BY NICOLAS GRIZZLE
Woodworking requires a certain set of skills. Woodworking for drums requires that, plus a good ear and a lot of practice. Sugar Percussion, a boutique drum company cranking out high-end snares and drum sets in Santa Cruz, California, is a shining example of this tenet. Sugar Percussion owner and builder Jefferson Shallenberger estimates that his first few dozen drums ended up being “firewood” quality while he was learning the craft. Now several years into the business, I got to reap the knowledge gained from his failures to create the snare drum of my dreams from scratch with my own two hands.
We’ve reviewed a few of Sugar’s creations over the years and each time we’ve been thoroughly impressed with their quality. Each of their drums is made by hand, and almost all are made using stave construction. I enjoy making things, and as a drummer I obviously enjoy using my hands, so Sugar’s “make your own snare drum” class promised to be the perfect intersection of these interests. Jefferson was kind enough to let me find out for myself.
Each member of our contingent of three eager drum builders was given options of cherry, mahogany, or Alaskan yellow cedar for our snare drums. I had recently become obsessed with the pop, sensitivity, and brightness of cherry wood and was thrilled to learn this was an option. Mahogany would have been more versatile, and cedar more fat sounding, but cherry was the way to go for me.
At the end of the three-day class, the 14” x 6” cherry wood stave shell snare drum made by my own hands was a far cry from firewood. I’m a bit biased, but I think it looks gorgeous with its seemingly seamless grain pattern and splash of figuring around the handmade Drum! badge. More importantly, however, it sounds delicious with that poppy crack of cherry and a tuning range that goes beyond expectations, and plays with so much sensitivity I can’t help but describe as “articulate AF.” Overall, it has that wide versatility I love to see in a snare drum.
So, how did I manage not only to not completely screw it up, but make one helluva good drum? I’m still trying to figure that out myself, but here’s a detailed account of the process.
Day 1: Cut. It. Out.
We arrived at 9 AM—quite early for most musicians, but a decent hour for drummers with an interest in woodworking who are hell-bent on making their own snare drum from scratch. Upon walking through the roll-up door of his unassuming industrial park workshop, we were greeted by excellent hot coffee and homemade cookies. This was already the best class I’d ever taken, and it hadn’t even started yet.
Now, when I say we were making these from scratch, I mean we started with a trip to the lumber yard. Even at the early hour the place was already aflurry with forklifts, trucks, and big guys with flannel shirts. The 10-foot-tall “sticks,” as Jefferson calls them, were stacked vertically throughout the warehouse. Jefferson showed us what the different features of a given plank will look and sound like in a drum, and what to avoid when selecting wood. For example, the glossy sheen is called “figuring” and it’s beautiful on a drum, and you should pay attention to the ridges in a stick as that will have an effect in the sanding process.
Wood selection is possibly the most crucial step. As my own success in this class would later demonstrate, anyone can make a drum, but no one can change the quality and timbre of the wood it’s made with.
Once we learned the ins and outs of wood, and selected our sticks, we headed back to the shop, where professor Shallenberger handed out the safety goggles and continued his lecture. Today we would be making 32 trapezoids of wood, 8” long x 1.5” wide x 1” thick. These almost-rectangles were to be slightly beveled on the long edge at just the right angle to form a 14.5” circle when we glued them together at the end of the day.
He demonstrated the process using models he made for just this purpose. I recognized them from Sugar’s booth at NAMM a year prior, where I first met Jefferson and was bitten by the building bug. Unlike on that cacophonous expo floor, this time I could actually hear him talk without shouting. Maybe it was the cookies, but I was now drooling with excitement. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on—and hopefully not into—the woodworking tools to start my new baby’s journey from stick to snare drum.
The first thing I did was cut the sticks into manageable chunks using a chop saw. Then, I marked each piece with a red triangle across the width of the chunk to identify how the pieces originally fit together, and, with Jefferson’s guidance, cut the chunks into about 40 2” pieces that would eventually become the staves that formed the shell.
Each piece was then run through a planer to flatten and smooth the wide edge before being cut to the correct width on a table saw. Now I began to see the grain, color, and figuring of the wood, and it gave an idea of what character my drum would have. It was like seeing a sonogram of the newest addition to the musical instrument family.
Each piece was passed through a machine to cut an angle on each wide edge. I then cut each long trapezoid to 8” using a bandsaw. All that was left was to glue the pieces together and let it dry overnight, which seemed simple enough.
Simple, however, is now the Sugar Percussion way. Painstaking detail is part of the process for every drum Jefferson has a hand in, even the ones that he helps other people make. So no, this process was not simple. But it was definitely worth the effort.
Since we were not painting or wrapping the shell, the woodgrain would be the aesthetic. As Jefferson explained, this is his favorite step in the process because he gets to be artistic with the choices. He likes to make drums that look like one continuous piece, which means arranging the 32 pieces side by side in a way that looks seamless. This is a big step because once it’s glued, there’s no going back. Jefferson must have noticed the lost-child look in my eyes, because he gently took over after a few minutes to help finish the arrangement. I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that even if I messed this thing up and it sounded like a potato, at least it would look pretty.
Once my arrangement was perfected, I applied clear packing tape to hold it together, flipped it over, and filled each crevice with a line of Elmer’s white glue. “The same stuff we all ate as kids in kindergarten,” Jefferson pointed out. Then came the moment the stick became a circle: The glue-up.
I brought each end of the taped row of staves together, using the excess tape on the edge to clasp it together temporarily. It was now a circle (well, technically a triacontadigon) just over 14” in diameter. I brought it to the drying table, where Jefferson torqued down a couple tourniquet strap clamps to properly hold it together, and I wiped off the glue that had oozed out from the inside. Now it was time to rest, both for the drum and for the drummer.
Day 2: Sands Of Time
On day two, we returned to the shop bright and early for more hot coffee and cookies. And to continue working on our drums, I guess. I peeled the packing tape off my glued-up staves to find that Elmer’s white glue did a fine job, and tried to forget Jefferson’s comment about how we all ate this powerful adhesive as kids.
First, the 32 flat edges needed to be smoothed out, so I secured a base plate to one end of the almost-circle to attach it to the lathe. Because the base plate is screwed into the end, the drum loses a little more than 1” off the end. This is why we used 8” pieces to make our 6” drum.
The flat edges were lathed to make a circle. The drum lost about 1/2” in diameter during this process, which is why our original glue-up was about 14.5″. From there, the circle was attached to a vertical spinner via the baseplate, and, while the drum was spinning, I pushed the sandpaper to the wood until Jefferson said it was smooth enough.
Using a horizontally mounted router as a blade, I manually turned the drum for three passes to cut 1/2” off of the end. I cut the circle from its baseplate and caught it in dramatic fashion as it was freed from the mount. Then, I brought it back to the vertical sanding wheel to touch up the top and bottom.
My freshly sanded circle was taken over to the measuring table, where marks for lug, throw-off, butt plate, vent, and badge were made. From there, I drilled the holes using a drill press and jigs that were set to the proper spacing. The tricky part was drilling a partial hole for the badge. The 1” bit was marked at the correct depth, as it wasn’t meant to be drilled all the way through, but I was still in control over how deep it went; one wrong move here could mean I’d just spent the last two days making nothing more than firewood. Fortunately, Jefferson’s guidance eliminated most of that fear. He’s not shy about telling you when you’re about to screw something up. Conversely, he let me know when I had done something well, which gave me enough confidence to have fun with the process.
Now it was time to make the badge. This is the only non-functional part of the drum—the vanity license plate on a Ferrari, so to speak. This is where we got a chance to be creative with inlays, mixing materials, special treatments, etc. So, of course, I took far too long on this step.
My design involved stamping the Drum! logo into aluminum and inlaying it into a circle of black walnut. I used a stamp kit to pound the word DRUM into a thin piece of aluminum, and used a thin flathead screwdriver and a leather punch to make the exclamation point. Some handworking came into play with tiny chisels, and I nearly ruined the whole badge by digging out a space for the aluminum inlay before Jefferson saved the day (phew).
Next came the bearing edges. To me, this was the moment the circle became a drum. I did this using a table router, angled to give a 30-degree roundover interior bearing edge. I placed the circle flat on the table with the spinning bit in the center, brought it to the edge of the circle, and followed it around the inside until the angle was complete. Then I did the same to the exterior.
Jefferson’s shop is full of custom tools for making drums, like the big, vertical wheel with pegs that locked my drum into place for hand sanding. After working on the edges for 10 minutes with 220-grit sandpaper, my hands were covered in dust—but the edges were smooth to the touch.
Still beaming with pride upon seeing the circle finally become a drum, I was unfazed by the prospect of doing even more sanding by hand with the orbital sander. It had been an eight-hour day already by this point, but when I saw Jefferson prepping the table with plastic for the lacquer process I got a second wind. With heavy rubber gloves, I used a cloth to apply a copious amount of lacquer to the drum, then used a dry cloth to wipe off the excess and left it to dry overnight.
Day 3: Hardware Update
With the lacquer now dry on day three, the snare drum was nearly finished. All I needed to do was install the hardware, heads, and snare wires. But first, I took it to the buffing wheel to give it that “new drum sheen.” Little details like this are what makes a drum feel more like a personal instrument rather than a mass-produced stock product.
Installing the lugs was easy enough, thanks to the perfect positioning of the holes I drilled the day before. I used a screw gun with a low torque setting to zip them in tight, then did the same for the Trick 3-position throw-off and butt plate and used a square to check the angle for them. Then I unwrapped a pair of brand new die-cast hoops (we were given the choice of three different hoop types) and installed the heads. I went with Remo Coated Ambassador for the top and Ambassador Snare Side for the bottom, using a dab of anti-seize cream on each tension rod before screwing each in by hand.
Jefferson supplied me with a set of 24-strand Puresound copper snare wires and showed me his technique for installing the nylon straps to hold it in place. His method is to cut each and at a 30-degree angle and gently kiss the cut edges with the flame of a lighter. It’s another one of those little details that might not make the drum sound better, but knowing it’s there makes you feel good when you play it.
All that was left was the photo shoot, which Jefferson puts all of his creations through immediately after they’re born. He even has lights and a rotating table to show them off. If you like great pictures of beautiful drums (of course you do), you’ll appreciate this step of the process.
One thing that stood out during the whole process is that while woodworking and drums in general can be very fun, knowing what you’re doing makes it much more so. In a nutshell, the difference between firewood and sonic inspiration lies more in the experience of the maker than in the vision of the dreamer.
Jefferson and his assistant Noah were hands-on in guiding the wood, sometimes literally, from blank board to percussive sound machine. There is no way I’d be able to make a drum that sounded and felt even half as good if I had to do it completely on my own.
Sugar Percussion snare drums like the one I made typically sell for about $1,000. They feel and sound as good as any drum I’ve played, each in its own unique way (as handcrafted instruments like this do). They’re also stunningly beautiful. Enrollment in the class is $1,500, which is still less than some custom drums.
When you buy a custom instrument the process will include your input as much as possible, but to play something you brought into existence with your own hands gives a different meaning to “putting your fingerprints” on it. Now that I know how many things can go wrong when building a drum, I have a deeper appreciation for when it all goes just right.