Make a Drum of Your Own

If you want the joy of creating a beautiful object and invigorating music, make a drum.

| September/October 1984

  • make a drum - assortment of six drums
    Make a drum to enjoy beautiful, musical crafting experience.  
    Photo by Kay Davis

  • make a drum - assortment of six drums

After years of experimenting with crafts as varied as weaving, kite making and building electric dulcimers, my husband Augie, and I have finally hit on the undertaking most suited to our temperaments: Drum making! Appealing to both the artist and the musician in us, these simple instruments offer visual beauty and exciting sound. And because each creation is unique, we wait eagerly for each drumhead to dry so we can enjoy the new tone. What's more, our instruments sell in craft and music shops.

But enough of our enthusiasm. Let's get on to your instruments and see how to make them!  

Collecting Your Materials

To make a drum, you'll need some sort of a suitable body (more on that later), a leather punch, scissors or a cutting knife, and—since no form of tanned leather will serve your purpose well—a piece of rawhide. We order 2' x 3', ready-to-use rawhide swatches from our local hobby shop. We're also lucky enough to have access to a couple of free goatskins per week from a farmer down the road. To remove the hair from these small and easy-to-handle hides, we soak them in a mixture of one can of lye to 15 gallons of water. Goatskins, however, are considerably thicker than purchased rawhide, so we use them only for larger, deep-toned tom-toms.     

Of course, for most purists who wish to start from scratch by using totally untreated skin, a trip to the slaughterhouse is probably in order. There, fresh hides, roughly 6' x 8', can be bought. From personal experience, though, we don't recommend this route. First of all, the newly stripped skins weigh 75 to 85 pounds each and are slippery, gory, and all but unmanageable. Furthermore, our nauseating journey through the "kill room" to the salt pits where the skins were stacked sent us on a frantic search for vegetarian recipes! The rawhide then had to soak for three to five days (we used a 35-gallon trash container), after which, our source claimed, the piece could be scraped free of hair and any remaining organic matter by "shaving" it with a file. We soon discovered, however, that we lacked the time, energy, and dexterity such a process calls for. (Perhaps those more experienced in this area will have greater success than we did.)

But though that task turned us off, searching out bodies for our instruments became one of our favorite pastimes. Nurseries offer a wide variety of ceramic and pottery containers that can make suitable drum bodies, as can the casks and wooden planters such outlets generally stock. Pipes, well casings, fittings, and tubes of nearly every dimension and material, from clay to plastic, can be found at local plumbing stores. (We've even made a fine drum from a one-foot piece of heating  duct pipe.) Furthermore, potter's seconds, flea markets, and garage sales should never be overlooked. As a matter of fact, because a drum can be either single- or double-headed, almost any hollow form will do. In our initial enthusiasm, both my sourdough-starter crock and an abandoned birdbath pedestal were transformed into percussion instruments! In addition, if you are fortunate enough to own a lathe, you can turn beautiful wooden bodies. (White cedar, or arborvitae, was highly favored for drums by the Chippewa Indians, who patiently whittled and burned out tree trunks.) Hollow logs that are rot-free and show no signs of splitting or cracking are also great drum bodies, but they aren't easy to find.

Most of these suggested bases require no work other than locating them. However, if you plan to use plastic duct pipe, sand its edges to prevent it from cutting the stretched skin. You also may want to decorate these rather plain-looking shells (we use bright acrylic paints); this, of course, you'll need to do before lacing on the drumhead.

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