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Shaping The Djembe Bearing Edge

Paul Marshall (c) 2002

The bearing edge is one of the most critical factors in determining the sound that comes from a djembe, it is also one of the most vulnerable areas.

The bearing edge is the very top of the drum and lies under the skin when the drum is complete.  It makes the join between the head and the shell, or rather it marks clearly the defining line between the shell and the head.  It is important that the edge is level because any unevenness or torsion will manifest itself in unwanted overtones/harmonics, buzzes, difficult tuning, potential damage to the head or your hands and a whole host of other irritations.

It is not uncommon for authentic African djembes to be purchased with poor edges, it is also not uncommon for edges to pick up damage in playing, transit or storage, either way, if it's not level or in good condition, it is a relatively easy matter to fix, unlike it's drum kit counterpart which is a specialist's job. 

The following assumes that the djembe is stripped down to the bare shell.

To check for unevenness or damage, place the djembe shell upside down on a flat surface and check for areas where it is not in contact.  If these are relatively minor, you can use woodfiller or a mix of wood glue & sawdust to fill in any low spots and sand to shape when set.  If there is a lot of work to be done, it is probably advisable to re-work the entire edge.  This should take about 30 minutes.

Take your shell outside and find a nice flat concrete paving slab.  Place the shell upside down on the slab and gently rotate the drum, it's not as easy as it sounds but there is an optimum pressure and hand position for you that you will quickly find.   As the drum is rotated, the slab acts like sandpaper and wears down the wood.   Stop and check the edge often and you will see which bits are being sanded and which are yet to be affected.  keep going until the surface is level.  All you have to do now is shape the edge.

Do a 'thumbs up' sign.  If you look at your thumb in profile from the inner knuckle to tip, you will see that it has a particular shape that bends gently at first and more sharply towards the top until it is horizontal.  That is the shape that you want the outside of the edge to be. 

The top of the edge should be level for about 3-4mm before inclining sharply down the inside of the drum, this clean edge inside allows the head to vibrate freely whilst the outside profile gives the player a comfortable surface to play on.

To do this you use sandpaper, either manually or on a machine, to sculpt a new edge from the old one based roughly on the shape of your thumb.

Simple :)