Restoration of a Mid-19th Century Field Snare Drum
I received this article today from Randolph ("Randy") Davis, a drummer and drum refurbisher. Compare some features of Randy's drum with those on my "Drum by John Lowell," this blog, March 5, 2008.
Article Contributed by Randolph Davis
Having just now tied off the drag rope, I’d like to share my newest toy which I bought at the Baltimore Gun Show last year (2009). There I found a cracked shell and counterhoops form a mid-19th century drum, and some old heads sans flesh hoops artfully displayed across the open ends of the shell. The shell had a crazed unidentified surface finish, and all-in-all, it looked like hell. I decided I wanted it, so my friend, Jim Kochan, lent me the cash to buy it. I recall it costing $250.00 (after a $50 talk-down). It is now sturdy player of which I am very proud.
I gave the shell a quick surface clean with a damp cloth and found several cracks spanning the length of the shell along the grain, one spanning the entire length of the shell. That was bad news for a drum that I wished to transform into a player.
I bought some 1/8” white oak strips, soaked them in water for about ½ hour, bent them around the shell to dry, and then I glued them across the cracks on the inside of the shell using Old Brown Glue. That stuff is a truly amazing organic hide glue with urea added to lengthen the working time. A simple warming makes the glue workable for several hours. This stuff is heaven, and I can recommend it without hesitation. I also used it to reglue the shell support hoops and loosening scarf joints on the counterhoops. It worked to great effect and, as advertised, simply bonded with the old glue. Other than a little spotting from the iron traces in Baltimore tap water reacting with the tannic acid in the oak (which I was able to correct with oxalic acid), there were no real issues.
Next I scraped the surface finish off using a water-based varnish remover which worked well after two applications. I used a flexible plastic putty knife because I wanted to retain the planer marks on the outer shell. I gave the shell a denatured alcohol bath and it cleaned nicely. I first attempted to shellac the drum, but I felt that this would not be a sufficiently sturdy finish for an outdoor drum. (I have since learned that the Noble Cooley 150th anniversary drums are using shellac and apparently this is the historic finish for Noble Cooley drums.) So I removed the shellac and hand rubbed the shell (first with my bare hands and then with the grain, using 0000 steel wool) using a 50/50 refined linseed oil/turpentine finish. I applied about seven coats which did a nice job to create a slurry to fill the cracks and other imperfections. I used Gamblin refined linseed oil which is said to use a refining process that is 150 years old. The final touch was wheat pasting a hand-made label inked by my good friend Fred Rickard.
With the shell and counterhoops complete, I ordered rope, heads, snares, strainer, and custom cut and bent flesh hoop blanks from Cooperman Drum Company. I sized flesh hoops to the shell, and glued them using the same Old Brown Glue. I nailed them with carpet tacks based on contextual examples in my own collection. I tucked the heads and dyed the rope overnight in a batch of strong English breakfast tea (Cooperman sells a sort of bleached linen rope.) The Cooperman linen rope is four strands, as is typical for drum rope on American drums of the period. Unfortunately, it is not spun as tightly as other original rope I have seen, and I wanted “drum rope”. I have heard other drummers speak favorably of hemp linen rope available in Eastern European markets, but I don’t know of any four-strand rope of this type, and I felt that the tea-dyed linen rope was the right decision for this restoration.
I made the ears, copying an original example on another drum in my collection. I used an antique pinking iron to punch the ends, and seven-cord hand waxed linen thread to tie the ears.
I mounted the Cooperman reproduction Civil War style strainer. But after roping the drum together, it occurred to me that this design would not work, for the rope hole was too close to the strainer side snare gate. There was no room for the upright thumbscrew to function. This posed a problem that might have prevented the result I wanted. But not so! I inquired with Noble and Cooley, who is embarking on a reproduction drum project in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the war, concurrently with contacting the one and only George Carroll of Carroll’s Drum Service. George gave me a different but common style (of which I have a couple on drums in my collection) counterhoop-mounted hinge-style strainer, which works excellently in the above mentioned situation. His casting apparently comes directly from an original dug at Brandy Station battlefield. I came to find out that Noble and Cooley is using the same strainer supplied by George for their restorations.
So I soaked and mounted the snares, and plugged a few small holes in the counterhoops where previous appliances had been mounted (a carry on the batter counterhoop, and previous strainers on the snare side). That was an afterthought, but something I could do without dismantling the drum.
And just a listing of my friends who helped me along the way: my wife for dealing with insanity on a regular basis; George Carroll for keeping this fife and drum business alive south of the Mason Dixon, and reproducing this strainer; Jim Ellis at Cooperman, who is the embodiment of kindness and sage; George Hardy for his magical tea-dying recipe; Jim Kochan for spotting me the money initially; Fred Rickard for the best label any drum ever had; and Al Saguto for teaching me now to make thread.
So there you have it. And it sounds great!
# # #