Ceramic Animal Whistles

Students will create an animal whistle to further their understanding of the pinch technique and the properties of clay. The animal whistles will be bisque fired and then painted with either watercolor or acrylic paint. Glaze is not recommended as it often plugs the holes of the whistles. Definitely practice this one before showing it to the kids, the whistle mechanics are finicky and can be a bit tricky to achieve for impatient students. In my classroom we talked about animal symbolism and students chose their animals based on what they symbolized. There are so many objects you can build around the whistle base, have fun!

Lesson Level:

  • Middle School Advanced
  • High School Beginning
  • High School Advanced


Bear Whistle

CA Content Standards:

  • 2.0 Creative Expression
  • 3.0 Historical & Cultural Context
  • 5.0 Connections, Relationships, Applications

Art History & Vocab:

  • Pinch Pot
  • Slip-Score-Knit
  • Hand Building
  • Pinch Pots
  • Sphere
  • Whistle/Ocarina
  • Pitch/Notes

The whistle is an ancient folk instrument attached to cultures around the world. According to The Whistle Shop website, historians believe the small, hollow-pitched sound-making object originated in ancient China around 2500 B.C. when Chinese night watchmen blew into acorns to alert of an approaching enemy. Other early whistles were made from bones and clay. As an early whistle-making material, clay remained a valuable and durable source for whistle makers into modern day

Ancient Aztecs, as early as the 12 century A.D., created whistles and flutes out of clay. Artisans also used wood and bamboo but clay had a special significance. To the Aztecs, clay represented the singing mother earth. The Aztecs played the “Dead Whistle” in death ceremonies when an important leader died. They carried the body through the streets where 100 or more “dead whistle” blowers played. The intention of blowing the clay whistle was to communicate with the spirit-world and prepare the souls for the afterlife.

Source : http://www.ehow.com/about_6631912_history-clay-whistles.html


  • High or Low fire clay
  • Kiln
  • Reference Photos of Animals
  • Sample whistles like Ocarinas
  • Various flat sticks, popsicle/tongue depressors to make whistle mouthpiece
  • Round took picks/skewers/pencils to make pitch holes
  • Acrylic Paint or Watercolor (optional)


(these steps are a suggestion, you will find your own flow for the lesson from experience)

Step 1: Go over the art history and explain the tradition of ceramic musical instruments.

Step 2: Demonstrate how to create a hollow form using a pinch pot and a slab. Their pinch pots have to have thin, even walls or the whistles will not make noise. Also, the smaller the chamber the higher the pitch of the whistle. (students should have already experienced basic pinch pots in a previous lesson)

Another method of creating a hollow form is to fold over a pinch pot into a “taco” then slip, score, and knit the edge closed. When using this method, students will create a mouthpiece at one end of the taco form.Step 3: Have students create two pinch pots and join them together or show them how to work a single one into a hollow sphere.

Step 3: AFTER students have made their whistles into animals the sound holes and mouthpiece holes can be cut. The reason for waiting until this point to cut the holes is to prevent students from warping the sound hole when adding animal details. Also, the closed hollow form traps air in the center and helps the wet whistles keep their form when being poked and prodded by the students while adding their decorations. Sometimes it is fun to cut the whistle beforehand, so students get the instant gratification of having a working instrument. Just remember to re-check the whistle mechanics before the work gets bone dry.

Step 4: The cutting of the whistle holes is the most difficult part of this project. Many times, if a hole is not cut properly the whistle will not sound. Also, if the student has made the walls of their whistle too thick or uneven the whistle will not sound. Patience is rewarded with this portion of the project.

Sharpen two popsicle sticks on the concrete outside so that one edge comes to a flat point, like a wedge. These will be used to cut your sound and mouthpiece holes.

The mouthpiece will be cut by sticking one end of the popsicle stick into the end, all the way until you can feel it hit the other side of the chamber. Leave this stick in place.

Place the other stick into the flat top of the whistle until you can feel it hit the other stick, about as far in as the walls are thick. Two more cuts will be made on either side of the first, until you hit the other stick. The last side cut will be made at a 45-degree angle cut towards the mouthpiece/edge of whistle.

This newly formed box will be cut out entirely so that all of the edges are clean. Remove the other popsicle stick and clean up the mouthpiece hole. If there are any goobers in this hole or on the edges of the sound hole, the whistle will not make sound.

If you were to cut the whistle in half, this is what you should see:

whistle side

To make your whistle sound, you must line up the sharp edge of the 45-degree angle wall with the path of the air that is blown in from the mouthpiece. If you look through the mouthpiece you should see the edge of the angle squarely in the middle of the path. These whistles work by splitting the air that is blown into them. As long as the edge of the sound hole is sharp/clean and located directly in the path of mouthpiece hole the whistle should work.

Students should at least start to cut the whistles themselves, they may need help adjusting to create a good sound. Have them cut at least one hole in the side to change the pitch of the whistle. Too many holes though and they may lose their sound.

There are tons of examples on how to create the basic whistle shape and make the whistles sound. I have found a link from Ceramic Arts Daily: http://ceramicartsdaily.org/pottery-making-techniques/handbuilding-techniques/making-music-with-clay-how-to-make-a-ceramic-ocarina-2/

And a video from high school teacher, Frank Eager, demonstrating the technique: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nhEanfGoFtM

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