Tim Bean

From May to September of 2015, I built a drum kit. Last week, that drum kit was destroyed. I’d like to say a word about it before I cannibalize its hardware today.

It took me six months to build my four-piece segmented shell kit. To the non-drummers out there, and I assume this is pretty much everyone, most drum sets are made of sheets of plywood, bent and glued together in pressurized molds. 99.9% of drum sets are manufactured in this way, but plywood leaves something to be desired acoustically. That’s a big controversy in instrument manufacture, but one I happen to agree with. It sounds dead because glue isn’t great on acoustics. Plywood contains a lot of glue.  

Being a drummer and a woodworker, it was only natural that I’d attempt to build a drum kit of solid wood. There’s two primary designs: stave shells, which are vertical slats of wood glues together in a circle; and segmented shells, which is composed of circles of wood glued in layers to construct the shell. I picked the latter because I had no table saw.

It was not easy. As woodworking projects go, making a segmented drum kit is about an 8 or 9 on a scale of 10. Hundreds of cuts have to be precise, holes for hardware mounting have to be drilled cleanly and perfectly, the entire shell has be sanded to a perfect, flat circle, and then bearing edges have to be cut evenly on a router table. With drums below 14”, the process is easier, but when you start manufacturing floor toms and bass drums of more than 18”, it gets difficult.

There are no set methods of constructing these shells. Since drummers are rare and solid-wood kits even rarer, it’s a fairly uncommon project. Which means those that undertake it have to learn by trial and error, referencing only a few YouTube videos and some message boards.

It’s a long, lonely learning process.

The snare drum.

For me, it was a test of will. In those six months, I typically worked through the night one day a week. I cut and constructed shells incorrectly and had to toss them in the trash. I burned through my supplies of butternut, mahogany, curly maple, red oak, and even select pine attempting to make this kit, only to find them too big or too small, too uneven, too elliptical. A drum shell has to sand down to a perfect circle to hold a tone, and so I had to try and try again.

The 12″ tom being glued up…

Eventually, I was able to make a decent 14” birch snare drum in July. That was followed by a 12” white oak tom tom in August, then a 14” poplar tom tom and an 18” poplar bass drum in September.  Since I made the kit from different woods, I decided to paint it to hide the mismatched shells. I picked a latex enamel called “Lagoon Blue” and paint five layers on the shells, starting with a wash of half-paint and half-water as a primer, then putting on successive layers, letting it cure two days between each coat. When I finished the final coat, I covered all shells with a two layers of satin water-based polyurethane for protection. 

The bass drum…

Learning to properly mount the hardware and tune this style kit is difficult on its own, and I learned quickly that any changes in humidity or temperature would alter its tuning dramatically. The kit wasn’t perfect either, by any means, so I had to compensate for the small errors in construction when playing it.

All of that sounds like a real pain in the ass, doesn’t it? It was.

It was also the hardest I had ever worked on anything in my life. Like I said, it became a test of will to make the kit. But the first time I hit a tuned solid-wood drum, I knew I’d never go back to plywood shells. It was clearer, fuller and more responsive than any drum I had ever played, and I’ve owned seven kits in the last twenty years, including one professional grade kit.

For any musicians out there, you know that feeling, when you play a instrument and get that perfect feel and tone from it. It’s a sound that slips through your ears and into your gut. It’s intuitive and almost impossible to describe. But if you’re a musician, you know. 

And the entire kit was like that. I played it for a year. I enjoyed every minute of it. 

Last week, I came home late. My car had broken down about fifteen miles away and I had to wait for a ride. My car had thrown a connecting rod, and the engine had seized. It was a paperweight. That’s upsetting in itself. 

But more upsetting were my wife’s words as I came in the door.

“The basement’s flooded. Really flooded.”

Our basement flooded once before and, as a precaution, I had kept the cased drums three inches off the floor.

Really flooded, she said.

I ran down to the basement, yanked the door open and weaved through our storage boxes to get to the lowest part near the sump pump. 

Then my shoe plunged into icy cold water all the way to the ankle.

I flipped on an overhead light. Among the other storage boxes and garbage were my four drums, floating on their sides in the cold water. The basement was silent, the sump pump dead.

I yanked the drums out, not saying a word and stacked them in my garage. I knew they were junk.  If they had been submerged completely, that would have been better. I could have let them dry evenly and slowly and kept any warping to a minimum. But these had laid in water in their sides for hours, only wetting about 30% of the shell. They’d never dry evenly. They’d warp and no matter how I tried, they’d never be in tune again. 

They’re in my garage right now. Still stacked up. In a few hours I am going to go out and removed the rims, lugs and mounting hardware. I’ll take the legs from the bass drum and floor tom as well. I’ll have an entire drum kit worth of hardware and can finish another stack of shells I started last spring.

My next kit…

But that kit, the first kit I ever built, the woodworking equivalent of climbing a mountain, will be colorful scrap wood now. 

Did I learn a lesson?

Of course not. There’s no lesson to learn, other than nothing lasts forever.