February 12, 2002

How to make a quality hand drum


Keywords: how to make a drum cheap american indian drums hand drum powwow drum pow wow drums make a drum indian musical instruments native american crafts rawhide drum instructions drum hoop cedar drums

The drum has been significant to all native nations for thousands of years. It is a sacred item. The drum is man’s connection to the earth, and symbolizes the life force of creation. For centuries the drum has been used to amplify the voice and synchronize the heart beat of man to the natural rhythms of the earth.

In this article, you will learn how to make your own drum for little or no money.


If you live in hunting country, you can probably get a hunter to give you a raw deer or elk hide for free to make your own rawhide to use in the construction of your drum.

Sheep and goat hides also work well, but will produce a higher pitched drum. Cow hide is usually too thick to make a good drum and is hard to work with.

The skins from male animals are usually thicker than the females and will produce a deeper pitched drum.

Elk is generally the preferred hide for a quality drum head with a rich but mellow sound, but the other hides mentioned above are also acceptable substitutes and will probably be more readily available.

Prepared rawhide can be purchased at some large craft stores and saddlery shops. However, it usually comes in large sheets and can be quite expensive.

Most of these stores only stock cow or horse rawhide which is very thick, hard to stretch and produces a deeper pitch, so if you purchase ready made rawhide, be sure to ask what animal it is from.

If you must use rawhide from a domestic animal, goats produce a hide that is probably the closest substitute for deer rawhide, cow is similar to elk, and horse hide is the most comparable to buffalo.

Commercial rawhides are usually pre-stretched by a machine. Since they are usually sold by the square foot, producers of commercial hides try to stretch them as much as possible. This makes them somewhat less desirable for drum making and a little harder to work with.

You will need a strip of rawhide approximately two feet square without any holes to make a twenty inch diameter drum.

Pre-formed cedar drum hoops can be purchased at specialty craft stores in varying sizes for a cost of around $16 to 32.00, depending on the size of the drum hoop.

You can either use a preformed drum frame you purchased at the craft shop, a section of hollowed log about two-thirds the height of the diameter of the head, or you can make a hoop frame.

If your are using a hollow log to form your drum, finish cleaning out the inside so no loose wood or rot remains and the resulting shell is approximately one and a half to two inches thick.

The thicker the shell, the deeper the pitch will be on your finished drum.

To make a hoop frame cut two branches about the size of your thumb from an ash, cedar, willow or hazel tree that are approximately thirty-six inches long. With patience and repeated steaming, it’s possible to bend nearly any wood, but some bend and shape much easier than others.

Other good alternatives are wild rose runners, sycamore or birch branches.

Get a kettle of water boiling on the stove.

Pass the first branch through the steam from the kettle and gradually bend it round to form a circle the size you wish your drum to be.

If you make your hoop while the cutting is still fresh, you might not need to steam it much, particularly willow.

Be careful not to force the bending too quickly, or the branch is likely to crack or break. With a little practice, you will soon be able to feel when the branch is about to crack and when you need to stop and apply more steam.

Bend the wood SLOWLY and carefully, listening for the noise it makes. If it creaks you’re a bend away from it breaking, so be patient. Did I mention you must do this SLOWLY?

Keep steaming the wood for your drum as you bend it. Give the wood five minutes of steam for one minute of bending.

When you have bent the branch around into a rough circle, tie the two ends together, overlapping the ends.

If you have something round such as a flower pot or saucepan of the right diameter, put the hoop over that to help make it circular. If not, keep steaming and bending it until you have it as close to a circle as possible.

Repeat this with the second branch for the other side of your drum, measuring it against the first so you end up with two hoops the same size.

Cut another section of branch into about a dozen pieces approximately two to two and a half inches long. Using small headless nails and Elmer’s Wood Glue, nail and glue these pieces between the two hoops as spacers about every two inches, spaced evenly around the hoop.

Go back around your drum head with a small nail punch and sink the heads of the nails down below the surface of the wood so they won’t snag or tear the rawhide as it drys or cause excessive wear on the drum head once the drum is finished.

Place a weight on top of this drum frame to prevent it from warping as it dries and let the whole frame dry thoroughly in a warm place with good air circulation.

Once the wood is thoroughly dry, you are ready to proceed with the head of your drum.

If you are starting with dried rawhide, you will need to soak it in a five gallon bucket of water or your bathtub for about twenty-four hours to soften it and make it stretchable again before you start working with it.

Cut the rawhide with ordinary scissors into a circle approximately two inches larger in diameter than the frame of your drum.

Cut the remaining scraps of rawhide in one long strip about one-half inch wide. This may seem excessively wide, but as you work with your rawhide for lacing, you will be stretching it and your strips will get thinner as you work.

Be careful you don’t get the rawhide strips too narrow, or they are likely to break while you are stretching them.

Start on the inner edge where you cut the circle and keep going around until you run out of rawhide. Cut off three sections about one foot long and braid them together to form a circle approximately two to three inches in diameter. Weave the remaining tails back into the beginning of the braid to form this circle. Take the remaining long strip of rawhide and cut it into four pieces.

Using a leather punch to make the holes or a leather needle, fold the head into quarters and insert one of the strips of rawhide through the head at each fold of your drum head.

Doing one loop at a time from each strip, bring the ends over the bottom hoop of your drum and through the ring of braided rawhide about one half inch apart and back up to the head and through it about two inches over on each side of the first stitch.

Repeat this around the hoop alternating strips and pulling the head tight until the entire head is secured to the frame. Weave the remaining ends back through the braided ring.

You want the head to be taunt so there are no wrinkles, but not excessively tight because it will shrink as it dries. If you pull it too tightly your lacing may rip out the sides of the rawhide head, or you may end up with a flat sounding drum.

Allow the rawhide to dry thoroughly, and you now have a drum. Enjoy!

Native American Crafts
About Raven SiJohn

Leave a Reply