Long before the advent of the multi-ply shell revolutionized the drum industry in the 1930s, snare shells were constructed from a single piece of wood, made pliable with a heavy dose of steam and bent around a circular mold to cure. The process was difficult, time-consuming, and took an inordinate amount of skill if you wanted the end product to resemble anything like a decent drum.
This was also true of the much-less common technique of hollow-log, or “seamless” shell construction, whose origins went back a little further than steam bending (think dawn of mankind). But the few who did master these techniques produced snare drums of unmatched quality and craftsmanship that have withstood the test of time. So even when the solid shell began to fade in popularity throughout the middle part of the 20th century in favor of the new cheaper, more easily mass-produced multi-ply shells, the old method continued to resonate within the drumming community.
Resurrected in the 1980s, solid shell snare building has been going strong ever since, kept alive mainly by a small cadre of dedicated artisans scattered around the globe. Their work is attracting a whole new generation of sonic explorers put off by what they see as the perversion of wood’s resonant purity under scads of glue and an industrialized manufacturing mindset.
While multi-ply shells still dominate the market by a huge margin, the community of solid shell snare builders continues to cater to a more select customer base – those willing to pay a little more (sometimes even a lot more) for a drum as unique as they are. For those of you in this category, DRUM! would like to introduce you to the dedicated few keeping this art form alive.
KEY: HL (Hollow Log Shell), (SB (Steam Bent Shells), H (Homemade Shells), P (Purchased Shells)
Ask Anton Sutej, owner of Antonio Drums, about the wood he uses to produce his steam-bent snare shells, and he’ll wax rhapsodic about the unique properties of the wood from his homeland of Croatia – about how the city of Venice was constructed from wood from Croatian forests, about how many famous buildings in the U.S. feature interior trim fashioned from Slavonian oak, even how Stradivari reportedly used Croatian wood for his violins. But wood pedigree aside, Antonio Drums’ strongest selling point is Sutej’s three decades of experience playing and making drums. And with a primary focus on solid shell snare and drum set construction, Antonio Drums is a great place to see what happens when that famous Croatian wood gets used for something really important. Antonio offers snares in 10", 12", 13", or 14" diameters and from depths of 3.5" to 8". Woods available are maple, ash, wild cherry, and English nut with a natural satin finish, 2.3mm triple-flanged or die-cast counterhoops, brass tube lugs, Remo Ambassador coated heads, and Puresound strand wires.
Antonio Drums, Jelaciceva 30, 47250 Duga Resa, Croati, 00 385 4784 1811
Artisan Percussion, as its name implies, is a one-man operation. In this case, the man is Greg Blake, who turns Vaughncraft shells into elegant drums whose simple symmetry and beauty are refreshingly subdued, right down to the classic, tarnished-brass, antique coin-like badge proclaiming the drums’ origin in the USA (Loomis, California, to be exact). Blake, like most of his contemporaries on this list, favors the single-ply shell over the multi-ply for its ability to vibrate more freely, offering more articulation and a purer tone. He also shares with many other drum makers in this article the distinction of using Vaughncraft shells. Vaughncraft, a Kansas-based company that has been bending wood for tambourines since the early ’70s, added snare drum shells to its repertoire in 2003, followed by complete drum set shells last year. Vaughncraft owner John Rose says the company has crafted such shells from more than 60 species of wood, including many varieties of exotics.
A relative newbie on the drum market, the four-year-old, Christian-themed Battlefield Drum Company didn’t waste much time expanding its offerings, as evidenced by its catalog of both steam-bent and hollow-log solid shells available in almost every domestic wood imaginable, and a host of exotics as well. Equally ambitious in its finishes, Battlefield offers its solid shells in a range of wraps, as well as satin and high-gloss finishes over a variety of different stains. Upgrades to a standard tube-lug configuration include wood or die-cast hoops, Trick or Nickleworks throw-offs, off-set lugs, and powder-coated hardware in an astounding 300-plus colors, including low-gloss, sparkles, textured, and even glow-in-the-dark. A 3/8" thickness (plus reinforcement rings) is standard, but Battlefield, of course, will go thicker – up to 2".
Battlefield Drum Company, 10700 Jersey Blvd. #670, Rancho Cucamonga, CA 91730, 909-938-4896
Black Swamp produces an S3 series of solid shell snares, otherwise known as “instruments for the truly discriminating artist.” The shells, made both (in-house and purchased from suppliers) are an alternative to the company’s 10-ply maple shells, and offer a higher-end version of the Black Swamp customization experience. Available in maple, birdseye maple, curly maple, claro walnut, cocobolo, purpleheart, rosewood, and zebrawood, the snares come loaded with a Multisonic or SoundArt Precision Glide Strainer, solid-brass, custom tube lugs, die-cast hoops, reinforcement rings, precision-cut bearing edges and concert snare bed, and are hand-sanded and sealed with a gloss finish both inside and out.
Black Swamp Percussion LLC, 11114 James St., Zeeland, MI 49464, 616-879-0066
Solid shell drum construction is a way of life for the Brady Drums. Nestled in a remote western outpost in the already remote city of Perth, Australia, the Brady family has grown accustomed to braving the dangers of the bush in search of prime, native-Australian timber with which to craft some of the most beautiful and sophisticated hollow-log, solid shell snare drums in the world. After an unfortunate stretch where the company fell under the control of outside interests, Brady patriarch and master craftsman, Chris Brady, recently reestablished himself at the helm, bringing the 30-year-old institution back under full family control. Once again, the secret family recipe for shell making, prized by sonic heavyweights like Trilok Gurtu and the late Jeff Porcaro, are once again poised to hit the market. “It’s my first love,” says Chris Brady of his craft. “There’s nothing like going into the bush, getting the right tree, and nursing each shell through the process until you can hear it as a snare.”
Brady Drum Company, 17 Stone Street, Armadale WA 6112, Australia, +61 (0)89-497-2212
Canopus' solid shell, hollowed-log snares are known as Zelkova, the same name as the Japanese hardwood from which they’re bored. Dried gradually over two years to an extremely low moisture content (a process that prevents cracking of the wood and allows for a more rounded range of overtones), the dense, resonant shells are both highly stable and very musical. The most notably unique feature of the Canopus Zelkova is the slightly convex, vertical curve of the shells. The inside of the shell is also tapered gently at each edge. The end result is a nearly l/4" difference in thickness between the middle and edge of the drum, which terminates in a thin bearing edge slightly inset from the outside hoop of the head.
Canopus USA, P.O. Box 11106, Carson, CA 90749, 310-637-7628
Though a recent entrant into the solid shell snare club, this Cooperman made its name crafting beautiful, rope-tuned, Civil War replica drums. The company owns a significant chunk of land in Vermont, from which it pulls the domestic hardwoods that have become its stock in trade, using 3/8" slabs of maple, curly maple, oak, and cherry to produce some beautiful snares. Stay tuned (pardon the pun) for more on the solid shell front from this rising New England dark horse.
Cooperman Fife & Drum Company, P.O. Box 821, 1007 Route 121, Bellows Falls, VT 05101, 802-463-9750
Johnny Craviotto’s biggest boon as a solid shell drum maker came in 1999 when he released his Limited Edition Lake Superior Solid Maple Snares from 700-year-old salvaged timber pulled from the lake that bore their name. The drumming community has been drooling over all things Craviotto ever since. The Lake Superiors are all spoken for, but Craviotto can make you just about any kind of solid shell you can think of, fashioned from premium-grade maple, walnut, cherry, oak, ash, mahogany, and a range of exotics, all designed and constructed in the most patriotic-sounding of towns: Freedom, California. The company uses Trick and Dunnett throw-offs, the latest generation of Gauger (GPI) original RIMS alloy suspension systems, signature diamond tube and cast lugs, diamond clamps, custom snare wires, and other fittings exclusive to Craviotto. It also uses Craviotto-specific, Remo USA heads.
The Craviotto Drum Company, P.O. Box 719, Freedom, CA 95019, 831-763-0855
After the Watsonville, California-based Solid Percussion Inc. went up for sale back in 1991 (following co-owner Johnny Craviotto’s exit in ’89), Gene D’Amico promptly snatched it up – logos, equipment, and all – effectively taking over a turnkey operation with the intention of keeping alive one of the more popular solid shell-snares of the ’80s. So in addition to its cast bronze and stainless steel models, D'Amico Drums is the sole producer of the Solid wood snare drum according to the original Solid Percussion patent specs. D’Amico uses stainless steel molds to steam bend each piece of selected hardwood, and machines Solid Percussion’s original, patented lugs, which feature a spring-less design and a built-in lug lock for accurate and consistent tuning. The “Precision Profile” snare bed is produced using a CNC machine for consistency. The throw-off is machined from lightweight aluminum and is available as a single- or double-sided configuration. Shells also feature matching wood reinforcement hoops for stability. The list price is $1,400 for a 14"-diameter drum in depths of 4", 5.5", or 7".
D'Amico Drums, P.O. Box 663, Southampton, MA 01073, 413-539-1895
Based in Las Vegas, Drumdaddy (aka Sin City Drums) does a fair amount of both solid and segmented snare drum shells. But the company is looking to put all its chips on solid shells, both for snares and for complete drum kits, claiming that its days of messing around with multi-ply shells are all but over. The idea is to produce fully customizable drums that reflect every aspect of a customer’s desires. Drumdaddy is looking to cater to those in search of a true, one-of-a-kind experience when it comes to designing a signature sound, which the folks at Drumdaddy naturally believe starts with the snare. Owner Mark A. Chiangi, who has been in the drum-making business since 1968, points to his extra-special options, like his Iron Cross lugs and the Blue Tiger maple shells with black chrome spiked lugs, which he’s created for a number of customers.
Ronn Dunnett may be most well known for his groundbreaking titanium-shelled snare drums, but he’s no slouch on the wood solid shell front either. Dunnett offers two different types of solid shell drums: MonoPly and MonoPly X, available either in maple, or in a wood type Dunnett has branded “Milkwood,” an invented moniker meant to mask the true identity of the source wood. The aura of mystique, coupled with Milkwood’s suspiciously light weight, seems to have had an effect, with the Milkwood variety edging out the maple in popularity by a factor of 4:1. About a year ago, Dunnett bought the rights to the legendary George Way Drum Company, through which he produces the solid maple Advance model in either 5"- or a 6.5"-deep sizes, a 14" diameter, and a natural oil finish. According to Dunnett, the Advance holds the distinction, in a field of four-figure giants, of being the most affordable single-ply maple snare drum on the market, with an MSRP of $825 (or about $500 street).
Dunnett Classic Drums, 4587 57th St., Delta, BC, Canada, V4K-3E4, 604-643-9939
DW worked with Craviotto for several years developing a line of steam-bent shells, with DW claiming the glory of the finished product. In 2004, the company switched to Vaughncraft shells and expanded into the realms of exotic hardwoods (claro walnut, cocobolo, purple heart, and white ash), and odd sizes (popcorn through 15" x 6.5" models). But DW knows drums, and the final touches, such as precision-cut bearing edges and Collector’s series hardware, have done for solid shells what has worked wonders throughout the rest of the DW catalog.
Drum Workshop Inc., 3450 Lunar Court, Oxnard, CA 93030, 805-485-6999
Boasting itself – somewhat ironically considering the name – as “the Ferrari of drums,” Ford Drums has set the bar mighty high, especially when it comes to the world of solid shells, where even the Mustangs of the drum community have trouble getting off the starting line. That’s why Ford, which began life as a repair shop for other drum manufacturers, focuses on the details: bearing edges cut to order to maximize shell-to-collar ratios; proprietary, axial alignment lugs; and as of recently, the option to go solid all the way around the kit. This is Ford’s Organic series, featuring beefy, 5/8"-thick shells steam-bent from one of a whopping 36 different varieties of domestic and exotic woods.
Gabriel (Gavrilos) Tsagaris, owner of the Greek custom drum company, Gabriel Drums, is another seasoned veteran of the solid-shell scene, having been tooling with his signature brand since the late ’70s. According to the company web site, “At no time was his motivation one of profit. Gavrilos supports the idea that business takes second place to Art and Creation, which in his case are Soul and Breath.” Those are pretty lofty claims, but ones that Gavrilos is no doubt eager to demonstrate with his work. Gabriel Drums’ GS snares are all-maple construction and are outfitted with reinforcing hoops. They are equipped with die-cast hoops, the company’s own chrome- or gold-plated, all-brass tension lugs, and the new proprietary, GBSS solid-brass snare strainer.
Gabriel Drums, 42 Plapouta St., Αγ. Ανάργυροι, 13562, Athens, Greece, (+3021) 02320252
Grover Pro, parent company of SilverFox drumsticks, offers solid maple shells constructed from good ol’ fashioned New England sugar maple. Grover Pro is so confident in these 3/8"-thick shells that it withholds the reinforcing rings, a move which, while risky, does allow for the sound to bounce around unobstructed inside the shell, which the company claims results in a broader acoustic response. Grover Pro has positioned its solid shells as the “flagship” of its drum line, which is a good indication that quality and craftsmanship are taken very seriously with these drums. They feature die-cast hoops finished in black nickel and outfitted with a premium, natural-skin batter head. Grover machines all bearing edges and snare beds using DNC technology, which takes the density and depth of each shell into account in order to make custom adjustments for each shell’s individual tendencies. The final sanding, though, as it should be, is done by hand.
Grover Pro Percussion, Inc., 22 Prospect Street, Unit 7, Woburn, MA 01801, 781-775-8029
Rich Ferdolage, owner and sole craftsman of Heartwood Drums, makes his solid-shell drums from concentric cylinders cut from solid logs using a patented milling process. The natural size discrepancy of the concentric shells from a single log normally comprises an entire drum set, with a few extra lengths of cylinder that become independent snares. Available wood varieties include black walnut, paradox walnut, Siberian elm, sycamore, oak, and whatever other kind of tree trunk you might have lying around. Ferdolage has offered a variety of hardware with these drums, but the standard has become tube lugs and a Trick or Dunnett throw-off. Finishes include either a three-part, hand-rubbed oil finish or an environmentally friendly, CrystaLac waterborne finish that Ferdolage describes as, “hard as a parrot’s beak.” Sizes go from 8" x 3.75" all the way up to 15" x 8".
From their home across the pond in the small town of Horbury, in West Yorkshire, England, the folks at Highwood Drums set out in 2003 to make their mark on the custom drum market by tackling the difficult process of manufacturing their own shells in order to ensure quality control from the bending of the wood straight through to the finished drum. After cutting their teeth on ply shell construction, they only recently broke out into the solid shell snare market, focusing mostly on their first choice material, Finnish birch, although they are beginning to branch out into exotic woods as well. Shells are available raw or finished.
Lang Percussion (aka Gladstone Drums) is another solid shell manufacturer looking to branch off from snares to complete kits, teaming up with Vaughncraft recently to produce two of these, one in cocobolo and the other in birdseye maple. For its snares, in addition to Vaughncraft, Lang also uses shells made by Cooperman of Vermont, and, until they went out of business, True North of Canada. Wood offerings include maple, birds eye maple, fiddleback maple, and a selection of exotics.
Lang Percussion, 145 B Roebling St., Brooklyn, NY 11211, 718-624-1825
For the past 16 years, Pennsylvania-based custom drum maker, Longo Drums, has specialized in solid shell shares. It offers an exhaustive list of customizable features, including 14 different stains and natural finishes and a whopping 75 different wraps, not to mention 15 different wood species and a huge selection of lugs, hoops, heads, snares, and just about anything else you might think of to make your solid shell snare buying experience more personal.
Longo Drums, P.O. Box 170, Sybertsville, PA 18251
Ludwig was one of those instigators of solid shell fever way back in the ’30s, during the craft’s original vogue period. Vintage Ludwig solid shell snares still represent the mystique that modern solid shell makers are trying hard to replicate. Of course, Ludwig finds itself in this category as well these days, continuing to produce the North American maple, solid shell snare of vintage fame. The drum is available in one size: 14" x 5.5", with a hand-treated maple finish, a choice of strainers (with either a standard or Millennium-style throw-off), and a die-cast or steel hoop option. MSRP is $1,405.
Ludwig Drums, P.O. Box 310 , Elkhart, IN 46515, 574-522-1675
From his home base in the heart of Amish country in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, master craftsman and owner of Markley Custom Drums, Dennis Markley, says he can produce a steam-bent, one-piece, solid shell snare from just about any wood that a customer could want, in 13" or 14" diameter and from 4"- to 7"-deep sizes, complete with maple reinforcing rings. Markley machines his own Solid Tension lugs from aircraft aluminum with stainless steel threaded inserts, and will even customize bearing edges. He takes special pride in his high-gloss lacquer finishes, but the drums are also available in satin finishes and wraps. The solid shells come standard with Nickel Drumworks snare strainers, German steel snare wires, and chrome die-cast hoops and hardware, but options include black chrome, gold, or powder-coated hardware, 2.3mm triple-flanged hoops, and vintage tube lugs. The best part is, you can walk away with a 14" standard solid shell for just $775.
Markley Custom Drum Co., 2491 Impala Dr., Ronks, PA 17572, 717-615-7502
If longevity is the hallmark of excellence, Noble & Cooley beats all. The same name that adorned the drums Union Army soldiers carried onto the battlefields of the Civil War is still being imprinted onto new drums in the original Granville, Massachusetts location by direct descendents of one of the company’s founders. Though Noble & Cooley spent many generations supplying the military and toy drum industries, it helped lead the resurgence of solid shell drums in the 1980s, bursting into the professional drum market with the SS Maple Classic snare, crafted on a century-old steam-bending machine. It’s the same solid shell offered today, with many proprietary upgrades garnered from a century and a half of drum-building trial and error. The 14"-diameter, 1/4"-thick shells are now available in maple, oak, and cherry in depths of 3.875", 5", or 7" and in any finish the company offers. Rims, lugs, and throw-off are all unique to Noble & Cooley.
Noble & Cooley, 42 Water St., Granville, MA 01034, 413-357-6321
Just east of London, Noonan Custom And Vintage Drums creates single-ply, steam-bent shells from maple, cherry, walnut, oak, or from a selection of more exotic woods in either 13" or 14" sizes. Noonan will let you choose different species of reinforcement rings to further tailor your sound. The drums come standard with three-part solid brass tube lugs with either a hexagonal- or vintage-style end posts. Hardware is available with different plating options, including chrome, nickel, satin chrome, satin nickel, black chrome, black nickel, and gold. The company also produces solid seamless shells, hewn from a hollow mahogany log, in 12", 13", and 14".
Noonan Custom And Vintage Drums, 97A Windmill Street, Gravesend, Kent, DA12 1LE, 01-47-453-5169
Recently, due to the closure of the factory that supplied most of Oregon Drums’ material and did most of its kiln drying, the company had to halt production of its hollowed-log, myrtlewood drums – which owner, William Reeves, refers to as “true solid” drums. Fortunately, it was able to parlay the drum-building fever into its steam-bent models, also fashioned solely out of this unique hardwood, which grows only along a small section of coastal range from southern Oregon to northern California. But whether he’s making plied, steam-bent, stave, segment, or “true solid” shells, Reeves has always kept his company focused squarely on building snares, and snares alone. And with his background in computer programming, Reeves is able to offer consumers a unique experience on the company web site, where you can “virtually” design exactly the snare drum you want from an nearly endless slate of options.
Oregon Drum, P.O. Box 1615, Coos Bay, OR 97420
Twenty years after Bill Detamore started making drums, his company, Pork Pie, has grown into one of the most inventive, hippest custom drum companies out there. On the solid shell snare front, Detamore has teamed up with Vaughncraft to make some truly extraordinary instruments from an astounding variety of hardwoods, which Detamore says he hand-selects based on the sound the shells make when he taps on them. The steam-bent shells utilize maple reinforcement rings and are available with Remo heads, 2.3mm hoops, Pork Pie snare wires, and either tube lugs or the instantly recognizable Pork Pie hourglass lug design.
Pork Pie Percussion, 72411/2 Eton Ave., Canoga Park, CA 91303, 818-992-0783
From Montello, Wisconsin, Rat Trap Custom Drums represents the Midwest’s answer to solid shell drums, offering traditional, steam-bent, single-ply shells outfitted with signature details like proprietary lugs that allow for head changes without having to remove all the tension rods, provided you pass on the option of more traditional tube lugs. The company also offers a range of domestic and exotic hardwoods to choose from.
Rat Trap Custom Drums, P.O. Box 743, Montello, WI 53949, 414-587-7903
Although the lion’s share of Shine’s drum business is dealing in ply shells, the name of the game is custom, and if it’s a single-ply steam-bent shell you want, Shine will deliver. Some of the more popular wood varieties the company has fashioned solid shells from include zebrawood, beech, butternut, cherry, bubinga, rosewood, mahogany, cocobolo, birch, walnut, and purple heart, but the possibilities are limited only by availability. The company also offers a full range of possible diameters and depths (from piccolo to 8" deep). All shells include reinforcement rings, and finish options include hi-gloss, semi-gloss and satin top coats. Shine can also inlay, stain, and burn designs onto shells.
Shine Custom Drums & Percussion, 3444 Swetzer Road, Suite A, Loomis, CA 95650, 916-652-8053
Solid shell shamans from down under – that’s the vibe of Spirit Drums, whose name betrays a devotion to craftsmanship with an emphasis on the sacred. Of course, master craftsmen Jim Hall and Matthew Bowden had no choice but to put their fate in the hands of a higher power the moment they decided to start building drums from one of the densest, hardest woods on the planet: the aptly named, ironwood. But the properties of this amazing wood, from a tree that has long been used medicinally by native Aborigines, allows Spirit to offer a true lifetime warranty. Spirit offers only these Ironwood solid shell snares, lathed from a single tree segment off of a sustainable farm, in nine different sizes, outfitted with their own custom lugs and a Trick throw-off. In addition to being the only known drum maker offering ironwood shells, Spirit also seems to stand alone in its habit of carving concentric rings on the inside of the shells, which it claims enhances sonic properties.
Spirit Drums, 160 Martyn Street , Cairns, Queensland Australia 4870
Symphonic Percussion’s hollow-log solid shell snare drum, like Canopus’ Zelkova snare, is convex, swelling out around the edges like a marshmallow squished between a couple of graham crackers. But unlike the Canopus model, the bowing action is mirrored on the inside of the shell so that the thickness is consistent and the edges terminate into a proprietary bearing edge design called the Queen Anne bearing edge. The graceful curve of the drum’s convex shape is no doubt informed by master craftsman and Symphonic owner Jim Chudzinski’s previous career as a landscape artist. The drums are availably in one size only: 14" x 6.5", and are made from some quirky wood species you’ll be hard-pressed to find elsewhere, such as carob and potocarpus. The shells are sanded and finished on both the interior and exterior and come with Symphonic’s unique, rhodium-plated hardware.
Symphonic Percussion, P.O. Box 85, Lake Forest, CA 92609, 949-689-1110 http://www.symphonicpercussion.com
From north of the border comes Wells Custom Drums, offering steam-bent, single-ply shells crafted using what owner Tom Wells calls “the preferred original Mennonite, steam-bending process.” Wells is the wizard behind the curtain at this Ontario company, overseeing everything from the bending of the wood to the finished product. All shells have reinforcing rings and are only available in 14" diameters and in depths of 4" to 6.5". To go any deeper requires joining two pieces of wood – and that’s a shell for another feature.
Wells Custom Drums, 18 Maple Ave., Brantford, Ontario N3T 4B6, Canada, 519-757-6581
Solid, steam-bent shells made in the tradition of classic Ludwig and Slingerland drums of the ’30s and ’40s are the number-one focus at Witt Percussion, a focus that has recently expanded to include entire single-ply kits. Master craftsman and owner, Ian Witt, makes all of the shells by hand, using no CNC lathes or automated equipment. The best part is the company’s dedication to using only responsibly harvested or reclaimed wood to reduce its environmental footprint, even refusing to use endangered woods, no matter how in demand they may be. The shells are on the thin side, with hand-rounded, 45-degree bearing edges. Witt finishes these with a special mixture of cellulose and oil, claiming that modern poly finishes inhibit the wood from breathing and aging properly. That’s important, because Witt wants his drums to age with all the dignity of the classics he’s trying to replicate.