A candid chat with the restless master craftsman on drum making, artistry, and building an honest business fit for his offspring’s approval.
Sugar Percussion has been providing high-end, stave-built drums since 2013. When asked to describe the company, founder Jefferson Shallenberger replies, “Sugar Percussion is the neurotic distillation of twenty years of obsessive woodworking employed to masochistically attempt an answer to the foolish question, ‘How perfect can you make a circle?’” Got that?
Read on to learn more about Sugar Percussion’s meticulous construction process and to dig deeper into Shallenberger’s sharp wit and poignant thoughts on the drum industry, artistry, and how a drum is never complete— at least to him.
MD: What’s your background in woodworking?
Jefferson: I got my useless college degree, found a job building dog houses, did a couple years of cabinetmaking, and then went to a proper woodworking school, where someone finally taught me to use my eyes and hands. Twenty years later, I’m still playing in a woodshop.
MD: Why make drums when you already have a career in woodworking?
Jefferson: Short attention span is the quick answer. The long one is about feeling like I have a contribution to make. I saw a gap in the industry and felt qualified to fill it. That, and it’s a crap pile of fun.
MD: Why is drum building important to you?
Jefferson: The world is filled with detritus. Low-quality landfill fodder is churned out at a nauseating rate. But beautiful, well-intended, well-made things have a power to buoy—if not elevate— one’s spirit amidst this crap.
MD: What else is important to you?
Jefferson: My kid and my dog. Out from that tight circle comes my mom, brother, sister, niece, sisters and brothers from other mothers, my tools, my old car that may never run, my workbench that keeps me at, straight, and true, my TV and her remote control, my toaster oven, really good ginger ale, and cheese puffs.
MD: What has constructing drums led you to that may have been unexpected?
Jefferson: The good side is there is kindness within this industry that exceeds any of my expectations. There’s support and value and praise and defense and loyalty and love. I thought drums were just for midlife pubescents venting unexplored anger. I’m thrilled to be wrong. But there are some class-A, weapons-grade [expletives] in this industry. This, of course, shouldn’t be surprising. No industry is without.
I’m surprised at the questions some people ask when researching gear. There is a preoccupation with the how over the why. Instead of focusing solely on how something is made, I would ask why it’s made that way. Instead of asking how much something costs, I would ask who makes it and what are their intentions in their craft. Ask the maker what it is that’s important to him or her, and see if those values align with your own. This is the information I would want to know before parting with a pile of money for great gear.
MD: What continues to drive or frustrate you within the industry?
Jefferson: I’m inspired by cleverness and kindness, levels of which make one want to be better at both. I’m disgusted by petulance and possessiveness and by mommy-coddled man-boys thinking they’ve invented the circle and aim to squash anyone who dares to try their own hand at it. I’ve experienced the former on both sides of the industry, the maker and the player, and it elicits a better version of myself. I’ve experienced the latter, and it makes me want to burn down buildings.
MD: What do you feel is the responsibility of an instrument maker?
Jefferson: Quality: Don’t make crap. Honesty: If you do make crap, don’t lie about it. Humility: If you make crap by accident, apologize and make it right.
MD: What has making drums exposed about you?
Jefferson: It’s reminded me how much I still care. I’ve spent the past twenty years in a career that obsesses over things people rarely notice. I live gleefully in the minutiae. It’s how I was taught, and it’s what resonated with me immediately. Building drums has only fed and furthered that neurosis.
MD: Tell us more about your daughter, Ruby Sugar, and the legacy you would like to provide for her.
Jefferson: First of all, she’s the best, empirically. Also, she’s a brilliant, cutting, kind, witty, benevolent, snarky, soft, and truly decent human. I am fortunate well beyond what I’ve earned or deserve.
I named the company after her as an emotional guardrail. Knowing countless decisions would be made during its development, I wanted a guide. I wanted her to feel pride in this company and in me, both in the product it makes and how I run it. Her name on every drum that leaves this shop ensures I keep to that line, and it clarifies sometimes less-than-clear situations. It turns out that asking myself Would my kid feel shame? is a pretty good bump stop for bad decisions.
MD: Why use the stave-shell design instead of plywood or block-style construction? What are the benefits of stave construction shells sonically, aesthetically, and in terms of durability?
Jefferson: Stave, steam, solid, ply, glue, how much glue, vibration, resonance, better, best, blah, blah, blah… Sound is subjective, but craftsmanship is not. Instead of asking which is better, ask which is better made? To say one method sounds better than any other is crap, but to say some drums are made better than others is spot-on. I’ve seen brilliant drums and shitty drums, both solid and ply. They’re all just circles after all. It’s how one got them there that’s most important.
That said, I chose the stave method for two reasons. One, there weren’t many doing it. Other methods were saturated with builders, and if I couldn’t add something new or better, then the industry certainly didn’t need another copycat. Second, it made sense to me. My woodworking vocabulary jibed with this method. It was logical in my head, and I was certain I could do a great job building this type of drum.
The benefit of stave construction is also twofold. First is material exploitation. All species of wood have distinct resonant characteristics. They all vibrate uniquely based on density, porosity, grain structure, softness, hardness, etc. This provides a huge range of tone, voice, warmth, cut, mush, and projection. Slather that wood in glue, as with plywood shell construction, and those distinctions are diminished, homogenizing their differences and narrowing that glorious range. Assemble them with far less glue, and the distinctions are preserved. Solid shells use a fraction of the glue and subsequently remain closer to the material’s natural state, thereby preserving the wide range of voices.
Secondly, stave construction produces a circle at rest. All trees have inherent tension, and when you cut them apart, things start to move. Make a circle wrought with tension, and you’re rolling the dice on it staying a circle. Throughout our building process we are repeatedly flattening and squaring material, undoing the ill effects of tension release, so that by the time the circle is glued up, she’s completely calm. If you’re going to beat the crap out of something and hope it stays round and true, I’d prefer it start out relaxed and ready for duty.
MD: Do you have a favorite species that you work with?
Jefferson: Nope. This company was founded on the principle that different species offer different voices. If we did our job well, we can coax out that variety of voice. So I appreciate the medley. Sure, some woods are fancier and some are plainer, some are lighter and some are heavier, and some acquiescent while others fight you every step of the way by sending spear-like splinters through your hands and destroying every tool in your shop. It’s the fact that all these distinctions exist that makes the medium special.
MD: What are the primary sonic characteristics of the different wood types? Explain the density scale that you use to determine sound and feel.
Jefferson: The density scale was intended as a quick comparative reference for warmth and cut. The softer woods, such as Alaskan yellow cedar, are self-compressing, mushy, warm, and round—like fresh baked bread just pulled from the oven. The medium woods, such as mahogany, have almost all of that warmth but introduce a little cut and bark, like high heat–baked cookies where the outside is crispy but the center is still a bit raw. And the hard woods, like cherry, oak, and ebony, trade in more of the warmth for a bare-knuckle punch of crack and projection. Those woods are wildly unshy and expressive, like a bowl of hard candy swimming in a pool of angrily carbonated ginger ale.
MD: How long does it take to make a drum? What are the stages of construction?
Jefferson: To make a single snare takes twelve hours from the lumberyard to the shipping box. These hours are not consecutive, however, as there are processes that need time to dry.
The first step is lumber hunting. All the painstaking and subsequent efforts are wasted if the material is crap. We sort through a veritable boatload of lumber to find glorious stock.
Next is milling. From the rough lumber, we joint, plane, edge, rip, and bevel the staves for each circle. The result, if done well, appears like we were never even there.
The faceted circle then goes on the lathe to be shaped into a smooth circle. From there the long road of sanding, sanding, and more sanding begins.
After sanding, we drill for the hardware, and then apply several coats of polyurethane. Different woods require different amounts, but the finishing process is typically a weeklong affair.
The last step is to assemble the drum, test her out, take photographs, and ship her off.
MD: How do you know when a drum is complete.
Jefferson: It’s done when I can’t find anything wrong. (I can always find something wrong.)
MD: Why did you start doing snare construction workshops? What’s the experience like?
Jefferson: My woodworking background was graced with profoundly generous and wildly talented teachers. The classes are an attempt to put some of that back into the world. The experience is fantastic. Teaching people how to use their hands and eyes to build something that looks and sounds wonderful is a beautiful thing. We repeatedly have people who’ve never set foot in a woodshop, thinking they’ve come to watch me build them a drum. But by the end of day one, they’ve dug through the lumberyard, jointed, planed, band sawn, table sawn, and glued up an arguably perfect circle, all the while being jacked up on fancy coffee, glorious burritos, and homemade cookies.
Day two has them lathing and sanding their circles, making their own badges, and applying the finish. On day three, they’re assembling with hardware, hoops, and heads and playing to their massive delight what was—two days earlier—a chunk of wood in a lumber rack. Smiles are wide and frequent in these classes, both for the students and for my coworker and me. I get just as much as I give.
MD: What are your thoughts regarding the company’s alternative to the typical artist endorsement?
Jefferson: I think endorsement used to mean something pure and good. People used to be inspired by others’ work and feel compelled to speak about it. Nowadays that dynamic is commodified. It’s trading product for praise, which feels inherently insincere and untrustworthy. I know it’s a fast track to growth, but I don’t want any part of it. I just give stuff away when I’m inspired and feel compelled to do so, often soon after coffee.
MD: Is marketing needed for a boutique drum brand?
Jefferson: If an instrument builder builds a perfect instrument in the woods, no one sees it—unless it’s photographed and put on Instagram. So hell yes, marketing is needed. Were it not for social media, only my mom and kid would know about my drums.
MD: Do you have any current plans for growth or expansion?
Jefferson: Ours is a calm and paced growth. Word of mouth, though slow like cold molasses, is a beautifully honest, sincere, and dependable vehicle, and I have seen how fiercely loyal a following it can render. The term family is dreadfully overused in this industry, but there isn’t a better word to describe what’s happened with this company and the people who we’ve come to know and love. Our plan is to continue doing that which we do well and let that family grow organically.
MD: What are the challenges you face regarding both the business and artistic sides of Sugar Percussion? Are you able to reconcile being a businessman and an artist? Are there any internal thoughts or difficulties being both?
Jefferson: Do I have internal thoughts? My head is an overcrowded dinner party from dawn to dark. There is little distinction between art and business for me. There is a common misconception that in order for something to remain art, it can’t be business. Bullshit. This woodworking thing, for whatever convoluted series of events that transpired in the last forty-seven years, is what I love and know how to do, and this company is both art and business. I believe that if I’m lucky and deliberate, the mixture of the two can bring beauty, grace, and poetry to a vast number of people without sacrificing an inch of its form. Sorry…. I got a little red up there at the end.
To learn more about Sugar Percussion, visit www.sugarpercussion.com.