Drum Maker Tells Us About How He Makes His Drums.
A custom-drum maker from Bo’ness, Fraser Murray tells us how he went from architecture technologist student to creator of musical instruments snapped up by a global audience. Read the full interview here.
How did you start your business?
“I’ve always played drums since I was at school and I’ve always enjoyed making things from wood as well, so it was only a matter of time before I had a go at making my own drums. I started out making them as a hobby, using shells and parts from other manufacturers, but after being made redundant from my previous job in December 2010, and finding it difficult to get a new job, I started to think seriously about making drums as a business and began experimenting with making my own shells.
“I’m self-taught and work from home in Bo’ness. Luckily my home has a couple of spare rooms which I now use as workshops!
“Drum building websites and forums plus videos on YouTube provided me with what I needed to make my own snare drum shells successfully, and I was encouraged by the fact that my own drums sounded just as good as any of the drums I had played before, which were made by the large established companies.
“Once the quality of my shells had reached a high standard and I felt the time was right to start selling them, I got some help from Job Centre staff who referred me to Business Gateway for advice on starting a new business and becoming self employed.
What’s your background?
“Making drums is something I’ve come to as an adult – I wanted to be an architect when I left school and I eventually trained as an architectural technologist at college. I worked for a company in Edinburgh from 1996 till 2010, when I was made redundant during the recession.
I played drums as a hobby in various bands over the last decade or so, and I also did some joinery and DIY at home, and occasionally some model making during my time working in architecture.
What sparked your love of drums and the move to make them yourself?
“Ever since I first played drums at school, I’ve always been passionate about them. I’ve always loved the way they look and the way they sound, depending on their size and the materials used in their construction. Most of my drumming idols, such as John Bonham and Buddy Rich, were at the height of their career during the ’60s and ’70s, so the vintage drums they were famous for using at the time, mostly made by American brands like Ludwig and Slingerland, are certainly a big influence on my own drums.
Where do you source your materials from?
“Believe it or not, the first drum shell I ever made was made with a piece of spruce from my local B&Q.
“Since then I prefer to use hardwood species such as oak, maple and walnut to name a few. Unfortunately most of the local timber merchants don’t sell what I need, so I usually have to order from various merchants based in England, especially when the customers want more exotic species of wood such as bocote, rosewood and African Blackwood. There are a few local sawmills who sometimes have some interesting boards available, and also some architectural salvage yards nearby who sell reclaimed flooring which I have used in the past.
“It’s very satisfying to turn some old mahogany floor boards into a beautiful musical instrument, and give the material a new lease of life. It’s also very sustainable to use reclaimed materials as many species of wood are now in very limited supply due to over harvesting in the past.
“For that reason, I always like to make sure than any timber merchants I use only supply wood from properly managed sustainable sources.
Talk us through the process of idea to design to actual drum.
Most of my orders come through my Facebook page and most customers have a rough idea what they would like me to make and what woods they would like me to use. Sometimes they want me to build a stave drum, where the blocks of wood have the grain running vertically, similar to a barrel, but most of my orders have been for segmented drums, where the blocks have the grain running horizontally around the drum.
“In a segmented drum, at least three rings and sometimes up to 15 rings of segments are glued together with the joints staggered, a bit like a brick wall, which produces a very strong shell which gives a very pleasant acoustic tone. A stave shell produces a lower pitch with slightly less sustain. Many customers just want the whole drum or kit made from the same species of wood throughout, but the construction method of making the shell from several blocks of wood lends itself very well for incorporating stripes or patterns using a variety of different contrasting woods. For example, a shell made from a light coloured wood such as maple can be enhanced by incorporating a stripe made from a much darker wood such as walnut or wenge.
“Sometimes I prepare drawings or diagrams to help the customer decide what they would like me to make. Once the design and price has been agreed, I ask for a 50% deposit up front to enable me to order the parts and materials, and the construction of the drum begins.
“The whole process from designing a new drum, through to completion, can take anything from one week to eight weeks for a snare drum and anything from four weeks to six months for a full kit, depending on the size and complexity of each project.
“Most of my customers are based in the UK, but I also have a few customers from the USA and other parts of Europe, and I’ve had enquiries from as far afield as Costa Rica and Brazil, to Japan and Australia!”
What’s the most unusual request you’ve had?
“One customer wanted me to build a special drum for his 30th birthday. It was mostly made from a dark red Australian hardwood called jarrah, but he wanted a purple zig-zag stripe around the middle of the shell made from a wood called purpleheart, which was surrounded by white wood called castello boxwood.
“This middle section was then framed by a border of black and white horizontal pinstripes (made from wenge and boxwood) and there were further black and white pinstripes near the top and bottom of the shell.
“In total there were 200 individual pieces of wood, and all of this was incorporated into a snare drum shell about 7″ deep.”
What sets you apart from your competitors – why are you special?
“I think the main thing that sets me apart from other drum manufacturers, is the fact that everything is tailor made by hand for the customer. Usually when you buy a drum from a large company, you just go into your local dealer and see what’s available, or order something over the internet. You usually have to choose from pre-configured sizes or sets and it can be difficult to order an extra drum to match the rest of your kit.
“When you decide to order a drum from me, you are actually talking to the person who is physically going to make your new drum or kit rather than talking to a dealer or a sales rep. Special requests or unusual woods or sizes can easily be accommodated and there are literally hundreds of different species of wood available and unlimited combinations for stripes and patterns, etc.
“Everything is then made by hand from blocks of solid wood, rather than being mass produced in a factory using industrial machinery and moulds where the focus is on quantity rather than quality and there are usually only 3 or 4 species of wood you can choose from for the construction of the shells.
“When I build a drum, everything is done with loving care and attention to detail to ensure quality every step of the way and all my shells are made from blocks of well seasoned solid wood, just like a fine acoustic guitar, violin, or even the sound board of a piano or the tone bars on a marimba. All of these instruments are made using solid wood rather than plywood, because it results in a better sounding instrument. In my opinion, drums should be made using the same approach for the same reason.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
“I love making the drums, from the initial design stages of a new project all the way through the construction process, but the latter stage when the final appearance of the shell is revealed and the sound and performance of the finished product can be tested is particularly satisfying.”