Monday, May 28, 2012

What Can Shellac Do For You?

Refinishing the 1920s Stromberg Invincible Orchestra Drum proved to be a significant undertaking, but it was an enjoyable one none the less. Before touching the shell with any new finish, I did my homework as I wanted the new finish to be as authentic to the original as possible. I came to learn that shellac was the wood finish of choice during the early 1900s, and with a little testing of the old finish (what was left of it) it was determined to in fact be shellac. So I set out to find a type of shellac that would most closely match the original. This proved to be a real learning experience!

All shellac is not created equal, I soon realized. While shellac is often sold premixed today at big box hardware stores, I wanted to be able to control how fresh the shellac was, and exactly what grade of shellac would be used. Dried shellac (the material dissolved into alcohol to make the liquid finishing product) comes in a couple of forms including flakes and 'buttons'.

Mixing Shellac from Scratch

My original assumption was that the lightest available grade, a.k.a. "blond", would be the one to use. But after testing it on some scrap maple, it was apparent that the blond shellac imparted no color at all to the wood and would not come close to matching the original finish. More research was needed.

I came to learn that blond shellac is a highly refined product which is filtered, bleached, and de-waxed to achieve this almost completely clear color. What I needed was something closer to the original which was likely "orange" shellac still containing its naturally occurring wax. After testing and comparing four more samples of shellac, we had a winner!

Testing Different Types of Shellac

Seen above as letter 'D', it is the purest, most unrefined form of buttonlac (that would be raw shellac in 'button' form) I could find. And what do you know, when dissolved in alcohol and applied to maple it looks shockingly similar to the finish on all the early 20th century snare drums on my shelves!

I chose to apply the shellac with a pad made from linen wrapped around part of an old athletic sock. Padding the shellac, which dries very quickly, helped avoid brush strokes and runs. The job I did is far from perfect, but at first glance it really does look like the original finish! The color turned out being a very, very close match so I am happy about that.

Stromberg Invincible Orchestra Drum Restoration Progress

The hardware is polished now, and the lugs are back on the drum looking much more shiny than before. All we lack at this point is new calfskin heads which I will tuck to fit the drum. More pics to follow once the project is complete!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Snare Wires from Yesteryear

What are these strange snare wires made of? What is this, a shoe string? A guitar string? Are these snares original to the drum? These are all questions raised upon unearthing a drum from the early 1900s.

Snare wires back in the day were not what they are now. From the early days of American drum building, the material of choice was natural gut. Catgut, or "gut" for short, is made from the intestines of animals such as sheep or goat. No, it's not actually made from cats! Gut was also once used for other purposes ranging from guitar strings to tennis rackets.

By the early 20th century, drum companies began offering other materials as alternatives to natural gut snares. Here we will discuss the four most commonly seen types of snares used in the 1910s and 1920s by the Boston Drum Builders amongst others.

George B. Stone & Son Catalog I, published 1919
George B. Stone & Son Catalog I, 1919

Braided Linen was for a time used as a substitution for natural gut. It was catalogued under various names by different companies but it was essentially the same thing: waxed string. The advantages of linen string were that it was pliable and easy to work with, and was impervious to changes in temperature in humidity unlike natural gut. Linen snares were offered in a variety of gauges and in several different colors including black/white, and red.

Black/White Braided Linen Snares
Early 1900s Black/White Braided Linen Snares
Red Linen Snare Wires
1910s Red Linen Snares

Wire Wound Silk is exactly that - a thin strand of silk wrapped with wire. Similar versions were offered with a core of linen or cord rather than silk. The concept is not unlike that of some guitar strings though the coil spacing is much wider on snare wires than guitar strings. Wire wound silk snares function a lot like gut but produce a brighter sound and, unlike natural gut, are impervious to changes in temperature in humidity.

1920s Wire Wound Silk Snare Wires
1920s Wire Wound Silk Snares
Reproduction Wire Wound Silk Snare Wires
Reproduction Wire Wound Silk Snares

Excellent reproduction wire wound silk snares are currently available from, Adrian Kirchler who makes both a "European" and "American" gauge. The American gauge is a very accurate copy of what was used in the 1910s - 1920s by Ludwig, Leedy, Duplex, Stone, and Nokes & Nicolai amongst others.

Coiled Wire, aka 'Snappy Wire', is just like the wire snares we see today only the strands were not soldered onto an end piece as they are now. Instead, long strands of coiled wire were strung onto the drum in a similar fashion to gut or wire wound silk.

1920s Coiled Wire Snares
1920s Coiled Wire Snares
1920s Coiled Wire Snares
1920s Coiled Wire Snares

With the growing popularity of the 'James Snappi Wires' through the 1920s, coiled wire mounted in this fashion soon became a thing of the past. The James Snappi Snares are nothing more than coiled wire soldered onto metal end pieces which can be more quickly and easily mounted on a drum. It is their simplicity of use and their bright, 'snappy' sound which have made this type of snare wire the most popular in the world today.

Natural Gut is the most traditional material used for snares and is made from animal intestines. After the 1920s and 1930s, the use of gut began to fall out of favor as drummers moved towards the brighter sound of wire snares for modern styles of popular music. However, some symphonic percussionists continued to use gut as did many rudimental drummers who preferred the dark, dry sound it provided. Today, synthetic materials such as nylon cable or coated stainless steel cable have largely replaced natural gut.

Early 1900s Red and Natural Colored Gut Snares
Early 1900s Red and Natural Colored Gut Snares
Modern Thin Gauge Gut Snares
Modern Thin Gauge Gut Snares

Natural gut can still be obtained from several sources including The Cooperman Company who carries it in several different gauges. Their thinnest gauge is most appropriate for combo sized drums and symphonic use while their thicker gauges are best suited for field drums such as reproduction Revolutionary and Civil War rope tension drums.

Nokes & Nicolai Catalog No. 6, ca. 1918
Nokes & Nicolai Catalog No. 6, ca. 1918

Ditson Wonderbook Number Four, 1910
Oliver Ditson Wonderbook Number Four, 1910

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Stone Patent Snare Strainer and Muffler

The snare throw-off used by George B. Stone & Son on the vast majority of their snare drums was that of a design by William F. McIntosh. (This is not the same MacIntosh associated with a line of early 20th Century drum bags. In that case, 'Macintosh' or 'MackIntosh' refers to a type of rubberized fabric.) William McIntosh applied for a patent of his "Snare-Strainer and Muffler for Drums" on October 6th, 1908 which was granted on February 9th, 1909. Note that the term "muffled" at that time referred to a drum without snares, not a drum with the heads dampened as would be expected today.

The illustration to the left is from McIntosh's 1908 patent application. The full patent can be viewed online at

The McIntosh Strainer is cataloged by George B. Stone & Son with the following illustration and description:

Examples used on Stone drums typically were stamped "STONE" and "PAT. FEB. 9, 1909" as seen below. (Note that the strainer pictured at below, left is missing the lever used to engage and disengage the snares.) The McIntosh strainer could also be purchased separately and sometimes surfaces as an after-market modification to early 1900s snare drums. These examples are not normally stamped with the Stone name so as not to confuse the make of the drum.

The Stone Master-Model Drums featured an elongated, inverted version of the McIntosh design (below, left). Other Stone snare drums, especially the street drums and lower end models, employed a more basic "long model snare strainer" (below, right) which was only capable of adjusting the tension of the snares without the ability to quickly engage or disengage the snares from the bottom head.

Do you have a drum made by Geo. B. Stone & Son Inc.? I want to hear from you! Send Lee an email at