In Spanish, “cajon” just means “box”. In English however, it refers to a box drum. It originated in Peru, where black slaves used shipping crates as improvised percussion instruments. There are lots of stories about the banning of traditional African instruments and so on, but my guess is that these are fanciful myths. More likely, the cajon is just another example (like spoons and washboards) of the long tradition of poor people using whatever is at hand as percussion instruments.
Cajons have become popular today because they do a good job of mimicking a modern drum kit, but at volume levels that are easier to manage when accompanying acoustic instruments. More portable too !
Today’s cajons are a far cry from their humble shipping crate origins. They are still ‘just’ plywood boxes, but usually made today of top grade Baltic birch, sometimes with elaborate veneers. The playing surface (the “tapa”) is extra-thin (1/8th inch) 3-ply.
The dark one was my first effort. I built it with 3/4″ stock. It has a solid wood seat. I originally tried 1/4″ material for the tapa but it was too dead. It now has 1/8th” stock just like the others. The second from the left was mark ll. It was made with 1/2″ material. The thinner stock necessitated adding internal reinforcements to the joints. I felt the solid wood seat in the original model deprived the player of some of the sound options you can get from playing right at the very top of the box. So in the second version, I ditched it in favour of a thinner plywood top. (My daughter provided the art for that one). The two at the ends are 5/8ths material (or the metric equivalent). This seems to be about the ideal thickness. Using dado joints and biscuits, the case seems plenty robust to withstand all the sitting without the need for additional supports. Generally, the more wood and glue you add to the internal chamber, the less resonance you are likely to get from the instrument
And of course, you need a sound hole. Usually at the back. It doesn’t seem to matter much whether it is towards the top or bottom. But closer to the top means you also have a convenient way to carry the thing. It can be a simple hole, like a guitar sound hole. Or you can get a little fancier.
The tapa is always attached with screws rather than glue. Two reasons. One, it allows you to get at the inside if you need to adjust the snare (more on this below). And, you can also experiment with backing off some of the screws at the top to provide a “snap” sound like a rim shot. You usually see screws omitted from the top corners of commercial cajons for the same reason.
Traditional Peruvian cajons do not have an internal snare. Most examples you see in contemporary settings do. Sometimes these are just guitar strings stretched behind the tapa to create a ‘buzz’ sound when tapa is struck. The better answer I think, and the one I used in all the above, is to use an actual snare drum snare. However, it is not stretched across the back as it would normally be. Instead, you cut the snare in two. Attached to a cross-brace, the snare wires lie against the top section of the tapa like a brush. In each of the above instruments I experimented with the amount of snare – much like the plywood – going from a lot, to a little, and finally settling on an amount that seems about right to my ear.
Then of course, there is the art work. Each is an original, but all draw heavily from traditional Inca/Mayan motifs in honour of the drum’s humble origins.
Check out Heidi Joubert on You Tube to see an expert player in action (and some lessons).