If you’re here, it’s most likely because you need to know what kind of wood to use when building your own cajon. There is some debate about whether plywood or solid wood is best for cajon construction and even further so, what species of wood to use. We’ll go into detail here.
The playing surface or tapa is almost always built out of plywood. Tapas need to be thin because they are the vibrating surface of the drum, just like the skin on a conga or bongo. These pieces are 1/8″ or 3/16″ thick for proper resonance and response. Plywood is the ideal material for the playing surface because it can be manufactured thin enough to resonate well and has enough strength to withstand the stress of playing. Plywood layers are arranged in a cross-grain pattern. This allows thin pieces of plywood to be much stronger than solid woods.
While you won’t find any definitive answers on the internet about the topic of solid woods vs plywood in cajon building, I will tell you that many builders say that solid pieces of high quality wood produce more tone than a drum built out of plywood. Our best guess is that the internal glue in plywood somewhat dampens the sound. However, I will say that some very high end drums that have beautiful tone are built out of high quality plywood. My Live! Series Cajon is built out of birch plywood and has great tone.
Some builders will tell you that the type of wood doesn’t matter much to the sound of the drum, but I don’t believe that’s quite true. While no formal studies have been done about the tonal properties of woods in cajon building have been conducted (to my knowledge), common sense would tell me that the same rules that apply to drum shell building apply to cajons as well.
Some woods rarely grow to sizes suitable for cajon building. In those cases, some builders join together multiple planks. This may or may not offset the advantages of using a solid piece of wood.
For most people building their first cajon, I recommend 1/2″ thick baltic birch plywood. It won’t sing quite like an exotic hardwood will, but the drum will be much easier to build and will still sound wonderful if the construction and design are right! Baltic birch is the plywood of choice because it is known not to have interior cavities like other types of plywood have. Make sure you have a sharp blade when cutting it, because the laminate tends to splinter if you aren’t careful.
Remember that the sound of the cajon comes mostly from your design. I would recommend perfecting your design using plywood before moving on to solid wood.
Check out my tutorial on how to build a cajon: How To Build A Cajon