Which is the Best Material For the Tin Whistle? Plastic, Wood, Tin, etc


I love the sound of the tin whistle (also called a penny whistle), but one thing I’ve wondered for a while is which material is the best kind for a tin whistle? I decided to do some research and put together the information for myself, and for you of course!

Which is the best material for the tin whistle? All tin whistle materials have different advantages. One thing to remember is that the sound of the tin whistle is not dependent on the material, but there are other reason

  • For durability and ease of care, choose plastic
  • For price and ease of care, choose brass or aluminum
  • For appearance, choose wood

So you may be thinking… Aren’t tin whistles made of tin? Well, at some point that was true. Nowadays, however, the most common tin whistles are made from brass, but you can see them in PVC or ABS plastic, aluminum, and even wood.

Choosing the Best Tin Whistle Material

There are many aspects to choosing the best tin whistle for you, so I’ll break it down into different categories:

  • Sound
  • Durability
  • Appearance
  • Care and Upkeep
  • Price

If you’d like, you can use this chart I made to easily make a decision on what type of whistle material o get:

WoodMetalPlasticPriority Multiplier
Sound5551
Durability3451
Appearance5531
Care and Upkeep3451
Price2541
Final Score182422

You can change the priority multiplier and then multiply it by the category if you feel like one category is more important than another.

For example, here is what I would put if I was buying a whistle:

WoodMetalPlasticPriority Multiplier
Sound5553
Durability3453
Appearance5532
Care and Upkeep3454
Price2545
Final Score567876

In this case, metal tin whistles win for my specific priorities. Maybe your priorities will be different!

If you’d like, feel free to read on to see why I gave the tin whistle materials the scores I did.

Sound

Believe it or not, one surprising thing I learned is that it’s controversial whether the material chosen for a recorder or a tin whistle changes the sound noticeably.

The reason why this is controversial is due to how the tin whistle works.

How the Tin Whistle Makes Sound

The sound of a tin whistle is created from the oscillation of air across the labium (the “point” of the ramp that is in the mouthpiece), not from the resonance of the tin whistle itself. The air is shaped by the bore of the tin whistle, but the bore whistle itself doesn’t vibrate and make the sound.

Material Type and Resonance

The body of a guitar resonates meaning that a small vibration from the strings causes the entire instrument to vibrate, thus creating the sound. In the case of these types of instruments, the material chosen makes a big difference in sound. Which is why cheap guitars can sound so different than more expensive guitars.

A tin whistle, on the other hand, the material makes less of a difference as the construction of the whistle itself, because the whistle isn’t resonating in the same way, instead, the movement of the air itself makes the sound.

That being said, if you were to listen to wooden, plastic, and metal whistles, you will definitely notice a different sound. It’s not exactly clear whether that’s 100% from the design of the whistle, including the shape of the bore or the mouthpiece.

It’s still possible, in spite of this, that the material of the tin whistle can still make a difference, even if only a little bit.

TL;DR

You’ll just have to listen to the whistle yourself and see if you like the way it sounds. Just know that the tin whistle material doesn’t guarantee a certain type of sound.

For an example how multiple types of tin whistles made of the same material can sound completely different, check out this video:

What About Wood Whistles?

I admit, I have been researching a lot about this subject because I want to get it right, and I stumbled on this research study. Wood is an interesting material because it can expand and react to differences in humidity. It’s possible that wooden tin whistles could respond similarly and change over time based on the texture and porosity of the wood.

Durability

Now, this is a category where you’ll see a larger difference between categories.

Plastic takes first place for its durability. Although not invulnerable, plastic can take more of a beating than the other materials. A tin whistle is often made from metal, and one unfortunate aspect of metal is that it can be dented easily. Plastic whistles on the other hand will retain their shape.

Furthermore, plastic notoriously will last almost indefinitely if not left exposed to the sun or certain chemicals. Water won’t corrode plastic, though, so humidity isn’t something you need to worry about.

Metal tin whistles take second place because they share the same kind of longevity if taken care of as plastic, but some metals can corrode if exposed to air and water over time. Often tin whistles today are made of brass, with a water-resistant plating.

The biggest downside to metal as a tin whistle material is that often the tin whistle material is made from a softer metal which bends easily. Therefore being vulnerable to dents.

Wooden tin whistles take third place because of their sensitivity to the environment. If you expose your wooden tin whistle to a rapid change in temperature or humidity, or you neglect to condition the wood with oil (if it needs it), then you risk cracking or warping your instrument.

Appearance

Although looks can be deceiving, it definitely is nice to have an instrument that looks nice as well as plays nice.

Paint can be make a huge difference, so depending on the make of the whistle, it may not matter at all what the material is.

If you’re looking for the traditional tin whistle appearance, than go for metal. Silver-colored or brass-colored tin whistles fit right into what you expect.

Some wood whistles are also very beautiful, and have an earthy feel. Whether you go with a more unfinished look or more polished, wood is a great material. There is really no substitute for real wood and provides a nice aesthetic.

Plastic whistles’ appearance are completely dependent on their paint job. Many look really great, though.

Care and Upkeep

Just like getting a dog, it’s nice to know how much work is going to be involved with owning a tin whistle. Note: you will never have to clean up after your tin whistle unless you drool through it.

For that reason, it’s good to think about upkeep before buying a tin whistle.

One care step that you should take for any tin whistle is to make sure and clear it of moisture after you are done playing. You can blow through the whistle at a high speed (please, please, please cover the mouthpiece blade), or just wipe the tin whistle firmly (not violently), mouthpiece side out. This care step is valid for any tin whistle type, although for different reasons.

Plastic, again, takes first place simply because it’s comparatively impervious to the elements. Whether you’re using an ABS or a PVC whistle, you won’t have to worry about about any kind of upkeep. The only thing to be careful of is prolonged sun exposure. Leaving your tin whistle outside or in direct sunlight will eventually damage plastic (or wood, for that matter).

Because that’s not generally something to worry about, especially if you have a pouch for your tin whistle, plastic gets the highest marks here.

Metal takes second place, although this is a close one. Metal tin whistles generally require little to no maintenance. The one difference here is that if you do not clear the moisture from the whistle after playing consistently, you can rust the tin whistle (depending on the type of metal). If you don’t clear the moisture out after playing a plastic whistle, you might get dirt and grime buildup, which is fixable, but rust may be more difficult to tackle.

Wood takes third place. Although in truth, there is very little additional maintenance required other than clearing out moisture, the consequences for not doing so can result in a warped whistle or mouthpiece.

Wooden whistles also can dry out (just like furniture), and may need to be oiled very lightly on rare occasion. This should be done carefully since over-oiling your tin whistle can cause problems and attract additional grime.

Besides maintenance, additional care is necessary for wooden whistles. The main being to avoid extreme temperature changes. If you step outside holding your tin whistle out of its case into the dead of winter from your nice heated home, this causes a rapid change for your tin whistle, which could mean curtains for your beloved instrument. Not the good kind of curtains, either–I’m talking about the bad kind of curtains.

Lastly, water is the enemy for wood. While you can wash out a plastic or a metal tin whistle with water, you have to be very careful with wood since saturating the wood can cause irreparable warping. (not the Star trek kind of warping either. Although that’d be a super cool life hack.)

In summary, wooden whistles require the most maintenance out of all whistle types… however, this still isn’t very much at all since tin whistles are very simple in construction.

Price

So, it turns out that even the material can impact the price of the tin whistle. This is due to several reasons–if a whistle is stamped out with thousands of others, it will definitely be cheaper than a handmade whistle.

Metal whistles take first place for price. Several of the cheapest tin whistles are brass or aluminum and cost around $10. This is the most common material around and thus you can find the cheapest tin whistles with this material.

Plastic whistles take 2nd place for price. You can find ABS plastic whistles at almost any price point, but there are several at the lowest price points alongside the cheapest whistles.

Wood whistles are a rarer breed and thus are more expensive to find.

Choosing the Best Tin Whistle Mouthpiece Material

So, after all of that, we learned about the general materials that tin whistles are made out of, namely metal (brass or aluminum commonly), plastic, and wood, as well as their advantages and disadvantages. Many, if not all of the same rules apply, with one exception being the slight difference in sound a mouthpiece makes.

How Does the Mouthpiece Affect the Sound?

The sound of a tin whistle is created from the wind passing over and under the labium. The material of the mouthpiece blade has the most potential to change the sound.

Again, though, because the way the mouthpiece is shaped makes a bigger difference, you’d be hard pressed to hear a discernible difference if two whistles had the the exact shape and construction from two different materials.

A wooden mouthpiece feels different, and so ultimately it is up to preference, just know again that the durability of a wooden whistle mouthpiece is affected by humidity (like your breath for example).

Should I Get a Wooden Tin Whistle?

I love the appeal of wooden whistles, however one thing that puts me off of them is the extra care necessary. Even though it’s very minimal, it’s still an extra thing to think about.

That being said, a wooden whistle is still cool! If you get a chance to try before you buy, that might help you decide if it’s worth the investment.

Peter Mitchell

Founder of this website. Lover of sound, music, hot sauce, and technology.

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