Cajon Sound Hole on the Back vs Downward Facing Sound Hole

Facebook Cajon Forum member Peter Wolf had some good observations about the downward facing sound hole: “… the sound depends on the floor, where you play. If there is concrete, the sound will be hard and loud, if there is wood, it will be softer and not so loud, an if you play on a thick carpet, there will not be very much sound. And if you rock with your cajon, the sound changes also.” Here is my edited response:

I agree that the design is not perfect. The floor does affect the sound. But a regular cajon has a sound hole facing backwards, away from the audience. If the situation is perfect the wall behind reflects the bass back to the audience and player. But if there is no wall? Or if it is metal or sheet-rock or brick, it will affect the sound. So both styles have sound hole placement issues. I play the bottom facing cajon mostly on a carpeted floor and prefer the sound vs on a wooden floor. I haven’t tried these on a cement floor or on a super-thick carpet. The thin carpet I use them on does not effect the sound much. I consider the floor issue as just a different variation of the same issue that a rear-facing sound hole has.

The other thing you mention, the effect of the player tilting backwards, I now consider to be a desirable feature. You can ‘tune’ these cajons by selecting the feet height that gives you the desired amount of bass. If you ‘tune’ it so they have just a little less bass when they are flat on the floor, you can add a little punch by angling the cajon backward as you play.

A big advantage of this design is the easy placement of the bass mic, it simply goes on the floor in front of the cajon, if the floor is wood I put a small piece of foam under it. Tilting the cajon has minimal effect on mic pickup and slight movements of the cajon have minimal effect on the mic. Whereas a cajon with a sound hole on the back has to have a mic stand of some sort and small movements in the cajon can effect or even hit the microphone.

With a mic on a backwards facing sound hole the player is mostly unaware of the effect of their movement on the mic placement. Dealing with rear sound hole issues has spawned a number of pricey, cajon specific mic’ing systems. With the downward facing sound hole you can always quickly see where the microphone is sitting. Any microphone will do and heavy bass microphones sit stable on a small piece of foam.

Perhaps the biggest issue I have with the downward facing sound hole is that it works too well, much of the sound is channeled forward. The cajon player doesn’t hear the full richness of the cajon. It’s easy to test this by simply leaning forward a little as you play, the tone and bass becomes more obvious. Sometimes I’ll sit directly in front of a low window or a solid door to reflect the sound back as I practice. This is a common issue with instruments that project their sound forward, trumpets, trombones etc. When evaluating the sound of any cajon it is best to also listen to someone else play the cajon.

 

Cajon Plans – Downward Facing Sound Hole and Inclined Tapa

How to Build A Cajon

This article describes the latest construction design and details of the Firebox Cajon ‘Open Hearth’ design.  It uses technical drawings, photos and text to help guide you through the process of building a cajon. Please see the related blog for a discussion on the features, pros and cons of this design.

This video has good audio recordings of two cajons with similar design. The main difference in sound seems to be due to the type of woods used.

Download the complete set of plans here

The plans are full of construction tips. Use the photos below to help understand the drawings and construction tips. The plans present two variations in the design: Option A uses long ‘bottom support’ pieces, Option B uses short ‘bass bar support’ pieces. The plans are free for your use but not for redistribution, re-purpose and not to be used commercially.

Assembled Parts

This design has an inclined front which makes construction a bit more difficult than a typical rectangular cajon. The side panels are based on ‘right trapezoids’ not rectangles.  However, because the pieces create a large rectangular sound hole, there is no need to cut and shape a large circular sound hole as with traditional cajon designs.

View of downward facing sound hole on a firebox cajon
Option A: cajon with downward facing sound hole using ‘bottom supports’. This cajon is a mix of Western red cedar and Sitka spruce
Option B: Short ‘bass bar support’ in place. This cajon is made from solid Sitka spruce.

The plans use 1/2 plywood for the cajon box. Many commercially produced cajons use plywood from hardwood trees, either birch or tropical hardwoods.  Many cajon makers use solid hardwood. Cajon builders usually recommend plywood with more plys and fewer in-sheet gaps. Marine plywoods can be used. Cabinet grade plywood produces a nice looking cajon. Specialty plywood stores can supply multi-ply hardwood plywood. I have also used 3/4 inch softwood plywood with good results, although the cajons are heavy.

Side Panels

The plans produce a cajon which is about 17 inches tall, which is short for some folks. Modify the plans to suit your height. I never cut all pieces at once. I start by cutting the right trapezoid shape to the height I want, then fit everything else to suit the sides. Cut the small notch at the bottom front after the bottom support/bass bar support is glued in place.

Left and right side panels with bottom support glued on.

It is important to get the cut on the front as continuous and clean as possible. You don’t want to have to sand the front surfaces. The tapa must seal well to maximize the bass, tone and volume. I typically make the top and bottom cuts, then the front cut, and finally the back cut.

Once  the sides are cut, measure the front angle.

Top Panel

Typically I’ll cut the top to the desired width, then cut the angled front.  When the front cut is perfect, I’ll make the back cut on the top such that the top fits the top of the side panels perfectly.  The front angle of the top panel must match the angle of the front of the side panels.

Bottom Supports

I prefer Option A, long bottom supports. I think they are faster to make and add strength. I glue them on before cutting the angled front surface.  This gives a cleaner joint. Option B, bass bar supports produces a bigger sound hole. I’ve not made enough cajons with these options to have an opinion on which produces ‘better’ sound.

Cutting the glued side panel and bottom support.
The dowels are added after the bottom support is glued on. The screw for a rubber foot will go between them.
Bass bar support with an additional thin strip of wood to reinforce the end grain. Not necessary if you are using plywood sides.

Bass Bar

The bass bar holds the bottom of the tapa and is the principle support element spanning the front. I use a 2.25 inch wide piece but it is worth experimenting with wider or even narrower pieces.  This piece is often used to carry the cajon so I typically round the edges in the back which is not shown in the drawing.  The front of the bass bar must be cut at the same angle as the front of the sides to ensure a tight fit of the tapa.

Bass bar with rounded back edges in place on bottom supports.

Bottom Panel

The simplest bottom panel is a rectangle.  The plans include a bottom panel with a cut out but I’ve not yet made one this way. I’ll update this when I can.  I round out the edges of where appropriate which is not shown in the plans.

The bottom panel is the lowest wooden piece on the cajon. View is from the back to the front. The bass bar spans the front of the cajon and sits on top of the bottom supports.

Rubber Feet

The back feet and front feet are different sizes. The back feet should be low. The front must be high enough to level the cajon. There seems to be some complex interactions between the width of the bottom panel, the width of the sound hole and the height of the feet. A small difference in the height of the feet can make a big difference in the sound of the cajon. In general too high is better than too low. I try different feet to get the best sound.  Although the plans suggest 0.75 to 1 inch I find myself using 1 inch most of the time. Rubber feet can be screwed to a scrap piece of wood and sanded to desired height on a bench sander.

Glue-up

The bottom supports are glued to the sides first and the dowels put in. When this is dry all pieces are glued. First the bass bar support is glued and clamped to the two sides and immediately after the top and bottom are glued and clamped to the sides.

Gluing the bottom supports (Option A) to the side panels.
Gluing the bass bar. This cajon uses bass bar supports, Option B.
I believe in at least 4 clamps on each side. But not too tight!

Corner braces are glued in after the box is dry.

Gluing triangular shaped corner braces between the top panel and the side.
Gluing corner brace between the bottom panel and the side. Only necessary if bass supports are used.

The Back

Here is an earlier blog about attaching the back.

I use 0.093 inch thick Lexan for most of my cajon back panels which I attach with 2 part epoxy and screws. If I use wood I am now inclined to use thicker dimensions for the back. The original plans suggest 4mm but I’ve updated them to 0.5 inch thick. I  think that for many types of plywoods 4mm is too thin.  Commercial cajons use thin, dense hardwood plywood  for the back.  The awesome cajons made in Peru use thick solid wood on the back and have a great sound. But they are heavy. If I was making a cajon out of hardware store plywood made from softwood trees, I’d use 1/2 plywood for the back panel as well. If I had dense hardwood plywood I’d use 4 mm or thicker.

The Tapa

The tapa is the front of the cajon, the striking surface. It is the ‘drum head’ of a cajon, it needs to flex so 2.5 to 3 mm is typical. I use 3 mm, 3 ply ‘birch’ plywood from the local hardwood store for my tapas. I believe the inner ply is not actually birch, only the thin outer skin.  I’ve also used recycled hollow door skins successfully. Older hollow doors skins were made from tropical hardwood and produced excellent tapas.  Commercially made cajons often use 2.5 to 3 mm, 5 ply birch hardwood plywood for the tapa.  5 ply birch plywood can be found on the internet from specialty plywood suppliers.

Screws hold the tapa in place. I’m inclined to use a lot of screws. My current thinking is the tighter the box, the better the sound.  The gaps between screws leaves possible air escape passages. Some commercial cajons now glue the lower portion of the tapa and use screws on the upper parts. Screws should be countersunk.

Round the Edges

The plans don’t show it but it is important the round the edges and corners, especially the top. A cajon with hard edges is difficult to sit on for long.

Snare Wires

Many cajons include snare wires pressed against the inside of the tapa to produce a rattle. There are many possible snare wire configurations. I don’t include any in these plans. Check out the photos in this Pinterest board for ideas. I think any of these snare wire designs would work in this cajon design.

The Finish

I use 100% pure tung oil on the tapa. It is all natural and the players hands will have direct contact with the tapa.  The box can be finished with just about any finish you’d like. It’s a drum so it will need to take some abuse.

Completed cajon with a 100% pure tung oil finish.

Time to Completion

Folks often ask me how much time it takes to make one.  That’s a tough question for me because I usually have several cajons in the works at one time and life in general often creates work gaps. And plywood vs solid wood will also effect the time it takes to make one.  Plus there are four steps, 1) gluing the bottom support to the sides, 2) gluing the box together, 3) gluing the corner braces and 4) attaching the back, where the adhesive should dry overnight. Depending on the finish you use it will need to dry days to weeks. I think a skilled woodworker with a good shop could cut and shape the pieces from plywood in an hour or two.  Gluing and clamping after that should take a couple more hours. Sanding and finishing a couple more hours.  Add to this time the overnight glue drying and a week is about right. I often take two weeks start to finish.

Gran Cajoneada 2018 in Lima Peru

Cajons Arriba at the end of playing.
Cajones Arriba! At the end of playing the Cajoneada tune everyone is asked to hold up their cajon.

The Gran Cajoneada is a public group play of a previously defined cajon tune performed in a large plaza.  The cajon tune to be played in 2018 was posted on the internet several months before the event. I’d practiced it off and on for over a month but there were still parts I wasn’t comfortable with. It was not my usual playing style and it took some slowing down of the posted video for me to get the timing and hit emphasis just right.  I was glad there was practice time at the Cajoneada in the morning.

A school group practicing at the Gran Cajoneada in Lima, Peru

On Saturday morning hundreds of cajon players started streaming into the Plaza Andres Avelin Caceres in San Isidro.  Peru has many organized cajon clubs and school groups who showed up, many in coordinated shirts and scarfs. A few groups were sponsored by corporations. As folks gathered leaders began practice sessions. Eventually festival organizers led practice sessions from the main stage.

A father and son sit side by side on cajons.
Families, friends and school groups gathered at the Gran Cajoneada in Lima Peru 2018

As folks entered the Plaza there were a lot of big smiles and cheek kisses, the Cajonaeda is perhaps a chance for old cajon school groups to re-kindle friendships and relive past events.

Cajons by Cajonearte for sale outside the Gran Cajoneada area. Photo by Cajonearte.

Morning practice events were broken up by group stand-up-and-stretch moments blended in with a bit of on-the-spot dancing. Most all public gatherings I go to lately have outrageously loud PA systems and this one was no exception, I was glad I had my ear plugs ready during the dancing sessions.

A cajon with a sticker with a stylized P in Peru. in
Most cajons at the Cajoneada were made in Peru.

The overall tune to be played was broken up into 4 sections. Each section was practiced separately then all played together several times. I was so focused on getting good photos and videos I missed many of the section practices. During the main playthoughs I found myself tapping lightly during the parts I was less confident with.  I was playing during the main playthoughts so I’d recommend this video to experience the tune: Gran Cajoneada

Many very nice cajons at the Cajoneada. This one is an ATempo, made in Peru.

Outside the staging area booths were setup selling food, clothes and musical instruments.  ATempo, LP and Cajonearte sold cajons — you could arrive without and buy a nice cajon right there. But I would not advise trying to play in the Cajoneada without having practiced to the video beforehand. The beats are fast and moderately complicated, there are a few change-ups and the sequencing of patterns is not completely linear.  The video of the patterns is quite good but even the slowed down patterns were sometimes to fast for me to follow at first.

Cajons held up at the end of playing.
For only a brief minute participants held up their cajons during the final moments of the Gran Cajoneada.

The ‘cajones arriba’ moment occurs at the end of the group play and is a wonderful photo op, but wow, is it short. You’d better be prepared. I was glad to get anything at all.

I only saw one Black Percussion Cajon. I don’t know if they are still in production.

Most children played C.Peru cajons. C.Peru cajons are the most frequently found cajon for sale in Lima but I’ve yet to find any information about them on the internet. Perhaps 1/3 to 1/2 of the cajons in the Cajoneada were C.Peru cajons with VP Cajons, PR cajons and ATempo cajons making up the remainder, more or less evenly split between them. All these cajon brands are made in Peru by Peruvian based cajon makers.  I only saw a few international brands of cajon and all were on the stage, having helped to sponsor the event.

These are the VP Cajons and C.Peru cajons belonging to the Colegio Matematico Alfa Group in Lima Peru.

They say that 80% of any video is the audio. Well, I messed up. I should have had a handheld recorder going the whole time. Something with a serious pad would have been good. The action camera was overwhelmed by the loudness, especially on the close shots. I found afterwards it has a Mic level option, which was set to High. Oh well.  I had the point and shoot set on -10 dB and it did better but even so the sound is often distorted.

Here are some video clips of the Cajoneada. The audio is often distorted so I turned it way down, this is more for the visual experience:

The Gran Cajoneada is one event in the 4 day Festival Internacional de Cajon y Perucsion held in Lima Peru every year. For more information on the Festival check out their Facebook page.

 

Should I Make and Sell Cajon Drums?

Recently Chad Wellman asked the Facebook forum ‘Play Cajon’: “I built my own drum and I get asked what brand is it. When I tell them I made it myself I get good reviews. Should I start my own brand of cajon drum and sell them?” Here is the response I wrote to him, although I’ve updated it and will continue to update it as I find out more.

Cajon on a table with other tables selling items at a craft fair.
Firebox Cajon for sale at the Sunnyside Market Craft Fair in Gustavus Alaska

The answer is… yes, but here’s some info to help you understand the economics that will effect your business.

The biggest seller of cajons in the world dominates the market. In the USA just do an Amazon search, you’ll see who they are. Lets call them ‘Big Cajon’. What you won’t see on Amazon are any of the 45+ USA artisanal cajon builders. Big Cajon is so effective at producing, advertising and distributing its cajons that many musicians don’t even know there are other brands.

The 45+ USA artisanal cajon manufacturers fill niche markets. The successful ones seem to focus on several marketing strategies: musicians, churches, custom woodworking/sizes, children/education and ‘local’.

Word of mouth between musicians works: in California drummers talk about Kotz Cajon; in the northeast, Dozzi Cajon; midwest, Lewi Cajon; and in Alaska, Lefty. To use this strategy you’ll need some musician friends or you’ll need to visit with drummers and get your cajons out there. This will take time. Part of the appeal here is that you can build cajons appropriately sized and padded for use as a drummer throne. And USA folks tend to be big, you can size your cajons to fit. (Links to these the builders mentioned above are found at: https://www.cajonsmadein.com/cajon-drums-by-manufacturer.html)

Many churches in the USA have music as part of their services and small churches often use cajons for percussion. I think this is a tough strategy to focus on but it has worked for a few cajon builders.

“Custom” is a hot marketing strategy in the music world and is worth keeping in mind. There are many awesome woodworkers making cajons that are works of art, and fantastic instruments.  DayDrums Cajon Co., Moravian Percussion and Custom Cajon Drums come to mind. I’d suggest looking at their websites and products to see if you will fit in that niche.

Custom cajon made in Alaska

Cajons are a great way to teach kids about rhythm, timing and to build coordination and team work. Small cajons for kids is a real market but parents are usually looking for inexpensive options so for the custom cajon maker it’s probably not a the best strategy to focus on.

‘Locally made’ is perhaps the best marketing strategy. For example, “Made in Florida” sounds good and will appeal locally. And there are environmental sell points to locally made cajons: “Sure, you could ship a plywood box full of air half way around the globe, or… you could buy a cajon made in your neighborhood!” Locally made enhances and diversifies the local economy.

Locally sourced wood can also have a big appeal to local buyers. Don’t be fooled by the manufacturers who tout ‘Baltic birch’. Sure it’s a great option but some of the best cajons in the world are made in Peru from solid tropical hardwood. And many cajon builders around the world use local woods with great results. There’s a cajon builder in Costa Rica who advertises his products as made from sustainability grown trees, it’s a sell point that works for him.

There are millions of people in your nearby urban area. The key to success is to get your product known locally. Sell your products at local craft fairs, music festivals and concerts. Donate your ‘extra’ cajons to your local schools, libraries and to small, acoustic music venues. Chat up musicians and leave your business card at local venues. On the internet create a Facebook page devoted to your products. Start a YouTube channel and add good videos demo’ing your cajons. Sell them on Reverb.com and Craigslist.

Big Cajon is owned by a very large musical instrument manufacturer, a big business that plays by the rules of big businesses. Most of their cajons are made in efficient factories in Asia. Their per unit cost for materials and labor is a fraction of what yours will be. They dominate the Internet market and the music store market for cajons. It is unlikely you will ever be able to effectively compete with them on a large scale. But at a local level you should be able to carve a niche, but it may take time and effort.

Don’t expect to make a living building and selling cajons. Most USA cajon makers are passionate woodworkers/musicians who have found cajon building to be an enjoyable and creative way to supplement their income.

Here are some links that should help out:

https://www.cajonsmadein.com/the-best-cajon.html
https://www.cajonsmadein.com/how-to-sell-cajon-drums.html
https://www.cajonsmadein.com/cajons-made-in-usa.html

The Music Shops of Plaza 2 de Mayo – Shopping for a Cajon in Lima Peru

There are over 115 music shops or stalls adjacent to Plaza 2 de Mayo in Lima Peru. Most are small, one room stores with big items stacked to the ceiling and small items multi-layered on glass shelves. Many shops specialize, at least partially. Some cater to brass instruments, others to percussion, keyboards, guitars or Peruvian instruments.

If you are a musician vacationing in Peru and have some extra time it’s a fun couple of hours to wander the streets and stop in a few shops. You never know when you might want to pick up an extra jawbone, zampona, quena or charango. Or a new saxophone, Martin guitar or Korg synthesizer. Almost anything, but look though I did I could not find a kettle drum or a banjo, although there was a healthy selection of sousaphones and harps.

A line of cajons stacked for sale in a music store
Cajons for sale in a music store in Plaza 2 de Mayo, Lima Peru

There are many cajon makers in Peru. The most common cajon in Plaza Mayo shops are the lower-end CPeru cajons which come in many sizes. Most CPeru cajons will sell here for less than 100 soles. They sound good but the joints may appear filled or rough and most are a bit small. Mid-range cajons such as VP Cajons will cost around 150 soles, they sound great and have some beautiful patterns dyed or painted. The high-end PR (Percusion Real) and ATempo cajons will be somewhere between 250 to 350 soles.

Jawbone percussion instruments for sale
Jawbones used as percussion instruments are found in several shops.

Some cajons will include a basic case but you may want to spring for a thickly padded case (100 soles) if you are going to put the instrument through airline baggage handling.  There are a few other cajon ‘brands’ for sale – Peru Percusion, RJ Cajon, ‘Peru’ and Nativ, some of which may be produced by the main manufacturers mentioned above.

Cajons and guitars for sale in Lima Peru
CPeru brand cajons come in many sizes.

Many shops sell CPeru cajons and quite a few have VP Cajons. You’ll have to look harder to find PR and ATempo cajons. In my experience no shop carried all ATempo models. So if you want a specific ATempo model you may have to look around. And some were in better condition than other.

Guitars, violins trumpets in a small music store in Lima Peru
Inside a small music store

The best way to get to the area is to use Uber. Here are two options:

Street view of Av Pierola showing many doors to small music stores
Av. Nicolas de Pierola. Each door is a small music store.

“285 Av Nicolas de Pierola” will drop you in front of a shop with a good selection of PR and ATempo models in excellent condition stored behind glass. From this drop-off walk towards the Plaza 2 de Mayo, there are shops on both sides of the street. At the traffic circle go right.

Entrances to music stores on Jiron Moquegua street

“870 Jiron Moquegua” will drop you more or less in the center of the music store area. The shops around 870 have many cajon brands and models, as do a few shops across the street. Around the corner check out the shops in and around mini-mall ‘Centro Commercial Plaza 2 de Mayo’. The Centro Commercial also has a few local food stalls and a public toilet.

Doorways to small music shops
Entrances to the Centro Commercial Plaza 2 de Mayo, Lima Peru.

Safety: I felt secure here, but this is not Miraflores or San Isidro – you won’t find a police officer on every corner. Your cell phone should stay in an inner pocket. Don’t bring more money than you need or a fancy camera. Keep a low profile. Once you step out of the music store zone the area seems less secure. If you’ve passed more than 2 non-music stores and can’t see an instrument hanging in the doorway of the next shop, turn around. Best to not wander the actual Plaza 2 de Mayo, admire it from the music store zone. Uber out of the area or walk up Av. Nicolas de Pierola to the west, away from the Plaza.

The cajita is a percussion instrument played by snapping the lid closed and by hitting the front or sides with a wooden striker.

There are many other music shops scattered around Lima, most will have cajons. There are also a few shops in Miraflores on Cantuarias street between Pje Tello and Alcanforas. They have a smaller selection of mid and high end cajons and the prices will reflect the location.

Charangos for sale in a glass case
Charangos for sale, Lima Peru
Sousaphone in a music shop window
A great place to pick up that  sousaphone you’ve always wanted.
Saxophones in a glass case for sale
Only a few shops had a wide selection of saxophones. This one is on Av Pierola.
Violins in a glass case for sale
Violins for sale in Plaze 2 de Mayo music store.

Colorful kit drums for sale at Plaza Mayo
Kit Drums for sale in a Plaza 2 de Mayo music store.
Music stores inside the Centro Commercial Plaza 2 del Mayo
Inside the Centro Commercial Plaza 2 del Mayo
Cajon demo in a music store
Store rep plays a cajon in a music store near the Plaza 2 de Mayo, Lima Peru