BY JARED COBB, PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROBERT DOWNS
Step into the Gretsch drum factory in Ridgeland, South Carolina and your eyes are immediately tricked into thinking it’s something much bigger than it actually is. The towering racks of naked shells stretch high above, while the expansive grounds seem to spill halfway to the horizon. Space is everywhere.
Your ears are confused, too, because it’s quiet — too quiet for an accounting office, much less a drum factory. Then comes a cacophonous roar. The break buzzer sounds and the building comes to life as the break room doors swing open, giving birth to the entire factory staff — from production manager to finishing specialist to maintenance man and everyone in between — ready to build the next set of Gretsch drums. But as the doors swing shut and the workers don their eyewear, an observation jumps out and bites you: There are only five people here.
While Gretsch has been crafting drums from this Ridgeland facility for “only” the past 20-some years, they began 125 years ago in a small music shop in Brooklyn, New York with German emigrant Friedrich Gretsch making banjos, drums, and tambourines. After pioneering multiple advancements in both drum and guitar manufacturing under the watch of several generations of Gretsch family members, the company was for 18 years owned and controlled by the Baldwin Music Company and juggled between various production sites around the Midwest.
But in 1985, Fred W. Gretsch, the great-grandson of the company’s founder, fulfilled a longstanding promise and purchased back his family’s proud heritage. Since then, the USA Custom drum division has concentrated every effort on not only making good drums, but on making good drums the right way, the way history — and the Gretsch family — intended.
And so now, in its 125th year and at the peak of restored success, the destiny of that same drum division lies in the keen, callused hands of about five or six people, give or take, depending on the day. For most factories, fewer people would mean more machines. But the opposite is true here. Everything done under this roof runs through the hands, and past the scrutinous gaze, of the plant’s skilled workers. It’s a truly tactile process — sawdust to face, palm to grain, thumb to edge — and a genuine art form that has become all too rare in a world of outsourcing and cost cutting.
STEP ONE: IT BEGINS WITH A SHELL
Gretsch went to a thin 6-ply Gretsch maple-formula shell in the mid-’50s, and that’s the same shell the company uses today. Each shell is made to specific parameters, the details of which remain a company secret.
When the shells arrive at Ridgeland they’re sorted and then cut to order — depending on the type of drums being made that day. The inner seams are treated with putty before the shells head off to the woodshop.
“Things here are built basically the exact same way they’ve been built since the ’50s,” beams production manager Paul Cooper, the bona fide Santa of this little workshop. “We haven’t changed our shell or the basic designs of the lugs and hoops, likewise with the bearing edges and interior sealer. All those things make up what a Gretsch drum is, and it’s important to this company to not mess with the recipe.
“We’re very low-tech here, so everything is done by hand. There’s a lot of sanding. There’s a lot of simply looking at what you just did to make sure you did it right.”
STEP TWO: SANDING AND MORE SANDING
As you’ll see, Cooper isn’t kidding about all the sanding. This beast is a one-of-a-kind machine that came with the Slingerland acquisition and was originally used in Gretsch’s Brooklyn factory. The motor has been dated as a 1953 model.
“It actually sat around broken for the first six years I worked here,” recalls Cooper. “Once we figured out what it was we went ahead and fixed it. It’s a whole lot easier than using an orbital sander.” They start with a 100-grit belt, then add seam putty and move on to 150-grit before hand-sanding with 180-grit.
Josh Safer (pictured) is the factory’s production assistant and has been wrestling this cantankerous contraption for five years. “It’s a major workout, like a Nautilus machine,” Safer laughs. “It’s not a very complicated machine, but there are many nuances as far as the proper amount of pressure to apply and things like that. When I first started here I started on this machine, so we have a bit of a relationship you could say. We definitely have an understanding.”
STEP THREE: STAIN THE GRAIN TO LIFE
We now leave the woodshop (oh, we’ll be back) and head to the finishing department. All of the Gretsch USA Custom stains are applied by hand, usually by Junana Nunec (pictured), a decade-long veteran and jack-of-all-trades.
The first coat is called a wash coat — half stain and half reducer — and it’s half the strength of regular stain. As Nunec applies the wash coat she looks for any imperfections that would require the shell to head back to the woodshop for more sanding.
Different colors of stains all get different numbers of coats — even within one drum set Nonec might put four coats on one tom, six coats on the next, and so on, because it’s wood and it varies from piece to piece.
“For me, personally,” says Cooper, “it’s all about the variations in the grain. Some drum companies want a super-consistent look from drum to drum. But for me, when it’s all said and done and you’re buffing the drum, it’s the grain that’s going to really pop and make the finish stand out.”
STEP FOUR: NO ORDINARY LACQUER
With staining complete, a coat of vinyl sealer is applied to the shell to provide a barrier between the stain and lacquer. After another round of light sanding, the shell moves on to lacquer application.
Gretsch uses a nitrocellulose lacquer rather than the more conventional polyurethane. “It truly is the ’instrument lacquer,’” explains Cooper. “It continues to dry over time, forever. So the lacquer continues to get harder and harder and, yes, eventually it will crack — that’s just the nature of the beast. But with nitrocellulose the drum sound will mellow over time.”
Rather than taint the purity of the lacquer with additives to regulate the drying process in varying states of humidity, Gretsch simply heats the nitrocellulose to 150 degrees. “The problem with additives is eventually about 35-percent of your lacquer is additives and you don’t get as good a coat,” explains Cooper. “Plus, every time the humidity levels changed we’d have to recalculate our mix. By heating it we get more lacquer on the drum with less evaporation.”
STEP FIVE: MORE SANDING…AND A SECRET
One coat of lacquer, overnight drying, another coat of lacquer, then hand sanding with 240-grit, usually handled by Lorena Ortuno (pictured). Then repeat that process two to four more times for each shell, ending up with six to ten coats of lacquer, which actually ends up becoming one thick coat, explains Cooper. “Nitrocellulose reacts with itself, so instead of having six ’plies’ of lacquer after you spray six coats, you have one solid coat, because each layer reacts with the next. And with all the sanding between coats, the lacquer is getting perfectly round, like the drum.” Lacquer completed, the shell now gets Silver Sealer applied to its inside. The application and composition of the sealer are kept secret, but Cooper assures us it’s more than just bells and whistles. “The Silver Sealer has been the same since the mid-’50s. I’m not sure why they started using it, but it does have an effect on the sound of the drum because of its reflective principles. It’s just another Gretsch nuance.”
STEP SIX: THE SANDING NEVER STOPS
After waxing the edges to protect them from moisture, the shell moves on to, you guessed it, more sanding. Here Ms. Ortuno uses a mixture of half soap and half water, combined with a delicate touch on a hand sander to bring the lacquer even smoother in a process called wet sanding.
After she does the whole drum in 500-grit she then moves to 1,000-grit. And for some finishes, like the piano black, she might wet sand a third time with 1,500-grit. “With wet sanding,” says Cooper, “I want Lorena to take as much time as she needs, because this process, more than any other, impacts how the drum is going to look. The wet sanding is crucial.”
STEP SEVEN: MEASURE TWICE, DRILL ONCE
Just when the finish seems to be absolutely perfect, the shell heads back to the woodshop for some poking and prodding. At this point in the process it seems almost sacrilege to mar that smooth shine, but the lugs have to mount somewhere.
So the shell meets the hands of veteran machinist and drum maker Harry Dailey, who’s been working at this factory for so long that some wonder who has more tenure, him or this drilling machine that dates back to the ’50s?
Cooper surely speaks of the drilling machine, not Dailey, when he says, “It’s a beautiful old machine. It’s inefficient as hell and it breaks down every once in a while, but you just have to give it love and treat it right and repair it and keep it going.”
This basic machine operates on air, drilling four holes at once, with settings to determine how many times the machine stops, depending on the number of lugs on the particular drum.
STEP EIGHT: EDGES AND BEDS
We now move deeper into the noisy, simple woodshop — the sweet smell of sawdust welcoming us back — to confront a massive router table, its classic lines awaiting more work.
This table dates back to the original Brooklyn factory where it was used for bearing edges, as well as cutting guitar bodies. With guitar manufacturing having moved elsewhere, the table is now used mostly for edges and snare beds.
Cooper applies a skilled hand — all edges and beds are cut by hand — to cut a smooth 30-degree bearing edge with a 1/32 round over on the outside. Then a handmade jig is applied to aid in cutting the snare bed.
“Back in the ’60s they’d simply use a file and cut a real deep bed,” Cooper explains. “We don’t cut as deep [now], but we do make a wide bed for a more sensitive snare response.”
Cooper also uses this table to cut inlays on bass drum hoops, using the original blade from the Brooklyn factory, which is rumored to have survived three fires.
STEP NINE: THE SAND MAN RETURNS
Just a few paces over and we’re back to the beastly sander, only this time the powerful belt gives way to Cooper’s adept hands. The fresh-cut bearing edges get a thorough yet gentle sanding, first with 60-grit, then 120-grit, and finally a fine rubbing with 180-grit.
“Any time you work with a machine like this, or any machine,” Cooper says, “you have to respect it. This thing could rip my hand off at any moment if I’m careless.”
Having logged a full decade in the factory, Cooper certainly knows that each machine — and worker, for that matter — works better with a heavy dose of mutual respect.
After sanding, the edges are lightly waxed. This waxing not only seals the wood, but theoretically also helps the crown of the drumhead slide over the edge.
STEP TEN: THE SUM OF ALL PARTS
Once the shell gets the green light — its finish, edges, and lug holes good enough for perfection — it’s finally awarded the Gretsch badge. After a quick stop at the badge-pressing machine, the drum becomes an official member of the Gretsch family.
The rest of the assembly moves quickly with the help of pneumatic wrenches and drum keys and, again, some skilled hands. Barbara Fennell usually works this station, as she has for the past 12 years, but today the steady hand of Harry Dailey gets the job done. Lugs, heads, rims, and any other hardware necessary for the individual drum, are assembled and attached manually.
From start to finish the entire process — from naked shell to finished drum — takes anywhere from two to five weeks, depending on finish and drying time. It can be a lot of work, especially with such high standards and such a small workforce, but there’s a passion in the factory air that becomes contagious.
“I get to build drums every day,” Cooper says, smiling wide and wiping the sawdust from his glasses, “so it’s a pretty good gig.”