(A shorter version of this article appears in the October 2010 Axis Mundi.)
Last year I wrote my blog article My Medicine Drum ~ A Personal Journey which showed how I made and decorated a frame drum at SOL’s Drum Making Weekend in 2009. Although I did show photos of the four versions of the drum beater I made to go with the drum I never actually showed any step by step instructions on how to make the beater. Recently a friend asked me to make a beater for him to go with a frame drum that he had purchased to use at our circle gatherings for shamanic drumming. The bodhran he bought came with the standard double ended “tipper” that is used with bodhrans or Irish frame drums, but they do not produce the same sound as the padded, leather covered beaters usually used for shamanic drumming. So I took the opportunity to photograph some of the stages during the making of the drum beater.
I am lucky to have natural bushland across the road from my house so I wandered into the bush to find a suitable stick to use for the drum beater. The one I chose was actually the main trunk of what was once an Angophora costata or Sydney Red Gum sapling, which didn’t survive the controlled hazard reduction burn set by the Rural Fire Service in the bush around my street some months ago.
The photos above show a detail of the branch chosen, after the bark had been stripped off.
A suitable portion of the stick was cut and sanded.
Craft glue was applied to a short length of Dacron wadding which was then wrapped around one end of the stick and held in place for a short while until the glue dried enough so it wouldn’t unravel. As I found out from my first attempt at making a drum beater back in July 2009, not very much wadding is needed. If too much wadding is used the sound produced by the beater on the drum is more like the toneless thwack of hitting a cardboard box, so in this case less is more, in that you get more sound out of the drum if you use less wadding — just enough to cushion the blow from the stick so it doesn’t split the drum head. The piece used here was one that I removed from the first version of the beater I made in 2009 — yes I know I’m a hoarder, but this otherwise useless scrap did actually come in handy! 😀
The next step is to stretch a piece of leather over the wadding, pulling it as tightly as possible and tying it off around the bottom of the wadding with strong twine or leather lacing if you have some. This may take a couple of attempts until you are happy with the result, as you will gradually work out the best way to either fold or gather the leather around the stick to give the desired appearance.
The only leather I had available was a small piece of purple/maroon leather left over from another project from several years ago, and I hoped that colour would be appropriate. From previous experience I’ve found that using the inside surface of the leather rather than the polished side gives a better sound for a drum beater as it muffles the “slapping” sound that can often be heard if the shiny side is used to hit the drum. If you don’t have any leather you could probably use a piece of thick cloth instead or even a square of felt from a craft shop.
I also cut a small piece of leather to wrap around the handle of the beater, to make the beater more comfortable to use for prolonged drumming sessions — “suede” leather just feels nicer to hold than plain timber.
I didn’t have any leather lacing so I made some by cutting a piece of leather around in concentric circles to produce a very long narrow strip. The fact that the lacing made this way is slightly curved doesn’t matter because it is pulled so tightly when wrapped around the beater head that the curve is stretched out to become straight. I used the lacing with the shiny side out to give a nice contrast.
I also wrapped some lacing around each end of the handle to make sure the hand grip (which had been glued) didn’t come undone. Again, if you don’t have access to any leather you could use narrow ribbon to bind the beater head and the handle. You could even use several different colours together to create a different look. And of course you could always use a piece of dowel for the beater in preference to a branch or stick from the bush.
I thought the beater needed some more decoration but I wasn’t sure yet exactly how to do this. A couple of days later I eventually decided to decorate it with a series of tiny paw prints spiraling up the handle, inspiration coming after I’d looked at a photo of my friend’s dogs who are a very important part of his life.
Instead of painting the paw prints on I used a soldering iron to burn them into the wood, then coated the exposed timber of the beater handle with clear acrylic lacquer.
Before applying the clear lacquer I masked the leather-bound ends of the drum beater with freezer bags and masking tape. This was necessary because I was using a spray can of lacquer but even if you were to apply paint or varnish with a brush I would still advise masking the leather ends of the beater first to make sure they stay clean.
After the clear lacquer was dry the bags and tape were removed to reveal the shiny new drum beater, as shown below. 😀
When I presented my gift a couple of weeks later my friend was very happy with both the appearance and the feel of the beater. I was surprised but also very pleased when I realised the design painted on his drum was in purple and maroon (which I had never noticed before) and the drum beater I had created was a perfect match. He told me that purple/maroon was his favourite colour and also that spirit had guided him to ask me to make his drum beater and that I would ‘know’ what he needed.
If you decide to make your own drum beater its appearance is really only limited by your imagination. You might not realise how creative you can be until you give it a try — the possibilities are endless.
The image below shows the evolution of the drum beater I made for myself in July 2009, and below that is a collection of various drum beaters made by people who attended the Spheres Of Light drum making weekend in July 2009.