Mii Bodhran Build
A Drum building journal
Mii, Helsinki, Finland
A couple of years ago a friend of mine showed me how to produce a drum out of pieces of plywood and a reindeer skin. I adapted his method a little to produce an Irish frame drum, bodhrán.
His drum was elliptical (sort of) and with a diameter of 50-60 cm. My bodhrán will be noticeably smaller with a diameter of 42 cm. I have also developed the method to produce a round drum instead of elliptical.
I have never before made a drum. These pages are a journal of the process.
July 22nd, 2005
Materials: - plywood, 2 pieces, size 150*10 cm, thickness 3 mm - drumskin (reindeer skin from Kemin Nahkatarvike; Irish drums usually have goatskin) - tacks, ~130 pcs - glue (any PVAc glue will do) - wood finishing oil - sandpaper
Tools: - a saw - clamps, ~40 pcs
I'm going to produce the shell by bending a piece of plywood around and gluing the ends together. Then I'll glue another piece of plywood around the first one. This will make a reasonably thick shell (6 mm) that I think will be sturdy enough. It's not advisable to try to make the shell out of just one 6mm thick plywood because a plywood that thick won't bend easily without breaking.
July 23rd, 2005
I sanded the ends of one piece of ply to an angle in order to make a scarf joint. Then I spreaded glue on both ends and clamped them together firmly. Kuula had a way of moistening the ply with water in order to make it more pliable. I found that 3 mm thick ply is pliable enough even when dry.
I put pieces of wood between the clamps and the shell. They will even out the pressureon the joint and shield the plywood from nasty marks that the clamps could otherwise leave.
I had already sawed three similar pieces of round crossbar, all 42 cm long. I put them inside the shell in the shape of an asterisk. This will keep the shell round. Hopefully. Then I left the glue to dry until the next day.
July 24th, 2005
I relieved the clamps in the morning. The joint was good. There was a small threshold in the scarf joint, which I sanded out.
The next layer of ply can be attached in several ways. You can make another scarf joint or just cut the ply to exact length so that the ends will come exactly together. In both cases you can glue the second layer either on the inside or on the outside of the first layer. (The option of gluing it to the inside came to my mind just after I had already glued it to the outside. Seems like a good idea, because then the second ply will naturally press itself against the first one and probably make a better joint. I'll try that with my next drum.)
I measured and sawed the second ply to exact length and started gluing and clamping it.
When I'd already clamped the first quadrant of the shell I realized that I didn't have enough clamps. I had 20 and I would need at least 40. I decided to glue only half of the second layer now, let it dry and glue the second half in the evening. Maybe it'll come out OK. Certainly I would not leave more space between the clamps to save them, because that would leave nasty crevasses between the layers and make the shell weak.
It requires some attention to make the second layer go straight. If it slants just half a millimetre in the beginning, the slant will grow to a couple of centimetres when you get to the end. By that time the glue will have already dried so much that you can't take the second layer off and try again. It has to go right the first time. For me, it didn't. I didn't mind since there was nothing I could do once I noticed my mistake.
Then I put the crossbar asterisk back in the shell, left the glue to dry and went off to work.
In the evening I relieved the clamps, glued and clamped the other half of the second layer and put the crossbars back in the shell again. Looks like it doesn't make much difference that I didn't glue it all at one go.
July 25th, 2005
I spent the morning fixing my mistake with the second layer. All is not lost. The ugliness resulting from my mistake will be hidden under the skin once the drum is finished.
The shell feels sturdy enough. If I squeeze it hard between my hands, it gives in a little but not too much.
With my next drum I'm going to try a shell of three layers. This will make a 9 millimetre shell. it'll be sturdier and a little heavier.
The shell is still round (or roundish). Good.
Next I will be sanding and oiling the shell.
July 26th, 2005
I sanded the shell in the morning. I filed and sanded the inside of the upper rim to an angle. This is important. If I left it straight the skin would rattle against the rim and not sound good. So it's necessary to file it to an angle but of course not too sharp. A rim too sharp could cut the skin.
The shell looks and feels nice. I like it. Of course, if I showed this to a carpenter, he or she would quickly glance and say: "Crude excercise work of an amateur." That would be right.
I first started this project in the spirit of using only what I can readily find in my tool cupboard and not buy any tools or materials other than what is absolutely necessary. I want to know if I can make a usable instrument without special tools or previous knowledge. Today I found a bottle of "Liberon Floor Sealer" wood finishing oil from my tool cupboard. It's meant for oiling wooden floors, hence the name. Well, I guess a floor sealer will give a nice and long-lasting finish to my drumshell!
I spread oil on the shell with a brush, let the wood absorb it for ten minutes and wiped excess oil away with a clean cloth. Tonight when I return from work I will add another layer of oil. I'll keep adding layers as long as my patience gives in. That'll probably mean two layers. The drying time for the oil is five hours.
I opened the roll of reindeer skin and cut a suitable piece for my drum. The piece must have a diameter of approximately 10 centimeters more than the diameter of the drum. This will leave enough slack for attaching the skin to the shell.
After cutting the skin I noticed that I was left with enough skin for two more drums of this size! (Or maybe one double-skin drum. This reindeer skin is quite thin.)
July 27th, 2005
Today I will mount the skin. I went to a local shoemaker and got a leather band, length 150 cm. I'm going to wrap it around the drum and nail the tacks through it. The purpose is partly to shield the skin from the tacks (and my hammering) and partly ornamental
I doused the skin in lukewarm water. The skin should be wet thoroughly and feel limp like a wet rag. After about 20 minutes I lay the wet skin on the rim as evenly as I could. Note: flesh-side down, fur-side up. I left the skin loose so that the center of the skin sagged about two centimeters below the level of the rim. Then I wrapped the leather band around the shell and the skin and began hammering the tacks.
I have never before mounted a skin to a drum, so tomorrow will tell if I got it right. If I left it too tight while it was wet, it can tear apart when it dries. If I left it too loose, it won't sound. The tightness should also be even on the whole area of the skin.
Don't save the tacks. Use them plenty. It's easier to make the tightness even if you begin hammering the tacks in this order: think of the drum as a compass and hammer the first eight tacks north, south, west, east, n-e, s-w, n-w and s-e. Some drum makers use a staple gun. I don't. Staples are super cheap, of course, but they also look and feel super cheap. (About a quarter of the cost of materials for this drum went to the tacks. 11 euros. There are also more expensive and more ornamental tacks in the market if I ever want to make a fancy and expensive drum.)
When I had hammered so many tacks on the rim that I couldn't fit one more, I left the drum to dry. Once again, for the last time, I put the three crossbars back in the drum.
The weather is warm. I believe the skin has dried completely by tomorrow. Then I can begin to practise playing it. Before that I need to make a tipper.
July 28th, 2005
The skin had dried completely by the morning. I cut the excess pieces of skin away with a sharp knife. The drum is almost ready. I'll attach a crossbar inside the shell and that'll be it. I will make no ornamentation at all, but I did write "mo chuisle" with small block letters inside the shell.
The skin has mounted finely. Tapping on the dry drum lightly with fingertips gives a long tone that is a little higher in pitch than what I expected, but the skin is not too tight. It still gives in a little so it's not over-stretched.
I wiped the skin with a wet rag (water, not Guinness, mind you) to tune it down for playing. I played around the skin with my knuckles since I hadn't made a tipper yet. I think the drum sounds beautiful. I will take it with me to the session at O'Malley's tonight even though I can't play it. I hope that Oskari or some other good bodhrán player comes by so I can get an opinion from a real player.
Just got back from work. Made a couple of tippers. The first one I sawed from a drumstick and the other I made by gluing barbecue skewers together! Both ideas came from the delightful web pages of bodojo. A tipper is usually made from hardwood and is around 17-25 centimetres long.
Off to session I go!
Feedback from other players: nice drum, not bad, works okay. The skin is much thinner than with many Irish goatskin drums, which led to a suggestion that I make a double-skin drum.
I even had the nerve to play it publicly. I could keep up a steady beat and follow the melody players (fiddle and uilleann pipes) but I did scrape a lot.
Super job Mii, I'm very impressed with your drum especially given this has been your first foray into drum building.
Congratulations, I hope to hear the drum one day