]

Hopefully your ocarina is still in tune with itself, though on a different scale.  You can look up the new scale and check, and if it is a bit off, carefully file the holes until just right.  Use a scouring pad and/or polishing paper to remove areas of patina that are undesired.

A rotary tumbler can be used to burnish, but the inside will fill up with steel shot.  Carefully shake all the shot out, stubborn pieces can be removed with long jewelry tweezers.  [24]

Enjoy your handmade music instrument! [25]

Step 12

COPPRclay™ was fired using the COPPRclay Firing Guide: www.artwarebywanaree.com

The process for making a metal clay ocarina is heavily influenced by the process to make a ceramic ocarina.  This website is very helpful and has beautiful ceramic ocarinas for sale: http://www.sixthstreetocarina.com

Photo Credit: Carrie Michael


About the Author

Carrie Michael lives in Kalamazoo Michigan with her husband and 4 cats. Her art has been influenced heavily by nature and fantasy since childhood, and she works with a variety of media. She started working with metal clay in 2012. When her husband expressed sorrow because all his ceramic ocarinas had been clumsily broken, she took on the challenge of making metal clay ocarinas in 2014. This ocarina was a gift for her niece, whose favorite critters at the time were frogs, bugs, and spiders. She sells jewelry on etsy part time and hopes to quit her day job in the near future. carriemichael.etsy.com

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