Tag: skin

Lefima Tambourine repair (Job No: 1273)

This is one of those little jobs that I sometimes struggle to fit into to my schedule. If you persevere through the (too) long video, you will get an understanding of why I am always behind with my work!

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I have two tambourines that the musician wants to be able to use. These are old, and have a really nice retro sound. As can be seen from the photo above, a lot of the jingles are damaged and a good number are missing. The player also wants “calf” heads put on. After discussion, he is getting one goat and one calf skin.


The first thing to make is a pattern so that I can repair the jingles I have, and then make the replacements.

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With the jingles complete, the new heads go on. Below you can see the second tambourine in the re-heading jig. I use a lot of jigs; they are a good way to maintain consistency on repetitive jobs, they invariably raise the quality of the finished item, and they make my life easier in the long run. Tool and jig making is one of the corner stones of how I work. “A bad workman blames his tools” because a good workman doesn’t have bad tools.

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The finished tambourines, both looking a bit special (even if I say so myself). But actually I have put a lot of effort in to get to this point, and seeing them looking and sounding this good is rewarding – job satisfaction.

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Calfskin Bass Drum (Job No: 1267)



The very first thing that needs to happen is to un-rope the drum and see what lies beneath.  The heads have obviously been causing a problem because on has been screwed to the shell.

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The job is now straight forward, but time consuming.  Whilst I am soaking a head until it is really wet and pliable, the drum shell can have the star marks removed – it looks like these were stickers, because it is the glue that has been left behind.

I also treat the bearing edge a process I have detailed in 1233: Vintage Bass Drum (pt 2).

With everything ready I stretched the head onto the shell using my drum press.  Because neither head had a collar I did one side first then the other.

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With the splicing and whipping on the rope redone, I rope the drum whilst it is still in the press to maintain tension.  It also saves a lot of hard work pulling rope as hard as possible and the subsequent suffering with blisters!



Small Bass Drum (Job No: 1257)

It is funny how that what I am repairing goes in cycles; this winter I was doing timps after timps, now it is all vibes and drums. Here is yet another little drum that needs a new head.

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As usual I forgot to take a before shot, but all I have done is put the new skin in the drink and taken the old heads off the drum. This is the old style fittings where both heads pull against each other, so the tension bolts are as long as the drum is deep, and the lugs are little eyes that they pass through.

Now I have the pieces, I cut the split head off its flesh hoop so that I can reuse the hoop, onto which I lapped the new skin. I do this first so that the lapping has a bit of time to dry out.

Next all the metal work, which is nickel plated, gets cleaned up, and the threads degreased. You know how oil can soak into your hands and make them stink, stained, dry and sore? Well the same happens to drum heads, because it is the same stuff (more or less) that we are covered in. DO NOT USE PETROCHEMICAL PRODUCTS ON DRUMS WITH NATURAL HEADS. If you come across a drum smothered in grease – it has been worked on by a moron!

With all the metal work finished, I now turn my attention to the drum shell. The critical part is the bearing edge, so this gets cleaned and lightly sanded, finishing with an almost polished surface. What I am wanting is a nice surface over which the skin will slide; what I don’t want are fibres of wood standing up like little spikes.

So now I have got the bearing edge how I like it, I now seal it to stop water going in and lifting the wood fibres. Candle wax, being made from paraffin which is an extract of oil is exactly what I don’t want to use to seal the bearing edge. Beeswax would be OK, but I use tallow which is a boiled sheep. I rub this into the wood using friction to generate heat enough to melt the tallow so that it can run into all the microscopic gaps in the wood fibres. I go over the drum a second time but also go down the sides a little so that the inside of the flesh hoop doesn’t stick to the drum shell as it dries. Finally I use tallow to lubricate the threads on the tension rods, and where there is metal to metal contact.

With everything clean and slippery, now the easy part – I put the drum head on, and the job is finished.

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Vintage Bass Drum (part 1) (Job No: 1233)

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It seems like I have been occupied taking lots of small steps with large projects recently and have neglected to take photographs and write posts about them. This is one of those jobs that have been on the go for a while.

As can be seen this vintage bass drum has seen better days. There are several aspects that need to be repaired. First on the list to make a new counter hoop to replace the original which is in several pieces and cannot be practicably repaired.

I have never needed to make a counter hoop in wood before, the hoops I make are normally polished stainless steel. This lack of prior experience is never a problem, the reality is that I spend most of my working life going into the unknown, which is how I develop new methods and techniques to constantly improve quality. What I therefore do have is a lot of know how.

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So I started by planing a long board of oak to the depth of the hoop and cutting off a thin strip, in the above picture I am using the thicknessing sander I built to clean up the sides of saw marks and make the width uniform.

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There are two types of jigs or pattern used to make things; internal or external. A pie dish is an external mould. I made an internal mould to prevent the hoop forming below the correct diameter. Then I calculated the circumference which gives me the length of the strip of wood so that I could angle the ends to create a scarf joint.

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The long strip is then steamed (inside a long tube) until it goes floppy, then bent around the mould and clamped in place until the wood has cooled and set. The next day the hoop came out of the mould so that it could dry off for a while.

When oak gets wet, the tannins are pulled out and the surface of the wood (and my hands) get stained black. The moisture will also lift surface fibres. Both issues are resolved by sanding until that surface layer is removed. The final step before varnishing is to create the radiuses on the external edge.

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The next job is to make replacement barrels for the tuning lugs. These are solid with the thread cut into them, so to replicate them it is lathe work: drilling a small pilot hole a long way into a thin rod. This is a heart in the mouth process, if that drill bit snaps inside the rod, then it goes in the scrap bin; obviously there is a hole at either end. Patience, care and feel gets there in the end.

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With the barrels made, they can be sent to be chrome plated. In 1233: (part 2) I will assemble and finish the drum.

….How to look after vellum heads.

(Every Percussionist Should Know…)
…How to look after vellum heads.

There is a general steady return to using natural skins on percussion instruments, and I am not surprised.  There are many reasons for choosing natural over plastic, but sound quality has to be the primary objective.  The depth of the timbre is far greater from vellum heads than is produced from their plastic counterparts, so the overall sound heard has so much more richness.  There are however two “negatives” against choosing natural heads: cost and care.  This post is primarily concerned with the care aspect.

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The best way to understand what to do with particular instruments is to have an understanding of what is actually going on with this skin stuff.  One word that should be in every percussionists vocabulary is hygroscopic.  It refers to a material that can absorbs and releases water, and I can’t think of any carbon based material to which it doesn’t apply, including us.  If the weather is cold and dry, our own skin suffers, becoming dry and tight, prone to chapping.  Whereas if we stay in the bath too long our skin becomes soft and wrinkly, and feels loose.  So logically although their skin is slightly different, this also applies to cows, and goats, etc.  We utilise this property to our own advantage when we put drum heads on.

Skin is made up of squamous cells which have different shapes so therefore they expand and contract differently.  For us we can just think of a cow – the skin doesn’t need to stretch along the spine, because the cow is full size, but it does need to stretch around the belly, this means that the orientation of the drum head could be important dependent on the drum.  However younger animals still retain elasticity along the spine, so those skins will respond more uniformly.

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The first essential requirement is drum shell preparation.  The proteins in skin make very strong glue, and these are made sticky with water.  So the drum head must be prevented from adhering to the bearing edge.  I use lard on metal surfaces – lard is refined cow fat, so it marries up with the head used perfectly on a cellular level.  On wooden drums I need something that sits on the surface of the wood, as opposed to soaking into the fibres which is what lard would do, so I use tallow, which is boiled sheep in candle form.  Both lubricants are placing a slippery barrier between the skin and the drum which stops it from sticking, but also allows the head to move.

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By wetting the playing surface before the head is put on the drum, the skin will mould itself to the profile of the bearing edge and create a good contact.  If this is not done, then the head may buzz in the areas where there is a fraction of a millimeter gap.  Additionally, it can be easily stretched, so that when it is put on the drum, I can pull the skin down the sides of the drum and create a collar if required.

Now the skin is on the drum, as it dries it shrinks and becomes tight, and the pitch rises.  Here is the key thing to remember.  On a snare drum or timpani, achieving a high pitch is always the challenge when tuning with vellum, so give yourself every assistance – after playing take all the tension off the drums, so that as the head moves with moisture content, it is not being stretched, it is being encouraged to shrink.

However Bass drums, have the opposite problem, they need to have a low pitch.  Additionally the head is massive, and the skin is thick (or should be – Adams use exactly the wrong type of head on their drums) so the power in that skin is massive, and it always wants to shrink.  Therefore, before that drum goes away, crank it right up and retain that collar.  I know it’s a hassle, there are loads of tension bolts, but the quantity is needed to restrain the head, and is why they should be T handles.

The bottom line is that if you want to enjoy the sound of real skin be prepared to spend time tuning up before playing, and looking after your instruments when you are not.