How to Make a Drum
Any jazz musician will tell you they don’t make drums like they used to. Except at C&C Drums in Missouri, where traditional techniques and hand-craftmanship produce a sound that spans generations. A C&C Drums craftsman trims the depth of a kick drum to a customer’s specifications using a table saw.Photographer: Zach Goldstein
Cardwell grew up playing the drums, and in 1990 he found himself co-owner of a vintage drum store with his friend, David Carrington, the other C of C&C. During downtime, Cardwell would make his own sets in the back of the store, trying to capture the tone and feeling of older drums that no one was making at the time. Eventually it became more than a hobby, so he bought Carrington out of the business, moved six blocks down the street, and started making drums full time. Today the team consists of 12 people.
“Drums are about the oldest instrument,” says Jacob, 36, Bill’s son and business partner. “The key to making really good ones is just to keep it real, keep it simple. You just got to not screw it up. We’re not trying to reinvent an instrument that doesn’t need it.” That’s not to say that “simple” means boring—or easy. Today, most of the 100 drums C&C makes each week are for retail sale and distributors, but Cardwell started out doing custom jobs. He made a splash in the early 2000s with hand-applied, authentic abalone shell finishes, something no one was doing at the time. At a trade show in 2004, he was approached by a technician for Ringo Starr who was seeking to order a set for the Beatles’ drummer’s next tour.
“I was like, ‘Oh man, yeah, sure!” says Bill, recounting a memory of being seven years old, seeing the Beatles on TV, and promptly heading for the bathroom to wash the Brylcreem out of his hair. “What kid grows up in Arkansas on a dirt road and sees The Ed Sullivan Show on his black-and-white TV and gets to build a drum set for Ringo Starr? Nobody. You just don’t get that lucky. You just don’t.” Today, C&C drums can be heard on records from The Arcade Fire, Of Monsters and Men, Brand New, and countless other bands performing in a wide array of genres.
A C&C craftsman sands the inside of a wooden drum hoop. The hoops secure the drum head to the drum shell. Most C&C drum hoops are made from wood but they can also be made from metal. Photographer: Zach Goldstein
Making a drum starts simply enough. Large sheets of wood such as maple, walnut, and mahogany are cut to size and then worked in custom machinery to curve the wood into the round drum shell. Old machines are hard to find and take forever to do the job, while newer machines can overheat and ruin the structure of the material. The Cardwells designed their own that heat the wood sufficiently to let it curve nicely without overdoing it, all while exerting the necessary pressure across the surface to get an even shape. After the shells cool, decoration is applied—glitter wraps, inlay, natural stains and bright paint, for example and then lacquer is added to seal the surface. The raw shell starts to become a functional drum.
The bearing edge is where the shell meets the drumhead, that sheet of Mylar stretched on top that drummers strike. Creating this edge demands a painstaking process. It’s the step in which the most can go right (or wrong). Cuts are made by hand and then hand-sanded to make sure the shape, angle, and point of contact with the head is spot-on. How the vibrations transfer from the drum head to the shell will determine the tone and dynamism of the instrument’s sound, and little variations can make a big difference. Cardwell says he employs a variety of special edges that allow a drummer to get the greatest possible tonal range from one of his drums.
Still, at the end of the day, Bill isn’t precious about C&C’s wares. His payoff comes in the music they are used to create. “It’s great that the drummer loves them, but when the My Morning Jacket keyboard player walks up to you and says, ‘You know what, your drums made a difference in the way our record sounded,’ then that means something.”