DIY: How to Build a Kick Drum


A kick drum is round. A kick drum has two heads. A kick drum is usually made out of wood. A kick drum is struck with a foot-operated beater.

You have now amassed the same drum knowledge that I had before starting this project. I tell you this for two reasons. First: no whining about not knowing anything about drums. Second: I am completely unqualified to write a tutorial in drum building. I'm sure an experienced builder would laugh/cry/swear at many of things I will say. However, I'm a student of the New Jersey school. Worse is better.

I've been in need of a good kick drum for a while, and since I'm a broke college student, my choices
were quite limited. Certainly not an Orange County or Spaun (upwards of a grand). So I did what I usually do when I find out that something I want/need is too expensive--figured out if I could build it myself for less. It turned out that I could--quite a bit less, actually. Excluding the shitty Tama pedal I bought, this drum cost about $360. And since I used the same shells that most of the custom shops all use (Keller), I have a drum that is on par with the best. Well, minus the plaid/polka-dot/whatever-crazy- pattern-you-can-imagine wrap. But I just wanted matte black, so that's fine.

So, where to start? First off, let's talk about the structure of a drum. In the most simplistic of terms, what is a drum? Let's start with this simple definition: a drum is a tensioned membrane attached to a resonant cavity. You hit the membrane, and the resonant cavity--well, it resonates. That's it. That's a drum. Sometimes you add a second membrane on the opposite side of the resonant cavity to help control the resonance of the drum. But that doesn't really change our simple definition.

So our first problem is clear: how do we attach the membrane (the head) to the resonant cavity (the shell)? Before I answer that question, let me pose an additional question: how do we tension the head? Both questions have the same answer: with rims (or hoops). The hoop comes down on top of the head and is pulled towards the shell to put tension on the head. Which brings us to our next question: how do we pull the hoop towards the shell? Well, we attach lugs to the shell, into which we insert threaded tension rods; these tension rods are then attached to the hoop. An illustration, hopefully, will make this all clear:

Note that this illustration--besides being horrifically not to scale--is specific to a kick drum; with a snare or a tom, the hoop is different, and no claw is used. So it goes like this: the head is laid down on top of the shell; the hoop is inserted on top of the head; and the tension rod is inserted through the claw, and then threaded into the lug (which is bolted to the shell). There are usually 8 or 10 lugs per side, laid out concentrically. I couldn't find any references describing if 8 or 10 was better, but I like the look of 10, so that's what I did.

That's it. That's a kick drum. The only remaining pieces of hardware are the spurs, which are the little feet that extend down to hold the drum upright on the floor. Pretty simple, huh? Let's be clear; this is not rocket science.

Parts Planning
The Shitty Part

Ok, we now know how a drum works, and how it is constructed. The next part is ordering parts. This really drives me up the wall. Nothing pisses me off worse than planning an order, placing the order, and then realizing I forgot something. This stage of a project often overshadows all others, time-wise.

Let's make a checklist of what we need:

1 x drum shell
2 x hoops
2 x spurs
20 x lugs
20 x tension rods
20 x claws

and the stuff I didn't tell you about yet:

40 x lug screws (attaches the lugs to the shell)
40 x lug bolt washers
20 x lug gaskets (a soft pad between the shell and the lug)
2 x spur gaskets (ditto)

That's everything.

First, we need to make a decision about the shell. Size. How big should it be? I'll let you spend ten hours browsing usenet discussions on shell sizes...ok...done? Good. I chose a 16 x 20 (that's depth x diameter). I didn't want a huge Bonham-esque boom, and I read that 16x20 gave a nice, punchy sound. Having chosen a size, you need to choose a shell material. Most non-recording kits are made of maple, so that's how I went. If you were building a solely-to-be-used-for-recording kit, you might go with birch. Next, number of plies. The number of plies determines the rigidity of the shell, and hence, its resonance characteristics. This is sort of a non-issue for a kick drum, as I was only able to find 8-ply kick drum shells from Keller. If it were a tom, you could choose between 6 or 8-ply, and for a snare, you can choose between 6, 8, or 10-ply.

The only other thing to be concerned about with the shell is the bearing edge. The bearing edge is the surface where the head actually touches the shell. You can imagine that the shape of this edge will impact the sound of the drum. The most typical appears to be a 45 degree cut (as shown in the diagram above). You can order shells with or without the bearing edge cut. I paid the extra $25 and had the edge cut for me.

Next up: hoops. This is pretty easy; just buy two hoops of the same diameter as your shell. Again, I went with maple.

Now for the hardware. You really just have to decide on a style and color that suits your aesthetic. I was going for the blacked-out look, so I went with all black hardware in a style that didn't look like it was from 1954.

Where to buy all your parts? There are a bunch of websites selling drumparts; I went with drummaker.com. They had great prices, and they shipped promptly. I recommend them.

What to do with all These Parts?

Now the fun part--putting it all together.

Let's establish a top-level view of what we need to do here. We've got a shell. We've got lugs. We need to mount the lugs to the shell. The lugs mount to the shell with screws We need holes in the shell for the screws to go through. Thus, our plan of procedure is:

1.) Layout holes
2.) Drill holes
3.) Mount lugs
4.) Profit. (I've only seen three South Park episodes in my life. -ed)

Ok. Step One. The Laying Out of the Holes. The first thing I did was make a shell layout mat. Like this one, only free. I started with two large sheets of paper taped to a sheet of plywood.

The first step was drawing a large horizontal line across the paper; this is the frame of reference. Next, I rekindled some elementary school memories, and I dug out a protractor, which I used this to layout the angles for the template. Assuming my math is correct, the magic angle is 360/10 = 36 degrees. (Note, if you were doing an 8 per side lug configuration, your angle would be different.) Given this angle, I aligned my protractor to the reference line and marked off four ticks at 36, 72, 108, and 142 degrees:

Leaving me with:

I then struck a line from each of the four ticks through the origin to the other side of the reference line:

giving me this:

The final step in constructing the layout mat was drawing marks indicating the shell radius. So I grabbed a tape measure and measured the precise diameter of the shell. Having done this, I measured out half that distance in each direction from the origin:

When all was said and done, I was left with this gorgeous shell layout mat:

The next step was transferring the angles on the template to the shell. Since I didn't want to get a bunch of pencil marks all over the shell, I taped it first:

Then I aligned the shell to the radius marks on the template:

Having centered the shell on the template, I was then able to transfer the marks to the shell:

I repeated this for each of the 10 lug positions:

This last picture just reminded me of something. See the seam running down the drum? If you're anal-retentive like me, you will want this seam to ultimately end up on the bottom of the drum, where no one will see it and think poorly of your craftsmanship. Take this into account when you first align the shell to the template. But I digress.

Having transferred all the marks, I then struck lines perpendicular to the front face of the shell. This, however, required more tape:

Using my trusty framing square, I extended the tick marks:

Extend this line all the way to the other side of the shell. If your framing square isn't long enough, get a straightedge long enough to reach.

The next thing I needed to figure out was where to actually place the lugs. I couldn't really find any good information on lug placement--specifically, the distance from the front face of the shell to the lugs. So I got online and started looking at drums, to see what looked best. I don't think it's too critical, you just have to take into account the width of your hoops and the length of your tension rods. I did a test fit to see how things lined up. Here's the shell with the head and the hoop:

I then checked the fit with a claw, rod, and lug:

Each lug mounted with two bolts, spaced at 1.5". I decided on a depth of two inches to the front hole:

I repeated this step for each lug. After that, I was ready to drill. I first measured the diameter of the lug mounting post:

The post turned out to be 15/64". I consulted my drawer-o-drill-bits and came up with this guy:

This is referred to as a "spur-point" bit, in theory it should leave a nice clean hole with little tearing of the wood. Putting it to the test:

My first hole didn't turn out the best, though, as can be seen here:

Not the nicest of exit wounds. In an attempt to mitigate this tearing, I only drilled through far enough to see the spur poking through the other side of the shell:

Once I saw the bit starting to poke through, I finished the hole from the inside of the shell:

This fixed the problem. Here you can see a comparison of both methods:

To verify that I got my hole spacing correct, I did a test fit with one of the lugs:

It fit pretty well. Not too tight, not too loose. Satisfied with everything, I drilled holes for the rest of the lugs:

Neat. All I had left were the spurs. I tormented myself for quite some time (by which I mean more than five minutes but less than thirty minutes) trying to decide where to mount the spurs. I surfed the Internets for a little while trying to see what others did, and the consensus--for 10-lug configurations--was to mount the spur just below the "90 degree lugs". That probably doesn't make sense; here's a picture:

The folks at drumfoundry.com are kind enough to provide a drilling template for the spurs. I'm not sure what I would have done without this. I would probably have a drum that sits crooked on the floor. Here's the template:

You tape it to the shell and transfer the holes. Pretty easy. The first step was mounting it to the shell:

Just make sure that the horizontal lines are parallel with the front face of the shell, and adjust to your desired depth. After positioning the template to my satisfaction, I marked the holes with a punch:

after which I drilled the holes:

A quick test mount showed that everything fit:

I know that I mentioned a spur gasket on the parts list earlier, but now I can't remember if they even sell those. Regardless, I didn't have one, so I had to make my own. A trip to the auto parts store produced a roll of gasket material. I traced around the spur, producing this:

after which I cut it out:

But how do I know where to drill the holes? Ummm...thinking...uhhh...then I remembered the paint marker I had. So I glopped a bunch of paint on the spur:

and transferred the marks to the gasket:

I cut the holes out of the gaskets and mounted the spurs:

And voila! a drum:

Pretty simple, right? It sounds great, and I'm really happy with the shell size I chose. I have a friend who works at a cabinet shop, he finished it for me with a stain called "satin". It's matte black, but it lets the grain show through. Nice.


Hammers and Nails

A standard component in most undergraduate computer science programs is a semester course in programming language concepts. Now, I'm not a computer science major, but I did take the class last semester, and I really enjoyed it. I knew I was going to love the course when, on the first day, the professor's intro slide referenced the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. You should take a few minutes to check out the Wikipedia link, but the CliffsNotes version is this: the language you use to communicate directly influences your conception of the world. A standard example of this hypothesis is illustrated by the language used by the amazonian Pirahã tribe; they do not count with numerals. They have no words for numbers, so--the theory goes--they cannot perceive numbers. Confronted with a pile of four pebbles and a pile of five pebbles, the Pirahã do not comprehend any difference. Of course, this is all just a hypothesis, but I've read enough Robert Anton Wilson, Korzybski and random buddhist texts to embrace the idea.

What in the world does this have to do with computer programming? Well, you program a computer using a programming language, right? Hmmm. Might the language you use to program the computer impact your fundamental conception of how to program the computer? Without going into nerdy details, the answer is--emphatically--yes. Stated simply, the tool you use to approach a problem directly shapes how you perceive the problem.

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. - Bernard Baruch
As a musician, this concept had immediate implications. Might the tools I use to create music directly shape my conception of music? Any multi-instrumentalist will immediately tell you that this is the case. Play a piano for ten minutes. Now play a guitar for ten minutes. Now play a clarinet for ten minutes. I guarantee you that you just saw the world (musically speaking) in three completely different ways.

As an electronic
musician, this concept had even further implications. Might the software I use to create music directly shape the music I create? For the last 4-5 years, I've been a Pro Tools user. I loved it. It did what I wanted to do, and it did it well (besides the fairly regular crashes). In time, though, I started hearing about some new software called Ableton Live. It was supposed to be pretty revolutionary; I was reading some very positive feedback about the software. So I checked it out.

Let me say--emphatically--that it has changed my life. Live has changed the manner in which I approach the creation of new music. In Pro Tools' defense, it is very good at recording music. If you know what you want to record, and you know how you want to record it, Pro Tools is your go-to; its editing abilities are unmatched (don't take my word for it, just listen to any Top 40 radio and you'll hear the kinds of turds it can polish). But I'm more interested in creating music--in starting with a seed of an idea, and allowing myself to see where it will go. This is where Live shines. It is operating under a different paradigm than Pro Tools. Pro Tools is meant to operate like a virtual multitrack tape recorder; you hit the record button once, you play some music, and then you hit stop. Your music is laid out on the screen, left to right, in the order you recorded it. Very linear. Live, however, uses loops. You are presented with a grid of open slots, any of which can hold an arbitrary-length loop. You can layer, stack, rearrange, cut, chop, mix, dice and (insert any other verb) to your heart's content. It's very freeing. When you have something you like, you press the record button and it will record it all to a more linear form, just like Pro Tools. It's magical.

After working with Live for around a year now, I find it interesting--and useful--to go back to the Pro Tools world. Like I said, its editing capabilities are amazing. If you've ever had to comp eight vocal takes into a cohesive track, Pro Tools' playlist feature is indispensable. Try doing that in Live.

The point of all this is that the tool you use changes the way you do the job. Sometimes the job dictates the tool. Other times--and these are those important creative times--the tool dictates the job.


If a blog falls in the woods...

A cursory scan of the post dates on this blog will show that I've only just recently started blogging in earnest. Digging slightly deeper will show that this blog had been around for nigh on two years without a single post. Why was that?

If I may posit a hypothesis, it's because I tend to think too much. About everything. I mean it. Everything.

We've all come across those two guys in the coffee shop, tirelessly pontificating on the most inane of subjects. The ones whose conversations play out like a glossary of terms from an Intro to French Philosophy course. I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm as much a fan of post-structuralist debate as the next ego inflated academic, but these guys take self-aggrandizement to a new level.

Anyway. It seems those two clowns have taken up residence in my rationally thinking mind. "But what's the point? Nobody will read your blog." "It's so narcissistic; who do you think you are?" "Why a blog? Why can't you just write it in a journal like every other self-absorbed introvert?" Ad nauseum.

The point I am failing to make is that for two years I have allowed the peanut gallery to stop me from producing anything. Having posed a list of questions for which there are no possible right answers, I have been frozen in a state of inaction. I've recently come to accept, however, the Zen of Carmela Soprano--that "more is lost by indecision than by wrong decision."

And so here we are. Writing. Participating in this new literary paradigm that is The Blog. Publishing our personal thoughts, wrapping them up into bite-sized morsels, dropping them into the collective unconscious of the Interweb. Why? Not sure. Stopped caring. Just taking part in it.

I have an operating philosophy (what a more ontologically-rigid mind might call a belief) that everything I read (or hear, for that matter) comes to me only when I am ready to understand it. Maybe a little too Be-Here-Now-ish, but it works. Sometimes I try to force a book too soon, and it is only years later that I return to the book with a new set of eyes, finally prepared to wrap my head around the content. That being said, I wish I had stumbled upon this post by Steve Yegge a lot sooner. Mr. Yegge is a prominent voice in the computer programming community; he's a very polarizing blogger--the kind you either love or hate. In the post, he addresses--very well, I think--many of the unanswerable questions that plagued me for so long. He has brought closure to many of my reservations about blogging. If you have any interest at all in the "why" of blogging, do yourself a favor and check out Steve's post.

And then you can write about it in your own blog.


On the other hand...

After yesterday's post, I thought it might be useful to add a pinch of good old fashioned cynicism. From two more of my favorite people:

"Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job." - Douglas Adams

Richard Metzger: "If you were elected President, what's the first thing you would do?"
Robert Anton Wilson: "Resign"



I support Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election.

That being said, I do spend a certain amount of clock cycles wondering if I've just been caught up in a trendy candidate. Obama's approach to the young, internet-savvy generation is leaps and bounds ahead of any other candidate. The support I see for him sometimes reminds me of the hype that often accompanies new bands. Hype that is carefully orchestrated by shills.

My mind has been put slightly more at ease, however, after reading this article by Lawrence Lessig.

A disclaimer: I am an ardent Lawrence Lessig devotee. Like, big time. His views on copyright and its negative effects on creativity are the best I've read. His work with Creative Commons is inspiring. Discovering his talks on Google Video was a turning point in my life. I respect this guy. Like, big time.

In the article, Lessig discusses his support of Obama. He contrasts Obama's platform with Hillary Clinton's; calling attention to Clinton's recent opposition to free presidential debates. I was suprised to learn that Lessig actually knows Obama; his confirmation of Obama as "the real deal" is reassuring. And while I do disagree with his belief that "Barack is going to win this one easily," his hopefulness is refreshing.