Beast to bodhran
I am lucky enough to be able to use my hobbies in my work. Two of the things I love most are music and making things. I'm also a real 'knowledge junkie', so I'm forever picking up strange ideas for new things to learn (usually the hard way). This holiday I decided to learn how to get a skin from an animal and bully it into making new noises. My enquiries led me to a family butchers shop not far from the Mid Wales/England border...
What I did in my Christmas holiday Or - From Beast To Bodhran
©2005 Tony HedgeWolf
The Abattoir trip
The man who owns it took us to the abattoir out the back of the shop, where we were very impressed by the clean, efficient facilities. Incidentally, 'abattoir' literally translates as 'killing place', which just goes to show that anything sounds good in French.
This was our first introduction to the bloody mess which was to become such a significant part of our life to date - two hides from Hereford cows and ten sheep skins, all lovingly hand-skinned for us and salted. Apparently there's a machine for skinning, but it isn't as discerning as a skilled person with a knife. Sadly, there were no goat skins available this time, as most goat owners ask to keep them already.
So, after a (rather smelly) drive back home, we addressed the problem of storage by salting the sheepskins and laying them flesh side to flesh side on a pallet, to halt the rotting process.
First time curing experiments
Then we selected a skin and put it into a solution of lime (wood ash), bought from a garden centre.
"J Arthur Bower's Garden Lime is used to break down heavy soil and to neutralise excess acidity. "
I sprinkled about two cupfuls into the bin and swished it about in the least amount of water I could use to cover the sheepskin. Then I weighed it down with a lump of concrete, to keep it submerged. After following up some links, I've read about a product called 'Red Devil Lye' this seems to be a more concentrated form of the lime. The general opinion seems to be that it's a bit too caustic (Caustic soda, sodium hydroxide, the active ingredient in Lime has the formula NaOH) and tends to damage skins, but some people still recommend it. Drain cleaner is usually made of the same stuff too. . It stayed in the liming bin for three days. I initially intended to lime it for two days, but on Christmas Eve I was preparing another sheepskin for tanning and, while chopping some Oak bark with my favourite hand axe, managed to include a small part of my left thumb in the mixture. My Wife wasn't impressed and I must remind people that latex gloves may be ideal for handling fresh animal hides, but they provide very little protection against a razor-sharp steel blade
Changing Sheep Hide to Drum skin
After my short rest break, I enlisted the help of a friend and colleague (who only meant to visit for Christmas day) to remove the wool from the skin. The liming releases the hairs from their follicles, according to one source I read. Other articles talk about 'slipping' the fur off, along with an upper layer from the hide. We didn't experience this, but perhaps if our lime had been stronger it would have happened.
At this point, I realised that something was going right, because another friend and colleague turned up for a cuppa (green Jasmine tea, in her case) and immediately asked if she could have the wool. This lot came from half the hide, which split in the middle when we got a bit too vigorous with the hair-pulling
So we bagged it up and sent her away with it, only to have it return a couple of days later as two felt pouches, one of which has a little black wool mixed in and can be seen here. Needless to say, a deal has now been struck for the rest of the wool and I am already the proud owner of a pair of felt slippers. I've also been promised hard felt tips on a pair of drum sticks…
Meanwhile, the skin without its hair was neutralised with Tartaric acid, from a kitchen shop (to stop the remaining lime from eating it away to nothing), rinsed out and squeezed. As you can see, it looks a little sorry for itself.
That squishy bit of dough is all that remains of half a sheep skin. I've read that an old mangle is ideal for squeezing at this stage, but I just wrung it out like a towel. Next time I might build a mangle, or maybe I can find me a beauty such as the one in the picture below
Here's a mangle and a washing machine. Either of which would have been found at the rear of many houses. The mangle was still used by some families well into the 1950's. My guess if you're looking to buy one is to go hunting in long time established laundries, chances are they have one still standing around from the olden days. You'll also stand a better chance of finding a "wider" version of it than the ones that where used in private homes…
Preparing and skinning the Shell
This is the frame I'll use, a piece of hollow-ridge reinforced PVC pipe. I can't tell you much about it; the pipe was donated by one of the people at the college for which I work. I've seen other, smaller but similar pipes being used by the local cable company, so I guess it's for large bundles of signal cable.
The stiff-backed tenon saw is best for this job, cutting shallowly around the pipe three or four times, until it cuts through. If you try to saw immediately through from one side to the other, the saw will always deviate from the line. If you don't believe me, try it on any pipe.
After a previous 'learning experience' (mistake) I decided to make the thinner part of the pipe act as the bearing edge, so this drum shouldn't buzz… The edge itself was tidied with a wood rasp, flattened by rubbing on a paving slab (I sprinkled some sharp sand on it as a smoothing paste) and polished with a half-round metalwork file. It's a good idea to rub a piece of chalk on the file first, to help stop it clogging up.
Here is the dough-like skin, flopped over the frame, pictured with a length of nylon washing line. This stuff slips well and is practically indestructible, so it's ideal for this job. I pulled the skin over two of the pipe's ridges, because of an idea I had about tuning the drum, (getting back to this later on) then tied it off with the washing line and hung it in the fireplace to dry.
At this point I was feeling really good about the whole process, hand injuries aside. I decided that this drum deserved a bit of special treatment, so I lit some incense under it (besides, it was still a bit sheepish smelling, if you know what I mean <Grin>). Looks all romantic, doesn't it?
Well, the romance faded a bit, when the skin started doing something I wasn't expecting. Instead of drying out gradually, parts of it were changing very suddenly from 'wet dough' to thin, hard rawhide.
This caused me to worry that the skin might split because of the differences in tension, that the puckers and wrinkles might be permanent and that the bits which hadn't dried out might rot. So I arranged a bit more smoke, still nicely incense-laden, but that didn't seem to be helping. Also my Wife wasn't too happy about this new method of ridding the skin and house of unwanted pests. The dog didn't seem to mind though.
The Smoking Rigs
With my increasing fear of rotting skin driving me to new inventions, this smoking rig was born. This seemed to recapture a bit of the romance (and the sheep smell was gradually giving way to something more like Polish sausages) so I began to feel a bit happier again...
It seemed a shame to waste all that smoke, so I enclosed it and used it to treat another sheep skin as well:=
The fire smouldered for four days and nights, leaving the drum looking a bit worse for wear, but much less likely to harbour evil germs. This is when I started thinking that mangling out some of the water first would have been a good idea. Also, the washing line was trapping moisture in the fold of skin, so I replaced it with cotton 'pudding string' from the kitchen.
There were still a few soft areas, so it was time for the fireplace again, moistening the driest parts while the rest caught up. By spraying the face and inside of the drum, while drying the rim, the wrinkled surface evened out nicely. Then each time it dried out, I used sandpaper to clean the skin and take down any high spots by smoothing the inside.
By this time, those of you who already understand this process are probably laughing yourselves sick at my ham-fisted attempts to learn this fine art, while those of you who don't have almost certainly been put off the idea for life. This, however, is where things started to calm down a little. The result so far looked like this...
Finishing the drum
Having got the skin evenly dry and smooth all over, it was time to start tidying it up, starting by trimming the edge…
This is the basis of the cunning tuning thing I mentioned earlier, three large jubilee clips (hose clamps) connected together. The idea behind it is that the clip is positioned in-between the pipes ridges, that way by tensioning or loosening the clip one can tune the skin tension to the sound one is aiming for (I hope !)
And here it is, with the metal band padded by two strips of thick leather, to stop it cutting into the skin and a 7mm socket driver as a tuning key. I've heard all sorts of ideas about applying oils to drum skins to improve flexibility. This isn't something I've tried yet, so I'll leave that up to the drum's new owner... The last thing to be done to this drum, then (by me, at least) was to give it a decorative cover for the rather ugly edge of the skin.
A Man's Favourite toys
Finally, it would be rude to send a drum to a new home without some accessories, so I got busy with two of my favourite toys - the lathe and the sewing machine
The tipper is turned from Oak and the carry case is made from upholstery fabric and curtain lining and I'll add a handle before it goes in the post towards its new home.
I'm still a bit nervous about this drum's future and have to admit that it still smells rather odd, but I'm sure that it will be thoroughly beaten and tested by John and I look forward to hearing of its progress (or failure !) so that I can learn more…
It's been an interesting experience, which I fully intend to repeat soon (plenty of salted hides left), hopefully with better results. I wouldn't recommend it for the faint-hearted. Professional drum makers (and butchers) definitely work for their money. Be prepared to pay them well!
I made a new drum A sheep provided the skin I hope it plays well