Absolute Authenticity: When Only Cowhide Counts
Calfskin heads are remarkably durable, although, like Mylar heads, they have their breaking points, particularly when they come face-to-face with something sharp. Both types of heads are also subject to the same law of physics that says that any given head can produce only so much volume, and hitting it harder only results in damage instead of more volume. (Okay, maybe it’s not a law, but it’s at least an ordinance.)
Calf heads require a little more attention than Mylar, in that once they’re tuned up for a performance in a very humid environment, you need to detune them before they dry out. When they dry, they shrink or tighten, and if they’re already tight, they might split. Beyond that, however, they don’t really require much maintenance. There’s nothing like the sound and feel of wood hitting leather. It’s a wonderfully full, round, and satisfying experience all the way around. You can’t expect the defined pitch that you get with today’s sharp bearing edges and synthetic heads — it’s a whole different trip.
The price for new calfskin has gone up to the point where I often see old drums that are worth more because of their heads than for any other part of the drum. Even if they look a little ratty, don’t discard old calfskin heads too quickly. If they’re just dirty, scrub them down with gentle soap and a dampened cloth (be sure to dry thoroughly). If they are split or torn, you might still be able to salvage enough skin to make a smaller head. If the head is pulling off of the flesh hoop (the one it’s mounted on) it can be soaked, removed, and remounted. If the flesh hoop is warped and/or twisted, so that the head won’t fit flatly on the drum shell, you can soak the head, remove it from the warped hoop, and tuck it onto a new hoop.
Probably the most valuable vintage calfskin heads at this writing are the bass drumheads that feature oil paintings. These were sold by most of the major drum companies of the 1920s and 1930s such as Ludwig, Leedy, and Slingerland. I’ve seen such heads bring $200 to $300. The brand will also affect the value of white calfskin heads. The highest quality heads of the early 1900s were Rogers and the Leedy “UKA” heads. Ludwig’s highest-quality heads were the signature series. Slingerland Radio King heads also are worth more than unbranded heads, although it’s not so much because they are higher quality than generic heads — they’re simply in demand by folks restoring Radio King drums.
If you aren’t interested in sound quality because all you need is a cosmetic fix for a collectable drum destined to sit in a display, I suggest using Asian calf heads. Most are produced in India and Pakistan. If you’re in the mood to try skin but aren’t sure if you’re going to like it, you might want to start out by trying Earthtone heads. They’re actually goat rather than calf, are mounted in a metal flesh hoop in the same manner that Mylar heads are mounted, and tend to be thicker than calfskin. I always suggest Earthtone when discussing skin with a player concerned about durability because of his heavy playing style.
If you want “traditional” white calf heads, go with American calfskin heads. By the 1980s, the number of American tanneries making calfskin heads had dwindled to one: United Rawhide of Chicago. The proprietor, Mr. Palansky, sold his business several years ago. Although the tannery that purchased the assets of United Rawhide, Stern Tanning of Cheboygan, Wisconsin, was not experienced in calfskin head production, the heads they produce today are virtually identical to their predecessors. There was a time when United Rawhide supplied calfskin to Ludwig, Slingerland, and Gretsch, so the heads available from Stern are the closest possible matches to original equipment for many vintage drums.
For the discriminating percussionist, I’ve found that the best quality calfskin available today comes from Europe — particularly Great Britain and Germany. Many have been in business for hundreds of years, primarily producing vellums and parchments. Joseph Rogers Senior learned his craft in the parchment yards of Dublin, Ireland as a young boy. One of the best-known suppliers of high-quality skins today is Vellum & Parchment Works, Ltd. of Celbridge, Ireland. Particularly impressive are their “Kalfo” heads. These translucent heads are remarkably consistent and are the head of choice for many top symphonic timpanists. I want to stress that translucent heads are expensive and of consistently high quality, yet are not more rugged than white heads.
Rob Cook, as the proprietor of Rebeats, has been tucking and selling calf heads for more than 15 years.