Transforming Raw Planks to “Perfect” Circles
It all started with a few innocuous text messages: “How would you like to attend one of my snare classes and maybe write a little article about it?” asked Jefferson Shallenberger, founder and master craftsman at Santa Cruz–based Sugar Percussion. “Sure,” I responded. “That sounds like a great idea.” And just like that, I—a drummer/journalist with zero woodworking skills—had agreed to fly to California for three days to attempt to build a stave-shell snare from scratch and to document the entire experience for the world to read. Self-doubt? No doubt!
But I knew I had to go. I mean, how often does one get a chance to observe the intricacies of a master artisan at work, let alone be actively involved in the process? Having inspected and tested Shallenberger’s gorgeous and impeccable drums several times over the years, I knew that I—along with the three other attendees, Chris, Jeff, and Ryan—would be in for a treat. Not only was I excited to be able to leave the workshop with a one-of-a-kind drum that I helped make, but I was extremely interested in getting a better understanding of the high level of creativity, artistry, and technical mastery required to turn planks of raw timber into world-class musical instruments.
What follows is a brief recap of the workshop, from the initial meeting with Jefferson, his right-hand man (and bearing-edge whisperer) Noah Blum, and his super-chill shop dog Carol, all the way through to the final tune-up. Hopefully the world gets back to some semblance of normalcy soon so another lucky few can get the chance to build drums under Jefferson and Noah’s watchful, critical eyes. I left Santa Cruz reinvigorated to get back to playing my drums. And I do so with a much deeper respect for the amount of thought, care, and vision that goes into producing such fine, handcrafted instruments. I’ll likely never try to build a drum on my own, but as Jefferson stated—half-jokingly—towards the end of the week, “I’m just happy to share my neurosis with someone else. I guarantee you’ll never be able to look at a drum the same way again.” He was right.
Day 1: Selecting, Chopping, Arranging, and Gluing
The first day of the workshop was all about selecting, prepping, and chopping 6″ staves from a long plank so they could be arranged, glued, rolled, and clamped into a tight cylinder. Before we made a field trip to the lumber yard, we had to select which timber we wanted to use. Sugar Percussion has a small studio above its shop containing a basic kit and three different 6×14 snares to be sampled. One was made of cherry, one of mahogany, and one of Alaskan yellow cedar. Each of us had a few minutes to play around before we made our final selections. They all sounded incredible, but the cedar felt particularly soft and satisfying. We all agreed: cedar was the one.
Next we trekked to the lumber yard to select our planks. This was where Jefferson’s keen eye for quality came to the fore. I had no idea what would make for an ideal piece of wood other than it being devoid of obvious structural problems like splinters, cracks, knots, and the like. But if you’ve ever seen one of Sugar Percussion’s seamless drums up close, you know that the devil is always in the tiniest of details. If you want a drum shell with as few distractions and discrepancies as possible, you need to start with a piece of wood with a straight, consistent grain and uniform color. If you feel more daring, you can grab a plank with more color and grain variance, but you’ll need to be very strategic with how you arrange the staves in order to create a cohesive, appealing aesthetic. I took the “easy” route and selected a plank with a very uniform color and tight/straight grains.
Once we got back to the shop, we spent the rest of the morning marking, straightening, sawing, ripping, and sizing the planks down to the individual staves that would ultimately comprise the final shell. I was again enamored by the amount of preparation required at each step of this process to ensure that what we ended up with at the end of the day was a beautiful, airtight, and perfectly round circle. An errant cut or lapse in focus at any stage could have ruined the drum.
Once we had the staves properly cut and shaped, it was time to arrange them for the final layup. You’d think it would be a simple process: simply lay out the staves exactly as they were cut from the plank, and you’d have a perfectly uniform shell. You could do that, and to an untrained eye the final drum would probably look pretty nice. But as Jefferson pointed out, this is the step that matters most in order to end up with a smooth, flowing drum shell with no obvious seams between the staves.
No matter how “perfect” the plank, the staves are going have some variances in color and grain when you lay them side by side. The goal was to rearrange the staves as best we could in order to minimize those differences. I knew I was likely overlooking some obvious issues, so I left the final tweaks up to Jefferson. Like a magician, he quickly went to work, flipping, trashing, and rearranging the pieces until he’d arrived to
a point where he stated, “That doesn’t bother me.”
The last thing we had to do was tape the staves together, fill the gaps with Elmer’s glue, and roll them up into a tight cylinder so the shell could cure overnight.
Day 2: Shaping, Sanding, and Drilling the Shell
The second day was split between milling, sanding, and shaping the shell, drilling holes for hardware, and creating the badges. Some of this process was automated via customized machinery, but the majority of the day was spent hand-shaping the shell, edges, and holes with sandpaper. This was when the talents of Sugar Percussion’s sole employee, Noah Blum, were on full display. He stood by our side as we made our best guesses as to when the inside and outside surfaces of the shell were sufficiently sanded, and he made sure none of us ruined the bearing edges that he had graciously shaped for us at the onset. While possessing a fun-loving demeanor, Noah proved to be no less critical and passionate about the quality of his work. And no drum left the sanders without passing under Noah’s highly refined phalanges for final approval.
Between rounds of sanding, we cut custom badges for our drums out of scrap veneers that were on hand at the shop. I decided to keep it minimal and cut a simple circle from a piece of burled veneer that caught my eye. Each shell also went under the drill press to poke holes for the hardware and vent. The day ended with more detailed sanding to get the shell to its final form. This included softening the edges of the vent hole and badge recess. As I had learned to fully appreciate by this time, it’s these finer details that ultimately set Sugar Percussion’s products apart from its peers.
Day 3: Finish and Final Assembly
Alas, we’d arrived at the third and final day of the workshop. We started the morning by sealing our shells inside and out with clear satin oil. After a coffee break to let the finish dry, we bolted on the lugs, throw-off, heads, hoops, and wires. It was hard to believe, but in just two and a half days I had successfully helped transform a single piece of Alaskan yellow cedar into a fully playable—and amazing-sounding—musical instrument. I even got a final seal of approval from Jefferson, who admitted, “I’d have no problem selling that.”
story by Michael Dawson
photos by Grahm Doughty