Drum making

A drum ready to be laced

With Jenny Ray I had a day of drum-making. It was an awesome experience and I greatly enjoyed crafting my own drum. I was like a child again, in my own happy world, just loving what I was doing in spite of blisters and sore hands.

I’m hooked and will this coming winter or spring be hosting a drum-making workshop for anyone who’re interested.

Making your own shamanic drum is a full day project, but fun and very satisfying. The skill isn’t hard to learn, though you need some persistence and a pair of very good scissors.

You start with a piece of rawhide. That’s a hard piece of skin, which has been cleaned of hairs and other things. It’s fairly thin, but very strong. To cut through this with scissors is hard work. A pair of sharp scissors with leverage extension is clearly recommended if you undertake this project.

Now for the tricky part

The first step to make a drum is to draw onto the rawhide the pattern of the drum-skin. It needs to be big enough to go over the edges of the drum-hoop, but not too large. Then you cut out the pattern and if your piece of rawhide was a circle, you cut in a spiral creating a long thong at the same time.

To lace the drum, you need at least 26 times the diameter of the drum-hoop, so that calls for a lot of lace cutting. When you cut the lace, it should be between ½ and 1 cm in width – so it can go through the holes in the drum-skin.

Once all the rawhide has been cut, it’s placed in a big tube of water for at least 1½ hours. The skin needs to soften in order to work it. Don’t use hot or warm water as that’ll just cook the rawhide and thereby make it weaker.

All the thongs are stretched into thin cords. They’re then rounded up and measured to make sure there’s enough for the drum lacing. The drum-skin itself is placed with the inner side of the hide up and the hoop on top of it.

Placing the hoop at the centre, the lacing begins. Different tribes and traditions have different lacing techniques, and  the Native Americans could identify from which tribe the drum came from, just by looking at the lacing method. The purpose is to stretch the skin tightly over the drum-hoop. This part takes time, but can be a rather meditative experience.

A finished drum, ready to dry.

Once the drum is firmly laced, it’s time to let it dry. At least four days must pass before you play on it for the first time. If you hit the skin too soon, it’ll change shape and thereby ruin the drum. When the drum is dry, it should be played at least 15 minutes a day for at least two weeks to find its own voice and tone. Since the drum is created of organic materials, it’ll season and get better the more it has been played.

As a drum is made with a real skin, it will change tone and sound depending on the weather. The more humid it is, the softer the skin becomes and the lower a tone – at times so much that it’s all dull and can’t be played. If it’s very dry, the tone becomes more timber – and if too dry, the skin might crack or take damage.

To store your drum at home, make sure it isn’t stored directly over a head-source or in sunlight. Depending on the weather, you might wish to store the drum in the bedroom or bathroom to give it extra moisture, or in a drying closet if it is too humid.

When you transport a drum, put it in a bag or container made of felt, as the wool will absorb excess humidity, or give some to the drum. Never leave the drum lying on the hat-shelf in a car where the sun can bake it – not even when it’s in its protective bag. Drums are living beings and the better you take care of them, the longer they will last, perhaps even for generations.

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