Building a Cajon Box Drum

Not long after moving to Sheffield, I signed up with the Sheffield Samba band. I was inspired by the samba players who often accompany us through the streets at Santacon, their infectious rhythms echoing up and down the London streets and keeping the crowd moving and energised.

Samba has been one of the most joyful things I’ve done in years; I’m still a relative learner (I play shaker) but I’ve had the chance to be part of festivals, street parties, climate protests, and most importantly met and performed with the warmest, most joyful and passionate bunch of people, many of whom I count among my best friends in the city.

Samba band parties almost always turn into a jam session, and among other portable instruments which people tend to bring with them, a frequent star is the cajon – a portable box drum originating in Peru and supposedly created by slaves or migrant workers who would sit on wooden fruit boxes in the fields or at the docks and play them as percussion instruments.

(photo by Phil Bruxvoort on Flickr, Public Domain)

The modern cajon is barely more complicated than its fruit box origins – a wooden box, usually with thinner front and surfaces (often plywood as the many laminated layers make for a good sound), with a sound hole usually in the back. Many but not all cajons also have some form of snare wire or bells inside to add a buzz to the sound and dimension to the tone. But while simple, it’s an amazingly versatile instrument with a great sound – here’s an example of what somebody with real skill can do:

I’ve been lusting after a cajon ever since I first had a play with one at one of the aforementioned parties, and last year I finally decided to put together the bits and try building one myself.

I used a lot of ideas from this guide: – but I made a much simpler box, and going with recommendations from various forum posts I used MDF for the sides, because it’s strong but also uniform all the way through which gives a consistent sound (real wood often has varying density and even voids inside).

The other advantage of MDF was that it was cheap. In fact it was free; I found it in a skip – and as it came from a torn out set of kitchen units I was even able to find one piece with a set of readymade plastic feet I could repurpose for my majestic instrument!

(pictured before a thorough cleaning :P)

Before building a box I always start with at least a rough sketch, because my ability to lose track of which side overlaps which is almost unparalleled. In this case I decided that I wanted the top and bottom to stack with the sides to make it as strong a seat as possible. Originally I’d planned for a more complicated rabbet joint at the corners, but once I was looking at the MDF I realised it wasn’t really thick enough to cut into in that way and keep full integrity.

I glued and screwed the sides and top together, then screwed on a backpiece of 6mm plywood and a front face (the “tapa” or playing face) of 3mm plywood, both from my laser cutter supplier.

As you’ll see, the top corners of the tapa are left free so they can slap a little and add an extra dimension to the sound.

I also rounded off the top side edges of the box to make it more comfortable for sitting.

When it came to carving a sound hole into the back plate, I decided to add a bit of personality and sawed out a slightly clumsy heart using my handheld jigsaw.

The final touch was to add a snare wire. I followed the guide linked above, cutting the wires in half with my Dremel and screwing them to a length of broom handle held by brackets on each side.

However, when it came to tensioning the wires I couldn’t find any cable or anything else of the right length and strength to provide leverage. But digging through my bits box, I was able to find a halfway functional solution…

The cheesegrater did a decent holdover job, but it was definitely damping the sound, so a few months later I finally got some wire rope, ferrules and a turnbuckle, and replaced it. It’s my first time working with wire ferrules and I don’t have a proper swager to close them up, but I just crushed them in the vice which did a fine job.

A little more professional, if less unique 🙂 The turnbuckle allows the tension to be adjusted to fine tune the amount of snare.

Job done! I still can’t decide whether to paint it or leave it as it is and celebrate its skip-born jankiness, but I’m enjoying playing it and looking forward to the first party out of lockdown I can actually bring it out to play.

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