Tsugaru Shamisen

Goal: To learn how to build a musical instrument and to expand my wood working skills including how to use a plane, chisel, and file.

Background: The Tsugaru Shamisen is a three-stringed lute originating from Japan in the 16th century. The Tsugaru Shamisen is one of several variations of the shamisen. It has been played for over 500 years and is still very common today. The shamisen I am building in particular will be a gift for my sister, a shamisen enthusiast.
Build Process:

The shamisen I am building will look similar to this one

This is what my shamisen should look like when I finish constructing it. The sao (long, thing piece) will be a bit shorter than this picture suggests.


The instructions and dimensions I am using to build this shamisen are from Kyle Abbott’s “Shamisen of Japan” book. As far as I am aware, there are no other instructions available to me regarding the construction of a shamisen.


I began this project in late November of 2014.

Here are all of the important tools I used. From left to right, a power saw, wood saw, chisel, hammer, planer, file, and sandpaper. I also sparingly used a sharpie, ruler, various knives, scissors, and a vise.

This is the material I had to work with. I ordered calf skins for the head around this time as well.
I began my project with the sao. After cutting the basic shape out of the wood with a power saw, I had to plane the sides to get it to the right dimensions. I also made part of the sao round by planing.
After planing, I cut out the nakago joint on the bottom of the sao. This joint will later connect with the nakago and the head of the shamisen.
Here is the other end of the sao after I cut out the piece that will connect with the tenjin. The cutting wasn’t done very well, but it will be covered by the tenjin later on so it isn’t that important. In total, it took around 6 hours to make the sao.

After working on the sao, I made the dou. The dou is the head of the shamisen and forms the shape of a rounded square. I don’t have any pictures of the dou construction, but it took around 5 hours in total to finish cutting the dou. In the above picture I am piecing the shamisen together. The wooden pieces on the bottom are three of the four pieces of the dou. The long wooden piece on the left is the sao, and being held together at the top of the sao by tape is the nakago. All of these parts will later be glued together with wood glue.

Here is a better view of how the sao, dou, and nakago are coming together. The piece on the left is the nakago. The middle piece is one of the four dou pieces. And the piece on the right is the end of the sao.

And here are all three of the pieces glued together.

Afterwards, I glued the other three dou pieces on and the product so far is the picture above. The basic parts of the shamisen are together now with the exception of the tenjin. All I need to do know is put on the calf skin, the strings, and the tenjin. It has now been over a month since I started this project in November.

Once the calf skins arrived by mail, I was all ready to apply them on the shamisen. The process for putting on the skins are simple. At first, as you can see in the above picture, I had to get the skins wet by submerging them in water. I used two knives to keep the skins submerged. After 30 minutes of getting the skins wet, I had to tightly wrap the skin in a towel to get rid of excess water. After another 30 minutes of that, I was ready to apply the skins.

The book I was following instructed me to use glue to keep the skins on. I was then to use clamps and rope to keep the skin tight as the glue dried. But I did not have the resources to do this, so I kept the skin on using small nails which worked well as you can see above. However, as the skin dried, it tightened. It tightened to such an extent that I noticed the dou began to break apart under the intense pressure. Before soon, part of the dou had broken. This was a catastrophic error regarding the time I can finish the shamisen. I have to order a new skin and repair the dou. As of early January, the new skins are ordered and will arrive soon. The dou itself is being repaired now.
This is the tenjin before being cut out. It will go on the top of the shamisen.