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7

Having felled the tree, made the hoops and cured and stretched the hide, now it's time to bring them together and actually make the drums in this, the third and final part of my little beginner's guide to drum-makingDrumHoopMeetsSkinx800.
I began by soaking the hide for a few hours. When good and wet, I laid it out rough side up, flat on a table. I then placed the first hoop, the larger of the two, on the hide and drew around it with a soft pencil. Then, using a little jig made out of a scrap piece of frame wood, I marked another round, 4” out from the hoop. This allows for the 3” depth of the hoop plus another inch to overlap.
DrumSkinFittingx800Next, I cut around the outer pencil marks with a sharp pair of scissors, following which it's time to punch the holes to thread the rawhide cord through. This is done with a leather punch set to its largest hole size. What you want is 32 holes in 16 pairs. First, fold the skin in half. This gives you two opposite sides you can punch two holes each through, about an inch apart and about a half-inch in from the edge of the hide. Next, fold in half again so that the two pairs of holes you've just punched GWthreadingDrumx800match up with each other. At either end of this second fold, punch another two holes. Now fold the hide in between the sets of holes you've already punched, lining them up with their opposites. Again, at either end of your fold, punch two more holes. Keep doing this until you have 16 sets of evenly spaced holes around the edge of your hide. Having cut out and hole-punched both drum-skins, back they go in the bin of clean rainwater to soak.
Having a fair bit of spare hide left, the next stage is to cut the cord you'll use to bind the skin to the drum hoop. Take your sharp pair of scissors and cut strips of hide about a quarter to half an inch wide. It helps if you leave a wider tab at one end, cut in the shape of a leaf and with a hole through the middle of it. The cord will stretch to a lot less than its original width when you come to use it, but it needs to be narrow enough to fit through your punched holes. Cut the strips as long as you can. You're going to need several yards to do a drum and it needs to be one continuous strip. It may help to know that rawhide cord is incredibly tough. You can test its strength for yourself. Cut a strip about a yard long and the DrumThreadedx800width you're going to use on your drum. Now grab one end in each hand and pull for all you're worth. If you've got your curing right, you'll be amazed at how strong it is. When you've cut your cord, pop it back in the tub to soak.
Lay the hide flat on the table again, rough side up and, using your pencil marks as a guide, position your hoop on it. Now grab the edge of the hide on opposite sides of the hoop and pull to stretch it. Do that all the way around. DrumFinalKnotx800Then start pulling the hide up over the rim of the hoop. Again, do this all the way round. Now you're ready to start threading the cord through your pre-punched holes.
Take the end with the tab on it and poke it through a pair of holes on one side of the drum. Then take the other end of your cord, locate the pair of holes directly opposite the ones you've just threaded through and pass the other end of your cord through them, pulling the whole length through. OK, from here on you need to watch this video, in which Salish drum-maker, Jorge Lewis, gives perfect teaching on how to thread a drum. This is the video that taught me how to do it. Follow it carefully and take notes as you go. It's the best teaching video I've ever seen.

Jorge Lewis reminds me of an aspect of drum-making that I haven't emphasised enough, which is the ritual that accompanies every stage of the process, from communicating with the tree spirit before felling the tree from which the hoops are made, through acknowledging the death of the deer whose hide will be the drum's skin. I fluted for the deer when the hide was lain in the brook at Wild Ways to be washed, and again when it was washed in the brook that runs past my house after being cut to size. I drummed with my previous drum and shook my rattle to call in good spirits to the hoop and hide. I placed scented herbs around the bin in which the hide was curing. Every step of the way there was ritual, music, communication with the spirits of tree and deer and prayers to the spirits of the brooks and the old gods of our lands. Without these things, you can still produce a drum, but it will not live. A vital part of the process for me is the knowledge that the tree and the deer that have given themselves to make the drum will live on and sing on through it, that their spirits will enable this drum to communicate with other spirits as its song passes between the worlds. The drum is a ritual tool of great power. Of course there must be continual ritual throughout its making.
2ndDrumJoeLacingx800For me, a personal pleasure of threading the hide onto the hoop was having my son, Joe, help me (right). He proved very adept and will soon be beginning the journey of making his own drum. My youngest son, Mike, took pictures as we worked.
One thing about being a beginner drum-maker is that there's no way of knowing if you've got it right until the drum is not only finished but fully dried. The latter was achieved by hanging that first drum from the washing line in my garden, using the extra length of cord left over as per Jorge Lewis' instructions. Then it's just a question of waiting. Of course I found myself nipping out every half hour or so to check if it was dry yet. It took a while, but finally I could find no damp spots at all, not even in the cross-shaped wraps that form the drum's handle and represent the four directions and their associated elements. Then came the testing moment. I took the drum 2ndDrumBeginningtoDryx800down from the line, took a beater in my hand and tried it for the first time. It sang! Not only did it give a good, strong sound, but that sound continued to reverberate for a satisfyingly long time after the first strike. It sounded beautiful, magical, powerful. I played some more. Woohoo! I'd made a drum! No words can express the heart-leaping joy, the sheer sense of soaring elation, that discovery produced. That wonderful moment made all the work inexpressibly more than worthwhile.
Joe and I set to and made the second, smaller drum. This had to dry overnight and ended up 2ndDrumAlmostFullyDryx800hanging from the stairs in our house. Again, the result was a beautiful drum with a deep, rich tone.
Next comes the process of developing a relationship with the drum. This is achieved, of course, by playing it. Because of the way these drums are made, they are never circular but always roughly egg-shaped. This means that different tones can be created by playing towards the edge of the skin where the drum's width is narrowest, then moving round to 2ndDrumComplete+Joex800where it's widest. The different thickness of the hide at different points also produces different tones. The beater can also make a huge difference to the sounds the drum produces. For this reason, I have two beaters (below right). One has a soft leather head stuffed with Red Deer fur. The head on the other is a piece of fur-on Red Deer hide with the fur on the outside. While the former produces a strong, powerful beat, the latter can be used to play very softly, producing a sound that has a Drum Beatershypnotic, deeply meditative quality. My drum, the first one I made, averages a little over 21” in diameter, which is quite large. Because of its size, its basic tone is a deep bass note very like that of my previous drum, a 22” Remo Buffalo drum that I came to call my thunder-drum (below).  My Red Deer drum is also a thunder-drum. However, it also produces a wide range of overtones that cover a broad sonic spectrum.

Greywolf & Thunder Drum

Playing the drum in ritual is another vital part of the process of getting to know it and learning to work in harmony with its inhabiting spirits. My drum and I have been to my heartland, the Avebury stone circles (see the video below), have played with the ancestors in the West Kennett Long Barrow, have played for the spirits of the brook that runs past our house and with the spirits of place where we live. We've travelled together to and within our beautiful Shropshire roundhouse and the surrounding woodland. Just recently, we've returned from a much longer journey to the Pacific Northwest of the USA. There I had the honour to drum with the Quileute Drum Circle, accompanying sacred masked dances that tell the legendary history of the tribe. While staying on the Quileute Reservation, in the village of LaPush, I drummed and sang on beautiful beaches overlooking the great Pacific Ocean and the drum helped restore and strengthen spiritual connections I once thought lost. But that's another story for another time.

Undecorated DrumOne decision yet to be made is whether to paint my drum or not. It has patterning on it already, both from the darker colour where the stag's strong spine ran and where that line is crossed by strange striations (upper left). My previous drum was painted all over with a design incorporating wolves and eagles (see the image above), two creatures I've worked with in spirit for many years. For this one an image of a white serpent keeps returning. For me, as for our ancestors, it represents healing and the renewal of life and energy. There's a Pictish engraving that shows it well and in a style that might work for my drum. Here, computer software comes in useful. I can experiment with designs without actually committing them Possible Drum Designto the drum skin. Here's a possible decoration, incorporating a Pictish wolf and eagle as well (lower left).
In the meantime, I've treated it by gently rubbing neatsfoot oil into the ties on the back, sides and upper, playing face of the skin with a soft cloth. Olive oil apparently works just as well. Oiling the drum skin helps preserve it and reduces the extent to which the drum's tone changes in moist conditions. Being a natural hide, it will still change with variations in moisture and temperature. If it becomes too loose to play, hold it near an open fire or other heat source for a moment or two or aim a hair dryer at the playing surface. This will bring it back to playability. If it goes the other way and is getting too tight and dry, carry a little spray water bottle in your drum bag and use it to spray the inside of the drum skin, the side you haven't applied oil to, as this will absorb moisture better. This will stop your skin from splitting and bring its tone back down. With care, I'm told these drums should still be playable a hundred years from now, so they could pass from you to your children and to their children and still be singing strong and true.
I am getting to know my drum and its spirits are getting to know me. I pray that we will deepen and strengthen our connections through many years to come. I give thanks to the spirits of my ancestors, whose voices have sung to me during the making and the playing. I give thanks, of course, to the spirits of the Ash tree and of the Red Deer stag. I honour you, kinfolk of the green world and the great forest. I give thanks to the old gods whose powers have strengthened and supported us on our journeys. May they continue to bring us strength and guidance through all our days and help us bring their wisdom and the powers of healing to our kinfolk and our tribes.
Many blessings,
Greywolf /|\

18

I wanted to make drums with Red Deer hide. I have an affinity with these animals from a variety of angles. For one thing, over the last year or two I've developed a deeper knowledge and respect for one of our native deities, Gwydion ap Don. For a variety of reasons, I've come to recognise him as our local representative of the widespread antlered Lord of the Animals. Also, in 2008, when we started clearing the land on which our roundhouse was to be built, I immediately stubbed my toe on a deer skull hidden in the tangled undergrowth. The skull is now buried in the NE corner of the roundhouse. Rufus' Antlers above the roundhouse AltarAbove it (left) looms a massive pair of antlers belonging to a great old Red Deer stag called Rufus, who lived in the same valley. A powerful, shape-shifting deer spirit is the protector of the roundhouse, while another potent antlered spirit cares for the whole valley. I have communicated regularly with both for the last seven years. Plus there are few finer natural sights in Britain than a Red Deer stag walking through a forest. And then, of course, there's the fact that I'm a wolf, and wolves certainly do like the strong, gamy taste of venison.
My initial problem was to find deer skins. I read online that the skins and other unwanted parts of many deer farmed for venison are simply thrown away, either burnt or buried, because they are viewed as having no economic value. I asked on facebook if anyone knew of where I could obtain some of these skins. I got a response from Peter Tyldesley, who manages the deer herds at Bradgate Park, Britain's longest continuously operated deer park, dating back to the 14th century. He does make use of hides, antlers, etc., to the greatest extent possible. However, none of his hides had been used for drum-making. Peter gave me a good deal on five hides and they duly arrived. Four of them fitted into my freezer. The fifth didn't. One slightly panicked phone call later, I had arranged to travel to Wild Ways, the woodland retreat centre run by my friends, Elaine and Garth. They had all the space and equipment I would need to treat the hide.
Never having treated a hide before, I resorted to the modern Druidical trick of appealing to the Internet. There I found a number of sites, some decidedly more useful than others. I discovered that a natural substWashing the Deer Hide in Borle Brookance that can be used to de-fur a hide is wood ash. It so happens that almost all the heating at Wild Ways is provided by wood-burning stoves. Garth kindly sieved a quantity of ash for me to get out most of the charcoal and other impurities.
The hides as Peter sent them had been well cleaned and salted. The first thing to do was to remove the salt. This was achieved with the aid of the brook that runs through Wild Ways, a tributary of the nearby River Severn, sacred to the native goddess, Sabrina. I tied the hide by its tail to an underwater root, weighted down the hide with stones and left it for a couple of days (left).
In the meantime, I built a frame on which to stretch the hide and tried to find out how much wood ash to use. Eventually, one website gave me the necessary key: you mix wood ash with one gallon of water until a fresh hen's egg floats upright in it with a disc about an inch across showing. Brilliant!
Then it was time for a body-painting weekend, but that's another blog.Wringing out the washed deer hide
Elaine loaned me a plastic dustbin, which I took down to the brook to carry the hide in. I washed the river mud off the hide as best as I could, wrung it out and put it in the bin. A thoroughly soaked hide from an adult Red Deer weighs quite a lot. Elaine helped me carry the bin across the field and lift it over the gate, where we had a wheelbarrow waiting for the rest of the journey through the woods.
The hide was then washed with spray from a hose, then again in clean rain water in the bin. Then I made up the wood ash solution in a bucket, added it to a further four gallons in the bin, stirred it around thoroughly with a stick, then lowered in the hide. NB. As I found when I searched the web, there are many approaches to curing hides for drum-making. I chose the techniques that felt right to me and it's those I outline here. For another, equally valid, approach, see my old friend Corwen's comment below...
The natural tendency of a hide with fur on is to float, so it's necessary to weight it down with a flat rock. This then has to be left for a few days, during which time you take out the rock and stir the mixture with the hide around. The wood ash solution is alkaline. The effect it has is to cause the cellular structure of the hide to expand, loosening the follicles that hold in the fur. Test the fur every now and then. You'll know it's ready when you can run your hand across the hide and the fur just falls off. When this happens, pull out the hide and fully de-fur it. Because hides de-fur unevenly, you will probably need to scrape some of the fur off. A not-too-sharp knife works well for this. Put the hide on a flat surface, hold the knife so that the blade is at a little bit of an angle (as shown in the picture) and pull it towards you in even strokes, being careful not to apply so much pressure that you go through the skin.
Scraping the hideThen you need to flip it over and work on the flesh side (some recommend scraping the flesh side first). This needs to be scraped to remove any remaining bits of flesh and also to take off the layer of membrane covering this side of the hide. The wood ash solution should make this much easier. The worry is in knowing how far to go. Obviously you don't want to go so far that you weaken the skin. The key seems to be to take it down until the flesh side shows clear white. I don't think I'd left this first hide in the wood ash long enough because the flesh side proved something of a challenge. Back it went into the solution and back home I went for a few days while Elaine and Garth went to the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. After which, they gave me a lift back to Wild Ways.
Soaking the hide in baking soda solution More hide scraping on the flesh side, following which the hide was washed before going into another solution, this time of a handful of baking soda to four gallons of rain water. The idea of the baking soda is that it neutralises the Ph level of the hide after its long alkaline bath. After an overnight soak in the baking soda (right) and some more flesh scraping, the hide was washed again before being placed in four gallons of rainwater to which about a 1/3rd of a pint of clear vinegar had been added and left for about eight hours, stirring occasionally. This has the effect of raising the acidity level of the hide back to something like it was when you started. It also, usefully, takes away some of the strong smell the hide develops while soaking in the wood ash solution.
The stretcher frame Then comes the fun bit, sewing the hide to your beautifully constructed frame. Woohoo! If, like me, you're lucky anough to have a friend with acres of woodland, you can do what I did and find strong saplings to construct your frame. The small cross-pieces on the corners provide extra strength and help stop the frame twisting out of shape too much as the skin dries and applies more tension to the frame. The corners of the frame shown here are lashed with strips of ash bark, which is remarkably strong. While this looks really neat, I admit that most of what's holding the frame together is the screws I put in before the lashing was done. Some modern innovations are extremely useful. If you don't have access to woodland, 8' lengths of 3" x 3" from your local timber yard will do equally well, and that's what I've used for making my second frame at home. You can use pretty much any kind of string or twine to attach the hide to the frame. I used sisal twine because there happened to be a lot of it going spare. A very useful tip I picked up from the Internet is to sew on your hide in four sections, the head end and tail end and both sides. By using separate lengths of cord for each of these you make it much easier to tighten or slacken them off as needed.
Deer hide stretched on frame The frame I made at Wild Ways was about 8 feet high and 4.5 feet across. This looked huge, but proved to be only just big enough. It's called a stretching frame for a reason. The hide will stretch a lot. I'd seen an online video of a guy stitching a hide onto a frame, so I followed his lead, which was to use a small, pointed knife to pierce holes through the hide about a ¼ inch in from the edge of the hide. I was sure the wet skin would tear when I pulled the string tight. I was wrong. This stuff is really strong. Put your holes about five or six inches apart or wherever there's a point of skin sticking out.
I started with the tail end. Having the tail still attached meant that I could tie it to the centre of the frame's bottom with a separate piece of string and use it as my fixed point. I then flipped the frame up the other way and started at the former bottom, now top, right corner of the frame and threaded the twine through each of the already-made holes, looping around the frame as I went. I did the head end next as the already tied tail end gave me something the pull against. Same process. Make your holes first all the way across from one front leg to the other, then stitch and loop. Then I flipped the frame back the other way and did the same for the two sides.
At this point, check the tension on the strings. This is done simply by twanging them with a finger. If they are floppy, they need tightening. If you get a good, resonant twang, they're fine. To tighten, work from one end of your side, top or bottom cord, pulling the cord through each threaded hole in turn as you go. At the far end of each run, undo the cord where you tied it in place, take up all the slack you've just created and tie it again. Do this all round until you're happy that you've got all the strings as tight as you can. Don't be afraid to tug quite hard. This is very tough stuff.
Drum hoop with pentagram 'signature' Then leave it for two or three days to dry, checking the cords every once in a while to make sure they're still tight. You'll probably find they're tighter. After only about a day, my hide was so tight that it was already starting to sound quite drum-like. This is a good sign.
While all this was going on, I'd been finishing off two drum hoops I'd made at Wild Ways some time before. These were looking really good. The timber they are made from is Ash, a beautiful, pale wood. As is my habit, I'd rubbed linseed oil into them. This acts as a preservative, brings out a really nice golden glow in the wood and makes the grain stand out clearly. One of the last parts of my hoop-making process is to drill five small holes and thread rawhide through them in the form of a pentagram. This helps hold the already glued ends of the hoop together and is also my 'signature' (right).
With the hide drying nicely on the stretcher frame, I held the two drum hoops up against them and realised that, with care, I might get two drum skins out of this one hide. Woohoo!
The smaller of the two Ash hoops is kind of egg-shaped and kind of pentagram-shaped. It seems to want to manifest a vision of mine to create a little British sister to The World Drum, a Britannia Drum. The larger of the two fitted beautifully across some strange markings in the hide. It seems to want to be mine. I shall continue listening to what the hide and the hoops want of me during the rest of the making. The next stage is to cut the hide to size and fit it to the hoops. I'm very excited! See you next time at Greywolf's Lair for Part Three: Making the Drums...