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The Source of Our Drum Wood

All of the various woods that we use for our drums come primarily from Wisconsin and the surrounding states. Many people are surprised to find out that there is an enormous amount of trees taken out of peoples yards throughout cities across our  country. The majority of this wood ends up being split up for fire wood. Sawmills generally refuse trees taken from the city due to the amount of nails, wire, and other metal found in city trees. This is where we find the wood for our drums. we enjoy being able to give a new life to a tree that has fallen out of favor with the caretakers around it. It is also sad for us to report that the hardwood trees that are logged from private property in the East and mid-West go almost exclusively to producing shipping pallets and railroad ties. I have seen this firsthand.

Several times now people have commissioned me to make them a drum from their own fallen yard tree. Wisconsin is a windy place and when the tornados and storms come, there are always trees to be transformed into drums.

If you have some wood that you think might be made into a drum for you, please contact us. The pieces need to be 20-30″ in length, 12 to 24″ in diameter, and solid all the way through.

Varieties of Wood

Some of the varieties that we have used to make jembes are as follows. This is by no means all of the types that can be used, as there are so many from across the country that just do not grow up here. Chances are though, if it is solid, I can make it into a drum for you. Some of the most beautiful drums have been made from logs that were lying dead on the ground for many years. These are usually found in a shaded forest. One Walnut log even had 3 inches of rotten wood around the outside, but was amazingly smooth inside. If a log is left to lay outside, it generally either starts to dry and splits open, or it rots through. In both cases the wood is not suitable for a drum. For whatever biological reason, wood that has aged but not dried out becomes ever so smooth.

While the wood itself, aside from the shape, does impart certain characteristics to the sound, these differences are generally subtle. There are so many other variables that affect a drum’s sound that consideration of the wood with respect to specific sound is minimal.

Black Walnut: Uniform dark chocolate color, smooth, even grain. This wood is relatively common, but also highly sought after by woodworkers everywhere. Silky smooth finish. My Number three choice.

Butternut: Also known as White Walnut, rich light and medium browns, it grows unusually shaped growth rings that create unique grain patterns. An increasingly rare species which has developed a disease of it’s upper branches, they are rare to find in the Wisconsin woods anymore. With a warm and rich sound, it also produces a drum of less weight. A durable wood not prone to cracking and damage. Easy to hand carve, but very tough to turn on the lathe. My number two choice for a drum.

Catalpa: This is the tree with the huge spade shaped, light green leaves, and long slender bean pods. It will have large white flowers in the late spring. The wood has very rich, dark, slightly yellow color, with distinct grain. If you want a durable and light weight drum, this is the one. It is far and away my number one favorite, and one of my two personal drums is Catalpa. (the other is Honey Locust) . Over it’s life these drums will achieve an even richer and darker color, with little chance of developing any cracks. This is very carvable wood. Without exception, every Catalpa drum I’ve made has had absolutly amazing sound. There is just something about it.

Black Cherry: A favorite wood of cabinet makers for centuries, this wood is found with color ranging from a light reddish-orange to a rich dark reddish-brown. Very smooth, even grain and color. Chery trees can grow to huge sizes and it is not uncommon for me to find trees 1.5-2.5 feet in diameter. Cherry drums look best with a glossy finish that will show off their outstanding color. This wood does not appreciate abuse. Well cared for it will play for generations.

Black Locust: Locust wood is very resonant, and very hard. Black Locust is well known for it’s ability to resist rotting. It is commonly used by farmers for fence posts and is rated for 50 years with out treatment. It’s color is a bright, rich yellow with clear graining. I am always looking for large Black Locust logs. The outside of the trees tends to grow rather irregularly and distinctively un-round. So much of the size is lost getting back into a round shape.

Honey Locust: This is now a very common street tree and is as pretty as the Black variety. It’s finished color is a litte more orange than yellow. My drum has darkened over the past ten years to a rich dark yellow, and shows little other signs of age. Very hard, smooth wood.

Gray and Red Elm: These are tough trees, with a lightish wood ranging from nearly white to rich light brown color. This wood has an interlocking grain that makes it very tough to split for fire wood. This was used in the old days for ox cart wheels. Both red and gray have very striking grain patterns, and take to staining very well. I will often dye Gray Elm into a thick burgundy color, or as my web administrator had requested, washed in white. Quite stunning. Tough to work with, but worth the extra time. All the elms have a tendency to warp out of round a bit as they dry, and also some over the years. Goat skins tend to pull harder on the wood in a line runnung up the spine. When drums get “egged out” a bit, I turn the skin spine 90 deg. and it usually pulls it back into shape. None of this cracks the wood either. This stuff is tough!

Sugar Maple: Also called rock maple, and for good reason. A favorite for flooring, cabinets, and bowling alleys. Super smooth, even grained wood, with a very light, honey brown color. This is a very common tree in these parts, but I have produced comparatively few Sugar Maple drums. This wood is very dense, and produces a lower resonant frequency and shorter sustain on the bass note. An excellent choice for studio recording with.

Silver Maple: Very abundant, but I have not done one of these yet. This wood must be found very fresh. It will certainly be much lighter weight than the Sugars, and likely lighter in color. It could even become a favorite. Stay tuned for updates. (I finally got some. Can’t wait to try it!) 9/10

Red Maple and others. This wood is favored by me for it’s “just right” density and pretty figuring. Nicely durable an fairly light weight. Similar color to the Sugars.

The Ashes:White Ash, Green ash, and Black Ash.

White Ash is pure magic.

The Oaks:Red Oak, White Oak, Black Oak, Burr Oak.












Sycamore:  I finally got me a piece of this stuff! (it’s not done yet though)