How to Build a Cajon Drum Like a Pro

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Cajon drums produce a professional percussion sound and are easy to build in a typical hobbyist woodworking shop. Joe Cruz is a professional Cajon builder and provides the basic information needed to build one including a scaled drawing.The Cajon (pronounced ka-hone’) is a wooden percussion instrument that is simple to make, can be played as a fair substitute for a full trap set, and is used by professional musicians to deliver a full, rich sound in studio or live performance venues. This style drum has been around for hundreds of years, and can be built by most woodworkers with basic tools and skills. To help us get up to speed on the nuances of producing high quality sound in a Cajon, I consulted with Joe Cruz, a veteran Cajon designer and builder from Minnesota who has built Cajons for many professional and amateur musicians. Joe has been refining his Cajon design for about a decade, and he was willing to share his secrets for those of us who want to take a crack at building our own. Joe even provided his personal scale drawing to simplify the building process if you want to take this on. If you are still not convinced, click here to see a video of Joe playing a Cajon that he built.

joe-playing-small - How to Build a Cajon Drum Joe is a well known professional musician in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, skilled on stringed as well as percussion instruments. He is also an accomplished woodworker, with a stellar portfolio of furniture as well as turned pieces. When he started building Cajons, he found it to be a great way to mingle his music and woodworking passions into a single project. Since building that first Cajon, he has continued to hone the design to achieve a richer sound, experimenting with materials and even incorporating a snare into the design (this is cool!).Don’t be fooled by the modest appearance of these drums. These relatively simple boxes deliver professional sounding percussions, suitable for a variety of performance and studio environments. Cruz said; “when I work in small venues where it is not practical to bring in a full set of drums, the Cajon allows me to produce nearly any sound I need while requiring very little space. In fact, since it also serves as my chair, it doesn’t really require any additional space. It is also not as loud as a traditional trap set, so it serves as a way to scale back the volume for quieter venues. Mostly, I love the unique, rich sound, and the portability and versatility of the Cajon”.

Tips for making a Cajon

The Cajon can be built to a size that makes it ideal for the person using it. Because you sit on it while playing, the dimensions should provide a comfortable sitting platform for the intended drummer. Joe finds that the dimensions provided in his drawing produce a comfortable Cajon for most people, but obviously the dimensions can be adjusted as you see fit. The larger you build it, the lower the frequencies it will produce.

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How to Build a Cajon Overview

You essentially will be building a big six sided box with a hole in it. First use rabbet joints to attach the sides to the top and bottom. The back is then fastened into a rabbet that is milled in the back edge of the top, bottom and side panels, and the front is simply attached with screws placed into pre-drilled holes.

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Square up the sides

Joe cuts the playing surface (front) to the specific size in his plan (see plan here), and he uses a clamp to pull the sides into alignment with the front prior to attaching.

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Attaching the front

Joe attaches the front with wood screws. This panel is visible while you are playing so you might want to use stainless steel or brass screws.

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Let the top corners “slap”

Screws about every 3″, but at the top corners, leave about 4″-5″ with no screws. Leaving this gap creates a more powerful slapping sound when the drum face is struck.

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Built in snare

Many of Joe’s drums go out as strictly a drum, but some customers request a built in snare. If you want to attach a snare, you will simply attach guitar strings on the back side of the front head, stretching them so they are tight against the back panel. If you want to get fancy and allow their tension to be adjusted, there are several ways to do this. Joe has used guitar tuners, Hammered Dulcimer tuners or simple spring mechanism.

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Sound port

4″- 5″ hole is milled in the back which will serve as a sound port. The hole is centered from left to right, and positioned 1/3 of the distance from the top to the floor. Some people prefer that this be milled into a side panel because that allows the back to be used as another playing surface, and because the back is made of a thinner material it produces a different sound.

Materials

Joe prefers Baltic birch plywood for all components. The top, bottom and panels should use 1/2″ thick material, while the back which can use 1/4″ thick material to keep it lighter, and the front head is 1/8″ Baltic birch plywood. Baltic birch is a great choice for musical instruments as it is high quality plywood with no gaps, and it produces a clean sound with no unwanted vibration.Finish. Finishing is an important step for Cajons, as it serves to protect the instrument from some of the normal wear, and it can also help preserve the sound. Joe uses a wipe on poly on his drums and says “finishing the drum helps preserve the sound quality, as seasonal changes can alter the pitch and sound of the drum.”

The other finishing step that Joe takes is to apply turquoise dye to the body of the drum. While this step is purely aesthetic, it is the signature look of a ‘Joe Cruz Cajon’, so if you want to take this project ‘all the way’ you can make yours turquoise too.

A Few Final Tips for Building a Cajon

Joe provided some final suggestions for anyone who might be interested in building their own Cajon:

  • When selecting the wood for the box, be sure to use straight wood, not warped wood.
  • Joe likes to install rubber feet on the bottom of his Cajons because it saves the floor and drum from scratches.
  • Construct the box square, so the back and front fit well. Measure the diagonals carefully and be sure they are identical before the glue cures.
  • When attaching the front head, if the 1/8″ plywood has a slight bow, attach the crown to the front edge (crown facing in), so the upper corners stick out slightly. This will give the corners more slap.
  • After the front head is drilled and attached to the box, I trim it to the contour of the box using an edge trimming router bit.
  • To get the upper corners to slap more (this gives a more lively sound), I stick a wedge in the upper corners between the head and the box, for a few days, which creates a slight gap between the front head and the box.
  • Be aware of burning up hours playing your drum in your shop. It’s highly addictive, and now you have been given fair warning.
  • Special thanks to Joe Cruz for sharing his secrets to building a high quality Cajon. You can learn more about Joe through his web site www.joecruzmusic.com.

Photos By Paul Mayer and Joe Cruz

Discussion
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59 Responses to “How to Build a Cajon Drum Like a Pro”
    • WWGOA Team

      Joe uses 1/4″ Baltic birch plywood which is available from some lumber suppliers and woodworking specialty stores. In some cases he covers this plywood with veneer, such as the Cajon pictured in the article.

      Reply
    • Theo Hogers

      1/8 inch (3mm) plywood you may get from the store around the corner works fine.
      However 4mm plywood already gets to heavy and sounds to boxy for my taste.

      If you can’t find 1/8 inch or 3mm plywood in your local shop or just like a lighter tapa,
      you may want to look online for “airplane” or “aircraft” plywood.
      It goes up in thickness from a way to thin 0.3mm (1/80 inch)!
      The stuff is normal plywood but these thin variants are often used for building aircraft.
      A 2mm to 2.5mm version will give a nice light playing tapa.

      Reply
  1. Neil

    Is there an error on the plan drawing provided? On the drawing of the side panel. Should the dimensions be; 12 x 17.5 ?

    Reply
    • WWGOA Team

      Yes, good catch, and my apologies. That side panel should be 12″ x 17.5″. I’ve built 4 cajones myself using this plan; you’d think I would have caught that!

      Reply
  2. Thom

    Can a cojon also be made out of solid wood? Are there any advantages or disadvantages as far as the quality of sound? What solid wood work best? Thanks.

    Reply
    • WWGOA Team

      Yes, I have seen cajones that were made from solid wood side, although a plywood drum head is still normally used. This needs to be quite thin to gain the resonance that you want for an effective drum, so 1/8 baltic birch plywood is ideal.
      Any solid wood species should work as long as you use a baltic birch plywood head

      Reply
  3. Dean R

    I’m going to be building a custom Cajon and wanted a professional opinion on my design.

    I’ve noticed that a lot of Cajon players will tilt back on the instrument when playing. Leaving a gap between the floor and the bottom of the Cajon. I can only imagine this does two things. Makes it more comfortable to play and improves the sound by allowing some of the vibrations to escape from underneath and be focused toward the front.

    I’ve used this observation to design the Cajon pictured in the link. My design allows for the playing surface to be more ergonomic to the player without tilting it. And the opening in the front caused by the raised bottom panel and bottom sound hole should focus more sound toward the front of the Cajon.

    http://i.imgur.com/Wn6pz7M.jpg

    My questions are, will the additional sound hole on the bottom degrade the sound quality in any way? If I add a sound hole on the bottom, is there a need for one on the rear panel? And last, are there any other considerations I need to keep in mind when building this to maintain the best sound quality possible?

    Thank you for any advice you can lend.

    – Dean –

    Reply
    • Customer Service

      Hi, Dean. Hello and thanks for your question. I don’t know much about acoustics, but I showed your design to my 15 year old son who is an avid drummer and also plays a cajon, and he speculates that the acoustics and ergonomics should be quite good. He thinks you would want to also leave the back port. In terms of tips to maintain good sound quality, use the best quality 1/8″ plywood that you can find for the drum head as that is your primary strike surface, and be sure that all of your joinery is tight. I like the idea of a light bead of glue on the drum head in addition to the screws, even though it makes replacing the drum head a bit more hassle. Also, don’t forget the countersink the screws on the drum head as it makes it uncomfortable to play if they are protruding.

      Reply
  4. Rory O'Brien

    I made one with a flexi ply. The boom is better and the snare really gives a better rattle.

    Reply
  5. Cesar

    I love it, would you mind please show the video of the step by step on how to make a Cajon mr mr joe ? I am a amature wood worker and I make it as a hobby but now it realy grow and have my heart on it. Having been retired I am planning to work on any project that can give my means, because I dont have work for the last 1 1/2 year. Thank you so much being a part of your million of wood enthusiast. Thank you so much and God bless you !

    Reply
  6. Joe Collins

    I sure can’t hardly wait till find the time to start on this drum … sure sounds like it’s going to fun to make

    Reply
  7. bwear

    The 1/4″ back sits in a 1/4″ recess. How is the back fastened in to the sides / top /bottom ?
    It seems to me that there is not the space for any screws .

    Reply
    • Customer Service

      To attach the back you just put a bead of glue into the rabbets and set the back in place. Then put clamps around the perimeter to hold the back in position until the glue dries. No need for mechanical fasteners.

      Reply
  8. Mason

    I am building my own cajon for a band I’m in, but we only have 1/3in wood to use for the entire thing, will that effect the sound in a bad way?

    Reply
  9. jASON

    I cant get the link for the plans to work! Could you give me another link?

    Reply
      • Customer Service

        Good morning Jason,

        Thank you for your patience. Below is the updated link for the Cajon Drum:

        How to Build a Cajon Drum – WWGOA.PDF
        file:///C:/Users/kmcfarren/Downloads/How%20to%20Build%20a%20Cajon%20Drum%20-%20WWGOA.PDF

        Then on the Please let me know if it is still not working.

        Have a great weekend!
        Kate

        WWGOA Video Membership

        Reply
    • Customer Service

      Hi Jason,

      Currently, our IT/development team is aware of the issue and looking to get the link/plans to work correctly on the site. We will let you know as soon as we get an update. I am very sorry for any inconveniences this may cause.

      Sincerely,
      Kate
      WWGOA Video Membership

      Reply
  10. Jesse Caligiuri

    Hello there, I know you must be a very busy guy so thank you for taking this moment to read this email.
    I am 26 years old living in Chico CA with the grandiose idea of building cajons using locally sourced materials and opening a store front for lesson entitles “J&J’s cajon connection and rhythm workshops” I plan to work with my dad Joe Caligiuri who asked great prove in his wood building and restoration projects.
    I am writing to you today because I simply want to get as much information as possible from the person who has taken on the endeavor of building these amazing instruments. Any info including, specs, ideal materials, expected expenses and overall operating costs would be tremendously helpful. YouTube tutorials, blogs, etc. Can I ly get me so far.
    Thank you again and I hope to hear from you shortly.
    By for now, Jesse A Caligiuri

    Reply
    • Customer Service

      Hi Nelson. Sorry, but unfortunately we do not have any additional information on this.
      Thanks
      Paul-WWGOA

      Reply
    • Customer Service

      Hi John. You can make the roundovers using a router or a palm sander.
      Thanks
      Paul-WWGOA

      Reply
      • John

        Thank you on the reply. Were the roundovers done prior to assembling as the pictures make it look as though they were made after assembly and I am not familiar with this technique.

        Reply
        • Customer Service

          Hi John. These roundovers are made after gluing up the carcase and before attaching the drum head.
          Thank
          Paul-WWGOA

          Reply
  11. John

    What dye would you recommend that would produce the turquoise color that finished his Cajon with.

    Reply
  12. Jim

    Would recessing the tapas (to a flush depth) into a rabit cut:
    1. Offer any protection to the plywood edges
    2. Affect the sound
    What is your thought on this?

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Customer Service

      Hi Jim. It would offer protection on the edges of the tapas surface. I don’t know about how it might affect the sound as I have not tried it. I have built four cajones in the way that is described in the article and have not had any problems with the plywood edges getting damaged.
      Thanks
      Paul-WWGOA

      Reply
  13. Jim

    Would recessing the tapas (to a flush depth) into a rabit cut:
    1. Offer any protection to the plywood edges
    2. Affect the sound
    What is your thought on this?

    Thanks!

    Reply
  14. Jalberto

    Hi there, just one question here, what is the preferred gauge of the guitar strings used?thanks

    Reply
  15. Richard

    Thank you joe for all the information and to all the others input to this interesting topic. Im a woodworker for many years and my son wants one of these. Glad to see a link to Amazon for the decent bit of birch for the front. I’ll be buying this. You do a great job on your one, love the dye bit, nice. Would you possibly take a photo of the snare position in the drum. Im not into acoustics but would like to get this right, and even be able to adjust it for my son also. Thanks for all the good advice. Richie

    Reply
    • Customer Service

      Hi Richard. I am sorry, but we are no longer in contact with the author of this article. You want to position the snare very close to the front panel without touching it.
      Thanks
      Paul-WWGOA

      Reply
  16. Al Chamorro

    NB Ticket 17120 I want to make a Cajon for my grandson. Can you suggest dimensions better suited for a 3 year old.

    Reply
    • Customer Service

      Dear Al,

      Thank you for your patience. In regards to your question-

      I would suggest scaling it down so that hi feet touch the floor when he sits on it.

      I hope this helps!

      Sincerely,

      Paul
      Woodworkers Guild of America Video Membership

      We’d love to have you be a part of our community. We are convinced you will enjoy the benefits of becoming a member and having access to the best instructional how to videos and professional tips. We would like to offer you a special promotion for your first-year membership.

      https://go.wwgoa.com/C12711

      Reply
  17. Rhonda

    I know this is an old article, and it’s probably simple math, but what are the dimensions to cut the top and bottom piece? Thank you!

    Reply
    • Customer Service

      Hi Rhonda. The top and bottom are 14″ x 12″
      Thanks
      Paul-WWGOA

      Reply
    • Customer Service

      Hi Ari. Any PVA woodworking glue would work fine. I use Titebond 3.
      Thanks
      Paul-WWGOA

      Reply