Birth Of A Snare Drum

Tracking Timber Through DW's Factory Floor

Our path jags at deliberate angles through a labyrinth of cavernous rooms, traversing large machines and steaming presses. We pass workstations where craftspeople perform detailed tasks, each augmenting work com- pleted by crewmembers back up the line. Some smile and nod as we look on, but not all are so affable. It’s understandable, though. We arrived in midafternoon, and they still need to lean shoulders into their jobs to make today’s quota. We’re in the heart of DW’s drum making operation to document how the company builds snare drums. Scanning the expansive high-ceilinged area, packed with industrial tooling and robotic machines, air ducts and ventilators going every which way, as motors hiss and buzz loudly around us, we realize this won’t be the how-to article for weekend woodworkers we first envisioned.

Shell Shaping.

The irony, of course, is that Drum Workshop wasn’t much more than a tiny custom shop when John Good cut his first bearing edge back in the early ’80s. We consider how the design of these mammoth proprietary machines that flank us in every direction are the manifestation of lessons Good learned while drilling and sanding shells by hand. Though the technology used has been refined to remarkable degrees since then, the actual steps taken in the process of building a snare drum haven’t changed much. Here’s how it works.

Today we’re making DW’s bread-and- butter snare — a 14" x 5" Collector’s Series Maple — which begins life on a stack of North American hard rock maple veneers resting in the vast warehouse (Fig. 1). Cut to 1/36th of an inch from responsibly forested logs, the sheets fill the air with a woody scent of fresh lumber. Workers arrive periodically to carry a sheaf of delicate-looking 4' x 8' sheets through a pair of industrial doors to our first stop in the manufacturing process.
We stand beside an industrial guillotine, which cuts the veneers to a uniform length and width. A worker manning the machine reads the work order for the next cut, makes proper adjustments to the guillotine, and drives the blade home (Fig. 2).
Our snare will be made of predominant- ly long-grain maple whose figuring runs horizontally across the shell. It will include inner reinforcement hoops to retain the drum’s roundness. The shell’s ten plies will include three sheets of plywood: a 2-ply inner, two 3-ply cores, and a 2-ply outer. Fresh-cut veneers are hauled straight from the guillotine onto a large workbench where plywood glue is rolled on (Fig. 3).
DW uses epoxy glue that becomes brittle when dried, which will help sound travel more efficiently through the final instrument. The veneer is stacked by hand, alternating the grain vertically and horizontally (Fig. 4).
This precarious looking stack of glued veneer is carried to the plywood press, which slowly clamps down onto the wood, apply- ing 3,100 pounds of pressure at 200 degrees (Fig. 5).
After three minutes, the press opens to reveal a fresh sheet of plywood, which cures for a few moments (Fig. 6) before mov- ing to a proprietary machine that cuts each sheet — inner, cores, and outer — to the final length of our drum (Fig. 7).

Up to now, the process has been straightforward. But our next stop seems almost alchemical — where mere plywood sheets are transformed into a recognizable drum shell. Here we meet José Campos, who has performed this procedure since 1998, when DW first purchased machinery to build its own shells. He looks fierce from a distance, but breaks into a broad smile when introduced, and explains how he and Good learned together how to roll plywood shells.

To demonstrate, he first lays down the outer plies on a flat surface, then sends the core veneers through a roller to apply heat-activated wood glue (a different formula from the glue used during the plywood process) to both sides (Fig. 8).
After the two core plies are laid onto the outer ply, the inner ply is placed on top of the stack (Fig. 9).
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