How To Build Clay Hand Drums

How To Build Clay Drums

A recent DRUM! reader survey revealed that more than 90 percent of you either own or have immediate access to formulated clay, fresh goatskin heads and a kiln capable of firing at over 2000º. We couldn’t believe it either, but stranger coincidences have occurred (remember the Bush family in Florida?). In response to this shocking statistic, we decided to take you behind the scenes of Stephen Wright’s Wright Hand Drums to show you how clay hand drums are made. Not part of that 90 percent? Me either. The truth is most of us can barely get the Play Dough out of the jar. Nevertheless, a look at how clay hand drums are made can be a valuable experience. Knowing the how-and-why of drum making helps us not only appreciate the tools we use, but also expands our knowledge of the instrument and helps us become better players. So there.

Wright has played drums for most of his 44 years and has made a living as a ceramic artist for more than half his life. “I came to clay drums in 1990 when a friend suggested I use clay tablas on a recording we were working on,” he says. “I told him, ’There’s no such thing as clay drums. I’ve been working as a ceramic artist for 20 years. It’s my profession and I would know.’ Well, eventually I went to the library and found he was right. I found information on clay dumbeks, Moroccan bongos, and all sorts of clay drums. Once I decided it was something I wanted to do – because I was really burned out on making dishes, pitchers and bowls – I just took it one step at a time like I was going back to school to get my Master’s degree. I didn’t know anything about making drums, so I just dove into it.”

Wright Hand Drum Company’s line of percussion includes clay versions of conventional instruments like dumbeks, bongos, ghatams and shakers, but the most impressive drums are his own hybrid creations of traditional cultural instruments. His Ubang is a unique version of the traditional udu; and the Gunta – a cross between a frame drum and a dumbek – makes you wonder what took so long for this breed to surface. “It occurred to me that most traditional percussion instruments were made for playing in an intimate setting,” Wright reveals. “There was never any consideration for microphones or sound amplification. I thought it would be interesting to create these drums with a more directional sound, say from the side of the drum, that would make miking more functional and create a more amplified acoustic sound.

“The American concept of taking something traditional and turning it into something else is very interesting. The invention of the trap set was just a matter of necessity. You can have four guys each playing one drum or you can have one guy playing four drums. Drawing specific aspects from our various cultures and using them to become better is true global fusion. That’s become a catch phrase, but it’s very true and it’s moving quickly among the drumming community. There are people saying, ’Why can’t I play these kinds of patterns just because it’s this kind of drum? Who wrote the rules on that?’ So they’re trying everything and coming up with some amazing stuff.”

Clay Drums FIG 1

Fig. 1: Wright pulls handfuls of his specially-formulated clay out of a storage bin to begin the process of crafting a clay drum.

Clay Drums FIG 2

Fig. 2: The clay is weighed to meet exact weight specifications for each drum.

Clay Drums FIG 3

Fig. 3: Wright works the clay until it is the proper consistency.

Clay Drums FIG 4

Fig. 4: Wright begins throwing the drum shell on an electric wheel.

Clay Drums FIG 5

Fig. 5: The shell begins to take on its specific circumference.

Clay Drums FIG 6

Fig. 6: The drum is calibrated using a set of wood calibers.

Clay Drums FIG 7

Fig. 7: Wright fine-tunes the shell depth.

Clay Drums FIG 8

Fig. 8: The sound-port is formed on the wheel.

Clay Drums FIG 9

Fig. 9: An assortment of shells and sound-ports dry for 24 hours.

Clay Drums FIG 10

Fig. 10: After drying, the shells are trimmed. “This is where I shape the outside of the drum and establish a consistent thickness throughout the shell,” Wright says.

Clay Drums FIG 11

Fig. 11: The dried sound-port is attached.

Clay Drums FIG 12

Fig. 12: Colored liquid clay is brushed onto the shell to begin the decorating process.

Clay Drums FIG 13

Fig. 13: A clay handle is formed and attached to the side of the drum.

Clay Drums FIG 14

Fig. 14: The drums are fired in a kiln to strengthen the shells before glazing.

Clay Drums FIG 15

Fig. 15: Shells are dipped into liquid glaze. “There is a way of glazing some drums that is specific to the way they sound,” Wright says. “Applying glaze to only specific parts of the drum can have a strong effect on how the drum sounds.”

Clay Drums FIG 16

Fig. 16: The shells are fired for a second time.

Clay Drums FIG 17

Fig. 17: The drumhead is stretched over the shell.

Clay Drums FIG 18

Fig. 18: The head is glued and tied in place.

We asked Wright to walk us through the process of turning a hunk of mud into one of his masterful Guntas. Without revealing too many of his trade secrets, this is what we learned:

To make clay drums you first need clay, and not just any clay. “One very important thing that I learned early on is the importance of finding the right clay formula,” Wright explains. “My clay is my own formula incorporating about five different clays from all over the U.S. I started by deciding how I wanted to fire the clay according to desired strength, sound and aesthetics. Then you take your knowledge of what clay combinations can give you those qualities. From there it’s just trial and error. If you’re not using the right clay, it’s not going to work. Especially for drums like the Ubang where you play the shell a lot.”

About 1200 pounds of the clay are mixed at once and stored in a large bin (Fig. 1). Then specific amounts are dug out, weighed to meet the particular specifications of each drum (Fig. 2) and worked to the proper consistency (Fig. 3). “Every one of these drums is specific according to how much clay I use and the calibration of their rims to make each the correct shape and size. It sounds obvious, but it takes time to configure the right amount of clay to use for each particular size. People ask me, ’How long did it take you to make this drum?’ I just smile and say, ’Twenty years.’”

With the proper mix of clay prepared, the fun begins with the making of the actual drum. Wright continues, “I throw the drum on an electric wheel (Fig. 4). This whole process has a real sense of rhythm to it. The wheel turns at a certain speed and it works just like a metronome. If you can feel the beat of the wheel, then you can follow the clay as you’re working it on the wheel” (Fig. 5). Wright then uses some low-tech instruments – a pair of wood calibers with a wing nut – to calibrate each drum (Fig. 6). “Calibrating and forming the rim angle is very important. This is also where I determine the depth of the shell” (Fig. 7). Once the drum is formed, another ball of clay is thrown on the wheel to create what will become the “sound-port” (Fig. 8).

While the next step isn’t very exciting, it’s certainly important. This is when the drums and “sound-ports” take time to dry. “From the time you throw it to the time you assemble it, they have to dry for about a day” (Fig. 9). Wright works on about ten to 12 drums at once, so while this batch dries, he’s hard at work on the next.

Once the drums have dried, they’re flipped over and go back on the wheel where the shells are trimmed using a metal lathe (Fig. 10). From there, a hole is cut on the side of each Gunta and the dried sound port is attached with clay (Fig. 11). Next, the decorative aesthetics are added by brushing on colored liquid clay and carving designs into the drum using a small metal tool (Fig. 12). A clay handle is formed and attached to the side of the drum (Fig. 13) where a shoulder strap will eventually be attached.

This is where things get hotter than a Victoria’s Secret company barbecue. “Each drum is fired twice,” Wright clarifies (Fig. 14). “The first time through gets rid of all the organics in the clay and makes it strong enough for glazing. At this point the clay is no longer dissolvable.” The drums are then dipped in a tub of liquid glaze (Fig. 15). The glaze provides protection for the clay and adds aesthetic appeal. It also changes the way the drum sounds. After the glaze is applied, each drum is fired again to a mature temperature of about 2100º (Fig. 16).

Wright heads about 20 drums in one day. “First the heads have to soak in water overnight to ensure they’re completely hydrated. I’ve settled on using goatskin after I’ve tried about everything else.” The heads are then stretched by hand (Fig. 17) and secured to the rim using special glue and skin ties (Fig. 18). “They’re glued to keep them in tune in case they’re ever moved from a damp environment to a dry environment. A hair dryer works wonderfully to tune a drum. I tell people that if they’re in a very dry environment and don’t play the drum that often, a little lanolin-based hand lotion on the head will keep it in shape. It’s just like putting lotion on your own skin.”

Once the glue sets, the drums are ready to play. If this process seems like a great way to make a living, Wright warns, “Be prepared to face incredible competition from other drum companies. Learn about the business before you dive into it. Luckily I’ve found that without exception every drummer is nice to work with. Drummers in general seem to be very happy people. I heard a joke at the last PASIC: ’Could you imagine getting this many guitarists together for a convention? They’d kill each other.’”