When hunter Matt Harwood from Shaftsbury, Vermont showed us a drum he’d made from a deer hide, we were struck by the practicality of the endeavor. In talking with him about it, though, it quickly became apparent that his reasons for undertaking such a project went deeper than mere function. “Drums are one of those things that are common to all cultures in the world,” said Harwood.
“The rhythms that drums produce connect us to each other, and the act of making the drum connects us to the earth – to the wood, to the animal it’s made from. Most hunters take great satisfaction in using every part of the animal they harvest. In this case, the drum becomes another form of reverence. While it may sound wishful to some, I think some of that reverence comes back out when you play the drum.”
We were convinced, and so we asked him to walk us through the steps in the process. Harwood credits his shamanism teacher, Everley St. Peter, and the online tutorials at PaleoPlanet as the sources of his knowledge.
Remove the hide from the deer (the quicker you do this, the easier it will be). Once removed, scrape off all the meat and fat. You can use a commercial fleshing knife, which has a sharp edge for cutting and a dull edge for pushing, or make do with a sharp knife and a blunt object, like a tablespoon or a piece of slate. It’s important to get all the flesh off, though you needn’t fuss about removing every last bit of membrane.
Prepare a de-hairing soak by adding wood ash or hydrated lime (calcium hydroxide) to 10-15 gallons of water. You can buy lime at any masonry supply store. Add one cup of lime for every gallon of water. (And wear gloves when you’re handling the lime.) Mix well and add the fleshed hide. Cover it with rocks or firewood so it is completely submerged. Let it sit for one week.
Remove the hide from the tub. If it’s ready, the hair should pull out in clumps. If not, add more lime and soak some more (it’s hard to overdo it). Using a scraper, remove all the hair. When finished, turn the hide over and remove any stray bits of flesh you might have missed in the fleshing process. Then neutralize the lime by rinsing the hide in running water for two days or by soaking for eight hours in a baking soda solution. (Use two cups of baking soda for every five gallons of water.)
Drape the hide over the drum form. For this particular drum, Harwood used a commercial cedar form, but it’s easy enough to make your own – just get a cedar or poplar butt that is rotten, set it up on some sawhorses with a nylon canoe strap to hold the butt in place, then bore out the rotten center with a chainsaw or a gouge and mallet and finish things off on the inside with a spoke shave. As you trim the hide to fit over your drum form, oversize it by a couple inches. Punch holes in the hide evenly around the drum (be sure to punch with a leather punch or a rounded-off nail, as a knife hole will tear), about ½ inch from the edge. Cut a piece of lacing that’s at least 20 times the diameter of the drum frame. String the lacing in the pattern shown here. Begin at hole 1, then go to hole 10, then to hole 2, then hole 11, and so on, all the while pulling the string tight to secure a snug fit. Continue until the entire hide is laced, then tie the two ends together.
Using extra lacing, create a handle and tensioner in the center of the drum. Here, Harwood used 550 paracord (“It’s non-traditional, but effective”). “This is a 17-hole drumhead,” said Harwood, “so I base my weave around three groups of 4 and one group of 5.” The weave pulls everything even tighter, and gives a good hand grip.
Finish things off by creating a mallet, or beater. This one’s a pin cherry branch, wrapped in tanned deer hide. The mallet head is full of clean deer fur.