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The Art of Drum-Making, A Beginner’s Guide: Part Two: Finding and Curing the Hides

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...

Published on Categories 'Shamanism', Art, Art, British Druid Order, Druidry, Music, Music, Teaching, The World DrumTags , ,

About Greywolf

I'm Greywolf (aka Philip Shallcrass). My main claim to fame (such as it is) is that I'm chief of the British Druid Order (BDO). I discovered Druidry in 1974, seeing it as a native British 'shamanic' spirituality. An Alexandrian Wiccan coven I joined in 1978 transformed into the Grove of the Badger as Druidry increasingly replaced Wicca in its rites. The end result was the BDO. Emma Restall Orr was joint chief of the Order with me from 1995 to 2002. I live in rural Wiltshire, not far from my spiritual heartland, the area in and around the Avebury henge. I'm a writer, musician, artist, drum-maker, roundhouse-builder and thatcher. I have three sons who share my obsession with music, books and film. Personal obsessions include the work of Britain's greatest bard, Robin Williamson, the comic books of Jack 'King' Kirby (1907-1994) and the speed-freak rock'n'roll of The Screaming Blue Messiahs.

19 thoughts on “The Art of Drum-Making, A Beginner’s Guide: Part Two: Finding and Curing the Hides

  1. avatarCorwen Broch

    Well done getting a drum made! If you make any more though, you might find it much easier to do things in a different order. I've tanned quite a few so here are some suggestions, obviously feel free to ignore everything, we all have our own ways of working.

    Firstly a salted hide will keep unfrozen for ages, if it has been salted, drained, and salted again it will keep literally for years, so no urgency getting things done or frozen. If you get a fresh hide from somewhere and don't have room to freeze it, smother the inside with salt, this will bring out the moisture. Give it 24 hours, scrape off the damp salt and allow any liquid to drain, add more salt, fold flesh side to flesh side, roll up, put in a bag, and it will keep for months at room temperature.

    Generally it is better to clean the flesh side before trying to remove the hair or wetting the skin in any way. After salting the membrane and meat become dry and a bit less glued to the skin and therefore a lot easier to remove, so scrape it all off, along with any clinging salt, before soaking the hide in anything. If you leave the meat and membrane on the hide and soak it, there is a chance it will go extremely foul and stinky by the time the hair has slipped.

    Once the skin is scraped then rinse it out to get any blood or salt out, then proceed with hair removal.

    Wood ash is good to soak hides in, builder's lime will also work, but hides can also simply be soaked in clean water until the hair slips, changing the water every day will prevent stinkiness. If you've used lime or enough wood ash however there is no need to change the water as the solution is anti bacterial. Lime or wood ash are good to use if you are further tanning to leather or buckskin, but water alone is fine for drums and you probably end up with a better skin with just water.

    I tend to start at the top when stretching- the hide on the neck is the thickest part and easily strong enough to hold the weight of the hide, so I generally put a hook through the centre of the neck and hang this from the top centre of my frame, this way the hide is off the ground and its easy to work your way around the hide. I sometimes put a temporary fixing at the bottom too. I work both left and right around the hide simultaneously so that I can add tension as I go, this way there is less pulling through of the string later.

    Hope this helps!

    1. avatarGreywolf

      Thanks, Corwen,
      All assistance gratefully received...
      I put the hides in the freezer because I was unsure how long it would take me to get around to working with them and also unsure how well they'd keep if I didn't. Having taken so long to source them I wasn't taking any chances 😉
      I'll certainly try scraping the flesh side before washing. Fortunately the guys at Bradgate Park did a pretty good job of cleaning the flesh side, which made life easier.
      For de-furring, wood ash seems to work pretty well and I'm assuming it does the job quicker than water on its own? I know Native American folk used to weight down hides in running water for a couple of weeks to de-fur. Did not know that still water, changed daily, would produce the same result. There is a brook that runs past my house but it's crossed by bridges and followed by footpaths so unfortunately I can't leave hides in it, though it is a great source for water for soaking and washing.
      With the second skin, I started from the top, partly because there happened to be a very neatly placed hole I could use to make the first tie. Like you, I used that tie to hold the rest of the hide off the ground and worked around the hide in much the way you suggest, including putting a couple of temporary ties at the bottom.
      Looking forward to drumming with you,
      Greywolf /|\

  2. avatarCorwen Broch

    I usually use just water, it is a little more tricky as you have to change the water and check for slipping. Lime is so easy, chuck the hides in and forget about them as they don't rot in a saturated lime solution. The amount of time really varies in water according to the ambient temperature- from up to a month to as little as four days. In Scandinavia they leave hides weighed down in a lake for the whole winter to slip the hair! The most awkward thing that can happen with water is that the hair often doesn't slip along the spine fast enough, so that the edges of the hide are starting to weaken by the time the hair on the neck is easy to scrape, especially with old stags. It also tends to smell a little in still water, though the smell goes away in the wind by the time the hide is dry, or by a week or two after if the hide is stored somewhere airy. However the natural oil remains in the hide with this method which makes for a better drum, and the skin isn't bleached at all by lye or made chalky by lime.

    Glad your hides were reasonably clean, sometimes they are very time consuming depending on who skinned them, and on the animal. Cow hides are particularly difficult as they hang onto their fat and are very heavy. I have ten to tan to rawhide in a stillage in the garden, deep joy! They are each too heavy for one person to lift, but most of that weight is attached meat and fat.

    If you do a lot of hides you might like to invest in bungee cord and market clips (like strong crocodile clips), then you just clip the hide to the frame with lots of separate bungees that are attached to the frame at intervals. This is the way it is done commercially. I've never used this method myself but it must be many times faster than lacing.

    1. avatarJemima

      Thank you both Greywolf and Corwen for your tips. I have been wanting to make my own drum for a few years now, wondering where I might get a skin- I didn't fancy one from a shot deer, even though there is such waste of all the skins from the venison market. Then today, bizarrely I found a dead roe deer in the field by my house. She looks like she might have just dropped dead while nibbling on grass... no wounds... Anyway, I have strung her in the tree outside and will skin her tomorrow. (not going to eat any of the meat just in case...) I am curious about your method of just using water to slip the hair. We have a burn running at the bottom of the field so it is possible I could weigh the skin at the bottom and attach it to the root of an alder tree. (Maybe I should leave the farmer a note!) The winter has been remarkably mild up here in Scotland. Do you think I could leave the skin in the running water for a week or two or should I salt it and then wood ash & slake lime? Is it important to get it soaked pretty swiftly after skinning or can it wait a day? My pal has made a drum before and she says wood ash and slaked lime works best but I am quite drawn to just allowing the running water to do the work so that I can have time to go and steam bend an ash frame. I also don't have any slaked lime... Never skinned a deer before- only helped with a sheep once, a long time ago! got a friend who can help if I need. Some seriously cosmic things been happening recently. Can't believe a deer has now offered herself up for a drum for me! Don't want to mess it up!! Any advice on tanning greatly appreciated. Thank you!

      1. avatarGreywolf

        Hi Jemima,
        Sorry this reply was a long time coming. Have you had any luck with the hide?
        Not having access to a stream that doesn't have a footpath running alongside it, I haven't tried the running water method, though I'm told it has been used by various indigenous peoples since time immemorial, so I guess it works and would be interested to know how you got on.
        Many blessings,
        Greywolf /|\

        1. avatarJemima

          Hi Greywolf,
          Sorry I too have only just seen your reply!!
          After skinning the hide I salted it until I had some time to work on it. After about 3 weeks the hair just started to fall out so I spent an afternoon plucking as much as I could from the skin and then left it in the burn for a week to slip the remaining hair. This method seemed to work well but I really hope I didn't scrape too much of the skin off initially. I thought I was removing unwanted fascia but it is now quite thin. Still strong though. I left it to dry on the washing line and am only soaking it now to see how big to make the frame. I was wondering why you stretched out your skin on the square frame before putting it on the drum frame? Is that important? I was just going to resoak the skin and stretch it over the frame. what did you use for stringing it? Just excess skin? I only just learnt about backstrap as a good material.
          I am off to source some ash to make the frame today- do you bend yours around something circular or do you allow it to bend into whatever shape it wants?
          Thanks for replying before! Sorry i only just saw it!!
          Boundless metta

  3. avatarsarah lecouffe axtell

    Wow! great discussion. A+ to your process Greywolf! and wonderful reply from Corwen, your suggestions are also appreciated from me. I don't process a lot of hides (yet!:) but the use of bungee cords for hide stretching sounds fantastic.

  4. avatarlesley

    Hi great discussion picked up loads of helpful tips, but please can any one tell me how to do a deer hide and leave the hair on, two reasons for this one i want to make a drum with hair on. and i would also like to make a rug with another, so far all my reading tells me how to remove hair which i find is really easy with lime solution, but surely if i just dry it to rawhide after i have fleshed it , it will smell and rot? also my reading leads me to understand that you don't use a tanned hide to make drums. I also don't want to be using brains as i have the hide and not the whole animal and i don't want to be using chemicals as all my waste needs to go on the land.
    Hope this makes sense and someone can offer me a solution.
    With Metta Lesley

    1. avatarGreywolf

      Hi Lesley,
      I've never tried tanning hides hair-on. For drum-making I only use de-furred rawhide. A google search failed to reveal any online information about tanning fur-on hides without either chemicals or brains, which leaves me unsure what to recommend. I believe there are books around that give various tanning methods, some of which might fit the bill. Try searching online specifying that what you want is hair or fur-on tanning methods. Sorry I can't be of more help...
      Many blessings,
      Greywolf /|\

      1. avatarlesley

        Hi Greywolf,
        Thanks for getting back kind of you to take the time and do some research.
        I think maybe i know the answer tanned hide is no good for making drums and to make rawhide with hair on you just flesh and dry, i was trying not to have to go through tanning to make a rug, but i think left as rawhide it would be to stiff for a rug. so i will have a go at rawhide hair on for a drum.
        With Metta

  5. avatarHannah

    Hi I have been given a reindeer rug that's moulting badly I know it's been tanned differently to rawhide but I would really like to honour the animal and make it into a drum please can you tell me how to do this I would be most greatful becouse at present the skin is in a big paper bag becouse of the moulting hair and it would be sad to just throw it away and turning it into a drum was what I wonted to do any way can anyone help with suggestions many thanks

    1. avatarGreywolf

      Hi Hannah,
      I've never tried making a drum with a hide that's already been tanned with fur on. Anyone else have any ideas? Otherwise I can only suggest searching online to find someone else who has done it...
      Many blessings,

  6. avatarPauline Lympany

    Can you help. I have a horse hide and it is still fairly smelly. What can I do to get rid of the smell before drum making. The hide is dry.
    Thank you

    1. avatarGreywolf

      Hi Pauline,
      I'd suggest that when you re-soak it to make the drum, you add about a third of a cupful of white vinegar to the water.

  7. avatarMel O'Callaghan

    Hi Philip,

    This is a very helpful drum making 'how to'!

    I am wanting to make a large shaman frame drum for an exhibition in France. Ideally it would be 2m in diameter or more. Do you make drums for order or would be able to put me in contact with someone who may be interested and have access to large skins?

    I would appreciate any valued information you could give me.
    Many thanks
    Mel O'Callaghan

    1. avatarGreywolf

      Hello Mel,
      I do sometimes make drums for people. A 2m drum would require a very big hide. I work with Red deer hides and the largest drum I could make with the biggest hides I could get would be around 1.5m diameter maximum - they're never exactly circular, so may be little less than that in width. To get a bigger drum, you'd need someone who works with bull-hide. I don't know anyone who does. Maybe try one of the shaman facebook pages? Shaman portal?
      Many blessings,
      Greywolf /|\

  8. avatardesperateforinfo

    Hey there, I'm trying to make a drum for my drumming group but I cant seem to find a website that can give me the instructions for the wood part. do you think you could show some websites or something? I'm not sure what type of hide I should use either, my father was going to get me deer hide but I got told that buffalo is better, what should I use? if you could write something I would be very thankful....

    1. avatarGreywolf

      I had the same problem. Plenty of places online tell you how to put the skin on a drum, no one says much about making the hoops. I worked out a way by trial and error, which I think is explained in the blogs.
      As for types of hide to use, that depends. Buffalo hide is thicker than deer hide and will therefore give you a deeper, more bassy sound. It'll make a heavier drum though, and the sound of the drum also varies depending on the size and depth of the hoop you use. The bigger the surface area of the drum and the deeper the hoop, the deeper and bassier the sound of the drum. Using buffalo hide means you can get the same depth of tone using a smaller hoop than if you use deer hide.
      I base my choice of Red Deer hide on the fact that I feel an affinity with Red Deer more than any other member of the deer clan or any cattle/bovines. Bearing in mind that a spirit drum will 'host' the spirit of the animal whose skin you use, do you feel more drawn to working with the spirit of Deer or Buffalo?

  9. avatarsteve

    I am looking for a new source of natural hide to make drum skins, and I wonder if you may be able to offer any help or advice.

    I have been (occasionally) making barrel stave drums similar in style to Japanese taiko drums in Newcastle upon Tyne for the last thirty years or so. These are not precision instruments, and they get very rough treatment. The first ones I made were for a punk rock band, and in those days the only source I had for raw hide skins was to soak and unroll large dog chews.

    About 20 years ago I discovered an importer called Gold Coast Drums on the internet, and I bought heavy cow and bull hide skins from him. I made a few drums every year, usually for play groups and learning disability sessions. The head diameter varied between 12 and 36 inches with an extra couple of inches required to turn them over and nail them in place with upholstery tacks. They get beaten hard, with anything from cut down broom shanks to old chair legs, but I still have three drums that I have kept, and which have survived this kind of abuse for 10 years or more (in one case a lot more).

    After a break of a few years I have just been asked to make, nine or ten more drums, and I find Gold coast drums is no longer around. A quick trawl on the internet has revealed a few new London outlets, but they only seem to offer calf and goat skins, which would probably not cope with the kind of usage my groups hand out.
    do you know anyone able to supply skins in the smaller quantities that I require, about 2 square metres, or one full hide at a time? I need skins which are thick (my best ones are over 2.5mm), and that have not been tanned to leather, so that when I stretch them over a frame they will shrink and set rock hard. I am familiar with dealing with hair and flesh residue, and also with cutting wet hide to size with shears, so I do not need them in a fully prepared state.

    I would welcome any advice you are able to offer.


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