Australia’s Preeminent Instrument Restorer and Kangaroo-Hide Drumhead Producer
Vintage drums are revered by drummers, producers, and studio owners all over the world, providing time-tested tones that are often preferred over the sound of modern kits in nearly any musical setting. Extensive touring and live use can wreak havoc on older gear, however, often requiring regular maintenance or even full-scale restoration in order to bring these treasured instruments back to their original form.
When it’s time to restore an older instrument, there are a number of options. Doing it yourself can be a noble and enriching experience for some. But for those less inclined to undergo such a hands-on project, there’s no one better fit for the gig than Steele Turkington of Kentville Drums.
Based in Kurrajong, New South Wales, Australia, Steele’s company Kentville Drums is an internationally recognized workshop specializing in vintage drum repair and restoration. Turkington also produces a variety of handmade percussion accessories and is the foremost supplier of ethically sourced kangaroo-hide drumheads. His operation is small but extensive in its capabilities. And the shop’s clientele has included such luminaries as Charlie Watts, Mick Fleetwood, and a host of symphonic percussionists. We recently chatted with Steele to get a bit more insight into how he ended up being one of the foremost experts in drum restoration.
MD: Let’s begin with a little bit on your background as a drummer and what led you to start Kentville Drums.
Steele: I started playing drums when I was eleven, and by the time I was sixteen I was certain that I was the best drummer that had ever lived. By the time I was eighteen I realized that wasn’t the case, and when I was twenty-two I decided to undertake a music degree in Sydney. But I spent a lot of my time as a student tinkering and restoring drums rather than practicing. When I finished my degree, I traveled the world for two years. When I returned, I resumed my restoration work on my own projects, until eventually a few drummers that I knew asked me to carry out some work on their instruments. That led to other jobs, and within six months I’d quit my day job as a stock feed delivery man and was restoring drums full time.
MD: What are the shop’s full capabilities, in terms of repair and restoration?
Steele: I try to offer the full spectrum of restoration and repair options. My workshop is the size of a four-car garage and has everything required to carry out my work: routers, drills, grinders, presses, sanders, saws, and walls covered in hand tools and handmade jigs, which are necessary for various repair processes. There are also designated sections related to my production of kangaroo-hide heads and a large storage area where completed jobs, waiting jobs, and materials are held.
MD: What are the most common jobs you do?
Steele: The most common task is bearing-edge repair. I have two different router setups, but the one required for bearing-edge cutting is mounted vertically in a large table that can accommodate bass drums. I have dozens of different router bits to suit the different edge profiles used by all the various drum companies through the ages, which allow me to reproduce the correct edges for any drums.
MD: Is every drum salvageable? Or is there a point where it’s more economical to scrap something and start fresh?
Steele: I’ve certainly taken on a lot of projects that some of my contemporaries have declared impossible, only to successfully repair or restore the instrument. I try to achieve results above and beyond what people might expect, but of course there are situations where it’s not possible to repair an instrument, or it might not make economic sense to bother. If a hundred-year-old drum that your great-grandfather played in the Air Force band during World War I is crushed on a flight, I’m going to do everything possible to fix it. But if the same thing happens to a 1995 Pearl Export tom, it might not be worth it.
MD: What have been some of the more difficult jobs you’ve completed?
Steele: The most difficult jobs tend to involve tasks or instruments that are unique and unfamiliar to me. A few years ago I was sent a pair of traditional Warrup drums from the Torres Strait Islands, which is a small Australian territory between the top of Queensland and the coast of Papua New Guinea. The drums were cracked and missing sections of wood, as well as skins. The job took a week and involved gluing, carving, and painting a dropped-in section to match the surrounding decorative artwork, and then finally fitting the heads. It was difficult because these drums are hand-carved out of single logs. Nothing was truly round or straight, so I couldn’t rely on conventional jigs and molds when clamping and creating replacement sections. It was hard, but so much fun as well.
MD: What should drummers look out for when shopping for vintage gear?
Steele: The most common issues are with the re-rings separating from the shells and the bearing edges being in terrible condition. The re-ring issue happens over time as the wood shrinks, but the bearing edges often left the factory in less-than-perfect condition to begin with. I also see a lot of issues with old hardware.
MD: Do you have any advice for drummers who are interested in restoring a vintage set on their own?
Steele: Just take care to not do anything that could potentially devalue your drums. I’ve seen DIY efforts where attempts have been made to mirror-polish antique-brass shells or where black-nickel plating on 1920s Ludwigs have been polished so hard they’re stripped down to bare brass. They’re innocent mistakes but have totally disastrous results with serious impact on the value of the drums. Join a forum and ask around so you understand what the instrument is you’re working on before you get started.
MD: Of all the brands you’ve worked on, do you have a favorite to play or to restore?
Steele: What I like to play and what I’m most enthusiastic about restoring are two different things. I love playing vintage Ludwigs. I think they’re versatile, and they speak to me aesthetically and sonically because they’re so synonymous with the advent of rock and pop music of the ’60s.
When it comes to restoring or collecting, I’m more into Leedy. The Leedy drums of the 1930s were built to a really high standard. They weren’t toys, and they weren’t mass-produced instruments. When working on Leedy drums, I picture the halcyon days of vaudeville, cabarets, Art Deco theaters, and big-band jazz. They are also fairly mechanically complex. Servicing a Leedy Broadway Dual snare is about as challenging as it gets. So that’s fun, too.
MD: You’ve also become known for your handmade kangaroo-hide drumheads. How do they differ from traditional calfskin?
Steele: I chose kangaroo hide initially because it was more accessible in Australia than calf. In the beginning, I was making odd-sized heads for drums that couldn’t be fitted with conventional Mylar models. But kangaroo hide is far stronger than calf. In fact, it’s the strongest animal hide relative to its thickness in commercial use worldwide. Breakages are extremely uncommon, so after making a few custom orders I decided to expand into making standard sizes and selling them. The tonal qualities are similar to calf, but they are slightly less affected by fluctuations in the humidity. If kangaroos had been an American animal, the history of drumheads would be very different, I think.
MD: You’re dedicated to using the most ethically sourced hides available. Can you explain a little bit about the selection process?
Steele: All the hides we use are a byproduct of a culling program which is overseen by the NSW Department of the Environment and Energy. Kangaroo populations can increase rapidly, and most conservation groups agree that the ongoing cull is an environmentally responsible solution to the issue. Without it, the habitats of kangaroos and other native animals would be severely compromised.
The hunters involved in the culling must be licensed. They are issued with tags, and every animal sold to an abattoir must have a tag on it. Abattoirs sell the meat, and they sell the hides to tanneries and other industries for producing leather and rawhide. Kentville Drums is the biggest user of kangaroo rawhide in the world today. I’m extremely proud to be able to say that my drumheads are made from a sustainable, eco-friendly, and ethical material.
MD: What is the best and worst part of working on drums for a living?
Steele: The best part is that I wake up every day and get to do what I really feel like doing for work. The worst part is that drums take up a lot of space. I’m sometimes delivered a bass drum that just needs a small crack repaired, but then I might have to store it for a couple of weeks. I’m always running out of room. I guess that’s what you call a first-world problem, though. There aren’t a lot of downsides, really.
By Max Mclaughlin