The Drum Doctor - Hand drum repair, maintenance and restoration

Drum Repair Histories

We proudly present the fruit of our labor. Explore with us the process by which djembes, frame drums, balafons, tablas, dholaks, bodhrans, riqs, doumbeks, zarbs and other hand drums and instruments from around the world are made whole again.

Click on any of the thumbnail images for a better look.

If your instrument has been silent for too long, fill out a contact form, call us at +1 (831) 428-6626 or email us at [email protected], and we guarantee you can expect the kind of results you see on this page.

African Drumming Ensemble

Dan is the Music Equipment Tech for CSU East Bay Music Department. As such, he is tasked with maintaining the department's musical instruments in top working order, including the instruments used by the African Drumming Ensemble.

Among these instruments are djembes, dununs and bougarabous. A few of these needed repair, including two dundunbas and one kenkeni.

These all needed fresh cow skins.

The djembe and bougarabou also needed their drum heads replaced.

We mounted fresh cow skins on the dundunbas, and when we got to the kenkeni found that both heads needed to be replaced. The damage on the second drum head wasn't obvious until we took a closer look.

Once the cow skins dried we gave the drums a good tuning and they were ready to go.

The djembe and bougarabou were mounted with fresh goat skins, and they responded very well to treatment.

Family Portrait

Five African hand drums repaired by The Drum Doctor.

This was a really fun project. First because we don't repair many dununs or bougarabous, but also because it involved a group of drums that make music together - they are intimately related. We found it very rewarding, especially when Dan let us know how happy he was with the results.

Hey Tom:

The drums look and sound great! I look forward to a long relationship.

Thx much!

Danny Howdeshell (CSU East Bay)

Djembek Head Replacement

A djembek is a tunable doumkek. The ceramic shell is exactly the size and shape of a typical doumbek. What is not typical is that the skin is not glued onto the shell - it is mounted onto the shell with the rope and ring system used on djembes.

Renees djembek is a fine example of such a drum. The only problem is that the skin has ripped.

The repair process for a djembek is very similar to that of a djembe, though much care must be taken with the ceramic shell. It may sound like a contradiction, but these shells a quite strong but fragile.

We replaced the damaged skin with an African goat skin that we may have used on a djembe - considerably thicker than most doumbeks would use.

Since the drum is tunable, this drum can be tightened at will so as to raise the pitch to suit one's needs. Renee is a happy drummer!

Powwow Drum Restored

Wooden boards that were once the frame for a 38 inch powwow drum.

Traci sent us these boards and asked us to transform them into a double sided 38" octagon medicine drum.

The skin and lacing had ripped and the frame had come apart, so she sent us just the disassebled remains for ease of shipping.

The first thing we had to do was to remove the old glue and staples that had once held the frame together. This alone took more time and effort than any other part of the process, but it was crucial if we wanted the reconstructed frame to hold.

We noticed along the way that some of the boards had warped and some had cracked.

Wooden board with a crack along the length of it.
Wooden board that has a crack. The crack on a wooden board seen from the inside.

These cracks were mostly superficial, but here's one the ran through the board.

There wasn't much we could do about the warping, but these cracks needed to be sealed and, if appropriate, reinforced somehow.

So we thoroughly removed the old adhesive and staples to provide a clean surface for the fresh glue and sealed and reinforced all the cracks.

In the meantime, we had ordered and received two buffalo hides with which we planned to skin the drum shell we were diligently reconstructing - thick, fresh and beautiful hides. We couldn't wait to hear them sing!

The next challenge was to figure out the order in which all the pieces fit together. The boards had been numbered when disassembled, but the numbers were hard to read and didn't make sense. The obvious thing to have done would have been to number them one through eight, but this was not the case. In the end we just tried different combinations and went with the one that seemed best.

Large powwow drum that's just been repaired.

Once the eight-sided shell was back together and sturdy enough the withstand the tremendous pressure the thick buffalo hides would exert, we mounted the skins.

We used strong, durable and low-stretch rope rather than rawhide as lacing because it's more reliable than rawhide and won't be affected by its environment like rahide will. Oh, and because this style of lacing renders the powwow drum tunable.

Yes, this is a tunable drum.

OK, you might say, so it's a tuneable drum. But how does the medicine drum sound?

Jim playing a powwow drum we just skinned.

<-- Click on the image to hear it thunder.

Traci had put a great deal of trust in The Drum Doctor. The expense for the parts and labor, the shipping - boy was it ever a challenge to get that magnificent drum safely back in her hands once it was whole again. Remember, this is a large and heavy drum. But once the drum was home again she knew immediately that it was all worth it.

Greetings Dr. Tom!

Yes, the drum arrived safely and it is absolutely beautiful and powerful. I was brought to tears when we opened it. . .

Much gratitude and blessings,
Traci Ireland (Ketchum, ID)

African Talking Drum Restoration

Larry borrowed this African talking drum from a good friend, and enjoyed it so much that he kept it for years. So many years that the strap became brittle and eventually began to fall apart.

Obviously, he couldn't return it in such a state, so he asked The Drum Doctor to restore it to its original condition.

We actually made the strap to replace the old one. While the color didn't precisely match the original the result is really quite authentic.

And the drum sound as good as new. It's talking up a storm!

Another Talking Drum Restoration

Alan had promised his son that he would get this talking drum repaired.

Both drum heads were torn. The rope is in decent shape, but since we're going to replace both skins, we're going to replace everything but the shell. We're even going to change how the skin is mounted.

The skins are strong and durable African goat skins. The rope should last a lifetime.

Dr Drum,

I got the drum back. Looks great.

Thank you,

Alan Ashenberner (Portland, OR)

African Peg Drum Restoration

Bill's mother spent a lot of time in East Africa as a professional photographer and collector of artifacts in the early 1970s. When she picked up this drum, it was already a vintage instrument.

When Bill asked The Drum Doctor to restore the drum, we suggested that the drum could be converted into a tunable drum with a system of rings and rope similar to an ashiko, and it would sound better. On top of that, the skin would be easier to replace when the need arose.

But Bill wanted to retain the drum's authenticity, so we got to work.

An underlying skin to the peg drum.

One of the first things that stood out about this drum is the skin underlying the actual drum head. What could be its purpose? Is it strictly decorative?

A metal patch at the base of the African peg drum.

Another unusual thing about our new friend is the metal plate attached to the base of the drum. Unlike the second layer of skin, the purpose of this plate is obvious: it's a patch. There's a piece of drum shell missing, and the plate is used to patch up shell.

Not surprisingly, this old veteran also has its share of cracks. Here's the largest of them.

A large crack on the shell of the African peg drum.
The skin stretched over a peg. A missing peg on the African drum.

As we looked closer, we noticed that the skin had been mounted over some of the pegs and that some pegs were either missing altogether or broken.

Large section of drum head missing pegs.

There was one large section which had most of the pegs either broken, missing or buried. We would have to whittle some replacement pegs.

A look at the large crack from the inside of the drum shell. A look at a large crack from the inside of the drum shell.

Once we removed the damaged drum head, we understood the purpose of the underlying skin: it was a bandage. You see, some of the cracks on the shell were quite severe. Here's a look at a couple of the worst ones. You can see that the one we looked at earlier from the outside was bound with wire in an effort to keep the shell intact.

Second layer of skin under the old drum head.

Somewhere along the line, someone mounting a fresh skin on this drum simply cut out the playing surface of the previous drum head and left skin around the side of the drum as a bandage.

Sealed peg holes beneath the current peg holes of the African peg drum.

We decided this bandage was not necessary and removed it. In doing so, we learned more of this vintage drum's history. There was a set of peg holes beneath the current set of peg holes, but they had been sealed up. What could be the story behind this? We'll probably never know.

Sealed cracks of the drum shell.

Some of the cracks ran through the shell, and once all the skin had been removed, the shell felt rather flimsy. We fixed that using three different types of glue.

Once we were done, the shell was solid and strong - good for a couple more centuries.

Pegs to attach the drum head to the shell.

We cleaned and thoroughly oiled the drum shell and hand whittled some pegs to replace the missing and damaged pegs. You can see that we made them a bit larger than the originals. We could always reduce the size, but there would be no way to enlarge them.

A large goat skin.

We would need a large skin to cover the 14 inches of the drum head, plus several inches all the way around the side of the shell. And we would need some skin beyond that to grab and stretch the skin into place. Here is our large goat skin.

All the preliminary work was done. It was time to mount the skin.

This project was a lot of work. But it was worth it.

Remember the large crack we looked at earlier? It's hardly noticeable now.

Crack on the African peg drum sealed and barely noticeable.

Dholak Rope Replacement

Dholak hand drum with a broken rope. Dholak hand drum with a damaged tuning rope.

The rope on this dholak has seen better days. The slack on the drum needs to be pulled, but the rope is so damaged we might as well replace it and tune the drum in the process.

We suggested using alpine rope similar to that used on most djembes these days, but our client chose to stick to the traditional cotton rope.

Dholak with a new tuning rope.

The customer is always right!

Dholak hand drum with a new rope. Dholak hand drum with a broken rope.

And here's another dholak that needed its rope replaced. The rope we used for this one is a bit different, but it's also the traditional cotton tuning rope.

Dholak hand drum with old, broken rope.

And yet another dholak that needed its rope replaced. Oh my God! It's an epidemic!

Dholak hand drum with brand new rope. Dholak hand drum that has had its tuning rope replaced.

Fortunately, we've developed a cure at The Drum Doctor.

How to Build a Tabla Baladi

Large cylindrical drum shell.

What do you do with a large, rather ragged-looking, cylindrical wooden shell with a 25 inch diameter and stands about as tall?

Large cylindrical drum shell and set of metal rings.

How about let's start by making two sets of cold steel rings for it. These might serve nicely as crowns. Of course, you can't make the crowns without rope and you'll need rope to attach the crowns as well.

Treble head of a tabla baladi drum. Bass head of a tabla baladi drum.

Of course, this would all be pointless without some kind of skin to give this thing a voice. How about one thick piece and one not so thick piece to give the voice some range.

Tuning ring of tabla baladi. Tuning ring of tabla baldi drum.

This is a tunable drum. Maybe we could take some of the left over rope and tie rings around the verticles that can be pulled up the verticals for for some quick tuning.

Tabla baladi drum. Side view of a tabla baldi drum.

An there it is! A tunable, two headed drum with a treble and bass head. Very reminiscent of a tabla baladi. Played with a thin stick on the treble side and a stout stick on the bass, the range on this drum is tremendous.

And isn't she lovely?

Another Djembe Restoration

We recently had the privilege of restoring a djembe built by Mamadou Kone, a musical prodigy fulfilling his heritage of instrument building and music making.

As you can see, The Drum Doctor was provided with most of the parts of this beautiful instrument, and was entrusted with restoring it to its former glory.

We cleaned and oiled the shell thoroughly, and sealed some minor cracks before we even thought of mounting a fresh skin.

Because of the size of this drum (12" head), we went with a medium-thick skin and pulled it as tight as we dared.

The results of our efforts were more than satisfying. The voice of this drum is divine. Perfectly defined tones and wake-the-dead slaps, yet receptive to the lightest touch.

This is not the biggest djembe to be found, but the clarity and flawless articulation of each note it produces is submlime.

Dr. Tom could not be more pleased.

Balafon (Balaphon) Restoration

100-year-old balafon (balaphon) showing its age. under side of a hundred-year-old balaphon showing its age.

If you click on these images and take a close look, you'll get a sense for the age of this venerable instrument.

My client spent some time in Cameroon while in the Peace Corps and made some good friends there. One such friend learned of his fondness for the music of the balafon and presented him with this antique, which his grandfather had made. On his return to the States, my client disassembled the instrument for transport, and it sat in his garage in that state for years. My client estimates that the instrument is a hundred years old, and he tasked The Drum Doctor with its restoration.

My goal was to restore the balafon to its original state, using the original parts.

Detail of restored balafon. Beautifully restored balafon.

The keys were cleaned and reconditioned. The re-usable fabric was washed and re-used. The only thing that had to be replaced was the binding that attached the keys to the frame (it was just too old and brittle), some of the membrane covering the hole of the gourd resonators, and the strap, which had been missing altogether.

Notice that, unlike most balafons, this is a legless instrument, meant to be played on foot, strapped to the shoulders or waist.

Underside of restored balafon. Front view of restored balaphon.

Many of the gourd resonators were cracked and missing the vibrating membrane, and I considered replacing them, but I was able to honor my client's wishes and managed to repair and reuse them.

As you can see, a little TLC from The Drum Doctor can go a long way.

Dholak Restoration

dholak with damaged heads and broken leather straps. A wood knot on the body of the dholak.

Here's a dholak that needs a lot of help. The leather straps that hold the heads in place and tune them are broken, and the body has 3 wood knots that leak through. This leakage is a serious compromise to this drum. Two of the knots can be seen in the second image, while the first image is a closeup of the third and biggest knot.

Bass head of a dholak with a puncture. Badly torn treble head of a dholak.

As you can see, both drum heads have split; both the treble and the bass heads need replacing.

Rather than replace the leather strap with another leather strap or cotton rope (now more commonly used), we went with double braided polyester with a low-stretch core - the flat kind. This rope is often used for the crowns of djembes because of its strength, durability and low stretch. As far as we know, we're the only ones to use this innovation. We filled in the knot holes and some hairline cracks along the rims of the hand drum to restore its integrity and re-stained the drum shell.

A repaired dholak, standing upright. The treble head of a dholak.

We fashioned a handle with the extra rope...et voila! This drum is better than new!

African Djembe Restoration

This Gambian djembe is ready for a fresh skin.

From our experience we know that the rope will also need to be replaced. There is no obvious damage to it, other than some minor wear and tear, but we know from having dealt with it before that this rope will not withstand the force we will apply in order to get this drum tuned up.

We replace the rope of the crown and bottom ring with 4mm high grade rope and the vertial rope with 5mm rope. Now we can mount a fine African goat skin and pull it as tight as we need. This is drum-worthy rope.

If we had simply mounted the fresh skin without replacing the rope, this drum would never have sounded as good as it does now. Our experience gives us the understanding that the rope we replaced would have snapped as we began to apply some real pressure. The added expense is easily worth it.

Garifuna Drum From Belize Gets New Head

Kelly's Garifuna drum she got from Belize is in great need of care. The hemp rope began to fall apart and eventually so did the drum head.

We think this is a really cool drum as it is completely made of natural materials found in the immediate area where it was made. Even the rings are made of branches.

Shell of Garifuna drum with splintered gap. Very rough bearing edge of Garifuna drum from Belize.

Once the drum is disassembled, we see that the bearing edge is poorly shaped and rough. We'll have to reshape and smooth the surface which will bear the skin and fill in a large gap that has splintered.

Tuning pegs for a Garifuna drum.

We also whittle some tuning pegs to replace some of the missing ones. The one on the far right is one of the three remaining originals.

Now wer're ready to mount the fresh skin. The rope will be replaced with a non-traditional but stronger and more durable rope.

We repair drums from all over the world, including Belize.

Repair of Mridangam Syahi

A mridangam hand drum laying on its side.

Jagan has a beautiful mridangam that is of such fine quality that it was once the drum of choice for a very famous Indian musician.

Badly damaged tuning paste on the treble drum head of a mridangam.

The problem is that the syahi (the tuning paste also known as soru, satham, karani and gob) on the treble side has deteriorated badly and needs to be replaced.

Bass drum head of a mridangam hand drum.

The bass side is just fine, and the shell and straps are intact, so all we need to do is replace the tuning paste on the treble side.

Did we say "all we need to do"? Does anyone out there know how to apply the syahi on the treble side of a mridangam?

The process for applying the syahi to the treble head of a mridangam is a jealously guarded trade secret, and the formula for the paste is about as well known as the recipe for Coca Cola.

Lucky for Jagan, Dr. Tom happens to know the recipe for Coca Cola.

Treble drum head of a mridangam with new soru.
Newly repaired and tuned mridangam hand drum.

Just one thing left to do. The skins are way out of tune and have to be pulled. It took three rounds of pulling, but we got the drum tuned up and sounding better than ever.

Stave Djembe Restoration

And now we're going to show you the process of re-heading a stave djembe. The shell of a stave djembe is constructed by gluing together shaped wooden boards(staves), rather than by carving out a log - very similar to the construction of congas, bongos and many ashikos.

Torn drum head of a stave djembe. Stave djembe with a torn skin.

As you can see, the head on this djembe has split and needs to be replaced. The goatskin split because the drum had been left in a hot closet for too long, causing the skin to shrink and over-tighten. The djembe is vitually new, so the rope, rings and shell are in perfect condition.

Hairy cow skin mounted on djembe. Hairy cow skin round and its flesh ring.

We're going with a hairy cow skin. Here, you can see how we've cut away much of the excess skin after it's been soaked. This makes it much easier to handle the skin. We leave only enough to wrap around and between the rings and still be able to pull on it with the hands so as to go get out the folds and slack. You can see the results in the next shot.

At this point, there's considerable tension applied, but not nearly as much as there will be once the skin thoroughly dries and a 'dry pull' is applied.

The extra skin has served its purpose, so we can now remove it.

Close-up look at the cow skin's thickness. Mounted cow skin with all the extra skin removed.

You see here the 'circumcised' djeme.

Also, you get a good look at the thickness of the skin. Compare this cow skin to the original goat skin head above. (Reminder: You can always click on the thumbnails to get a better look). The skin is still a bit bloated with water, but we'll give you another look after it dries, and you'll see that it really is quite thick.

We shave the skin and give it week to thoroughly dry.

Shaved cow skin of the stave djembe.

Here's a look at the shaved head after it's been pulled really tight. At a certain point in the tuning process (the 'dry pull') this baby sounded remarkably like a conga. It had the booming bass of a djembe, but the tones and slaps sounded just like a conga. I actually played the tumbao on it - couldn't resist.

I don't know how much the construction of the shell of this drum had to do with this. It is, after all, constructed of staves, just like a conga, but it's MUCH smaller and does have the goblet shape. I do know that a thick skin tends to create a 'rounder' more mellow sound.

Finished stave djembe.

Here's another close up of the skin after it's had a chance to dry. As you can see, It's easily three times as thick as the original goat skin.

As much as we love a good conga at The Drum Doctor, we want a djembe to sound like a djembe. We tightened the skin past the conga stage and kept cranking 'til we reached the djembe stage. When we were done, this relatively small drum (11'" head, 20" tall, under 10 lbs.) had a HUGE voice.

Finished stave djembe.

This a great traveling drum because it's small and light and so easy to carry around. At the same time, it plays like a MUCH bigger drum. It's very responsive to a light, gentle touch, yet if you're in a drum circle and want to be heard - YOU WILL BE HEARD!

This beatiful drum has been sold!.

Tonbak Head Replacement

Steve is a musician that's fallen in love with the tonbak. Also known as a tombak, tompak or even zarb, this Persian hand dum is relatively unknown in the Western world.

Steve bought a tonbak, but is not happy with his purchase.

Tonbak hand drum with a loose drum head. Persian zarb with a flabby skin.

There appears to be nothing whatsoever wrong with the drum. The shell is intact as is the skin. What could be the problem?

The problem is the voice of the drum. It just doesn't sound right, and Steve asked the Drum Doctor to make it right.

It didn't take long to figure out that there was not enough tension on the skin. The drum was poorly tuned, and, since this is a pretuned zarb, there was nothing to do but to replace the skin.

Persian tonbak with a new drum head. A zarb with a newly mounted skin.

We mounted a thick skin (thicker than on most djembes) at a good high tension. The zarb looks much the same but sounds much, much better.

Bombo Gets A New Drum Head

Edgardo is a professional percussionist so has a great collection of drums. Among his collection is a bombo, a South American drum similar to European military drums.

The problem with Edgardo's bombo is that it's old. The two drum heads have been ravaged by moths and have become brittle, flabby and unplayable. On top of that, the leather strap that serves to tension the two drum heads into tune has snapped.

Now, the bombo is not a hand drum, since it's played by striking the drum heads with two beaters rather than the hands, but we know exactly how to fix this drum.

The drum head is replaced with fresh goat skin (hairy, since these drums are meant to have a deep and muted tone), the strap is sewn together again and the drum is tuned.

Edgardo's bombo only needs Edgardo now!