Beast To Bodhran

I’m very
happy to be able to put this article by Tony HedgeWolf, (aka FoldWolf)
one of the BodhranDojo Yahoo Group members into the Home Build Bodhran
section of Bodojo, we all read discussions and articles about drum making
before, but this must be a first (for Me anyway). Tony jumped from the deep end
and did what I know I, and I’m sure others here only thought about, but did not
dear to start with (yet?). In his article He’s telling the trials and
tribulations of building a PVC Bodhran from raw, smelly, wooly, fresh sheepskin
to finished home build drum. I’m sure after reading it and watching the great
pictures that go with it some will step away from the idea of actually doing
this and others will find it a great guide to start experimenting
themselves.

 

John 012006

 

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 useful to break down heavy soil and to neutralise excess
acidity. Apply annually for the best results. 4kg – 3.00£”

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 her

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 still one
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.

Skin
Works

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 (OK, I
confess… I’m scared of ruining it!)

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.

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.

Last
Thoughts…

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

John : Anyone with experience at this art of curing hides into
Drumskins and able to give Tony pointers to ways to do this better, easier, in
fact anything you may be able to share with him on this subject please drop him
a line (in private or not) or maybe write your own article and post it to the
Builder shed in the File section of BodhranDojo Yahoo. I’m sure a lot of the
members will thank you for it…