Custom Drums: Really, Why So Pricey?

At one point in my life, I worked for an advertising agency – you know, the Mad Men thing. (Yes, there really were three-martini lunches.) A lot of prospective clients would ask us, in the course of getting acquainted, “How much is a brochure?” And the head of the agency would always answer, “How much is a car?” or whatever the client sold.

The answer depends completely on what kind of brochure, or car – or drum – you’re talking about. It’s all relative, and all about your needs, your goals, and your priorities.

My last article, about why custom work takes time, led me to another basic question: why custom drums cost what they do. You might find, or have found, yourself experiencing sticker shock over the price of a custom kit or snare. But usually that’s about expectations; you may be comparing the price to mass production drums, or you may be comparing the price to doing it yourself. But, in either case, why the difference? Let’s take the case of custom vs. mass-produced. Really, when you stop and think about it, why can’t the small, independent companies get the job done for less than the big guys? They’re not carrying the payroll, advertising expense, or sales teams. They’re not paying for big facilities or a huge stockpile of parts.

So why can’t they make a drum for less? It’s largely a question of scale and capital investment. A big company can commit lots of money to major orders from a supplier, and they may even have a financial interest in the supplier’s operation. Being that important to a supplier means they’re in a position to negotiate very favorably on terms and pricing. There are also advantages in limiting the choices – a major manufacturer is rarely going to offer more than a couple of lug styles, and usually only a few shell types, allowing them lots of inventory without the risk that it’ll sit on the shelf unused. So ordering ten lugs (small inventory, wide selection) produces a very different per-unit cost than ordering ten thousand lugs (big inventory, narrow selection) does; the pricing advantage goes to the big guys.

And, yes, the large manufacturer’s investment in tools and equipment is enormously higher. But paying for those investments has to come out of sales, so the smaller shop’s equipment cost might be divided over a few hundred kits sold over a period of time, while the big brand’s investment is covered by thousands of kits over a similar period, lowering the cost each sale needs to cover.

And then, of course there’s the question of labor cost. A big manufacturer needs to maximize efficiencies and minimize hours in order to meet a specific competitive selling price. A small builder, on the other hand, may want to put in more time because it allows the most effective end result for him, or because he’s addressing details that are not cost-effective for mass production, or even because he loves the actual hands-on process more than the business-operation side. I remember a conversation with a builder who told me he could wrap an entire kit in under an hour – and my reaction was, “What’s the fun in that?”

That brings me to custom vs. do-it-yourself. In this case, the comparison just isn’t fair. Yes, you can say that DIY is a way of saving all that labor cost, but it’s not exactly an apples-to-apples thing. You may have tools to build with, but the odds are good that the builder has tools that are more precise, more controlled, and better set up than yours. And in many cases, the builder may have access to parts, materials, or services that you simply can’t get.

Admittedly, doing it yourself saves on the overhead even a small builder has to cover – dedicated work space, maintaining shop materials, financing cash flow, managing bookkeeping and correspondence, website, etc.

But in terms of labor, the number of hours is only part of the story. A good custom builder brings a lot of background to your order. He’s seen different grades of parts and knows the ins and outs of working with them. He knows dozens of nuances about fitting and finishing, and the behavior of materials and shapes over time. He knows how to make design decisions to help get you the sounds and performance you want. It’s part of what he charges for – expertise that gets you much more than just a drum. Yes, you can put it together yourself, and you can even farm out some services like edging, drilling, and wrapping, but a good custom builder brings much more to the equation and the end result is not the same, even though the parts might be. So when you judge the price of a custom drum or kit, don’t evaluate it in the context of the price of a mass-production item or the cost of doing it yourself. Judge it in terms of its value to you – if it costs more, are you getting more? Is it better quality, better designed, or more exactly what you want? Does it perform better, feel better, or sound better? If the answer is yes, you may actually be getting more for your dollar from custom drums.

 

Castle Drums

Growing up in the shop of a Master Craftsman and Industrial Arts teacher, my Dad taught me a lot about making and fixing things. I learned about metal, leather, printing, mechanical drawing, and woodworking, among many other things. But the most important thing he taught me was quality. While making my rounds at the Nashville Drum Show, I saw many drums that were made with top-notch quality. But even amongst all the quality instruments that were present, some stood out a little more than others.

As I approached the Castle Drum Company’s booth, I at first thought I needed to get more sleep because the drums seemed a bit skewed. Taking a closer look I realized that my vision was fine and the drums were indeed, a bit skewed. David Cheney, the Master Craftsman behind Castle Drums, had come up with something special and a bit different. David had spent over a quarter of a century in fine woodworking as a maker of cabinets, building case work and furniture. Working with odd shaped and intricate pieces, his ability dictated a higher level of thinking about wood and the possibilities therein.

As many of us find as we become older and more proficient in life, we tend to start to figure out what we like and how we want to spend our time. David decided at one point that combining his love of woodworking and drumming might pacify that angst. After all, drums certainly can be made of wood. The one thing that he knew was that he did not want to be just another guy out there painting and assembling drums: he wanted to set himself apart from the rest of the herd. For that, David would have to dare to be different.

Keeping some of the principles of basic physics in mind, he rationed that if you could channel the sound waves of the batter head down to the snare head in a more efficient manner, you would have a more resonant snare response. Turns out he was right. By funneling the sound waves by way of a slightly conically shaped shell, that energy would become somewhat concentrated onto the snare head. With the application a vertical stave construction shell, the grain of the wood is also in turn aiding in directing the flow of sound waves toward the bottom snare head. This inner vertical grain direction also contributes to providing a little “extra” in bringing out the low-end fundamentals of the shell.

David sent me two drums to review for Not So Modern Drummer magazine: The Keystone and the Watch Tower models. Both drums were very similar but couldn’t be more different in some respects. Each shell had a 7/16” thick stave construction, six inches deep with a fourteen inch batter head. However, the shell tapered down to a thirteen inch diameter for the bottom snare head.

David told me that they did some sound testing with results indicating an average of “20% more bottom head movement, and about three decibels more off the resonant (snare) head than other drums.” These drums are very snappy and produce a great snare response with lots of volume.

The hardware on each drum was chrome plated and included triple flanged hoops, an RCK throw-off and butt, as well as tube lugs. Snares were 16 strand and Evans heads were applied top and bottom. The vent hole was left un-reinforced. Both drums came with very nicely worked 45 degree bearing edges, but, for that “vintage sound,” rounded edges are offered on request.

This Keystone model is made of Bubinga wood, while the Watch Tower drum came in White Oak. Tung oil was applied to the inside of each shell while the outside is nicely lacquered. In playing with different tunings, I thought the Bubinga drum was considerably brighter than the White Oak. The Oak had a much more porous and open grain while the Bubinga was a very tight grained wood; thus resulting in the expected and predictable timbres of each shell. Both drums exhibited a wide tuning range, both high and low. As always, I switched out the plastic heads for pre-mounted calf-skin heads from CT Pro Percussion. The calf skins worked out really nice as they added that warm and earthy sound and feel they’re known for.

I find both drums exceedingly versatile in application. However, the main difference in the two models was that the Watch Tower model has a series of vertical slits in the shell. This plays well with another basic principle of the physics of sound associated with drum design and engineering. Drums are thought to usually project sound mostly from the top and the bottom heads, throwing the sound vertically up and down. They do, however, have an inherent tendency to throw the sound horizontally through the shell. In opening up the lateral sides of the shell via the slits, the Watch Tower drum distributes the sound in all directions. My initial reaction to this is that I think this particular model is exceptionally well suited to the environments of orchestra, concert band, jazz or any “un-miced” small group situations.

The Castle Drum Co. uses a variety of hardware to choose from and includes, but not limited to: RCK, Trick and Dunnett throw-offs, die cast and triple flanged hoops, a variety of lugs, snares and heads. Wood ranges from maple, white and red oak, birch, ash, and mahogany. For something special, try an exotic wood such as zebrawood, purple heart or bubinga. If David can find it, he just might build you your next favorite drum in your choices of dimension and hardware.

I find these drums are in fact fun to play and easy to tune. They tune like a fourteen inch drum but snap like a thirteen. The stick-to-head response is really nice, offering an ease in playing involved passages at lower volumes. Back-beats are exceeding fat and full of rich snare sound. Sensitivity of snare response at the lower volumes is again, very good. As far as the higher volumes: they’re loud!

One of the more surprising and pleasant characteristics of the solid shell was that the effective strike zone was at least double the diameter of most other drums I’ve played. This certainly makes the drum much more forgiving than many if a player tends to play with a wider, wilder strike-zone. The slotted shell (Watch Tower model) did not have quite as wide a strike-zone as the solid shell due to the characteristics inherent to the open design, but was still exceedingly responsive across the head non-the-less.

In examining the Keystone model made of Bubinga wood in particular, I had a very hard time locating the individual wood segments as the joints are tight and the grain is matched as close as possible. After giving these Castle Drums a good go, I would really like to take a look at the furniture David Cheney makes. If the quality is even close, I think anyone who has any of his work must be very pleased. The craftsmanship and quality on these drums is of a very high standard. David’s passion and enthusiasm is very evident and the pride he puts in each drum is extraordinary.

Take a minute and visit the Castle Drum Co. on line. There is a very well made video with David in the shop and more models and options to ponder. If you’re looking for something unique and well made with extreme snare sound and response, not-to-mention a really big, fat back-beat, these drums deserve some real consideration.

From Lancaster County, PA…....Thoughts from the Shop.

Brian Hill

 

Outlaw Drums: Heart Pine Reborn

Anytime I come across an early American drum, I’m interested.  When the drum in question can be somehow identified, I’m really interested.  But how often do you come across a drum maker that identifies the origins of his drum making story to a civil war soldier and his house?  Now you have my attention.  Michael Outlaw attributes the origins of the drums he builds to an old dilapidated building he saw on the verge of being torn down and destroyed back in 2006.  Looking for something different to build with, he asked for some of the wood from the house and took a load of it away to his shop.

The wood came from the former home of Charles Edward Wilder, who as a youth in the 1860’s, enlisted in the 17th Georgia (GA) Infantry as a private.  A large portion of the 17th GA’s service was as part of Benning’s GA Brigade in Hood’s Division, Longstreet’s Corps, operating in the Army of Northern Virginia.  Wilder fought in many of the Civil War’s most notable battles in both the Eastern and Western Theaters.  Surviving the War, Wilder received 10 acres near Albany, GA from the State for his service as that was about all that was available to the returning veterans for any means of compensation.  The land was rich with virgin long leaf pine trees suitable for building.  Charles Wilder built the house from the wood of those trees in the 1880’s; the very same house Michael Outlaw procured wood from to build the first Outlaw Drums well over 100 years later.

Why is the wood so special?  Most of it dates back toward the 1600’s.  These trees grew at an exceptionally slow rate of growth.  They were virgin American trees that typically lived over 300 years and could grow to over 150 feet high.  The resin in the wood was thick and the grow rings tight.  Harvested from houses, mills, and barns built before 1900, the wood has had plenty of time to age and dry naturally.  This results in very special sound quality characteristics that new growth wood just doesn’t seem to have.

Hailing from Sylvester, Georgia, Michael Outlaw, the master wood craftsman behind Outlaw Drums, combines his skills as an accomplished furniture maker with the drummer within him.  I’ve found in researching the company that Michael has done a fine job in marketing the brand, so I’ll try not to be too redundant in what he has already made available.  His presence on the web is solid and informative.  He includes the history, current reviews, process, galleries, sound bites and videos.

I first ran into Outlaw drums at the 2014 Nashville Drum Show.  The display was very eye-catching, built to resemble the old shacks the wood for his drums originated from.  But it was the drums within the booth that weren't something I could just walk away from.  They were beautiful!  Something I don’t think I’ve seen before was the textured wood on the outside of the shell.  After taking a good look I started tapping.  They sounded as good as they looked.  By the end of the show, Michael ended up sending a drum and a wooden bass drum beater home with me to review for Not So Modern Drummer Magazine.

The drum I picked was one from the Heart Pine Reborn group; a stave construction combination of new growth maple and old growth heart pine. The shell measures 5”x 14” with 24 half inch thick staves of pine and maple equally alternating.  The combination of the two woods made a great sound; lively and solid no matter how I tuned it.  It also contained that “thump” I’ve come to love in those old growth, stave constructed drums that makes them sound like much beefier tubs.

The sensitivity and snare response was also incredible.  Everything from a hard hitting backbeat to ghost notes came out crystal clear regardless of tuning.  Cranking it up brought out very crisp, solid notes.  Low-end tuning brought out even fatter sound qualities.  Very quiet playing still netted great snare response, again, regardless of the tuning pitch.  No matter how hard I hit the drum, I couldn’t get it to choke; performing very well in the big rooms and outside situations.  With snares off, the drum has a great sound, full and clean.  The lively-ness of the drum without the snares on sounded great with Latin tunes.  My personal opinion is that this is a top-notch, all-around “go-to” drum

Since the overall vibe of Outlaw drums tends to pull on the heart-chains of my American history “Jones,” the notion to try a calf skin head naturally came to mind.  I generally keep a few mounted skins in my shop that I receive from CT Pro Percussion for just this purpose.  The sound of calf skin on this drum was truly exceptional.  Very warm and responsive, the drum took on the tone of a much older sounding instrument while remaining quite sensitive and crisp over-all.

This particular model came with chrome plated hardware including triple-flanged hoops, tube lugs, vent grommet, and a George Way “beer tap” throw off by Gibraltar.  Top and bottom feature Evans Level 360 heads along with sixteen-strand Puresound snares.  The Outlaw Drum badge is solid brass and made to reflect the U.S. Forestry Service badges in honor of the history and repurposing of this native American wood.  The bearing edges are a double 45 degree design.

Each Outlaw drum I played had a uniquely individual sound quality.  This is in part to the actual lumber used as well as the combinations of wood, dimensions, heads, and hardware selected.  Wood choices include, but are not limited to, White Pine, Maple, Oak, Vintage Cypress and Fur, Sapele, Lyptus, Southern Yellow Pine, and of course…..Heart Pine.  There is a full and ever-changing selection of wood and hardware finishes also available for your choosing.

Complete stave constructed drum kits are available in a variety of sizes and finishes to match any snare they make.   There is also a line of kick drum beaters affectionately known as the “Hammer.”  This wooden beater will bring exceptional power and massive thump out of your kick with its incredibly dense wood, each with three angled impact choices.

Michael Outlaw has hit a complete home run as a drum builder, all while managing to bring the history of the wood that has touched countless lives in countless ways back to life in the voice of a drum.  From out of the Southland, these drums look good enough to be thought of as fine American furniture.  There is even a hand-cut nail still attached in the wood shell from when it was part of a building.  Closer inspection of the interior found an old nail hole still present in the old wood.  If the history is still with the wood when comes into the shop, there’s good chance it will still be attached when it leaves the Outlaw Drum Shop as a drum.  All-in-all….this drum just sounds great!

 From Lancaster County, PA…....Thoughts from the shop. Brian Hill

 

Why does custom take so darned long?

One thing that’s common with today’s consumers is that when they want something, they want it now. I blame technology – buy an item on-line and it’ll usually be pulled from stock, packaged up, and started in the shipping process within hours. That new norm has changed our expectations enormously.

The same thing holds true when you’re buying drums.  Buy from a brick-and-mortar store and you take them home with you. Buy on-line and you have them within a few days. If they’re not in stock, the retailer can usually special order from the manufacturer and get them to you in a few days or a few weeks.

But order something from a custom builder and it can seem like someone slams on the brakes. Suddenly you’re talking about anywhere from several weeks to several months, and you feel like the kid in the back seat of the car – are we there yet, are we there yet?

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Frustrating, for sure. But knowing what to expect and how to participate in the process can help a lot.

Understand that drum building is not an industry of enormous factories and many thousands of workers.  It’s mostly a community of very small shops and tiny staffs. Even many of the well-known builders are much smaller operations than you’d think. That means that if someone’s out sick or there’s a personnel change, it can affect the production schedule. Major weather problems can affect the production schedule. Specialized tools and their maintenance can affect the production schedule. Material shortages or subcontractor delays can affect the production schedule.

So, really, why does it take so long? Most of those how-it’s-done videos seem to have the drum finished in a matter of hours, if not minutes. Maybe, you wonder, the builder isn’t organized, or doesn’t want to work hard, or isn’t a stable business, or just doesn’t care.  But, overall, the reality is that the custom build is a very different process from mass production.

Bear in mind that with mass production there are routine materials, sizes, components, and processes – a lot gets done with programmed machinery, templates, and assembly-line setups. But when you’re talking about custom, made-to-order work, it’s difficult to standardize production because of the frequent need to modify setups and processes.

For example, mass production of wood shells usually involves only a few species to choose from. But if you decide you want something different, a custom builder is going to have to source raw materials especially for your order. Specific dimensional requirements (and appearance, for anything that’s not covered by wrap, paint, or veneer) mean it’s not just a matter of popping out to the nearest home improvement center.

And actually making a shell can be a long process as well. If you want something that’s bent, glued, or molded, the material has to be shaped, sized, and fine-tuned to be within specifications. If it’s solid wood, it may need to stabilize for days at a time, or have moisture content slowly altered at certain stages. Occasionally, there can even be a failure – imperfections or weak spots inside the material that didn’t show on the outside, stresses during the process that damage the material, or sections that aren’t stable until fully assembled.

Your order might require special wraps, designs, artwork, etc., that can take time – sometimes a little, sometimes a lot – or specialized hardware that has to be fabricated. Even with mass-produced, relatively standard parts there’s always the possibility of a back order or limited availability. And pulling together all the materials and components for your project could involve a fair amount of shipping time in addition to fabrication time.

Then you may want special fittings, such as reinforcement rings, inlays, decorations, and so forth. Some of these take only an hour or so to install, others can take days to complete. And any custom parts usually mean there’s custom layout and drilling involved as well. Simple wraps can be installed quickly, but some finishes involve mixed materials, custom-blended tints, multiple applications, or lengthy curing times.

So it’s sounding like there are no reasonable limits on how long a custom order can take, right? Well, there are a few things you can do to help this process along and make it more comfortable and enjoyable for you. After all, it’s not just the builder’s project; it’s yours, too.

  • You probably asked at the beginning for a rough estimate of how long an order would take. But once all of the final specs are agreed on, ask whether anything has altered that projection.
  • If the adjusted timeline sounds longer than you’re comfortable with, check to see if any changes in the design might speed up the process.
  • Once things are underway, don’t hesitate to ask for updates on progress (within reason, of course). Sometimes a normally slight delay turns out to be longer than expected, and you’re entitled to know what’s going on. If there’s a roadblock, the builder should be willing to tell you what it is and what solutions he’s pursuing. (And, yes, there are such things as unreasonable or avoidable delays that you shouldn’t have to accept.)
  • Lastly, do your part to keep things in motion: respond to questions, raise concerns, don’t keep rethinking your plan once it’s underway, ask for information when you need it. A custom drum project should be a collaborative partnership between artist and artisan – and that’s an approach that can give you a great experience as well as a fine instrument.

Is it custom? Is it boutique? Does it make a difference?

I live in an area that has a lot of local breweries, and people around here talk and write about beer a lot.  So recently, when I saw an article about the blurring of lines as to what’s considered a “craft brewery” and what isn’t, I realized that there’s a connection between drums and beer that I hadn’t considered: confusion about industry categories and how to describe them.

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