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Preparing your Zills

Zills are hard work when the elastic isn't done properly, but well prepared zills are a pleasure to play. Here's my advice on getting them right, first time.

Note. Since writing this how-to, I've discovered a fast and fabulous no-sew technique! Check it out on this blog.

1. Materials - Buy good quality zills and elastic. You'll also need Brasso, a cotton rag, lacquer, pins and a needle and thread.

The zills should be 'tuned', which means they make a clear, pleasant-sounding ting when tapped together, not an ugly twang. Also, all four should produce the same note, regardless of which two you hit together. It's also vital that they have two wide slits for the elastic, not circular holes. I recommend Turquoise brand zills, available in Australia from Azziza (Maria Masselos). Beginners should buy the regular size; upgrade to the large size once you feel competent.

Choose elastic that is quite heavy, woven and non-roll. NEVER use the elastic supplied with your zills - it is too narrow! It must be 20-25mm wide: the wider it is, the more stable it will be and the less tight it has to be sewn. The elastic in these pictures is 20mm, a little narrower than I'd like, but I didn't have time to source the perfect one. You'll need to buy a 40cm length. Skin-toned is preferable If you can only find white, dye it or colour it in with a texta to close to skin tone. Black elastic is not recommended, it will stand out unless you have very dark skin.

2. Polish and lacquer the zills - Brass tarnishes very quickly unless it's lacquered. Doing it before inserting the elastic is far easier and will keep your zills shiny for many months.

Polish thoroughly on both sides with Brasso and a clean rag. Make sure not to touch the polished surface with your fingers - use a cloth or cotton gloves. Polish off all residue. Apply several coats of lacquer. Spray lacquer is easiest - follow the instructions, and don't be tempted to handle your zills until they are absolutely dry! Repeat on the other side.

3. Cut and insert the elastic - Cut the elastic into 4 equal sized pieces, and cut the corners off to create a (blunt) arrowhead on each end - see pictures below. Starting from the INSIDE of the zill, insert a narrow end of elastic, then carefully pull it through, making sure it bunches up evenly. Don't let the elastic fold in half; you want it to gather across its whole width. Pull through to half the length of elastic, then do the same with the other end. On the inside of the zill, elastic should be bunched up tightly and evenly.

inserting elastic

Cut the corners of the elastic, and insert from the inside

pulling elastic

Pulling the elastic through

outside elastic

Make sure it gathers evenly

inside elastic
pinning elastic

4. Measure and pin - trim one side of the elastic so it wraps once around your finger. Keeping the first side wrapped tightly, wrap the other side around it firmly and pin into place. It should be firm enough that it barely wobbles. Remember, you're using the middle finger for two zills, thumb for the other two.

5. Sew it up - carefully remove the zill from your finger/thumb without moving the pins. Use a double thickness of good thread the same colour as the elastic, and with a fine zig-zag stitch, sew all the way across where the pins are, and along the edges. Now trim back the excess elastic on the inner and outer ends.

Make a small mark on the two zills that you've sized for your thumbs, so you know which ones are which.

6. Ready to play!! - Enjoy your new zills.


finished on finger

The finished product!

Other quick tips

#The varnish will eventually chip off. To fix it with the elastic still on, polish any tarnished areas carefully, avoiding getting Brasso on the elastic. Once polished clean, touch up with paint-on lacquer or clear nailpolish. Don't worry about touching up the inside (the playing surface).

#If a zill becomes just a tiny bit loose, an emergency save is to use pliers (or a pen lid, toothpick, safety pin... whatever's on hand!) to make space on the inside of the zills, and insert something to take up a bit of slack - a piece of toothpick or prong from a plastic fork both work well! But you will need to re-do the elastic properly as soon as you can - once the elastic starts to degrade, it will go quite fast.