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Repair: Drum Maintenance

Mike Lawson • Resources • November 23, 2014

Considering the literal beating that drums and related equipment take on a regular basis, care and maintenance of snares and toms should be a regular part of the battery’s routine. Following is a list of tools and supplies, suggested maintenance activities, and some pointers that might be particularly handy for students and teachers who are not percussion specialists. This should provide all of the information needed to keep wood and metal drums in peak working condition.

General Drum Maintenance
This may seem like a relatively simple process. However, important steps are frequently missed, which could come back to haunt you at a later time. The best opportunity to perform maintenance on a drum is when changing heads.
Remove the old head by loosening all tension rods on the drum. Be careful to only loosen a few turns at a time so the rim is not bent in the process. If changing a bottom snare head, you will need to remove one side of the snares, usually the butt side. Common nomenclature, the batter head refers to the top head of the snare drum, while the bottom head is called the snare head. Once the head(s) are removed, some maintenance on the drum itself can easily be taken care of.

Drums come in a variety of materials and finishes. If the drum has a wood shell, both inside and out – meaning there is no external covering besides the wood itself – it is best to use Murphy’s Oil Soap or Johnson Paste Wax to clean and polish the shell. If you have anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes for this process, you can go ahead and unscrew all the lugs of the drum giving you a bare shell. This will make it much much easier to apply the paste wax or oil soap to clean the drum.

For drums covered in plastic or a PVC-type covering, tighten all lugs from the inside of the drum, as they often loosen over time. The exterior of the drum can be cleaned with any household spray cleaner. Something mild that doesn’t have a lot of suds would be best, as you are basically just removing dirt and debris. As a precautionary note, many cheaper drums have a wrapped covering attached only with double stick tape at the seam. This means that the covering is not glued onto the shell itself. This is especially critical if the drums are being taken outside in the sun, as those finishes will bubble very easily. Higher-quality drums will adhere the covering to the shell with glue over the entire surface.

Metal shell drums come in a variety of types. They include aluminum, steel, chrome, brass, copper, bronze, and even titanium. It is common for chrome-plated shells to oxidize over time. Figure 2 represents a chrome drum prior to cleaning. You can see the “pitting and crust” that has developed. This is also evident in most metal rims. Removing this is easier when the lugs are off the drum. It is common for the oxidation to happen in all parts of the drum that have chrome plating.

Using #000 steel wool, rub relatively hard into the shell and all metal parts where this oxidation has occurred. #000 is a good level of steel wool that will remove this material without damaging the finish, whereas #0000 is better for polishing. This process should remove a good portion of the oxidized material. You can then use Windex or chrome polish to give the drum a shine. I have a buffing wheel in my shop that is able to give a more professional look. However, you have to have the appropriate buffing compounds and buffing wheels to achieve the best results. 

As you are working on the shell itself, look at the bearing edge on both top and bottom. This is the part of the drum where the head will rest and be pulled from the rims. The steel wool will be good at removing any burrs that may exist on drums that have metal shells. For wood drums, start with a 120 grit sandpaper just around the edge, being careful not to sand the side of the shell. It is only necessary to do this if you feel a rough section of the bearing edge. Cheaper drums are made of basswood and luan. These will commonly have rough bearing edges. Other common woods used for drum shell making include poplar, African mahogany, birch, and maple.

Once the bearing edge is smooth, it is best to lubricate it. This is especially important for wood shell drums. Lightly rubbing the edge with a thin layer of wax will allow the head to slide on easily. This step is not necessary for metal shells.

When the tension rods are off the drum, it is a good idea to clean them with rags and Windex. Windex tends to have ammonia in it, which is good for removing grease. You can also make your own cleaning spray using one teaspoon each of ammonia, dish soap, and alcohol. Mix those in a 16-ounce spray bottle and fill with water.

If you removed the lugs from the shell itself, reattach them and make sure all the screws are tight. Place the new head on the drum and the rim over the top. When you have the rim holes aligned with the lugs, take each of the tension rods and apply a very small amount of petroleum jelly around the bottom. There are, of course, a number of lubricants you can use for this step. However, petroleum jelly is the easiest to find and works quite well. This is a very common item to have in your band room, since it is also used for tuning slides on brass instruments. Other very good lubricants include three-in-one oil and car grease. See Figure 4 for proper amount and location of lubricant.

With the screws inserted in all the lugs, tighten them with your fingers until they contact the rim. Then, tighten each screw one half turn then go to the opposite side of the drum and repeat. From there, move to the screw to the right of the one you just completed, tighten by one half turn and again on the opposite side of the drum. Continue this process until you have reached the desired head tension. Generally, for snare drums, the top head is about a minor third higher in pitch than the snare head. When reattaching the snares, this is a good opportunity to change out the string or snare cord if it is frayed or torn. Drum manufacturers often used small strips of plastic. These are often the same mylar films that are used for their drumheads. I have found something that I believe is a better choice: either nylon strapping, which can be difficult find, or the plastic strapping used for shipping boxes. Department stores cut this off their boxes when unpacking and have yards of it to give away. Simply insert strapping into the center slot on the snares. It should fit to be quite snug in the butt side and the snare strainer itself. This stuff never wears out and will not stretch.  

Head Selection
Drum heads are a very personal choice among percussionists, as they have a direct impact on the sound of the drum. Generally for concert toms, single-layer clear heads are standard. Also, coated batter heads are common. Most drum shops and percussion warehouses will have heads classified for snare, toms, and bass drum in three categories; concert, marching, and set (combo). While the size of the head is the most critical aspect, drum set heads are not the best choice for concert drums. Also, marching heads are often significantly thicker, and some are made with Kevlar, and can withstand the extreme tensions now common in marching percussion. If you do not have a percussionist on your staff, check with the store or dealer for their recommendations.
 
Hardware
Stands for toms and snares are part specific and part generic. For example, while all snare stands will hold a 13” or 14” snare drum, drum set snare stands will not go high enough for concert playing. Concert snare stands are specific and cost quite a bit more, considering you are getting just a few more inches of metal pipe. Tom stands and mounts for drum sets are specific to manufacturers. A Yamaha tom mount will not fit Ludwig, Mapex, Pearl, Tama, or DW drum sets. The same is true of concert stands for toms. You will have to be sure to order the stand that fits the mount on your toms or you will be forced to drill more holes in the shell to accommodate a different mount.

I hope you found the information in this article useful for maintaining your drum inventory at your school. Keeping these instruments in good working order should give them added years of service for your program.


A native of Shamokin, Pennsylvania, Dr. James Moyer received his B.M.E. degree from Susquehanna University, where he was twice selected for the Pennsylvania Intercollegiate Band, the oldest such organization in the nation. He holds a M.M. and D.M.A. from the University of Oklahoma, where his teachers included Dr. Richard Gipson and John Bannon. During his time at O.U., Moyer was a member and soloist with the O. U. Percussion Ensemble, the first college percussion ensemble to release a commercial CD. O.U. also joined the University of North Texas as the first two college percussion groups to perform at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention in 1985. He has presented clinics and master classes at state and national conferences throughout the Southwest, Midwest, and Northeastern U.S. Moyer is currently director of Band and Percussion Studies at Texas A & M International University and timpanist with the Laredo Philharmonic Orchestra. He performs exclusively on DeMorrow keyboard instruments.

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