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).
{pagebreak} He hand rolls this unwieldy plywood sandwich into a tube, making sure seams are staggered to assure structural integrity (Fig. 10), and pushes it into a hydraulic shell press (Fig. 11), where 2,600 pounds of pressure is applied to the wood at 200 degrees.
Six minutes later, he pulls out a shell. Admittedly, it isn’t yet an aesthetically pristine thing of beauty, but is clearly destined to frame our snare drum. It goes directly into a room temperature hydraulic press — a proprietary process DW calls “cool tem- pering” — where the glue crystalizes and cures for several minutes. Afterward, all rough edges and hardened glue blobs are trimmed to reach the desired shell depth, and 6-ply reinforcement hoops are glued into the top and bottom inside the shell. Now we’ll make it shine.
We accompany our shell through a set of double doors and into a room humming with the sound of electric sanders. One side is lined with cubbyholes, where workers wearing industrial respirators methodically sand shells inside and out with 240-grit sandpaper (Fig. 12).
The Finish Line

To reduce dust and keep sanding equipment clean, DW employs a wet finishing process, in which shells pass back and forth between sanding stations and the lacquer department. The outside of our shell receives a coat of primer, three coats of water-based clear coat, and a top coat. The inside is primed and cleared once, and the surface is sanded between each coat.

In the middle of the room is a profusion of trollies (DW calls them “travelers”). Long vertical arms sprout from their center shafts like tree limbs. Drum shells of all types hang from these arms, waiting to dry before moving on to the next step of production (Fig. 13). We check out special order drums custom made for Queen Cora Dunham and Neil Peart among the forest of shells (Fig. 14), before crossing the room to a high-tech drilling machine, encased within a clear Plexiglas enclosure (Fig. 15).

Inside is a round pyramid of graduated platforms that resembles a flattened layer cake, with each step proportioned to fit snugly inside a specifically sized shell. Hovering above it is a robotic arm tipped by a circle of multiple drill bits. It appears to come straight from the set of a science fiction movie. Holes for our badges, lugs, butt plate, vents, and throw-off are drilled in the blink of an eye. Badda-bing!

At a nearby routing table a worker performs another light overall sanding before cutting 60-degree bearing edges on the router into both sides of the shell (Fig. 16).
After cleaning up the edges on a sanding table (Fig. 17), two resonant side snare beds are shaved on a C&C machine (Fig. 18).
{pagebreak} The shell is inspected on a flat piece of slate to assure edges and snare beds are smooth and uniform. Thumbs up. It’s time to put the pieces together (Fig. 19).
Final Steps

Throwing open another set of double doors, we get the odd sensation of stepping into an airlock. We leave behind a cacophony of machinery and workers hustling equipment back and forth, and step into a nearly silent corner of the warehouse, where only an occasional whirring of a power tool or distant snare shot breaks the relative calm. We’re in the pre-assembly area, where a handful of travelers draped with shells of all sizes — drilled, polished, awaiting completion — cluster alongside a long workbench. Here a technician applies a label inside our shell and double-checks the trueness of its edge. If anything were to look out of the ordinary, the shell would be sent back into production to make appropriate corrections. Ours passes the test, ready to move on.

Before a single lug post is installed, though, the pre-assembly tech suspends our shell under a microphone attached to a tuning device, and hits it with a soft mallet (Fig. 20). She checks the reading and marks the timbre note on the inside of the shell. That’s right, folks — DW’s timbre matching isn’t a myth or marketing ploy. It’s real.
After another round of polishing (Fig. 21), our shell is sent to final assembly.
This is where all fittings are attached (Fig. 22) — hoops, lugs, tension rods, butt plate, throw-off, snare wires, grommets, heads, the works.
Assemblers pull larger parts from massive racks and cabinets (Fig. 23), while smaller pieces are stored in trays on the workbench (Fig. 24).
To my eyes, our snare drum now looks complete, but the company isn’t quite done with it. Apparently, no DW drum is ready until Roland says it’s ready. A tall man wearing soft cloth gloves and a broad smile, Roland tunes every drum that passes through the assembly room, using ears to make it sing rather than fancy electronic gizmos (Fig. 25).

Before getting packaged, our drum makes one last stop in what DW calls the White House, just a couple steps from the tuning station. Illuminated by powerful white lights that reveal even the slightest imperfection, Roland gives the drum a final examination, turning it over several times, testing all moving parts, and buffing the hardware fittings. He declares it to be worthy.

So Let’s Play!
Roland holds up our finished snare drum in all its glory (Fig. 26). As much as we’d love to take it home and begin jam- ming, we’re overcome with a sense of gen- erosity and decide to give it away to one of you! So go to fasnaredrum and enter your name before the giveaway closes on August 10. We hope you have as much fun playing it as we had watching it get built!