PRE PS -  MUCH  LATER  NOTE  (March 2013):This is one of my first attempts, 
long ago, at building a Kora. My idea of measurements, and construction came 
completely from careful study of photos, a few e-mails and the very scant info 
I could find at the time on the just budding internet. This Kora I built plays 
and sounds fine - having said that, instead of this "northern Michigan Kora,  
I'd suggest following my more recent plans on my web site: 
( http://DennisHavlena.com ). Most of what you see about this "northern 
Michigan Kora" is still applicable but now that I have seen, played and 
learned a lot more about the instrument, some of my earlier ideas about 
such things as string gauges, tuner arrangement, bridge dimensions etc. 
have changed.

A few decades ago I became mesmerized upon rounding a 
corner at Disney's Epcot Center and seeing a fellow in 
flowing Afican robes wonderfully playing on the west 
African Kora. I am not sure but he may have been Vieux 
Diop, from west Africa, who, internet research tells me, 
has played at Disney a number of times.

My fascination with this very melodical and rhythmically 
intricate African instrument was immediately kindled by 
this first hearing.

The Kora could be thought of as a sort of "stringed 
Kalimba" -- in that the notes of the scale alternate 
back and forth from right side to left side of the two 
planes of strings - 10 on the right and 11 on the left.

It's sound is decidedly beautiful -- I am puzzled by 
why it is not more popular amongst folk musicians in 
non-African parts of the world.

In any event, what follows is a short description of 
how I built a Kora , using materials readily 
available here in the north of Michigan. The results 
more than met my expectations.

This article should easily contain enough information 
needed to build one of these instruments for yourself.

Being that it's not fretted, things like string-length 
are not terribly critical. Very little actually is fussy.


Big gourds (aka calabashes) can not be grown here in 
northern Michigan's harsh climate. The best we can grow 
are nice figure-eight shaped "bird-house" gourds whose 
largest diameter measures around 9 inches or so (these 
are nicely thick-walled and make great banjo gourds).

I've looked for years, in vain, for a gourd that would 
work for a Kora. No gourds approaching this desired size 
are ever available in these parts. I once did find a 
beaut -- at Pier One Imports -- but sadly, it was being 
sold as a Halloween "pumpkin" -- complete with eye, nose 
and mouth cut into it, which pretty much ruined it for 
my musical instrument purposes!

Thus this plaster "gourd".

In a nutshell, it consists of six layers of regular 
cheese-cloth, each layer saturated with plaster of 
paris. The cheese-cloth layers are applied to an 18" 
diameter kid's beach ball, which was easily removed 
later by letting the air out of it. It was not necessary 
or desirable to grease-up the beach-ball -- it came out 
easily once deflated.

Using rubber gloves, I first draped & formed a dry piece 
of cheese-cloth over the beach-ball, then saturate it 
with lots of plaster, worked in thoroughly with my 
hands. I got another piece of cheese-cloth & repeated 
the process -- and repeated -- and repeated until all 
six layers of cheesecloth were in place.

I used a BIG drop-cloth -- my understanding wife is 
still pointing out plaster splatters.

Once cured, a hand-held saber-saw cut the resultant 
approximately 3/16" thick "gourd" to the desired shape 

While surely not as strong as if made using fiberglass 
resin etc, the plaster "gourd" is quite sturdy and 
appears no more fragile than a guitar body.

Speaking of fiberglass -- that was my original 
intention, but one whiff of the resin (even when 
positioned underneath our stove's exhaust fan) -- 
promptly convinced me to forget the venomous, fumey 
fiberglass -- at least until warmer outside weather!

Later note: A coating of fiberglass was eventually 
applied over the sanded & varnished "gourd", 
strengthening it noticeably.

I Tite-bond glued a 1/2" wide strip of 1/8" thick wood 
(using a hundred spring clothes-pins as clamps) to the 
inside of the open edge of the "gourd", angle-tapering 
the thickness at each end so the ends overlap. Also, I 
sealed the inside and outside with three coats of 
Min-Wax varnish/stain. "Tudor" color! Looks somewhat 
like a real gourd now. Pretty nice actually. The varnish 
adds additional rigidity.

By the way - For the wood strip, I used basket-making 
edging/rim wood, available at craft stores, that I had 
left over from the heigth of my basket-making days. 
The advantage here being that the stuff was already 
curved & required no bending/steaming etc.


The traditional Kora neck is a hardwood stick with 21 
leather strips carefully and tightly woven around that 
act as string tuners. In Africa nowadays you see a great 
many Koras using fiddle-type wooden friction pegs 
instead of the leather rings. While I've never used the 
rings (imagining that they'd not be the easiest to 
maintain and use), I've had great luck using friction 
pegs and even guitar type steel tuning gears. For this 
instrument I used regular $1.50 apiece fiddle type ebony 
friction pegs and recommend this approach highly. I 
borrowed a peg-hole reamer, which is quite easy to use. 
I am very happy with the whole friction peg approach. 
The neck I used was 49-1/8" long by 3/4" thick by 2" 
deep piece of clear hard (sugar) maple (any hard wood 
should work). Absolute straightness is not at all 
important, there being no frets etc.


African Koras have an animal skin tightly stretched 
across the open end of the gourd -- I used standard 
16" diameter fibreskin type (fake animal skin), drum 
head & carefully cut the "gourd" so that the drum head 
fits nicely over the rim.

I processed the "gourd's" rim by working Titebond glue 
into the somewhat rough perimeter edge, leting it dry, 
then leveling-off the perimeter edge with a sandpaper-board. 
Hand sanding smoothed and slightly rounding the corners 
that contact the drum head.

As for modifying the drum head to accept the handle and 
brace sticks, the elongated holes in the fiberskin were 
made by first plotting their position and then carefully 
melting each hole using a small soldering iron. This 
worked very nicely and the resultant holes show no sign 
at all of tearing once the handles and brace were inserted.

The handle sticks are 11/16" diameter hardwood 
dowling, 23-1/4"" long each. The brace stick is of 
5/8" dowling, 18" long. Because the commercially made 
drum-head is not as pliable as wet cowhide, 
I purposely looked for BOWED (not straight) 5/8" 
dowling. Our local Home Depot store had quite a 
selection of bowed dowel rods to choose from. With 
this bowed dowel rod inserted through the holes in 
the head and underneath of the two handles, it was 
much easier to draw down the head/handle/brace 


The concern initially was to be able to properly mount 
and tension the drum head. In Africa, they use a wet 
animal skin that is held in place with a great many 
tacks. Once dry, the skin stretches and automatically 
tensions the head. Unable to take this approach with 
my contraption, I came up with a VERY effective and 
simple head mounting and tensioning method.

I screwed and glued a 4" diameter disk of 3/16" 
plywood to the middle of the top, center of that part 
of the hardwood neck that is inside the "gourd" (see 
photo above). I cut eight short 5/8" diameter sticks 
(from dowling rod) so that when glued and screwed 
radially to the plywood disk, their ends protruded 
through the "gourd" about 5/8" or so. I used regular 
spade bits to drill through the "gourd". This is all 
easier to visualize by simply looking at the photo 
above. While the radial dowel affair may look heavy 
and cumbersome, in reality it is not. This tensioning
system works perfectly.

The idea here was to drill holes in the rim right over 
the dowel, then very carefully drill screw-holes into 
each dowel. This all worked fine. I took pains that 
the guide hole drilled thru each dowel was of a proper 
diameter so that there was no threat of the screw 
splitting the dowel end.

Besides 8 screws thru the rim and into the ends of the
dowels, I used 2 screws, through the rim and into the
neck wood. This all made for the fiberskin durm head 
being solidly pulled down in ten places.

Given that the head has three "bones in it's nose", it 
can't be expected to lay perfectly flat & unwrinkled, 
even with considerable tension on the rim. Wrinkly is OK 
here -- take a look at the many photos of African Koras 
on the internet to confirm this.

One other important point: Although the Fiberskin (aka 
mylar) is very tough (witness the constant torture it 
receives from hardwood drumsticks!), it's not a good 
idea to secure the handles ONLY by means of their 
going through the holes in the head (as is the usual 
method in African instruments). I drilled four holes 
vertically through the rim of the drum head, 
immediately underneath where the handles pass. Then I
drilled four corresponding holes into the underside of 
the handles. I screwed four small screws through the 
rim holes and into the underside of the handles. This 
completely takes any "handle-strain" off of the drum 
head itself and makes for a very solid handle mount. 
You can just make out two of these screws in the photo 


I very successfully used a 5" long, 3/8" threaded 
eye-bolt for the tie-off (see photo above). The 
advantage here is that there's no string pressure 
exerted on the drum-head. Clamp the shank of the bolt 
(protected by two pieces of scrap hardwood) in a vise - 
leaving just the eye exposed. Carefully hammer the eye 
over, to about a 45 degree angle. I next drilled a hole, 
vertically, through that part of the neck that protrudes 
through the bottom of the "gourd" to receive the 
eye-bolt. When drilling this hole, I made sure that it 
was far enough away from the gourd so no part of the 
eye-bolt got closer than 1/4" or so from the drum head. 
Two nuts secure this eye-bolt.
A cord is tied between the small projection at the top 
of the bridge to the tie-off ring. This cord very 
nicely keeps the bridge from tipping over.


For securing the heavier gauge line to the tie-off 
ring, I favor the old "Bowline" knot. It is one of 
the rare knots that doesn't slip when tying nylon 
monofilament line. It is easy to learn to tie and the 
only drawbak it has is that it somewhat weakens the 
string. During tuning experiments, the most usual 
palce I got string breakage is at the knot. This 
problem is not unique to the bowline however. With 
this in mind, I used a "double cinch/clinch knot" 
used by fishermen to secure hooks to their 
monofilament fishing line. Fishing websites recommend 
lubricating the knot with a small gob of spit to make 
it easier to pull tight. The photo above shows these 
two knots.


In Africa, little, if any, attention is paid to 
"absolute" or concert" pitch. in addition, I find that 
one instrument might be based in the key of F (the 
lowest string on each side being tuned to "F"), while 
another Kora might be based in the key of C (lowest 
strings tuned to "C"). I am by NO means an expert 
here, but I prefer the C-based approach, and have used 
C on the last few Kora's (& Kora-like instruments) I 
have built.

                                                  HIGH-PITCHED END

    30 LB (.022 inch) fishing line    C#-| |
    30 LB (.022 inch) fishing line    A--| |--F#   20 LB (.018 inch) fishing line
    50 LB (.029 inch) fishing line    F#-| |--E    25 LB (.020 inch) fishing line
    50 LB (.029 inch) fishing line    D--| |--D    25 LB (.020 inch) fishing line
    60 LB (.031 inch) fishing line    B--| |--B    40 LB (.024 inch) fishing line
    60 LB (.031 inch) fishing line    G--| |--G    50 LB (.029 inch) fishing line
    60 LB (.031 inch) fishing line    E--| |--E    50 LB (.029 inch) fishing line
   .050 inch weed-whip line           C#-| |--C#   60 LB (.031 inch) fishing line
   .050 inch weed-whip line           B--| |--A    60 LB (.031 inch) fishing line
   .065 inch weed-whip line           A--| |--F#   60 LB (.031 inch) fishing line
   .095 inch weed-whip line           D--| |--D   .040 inch weed-whip line (or
                                                   100 LB fishing line)

                                                  LOW-PITCHED END

Regular monofilament fishing line is used for the higher-pitched strings.
Weed-whip (aka weed-whacker) line is used for the lower pitched strings.
Use ROUND, un-serrated weed-whip line. Lately ridged or square line
is being sold - avoid it.



In my many years of diddling with the Kora, I have 
found that VERY little info is available, on the web 
or elsewhere, as to what type and thickness of 
monofilament line African players use on their Koras. 
After having broken countless strings & conducted 
numerous (& ongoing) experiments, I have found the 
following gauges/types of string to work nicely on 
this Kora. I use a combination of various gauges of 
both regular monofilament fish-line as well as 
off-the-shelf monofilament weed-whip line. See chart 
immediately above.

"Strengths" (in pounds) of fish-line needed are; 20 
LB, 25 LB, 30 LB, 40 LB, 50 LB & 60 LB. This line is 
available in a wide variety of strengths (rated in 
pounds). Wall-Mart & K-mart carry many gauges. 
Cabela's big Sporting Goods catalog carries all of the 
required gauges, but I have found that their huge 
retail stores do not always carry all gauges. One of 
the hardest to find was 40 pound fish line. I finally 
did find it at a down-state Cabelas store, in the form 
of 40 pound, monofilament "leader" line. Dunhams and 
other such sporting goods stores often have what K/Wal 
Mart doesn't. It just takes a bit of looking around. 
You can always go the Cabelas mailorder route.

                  Weed-whip line:
Diameters of the weed-whip line needed are:.040",.
050",.065" and.095" K-mart and Wal-mart do (at least 
sesonally) carry most of the gauges of weed-whip line 
needed. Also, Tru-Value * Ace carry a wide selection 
of this line. Try lawn-mower specialty shops. One 
caution however is to avoid buying grooved or square 
line. While these MAY work, go for the regular round 
monofilament line. In the winter, I have been able to 
have the people at our local Tru-Value hardware store 
go into the basement to get rolls of this stuff for 
me. If you simply cannot find a particular gauge 
weed-whip or fish-line, just use the next smaller size 
& get used to the slight "looseness" & slightly lower 

This chart shows the diameter in inches of various 
strengths of monofilament fishing line (note that 
different manufacturers make slightly different
diameter line for a claimed strength):
20 LB = .018"
25 LB = .019"
30 LB = .020"
40 LB = .024"
50 LB = .028"
60 LB = .030"
80 LB = .037" (will work in lieu of .040" weed-whip line)


Monofilament nylon line stretches prodigiously - Not 
just on a Kora, but on any instrument. This is an 
unavoidable but fortunately short-lived situation. It 
takes about two or three weeks or so before the things 
completely settle down. Once thus settled, the 
instrument can go for months without requiring retuning.

It's not only the strings that stretch -- the drum head 
does so as well. Also, the bridge settles down into the 
head & various other wrinkles will likely appear. This 
is all normal and this all settles down in about the 
same amount of time that it takes for the strings to 

My procedure is to tune up the instrument right after 
it's made. Then keep retuning it a couple of times daily 
(it will drop in pitch regularly). After a day or two 
it's playable, so long as you realize that strings will 
have to be retouched quite often, until it's
completely settled (in a few weeks). It also helps some 
manually pull on each string just after they're mounted
to take a bit of the newness out of them.

During this settling-in process, remember to not just 
tune the instrument to itself, but tune it up to pitch 
(low note on the right side corresponds to middle-C on 
the piano). Day by day the thing holds it's tune better. 
In a week's time, you scarcely notice that it's going 
out of tune & after a couple more weeks, it's all 

There's an up-side to this 2 to 3 weeks of string 
stretching/numerous retunings -- during the process, 
you'll invariably become quite familiar with the string 
layout, pitch, intervals etc. Trust me on this!


NECK: 49-1/8" long by 3/4" thick by 2" deep

"GOURD": 16" diameter at drum head. 10-1/4" deep



HANDLES: 11/16" hardwood dowel, 23-1/4" long. 6-3/8" 
     protrudes from edge of "gourd"

CROSS BRACE: 5/8" hardwood dowel, 18" long

     am no drummer, it seems that this is what's called
     a standard "16 inch" drum head) 

BRIDGE:  5/16" thick, 2-3/8" wide, 6-3/4" tall (less foot)         

BRIDGE "FOOT": 1/4" thick, 2" x 3" - bottom corners &
     edges liberally rounded off to keep from
     puncturing the head

SOUNDHOLE: 3-1/4" diameter

TOTAL WEIGHT: 6 pounds


Distance, in millimeters, from point A (end of neck) to 
the center of each peg hole:

  point A
     | 61   118  175  220  268  312  350  330  426  459
right|  o    o    o    o    o    o    o    o    o    o                              
pegs |  |    |    |    |    |    |    |    |    |    |                             
     |       vertical view of part of the neck                                                                  
left  |    |    |    |    |    |    |    |    |    |    |       
pegs  o    o    o    o    o    o    o    o    o    o    o       

     32   85   143  192  241  288  333  371  408  444  480  

All but the very last photo is from the CD I used to make available:


This last photo shows my current home-made Kora - completed 8-11-2012:

Dennis Havlena W8MI, 
Straits of Mackinac, northern Michigan

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

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