Previous update: 1/15/98
I was going to call this a "kora-like" instrument, but it plays and 
sounds so much like the African-built instrument that it IS a 
kora, even if the construction materials and methods might be 

Here is the most recent update of 9/29/2011: In a few weeks I am
scheduled to fly to Dakar, Senegal to put on a 3-week long workshop
on building a bunch of my instruments. Getting ready for this trip
has re-kindled my interest in the kora. Over the past decade + I 
have built a number of other koras and the cake-tin kora has just
hung on the wall, completely unplayed for at least a decade. Tonight
I pulled it off the wall and to my utter amazement, found it to be
almost perfectly in tune! I've never ever had any instrument
even come close to holding it's tuning like this! It did have one string 
that broke, which may well have accounted for the "almost" mentioned
three lines above. Also I am amazed to again realize that this silly 
little thing is very much a small, light, not as loud kora - perfect 
for learning & working out tunes.

The kora is from west African & is a 21 stringed instrument in the 
harp family whose neck & body vaguely resembles a big banjo. There 
are two "planes" of strings - one for the left and one for the 
right hand. these strings don't ride over the bridge/faceplate 
horizontally (like a guitar or banjo), but rather vertically - 11 
strings "high" on one side & 10 "high" on the other.The scale is 
produced by alternately plucking first a string in one "plane", 
then one in the other "plane", right, left, right, left etc on up 
the scale, making this instrument a sort of a "stringed kalimba" & 
quite easy to play melodies on.

I built this kora during the Christmas '97 holiday in just a few days  
of by-no-means-constant tinkering. Total cost was in the area of 
$20 - $30 using all new materials.

The finsihed instrument is sturdy yet lightweight, weighing just 
over 2 lbs, and measures 44 3/4" tall by 10" wide by 8 3/8" front 
to back.
This is a full list of materials:

- One 11/16" x 1 1/2" x 44 3/4" long strip of hardwood. Type of 
  hardwood not important unless you opt for zither pins as tuners, 
  in which case, I'd recommend using rock maple which holds these 
  pins best.
- 21 guitar type tuners. Zither pins can be used instead.
- 21 very small screw-eyes that route strings and act as nuts. 

- A few feet of.065" monofiliament weed-whip line &  small rolls 
  of .050" and .040" monofiliament weed-whip line, available at 
  all Tru-Value hardware stores year-round & K-Mart in season. 
  Also .024" & .015 momonofiliament fishing line available at 
  any sporting goods store.
- A square foot of 3/16" to  1/4" thick preferably birch-faced 
- A large cake tin -- the kind, with a tin lid, that fruitcakes 
  are sold in. Mine measures 3 1/4" tall by 10 in diameter. Size 
  is not that important. There is no string-strain or pressure on 
  the tin itself as any such strain is completely borne by the 
  "straight-through-the body" neck. The traditional African 
  instrument utilizes a big skin-covered gourd instead of a cake 
  tin & wooden affair.
- One 5/8" diameter dowel rod to make the two hand holds.
- One hefty, 2 1/2" long woodscrew (with smooth upper shank) to 
  attach strings to. 
- A few small scraps of hard and soft wood from which to make 
  braces, bridge etc.


                         CONSTRUCTION STEPS

Take off the lid & turn the cake-tin upside down. Using a hefty
utility knife, carefully cut out all of the bottom tin EXCEPT for
leaving a 3/16" wide ledge all around the perimeter. The 
soundboard (which is recessed a bit) rests on & is glued onto this 

                         Cutting the soundboard
Make this a tad larger in diameter than will fit into the ledge in 
the body then carefully sand/file the perimeter til it just plops 
into the ledge. Cut the two 1 3/4" diameter soundholes as shown in 
the.gif drawing. Glue the soundboard onto the cake-tin bottom's 
ledge using vinegar-smelling 100% silicone sealant (avoid 
"Silicone 2" at all costs).

                       Adding the underside brace
Made of any hardwood about 6" long, 3/16" wide and 3/8" tall at 
the center, tapering off to 1/8" or so at each end. Glue this 
below where the bridge will sit. Part of this may have to be 
notched a bit to allow the hand-grips to pass. More on this later.

                  Mounting tuning gears along the neck
One would think adding these 21 tuners would make the neck 
excessively heavy, but this is no problem at all - particularily 
as the instrument itself is so very light. Mount 10 tuners on the 
neck along the side that will be played by the right hand and 11 
tuners on the neck along the side that will be played by the left 

Locate them like so: 

Along the side played by the right hand, locate tuners (center of 
post) at these distances from the tip end of the neck (the end 
furthest from the instrument's body): 2 3/8", 5 3/4", 8 5/8", 
11 1/8", 13 5/8", 15 3/4", 17 3/4", 19 1/2", 21 1/4" & 23"

Along the side played by the left hand, locate tuners (center of 
post) at these distances from the tip end of the neck (the end 
furthest from the instrument's body): 3/4", 4 1/8", 7 3/8", 9 7/8",
12 1/2", 14 3/4", 16 3/4", 18 5/8", 20 3/8", 22 1/8" & 23 7/8"

            Installing the screw-eye string-routers/nuts
Locate these 1" or so in front of & in line with each tuner. 
Towards the higher pitched 5 or 6 strings strings it is necessary 
to sink the screw-eyes quite deep into the wood or even cut/reform 
them, to make a smaller/shorter eye. This is done to keep adjacent 
lower-pitched strings from hitting/buzzing where they pass over a 
higher-string's screw-eye ,

                   Mounting the neck to the body
Cut an angle on the end of the neck so it will match the tin on 
the inside flush. Lay masking tape over the area on the outside of 
the cake-tin that is to be cut to allow the neck to pass through. 
Draw a rectangle the same dimensions as the neck (the top surface 
of the neck should be 7/8" below the top of the soundboard). Very 
carefully, using a stout utility knife, cut out the rectangle 
where the neck will pass. Make a deliberate attempt to cut a bit 
smaller if anything, as this makes for a tight fit when the neck 
is forced through. Secure the end of the neck to the tin with two 
woodscrews - the bottom one being just 3/4" of an inch long or so, 
but the top one being stout & 2 1/2" long. All the strings attach 
to this screw (leave about 5/8" of this screw protruding -- it can 
be cranked in some once all the strings are on). It is very 
important to fit a small block of hardwood tightly into the space 
(on the inside of the tin & closest to the bridge end) between the 
neck and the bottom of the ledge/soundboard, right up against the 
tin's sidewall (position of this block is shown in the next .gif 
drawing). This takes bridge/string pressure off of the tin, which 
might contort otherwise. Glue this block to all possible surfaces 
using 100% silicone sealant (the type that smells like vinegar).

     Bridge, string-holes & the brace to keep bridge upright

I have used both hardwood and the same 3/16" birch plywood used 
for the soundboard to make the bridge and braces and both woods 
work fine. Use a 1/16" drill-bit to make the holes for the strings 
(a slightly larger hole must be drilled for the low C string which 
is the longest string on the side of the instrument played by the 
left hand).
A brace is not used traditionally but I find it works perfectly to 
keep the ever-present bridge-tipping at bay & don't believe it 
detracts very much from the overall tone/volume, it being quite 
light. The brace "fits inside" the bridge & is glued to the bridge 
wherever possible. Rubber-bands around this brace provide ample 
clamping while the glue is drying. It should be noted (after 
having broken the first one myself) that if you use non-plywood 
for this brace, it is fragile! Once glued to the bridge, it is 
very durable, but treat it gently before gluing. Also, cut the gap 
where the brace attaches to the top of the bridge very carefully 
-- make this gap just a tiny fraction larger than the thickness of 
the bridge, lest it break while clamping. Short lengths of 1/8" x 
1/8" (or so) wood are then glued into all 8 angles where the brace 
meets the bridge for extra reinforcing. Carefully sand the bottom 
of this bridge/brace affair flat. This bridge does not need to be 
glued on. It's best to install & tension the shorter strings first 
though to keep the bridge from tipping while stringing. Make sure 
the bridge remains upright and in proper position as you install 
and tension the strings. Position the working edge of the bridge 
(the edge closest the tuners) 2 3/8" from the edge of the 

                             Hand grips
These provide a very practical & satisfying way to hold the 
instrument & position the thumbs and index fingers properly for 
playing. I used two 14" lengths of 5/8" dowel rod for this 
purpose. Refer to the accompanying illustrations. Drill a guide 
hole in the inside end of both rods to receive the short 
woodscrews that go through the tin side and secure the rods at the 
kora's end. Try to make the holes through the tin side to be just 
a bit under-sized, so that when the rods are forced through to the 
other side, they will be held tight. I initially intended to 
strengthen where the rods go through the holes in the tin sides 
with cement etc, but now don't think this is necessary - the 
instrument being so light. Make sure these rods don't threaten to 
hit the bottom of the brace glued to the soundboard's underside. 
If so, whittle a bit off the rods (& maybe even a bit off the 
brace) til there's no threat.

              Stringing and Tuning the Instrument

Four different gauges of nylon line are used. I could find no 
information at all about the gauges of nylon line used by 
traditional African players, so had to do a  LOT  of 
experimentation, which is ongoing. The below is a workable system 
which plays and sounds good. Changes/improvements however, will be 
reported here.

My system for determining what gauge to use for a particular 
string is to start with a fairly thick line, see if it breaks when 
tuned to pitch, if it does, I substitute a slightly lighter gauge. 
I find that the string gauge just short of "breaking-thickness" 
produces the clearest, loudest note. The gauges below are the 
results of this experimentation:

  .065" monofiliament nylon weed-whip line for the longest string 
   on the side played by the left hand (the low-C string).

  .050" monofiliament nylon weed-whip line for the 2nd, 3rd & 4th 
   longest string on the side played by the left hand.
  .040" monofiliament nylon weed-whip line for the 5th & 6th 
   longest strings on the side played by the left hand AND for the 
   longest three strings on the side played by the right hand.
  .024 monofiliament nylon fishing line for the 7th, 8th, 9th, 
   10th & 11th longest string on the side played by the left hand 
   AND for the 4th, 5th and 6th string on the side played by the 
   right hand.
  .015 monofiliament nylon fishing line for the 7th, 8th, 9th & 
   10th longest string on the side played by the right hand.
Attach each string to the hefty screw in the end of the body/neck 
using a bowline knot, the most useful knot I know of. Because 
there's so much stretch with this type of nylon string, I find it 
advantageous to pull each string as tightly as possible while 
cranking the tuner. Cut off any string-end that's more than 3/4" 
long or so. Once the instrument is strung and tuned, Screw in the 
end-pin screw a bit.

There are several tunings used in Africa. It seems that the tuning 
shown in this article stands out as a favorite. 

In addition to string stretch, the neck will bow some and the 
soundboard will sink in a bit. This all means that the first few 
day after stringing & tuning the beast, keeping it in tune will be 
a bit of a challenge! After several days the strings & everything 
else will have settled & tuning will not have to be often 
repeated. I used this type string on a simple cookie-tin banjo I 
made for my toddler daughter & (once stretched & settled) it's 
been about a year (later note: if you can believe 13 years now!)
since I have had to retouch the tuning.

MUCH LATER NOTE 1/10/2012: After an additional 15 plus years of diddling
with Koras, I must make a "modification" to the above measurements.
ALthough the Cake-Tin Kora will work fine as is, I now think the highest 
pitched strings (& each of the other strings except the longest) should 
be shorter - ie: the very shortest string should be on the order of 
210 mm long instead of what is shown above. I will hopefully revise 
the above measurements accordingly as I have time.
In the meantime, you can easily "stretch" the original tuning-gear/string
length by leaving the longest string where it is and then slightly and
uniformly plot each tuner/string end so that the space between each 
is a bit increased as you go up the neck - ending at the place high up 
the neck where the stringlength (of the shortest string) is 210 mm long.
Plot on a long piece of paper first. Another way to do this is to get a
piece of stretchy sewing elastic, temporarily affix it along the neck
and make marks on the elastic where the tuners/string ends are. Now 
(leaving the left end of the elsastic still attached) stretch it out
until the old shortest-string mark is now at the new shortest-string mark.
Fasten the right end of the elastic & make new marks on the neck.

Some of these pics show the instrument in mid re-stringing:




Re: different types of tuners:
The African-built kora normally uses leather rings slipped up and 
down the neck to tension/tune each string.

Alternatively, inexpensive individual guitar tuning machines (as 
described in the above article) are the easiest way to go.

Zither pins (several for a dollar from Elderly Instruments, 
Lansing, MI & elsewhere) can be used as well, although I have not 
tried them on a kora.

At least one photograph I have seen shows an African-built 
instrument using friction pegs (fiddle-type, only larger) . This 
may be an excellent method. (later note - 2011) I built my "Northern
Michigan Kora" using just such fiddle-type friction pegs and they
work fine)


Dennis Havlena - W8MI
Mackinac Straits, northern Michigan

Key words: build make diy kora west africa gambia senegal construct homemade home made

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