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Building / Rebuilding drumset drums.

Ben Jacoby 1999 


Many drummers with moderate woodworking/refinishing skills have seriously thought about drum building. It seems like it should be something a person could do themselves with a little effort and it IS something you can do yourself. I did!

There are a number of reasons for drum building. One is to "save" money. Actually you are exchanging work for money since you are not paying someone else to build the drums you are in effect paying yourself to do it. Still for many students and other people without money to burn this can mean the difference between a really top notch sounding drumset and crappy "student" drums.

Another reason is to experiment and learn about why drums do what they do. Another is to be able to have drums in sizes, finishes, woods, shell thickness etc. that nobody sells. And yet another is to have a drumset totally unlike the dime-a-dozen factory kits where yours looks exactly like the one the drummer down the street owns. And finally, there is a "spiritual" aspect rather reminiscent of the tribal rite thing where there is this very special "kick" you get out of playing an instrument that you put together with your own hands.

 Drumset drums: The parts.

Drumset drums are really rather simple devices. They consist of only a few parts see glossary. These are the heads, the rims, the tension rods, the lugs and the shell. In addition to these, the tension rods usually come with metal washers and the lugs have mounting screws with washers. Also each drum should have a vent hole (with some kind of grommet for trim. A snare drum will also have a snare strainer device as well as a "butt" which holds the other end of the snare cords. Toms also may also have a mount if you do not use a RIMS-style mount.

In building a drum you will normally buy the heads, rims, tension rods and lugs, strainer, butt and vent grommet from suppliers. Also, since actually manufacturing a drum shell is a rather advanced process, you will also likely be buying a blank drum shell.  Advanced builders do often make their own lugs. In   "re-building" an existing drum kit you also can use the old lugs to save money. I rebuilt my Sunlites but I did buy new lugs mostly for looks.

Thus, the main operation in "building" a drum is to take a blank unfinished drum shell and size it, cut bearing edges, finish it with paint/varnish/lacquer/wrap, carefully drill the lug mounting holes and put the whole thing together.

"Drum building" therefore, really only amounts to shell drilling and finishing.

Getting Started:

The first thing to do is to decide exactly what size and how many lugs each drum will have. You need to choose things like lug style and rim type. You need to either buy all this hardware or remove it from the set you re-building. You have to gather the hardware for each drum. What I do is get a large plastic freezer Zip-loc (tm) freezer bags and count out all the lugs, rods, and other hardware needed for each drum and make a hardware bag for each drum I'm going to build.

Finally you need to buy a blank shell for each drum. Check the Links page for lists of suppliers of these parts.  


By far the most common unfinished shells out there are the Keller Maple Shells. A drum shell normally will simply be a maple plywood tube with no holes and the ends simply cut off square. They come in a variety of thicknesses and standard diameters that will match commercial drumheads. Usually if you want a less deep drum, the suppliers will saw the shell shorter for free (or you can saw it your self and keep the extra piece for another project).

For extra money many suppliers will cut bearing edges on the shell and drill the shell for lugs (especially if you are using lugs that they sell). Going this route reduces the "drum building" project to simply a wood finishing job.  

Shortening a shell:

If you want to cut down an existing shell or a new one, use a table saw with a fine-toothed plywood blade. Use the fence to set the new shell depth. Carefully rotate the shell to cut off the excess.  Be sure that you do not leave a "step" in the cut or you will have trouble when you try to cut a bearing edge. If there is a tiny "step" sand it out.

 Bearing edges:

Cutting bearing edges is not an impossibly complex operation but there is enough equipment and set-up required that some builders defer to letting suppliers cut the edges. However, once you've constructed an edge-cutting set-up, you can then not only cut new shells but also re-cut old drums which have crappy bearing edges.

The secret to cutting a decent bearing edge is to use a router with a 45 degree chamfer bit. You want to get one that has a small ball bearing that rides on the wood below the cutter. The idea here is that the ball bearing serves as a guide to the cutter so that just so much wood is cut away.

There are two types of set-ups that work well. One is a router mounted in a large area table. It works very well for smaller drums, but a bass drum can require a pretty large surface to stabilize it as you cut. Therefore, I opted for a set-up where the router moves and the shell is stationary. What I did was get a long piece of plexiglas about 1/2" thick by about 6 inches wide and long enough to more than span the largest bass drum I want to cut a bearing edge on. I mounted the router (which in my case was just a small hand-held unit used for trimming formica installations) on one end of the plexiglas "board". You use plexiglass rather than wood so you can see what you are doing. Install the cutter and that's the whole tool! Since the cutter ball bearing rides against the surface of the shell, you adjust the amount of wood you are taking off by raising or lowering the router in it's holder. The lower you push the cutter down, the more wood you take off. I'd suggest starting with just tiny cuts to get the feel of things and then slowly adjust the depth until you are taking just the right amount of wood off the shell.

The trick that makes this thing work is that you have to be *very* careful never to cut all the plies in the shell. There should always be one single play left that is un cut and acts as the guide that holds up the cutter on the "board". If you cut too much you may get a "step" in the edge as the cutter will lower itself as it finishes the cut. If the original cut on the shell has a "step" in it, that also will cause trouble when cutting a bearing edge. Luckily, if you do get some tiny steps, they are easy to sand out by hand.

There are two common styles of bearing edges. One is just a straight 45 degree cut with the low side on the center of the drum. This makes a bearing edge which is truly 45 degrees. VERY sharp!  This has the most sustain and harmonics, but has the disadvantage that the head doesn't center so well as can be tricky to tune.   So some people opt for a 90 degree edge. In this edge you cut a 45 degree edge as above slightly more than half way through the shell and then move the cutter to the OUTSIDE of the shell and chamfer the edge on the outside as well. This edge will also sound great and will be easy to tune and change heads because the actual edge is a smaller diameter than the single cut bearing edge. The outside chamfer tends to center the head making tuning easy.  

Finishing the Shell:

Once the bearing edges are cut you can either drill the shell for lugs or apply the finish to it. I prefer to finish the shell first since the lug holes tend to cause problems as the varnish etc. can dribble through to the inside of the shell when you are finishing it. If you are applying a wrap it is often better to drill the lug holes first and then apply the wrap over the holes and cut the lug holes in the wrap with an X-acto knife or razor blade using the indentation of the holes as a guide.

Finishing the shell is both the hardest part and the thing that will largely determine the looks of the finished drumset. You may wish to consider a professional finish at this point. Options are furniture re-finishing places, luthiers (guitar builders), auto body shops (for paint finishes), or go with a plastic wrap which doesn't require finishing skills. It might also be mentioned that exotic wood veneers can also be applied as a wrap, but those will need to be finished as any wood. Exotic veneers can be expensive, but make absolutely KILLER looking drums... especially when hand finished by a luthier. Also there are some really amazing autopaints as well. Metal flakes and amazing colors... check out a local hot rod cruise-in for drumset ideas! If you try to finish the shell yourself, you will have to assess your woodworking skill level. For beginners, a hand-rubbed tung oil finish is very easy to do and always comes out looking nice. Many instruments use this kind of finish which is popular right now. The down-side is that if you like deep gloss, this is a dull kind of look. Most music stores have examples of tung oiled guitars and basses that will give you an idea of the look.

Generally speaking, it's easier to get a satin or semi-gloss finish to look nice than a super gloss one which usually requires buffing. As a compromise, I finished my set with semi-gloss Min wax polyurethane varnish. I chose polyurethane for durability and resistance to spilled drinks etc. It worked out really well.

Before you varnish you may wish to stain the wood. I've had no trouble with this operation. I just wipe the stain onto the wood with a rag and then rub down the shell with a clean rag. Let the stain dry overnight and if you want it darker apply more coats. A word to the wise here. The smoother you sand the shell BEFORE you apply varnish and stain the fewer coats it will take and the easier it will be to make it look good.

My method is simply to apply coats with pieces of cloth cut from old flannel bed sheets. Just fold up a pad and wipe the varnish on using as even strokes as possible. Use fine sandpaper or steel wool between coats after it dries and keep putting coats on until the drum starts to look right. In my case it took about 5 to 8 coats. You can use fewer coats if you apply the varnish thicker but it is much trickier then as drips and runs are a problem. This can't be a total course in wood finishing, so if you have questions or problems try to find someone who does woodworking for a hobby or profession for advice. There are  many people around who seem rather skilled at this who I'm sure will be glad to help you past the difficult parts if you ask them.

Attaching hardware

Drilling for lugs.

Once the shell is finished, the final operation will be drilling the finished shell for hardware. You need to drill a hole for the drum vent (I recommend the threaded kind rather than the metal grommets you have to stake in place.) You also may need to drill the shell for a snare strainer and butt or mounting hardware if the drum is a tom.

The biggest trick, though is drilling for the drum lugs if you didn't get a pre-drilled shell. My method was to get some white paper "artists tape" which is rather like high quality masking tape. Apply rings of the tape to the outside of the shell approximately where the lug holes are going to be. You now need to carefully mark where the lug mounting holes will be drilled. To do this you need to decide where the shell seam will be with respect to the lugs (usually either under one lug or centered between two lugs). The seam thus gives you the starting point for your measurements. Using a T-square on the bearing edge, mark the tape at the location of the first lugs.

Now knowing how many lugs your drum will have, you need to subdivide the drum circumference into that many parts. What I did was to take a metric sewing tape (like a tailor wears) and measure the circumference of the shell. Now using a calculator divide that number by the number of lugs the drum rim uses (6 , 8 etc.) This gives the distance from one lug to the next. Using the calculator figure out what 2x, 3x 4x, etc. times that number is and you can make a table of the distance from the reference point to each lug hole. Using the sewing tape mark the holes positions on the tape on the outside of the shell. This will be a series of vertical lines.

You also need to know how far the holes are from the shell edge. What I do is figure out what the distance is that locates the lug in the right spot and use a vernier calliper set to the right distance to mark the tape. You just put one jaw on the bearing edge and use the corner of the other jaw to scratch the tape at the various locations. Fill in the scratch with a pen to make it more visible. Note what the caliper is set to and then add the lug mounting hole spacing to that number and it will give you the location of the second hole using the same marking method. Finally, before you drill AND THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT, double check all measurements. Check that lug to lug distances are all the same and hold a lug up to you marks to make double sure that the holes look like they will fit the lugs.

Now drill the lug holes. "bullet" drills are excellent for this or using a small pilot hole first works very well too. The plywood shell may tend to splinter as the drill goes through, so you have to be very careful. If you use a pilot hole drilling a little bit from both sides before you drill all the way through the shell helps stop splintering a lot. There are special wood drills you can buy that to not splinter the plywood.

 Assembling the drum.

Once the lug holes are all correctly drilled it's simply a matter of installing the lugs and assembling and tuning the drum. You know you are gonna love it!

Odds and ends.

A word about mounting toms. A tom mounting method I used that is positively killer is to use RIMS mounts, but rather than mounting them on tension rods, you install 4 double lugs (like for a snare) on the upper head lugs and you take the nuts (tubular threaded pieces that take the tension rods) and move them from inside the lug to OUTSIDE the lug. you mount them there with 12-24 socket head cap screws. Now the RIMS mounts go over those nuts but are mounted UNDER the lugs on the tom. This is how Noble and Cooley toms are mounted. Additional 12-24 screws from the outside hold the RIMS mount in place on the lugs. See my website for pictures of how I did this.


All that remains is to play and enjoy your new drums. Having done this myself I can say that those who told me how special it feels to play drums that look like nobody else's and that were made with your own hands are absolutely correct. It DOES feel special.  

I'm sure drum building isn't for everybody, but I can say that if you have any interest at all in discovering all the various factors that make drums sound like they do, you can't do much better than to build a few drums. It is an amazing education in what makes drums tick. My feeling is that this kind of knowledge can't but help make me a better player and make my drums, whatever, they happen to be at the time sound as good as they possibly can.

And of course the final benefit of drum building is to knock down all your limitations! If you want an 20" tom or a 15" bass you don't have to worry if the manufacturer makes it. Of course he does, because the manufacturer is you! I don't know about you, but this thought alone gives me a wonderful feeling of power and freedom.

Good Luck!


see also