Aboriginal people of northern Australia have been making
didjeridus for a long time and today are recognised as master
craftsmen of the instrument. In Arnhem Land, the process of
making a didjeridu typically starts with the selection of
a suitable living tree - usually one of a number of eucalyptus
species - that has been partially eaten out by termites. This
is the most important step in the process of making a didjeridu
because the condition of the tree and the size and shape of
the hole that has been created by the termites will determine
whether the finished product will be a good instrument or
A skilled Aboriginal craftsman is able to select the right
sort of tree through a combination of knowledge of 'country'
and an intimate understanding of termite-tree interactions.
When a suitable-looking tree is found, a piece of bark is
removed from the tree at about chest height to reveal the
wood underneath. This exposed wood is tapped lightly, either
with a finger or the back of an axe, and the sound produced
tells an experienced didjeridu maker the extent of the hollow
in the tree trunk. If the craftsman thinks the tree is suitable
material, he will start cutting at the base of the tree with
an axe at a height anywhere between his ankle and his knee.
If during this process the tree does not appear to have a
sufficient hollow, the tree is left standing and is abandoned,
and a new search for another tree commences.
When a suitable-looking tree with a potentially
good hollow is cut down, the Aboriginal craftsman will visually
inspect the termite-eaten hollow of the felled trunk to assess
the size and shape of the chamber. If this chamber is judged
to be too big or too small the tree will be discarded, and
again, a new search begins. However, if the chamber looks
to have the correct dimensions, a portion of the felled trunk
is cut off to produce a log that is anywhere from 4 to 6 feet
long depending on the instrument pitch desired. The termite-eaten
chamber of this log is inspected again at both ends, and particular
attention is given to the size and shape of the hollow at
the smaller end, which will become the mouthpiece in the finished
instrument. Ideally, this opening should be about 3 cm in
diameter as this gives the most comfortable and effective
mouthpiece size, though anywhere from 2 to 4 cm is also acceptable
depending on the individual preferences of the didjeridu craftsman.
At this stage, if the craftsman is satisfied with the outward
appearance of the log, he will test its potential sound quality
by playing into the log just as he would a didjeridu. If the
acoustics does not meet his expectations, the log is discarded
and he embarks on searching for a new tree.
When an ideal log with good sound properties
is located and cut down, a curing process may be necessary
to ensure the resultant didjeridu that is produced is stable
and does not develop cracks. Curing may involved soaking the
termite-hollowed log in a freshwater billabong for a number
of days and up to several weeks. Saltwater curing is sometimes
used by coastal Aboriginal groups, and rapid-dry curing under
a mound of hot sand and burning embers - a less conventional
form of curing - may also be used. Air curing, where a termite-hollowed
log is allowed to dry naturally over a number of days or weeks,
is probably the most common method of curing in contemporary
After sufficient curing, the process of transforming the
raw log into a didjeridu commences. This involves stripping
the bark from the log and giving shape to the emerging instrument.
Sometimes, the shape and wall thickness of the de-barked raw
log is already ideal, in which case little else is required
to finish the instrument apart from trimming both ends of
the instrument. More often than not, the raw log requires
excess layers of wood to be removed in order to reduce the
thickness of the walls of the sound chamber. In addition,
some rasping and cleaning out of the bore at the larger end
of the log may also be required to remove internal obstructions
and to 'amplify' the sound of the instrument.
Lastly, a rim of native beeswax may be applied
to the mouthpiece for comfort or to reduce the size of the
mouthpiece opening, and the instrument may be painted with
various totemic and other designs specific to the group that
the craftsman identifies with.