Saturday, June 30, 2012

Metal Shells vs. Wooden Shells

The discussion is not a new one. It's been going on for well over 100 years. But the early 20th century Boston based drum builders seem to have had a clear bias towards wooden drum shells. Why was that? There are a lot of reasons I think.

For one, consider the tradition from which drum builders in New England evolved. At the turn of the 20th century, the Civil War was still relatively recent history and the demand for military instruments had played a major role in the rise of drum makers. Metal shell military drums most certainly existed at this time, but using the most easily accessible and least expensive materials meant that lots of hardwoods were used by the Boston builders. This explains why the overwhelming majority of 19th century rope drums made in the northeastern United States were built using wooden shells and counterhoops.

Also, consider the task of carrying around a metal shell drum. Construction techniques didn't yet exist to make thin metal shells that were as strong as wooden shells. That meant that early metal shells were either precariously thin and unstable, or unnecessarily thick and thus uncomfortably heavy. Additionally, while it seems an obvious concept now, snare drum stands were not yet common at the turn of the 20th century so the snare drummer often stood and carried the drum, even for non-military musical styles where marching was not involved.
       J. C. Haynes & Co. Rope Tension Drum
mid-late 1800s J. C. Haynes & Co. Rope Tension Drum

As popular music blossomed in the early 1900s, so did instrument manufacturers who were eager to supply theater and orchestra musicians with tools for their trade. Construction techniques were adapted to produce gradually smaller drums which were easier to transport and were more appropriate for indoor dynamic levels. And while metal rod tensioning systems came to replace the more traditional rope tension styles, wooden shells and hoops remained en vogue with the Boston builders well into the 1920s.

There seems to have been a regional element involved as well. Relative to drum companies in other parts of the country, the Boston builders on the whole were woefully slow to evolve. Metal shell snare drums had been in production in the United States since the late 1800s by Duplex of St. Louis but the company was soon eclipsed by the much larger Leedy company of Indianapolis. Leedy's output was then matched and surpassed by Ludwig & Ludwig of Chicago who's brass shell drums would become the industry standard.

Mid 1920s George B. Stone & Son Separate Tension Orchestra Drum
1920s George B. Stone & Son Separate Tension Drum
Nokes & Nicolai All Metal Drum, ca. 1920
1920s Nokes & Nicolai All Metal Drum

Boston's largest drum builder, George B. Stone & Son, was minuscule in size compared to the Midwestern titans and hardly manufactured metal shell drums at all. Stone did distribute some metal shell drums and even assembled a small number of all metal Master-Models, but the more successful and enduring metal shell drums came from the Midwest. History has proven that. Only Nokes & Nicolai seems to have had any degree of success at all producing and marketing an All Metal Drum in Boston but the company was sold in 1926 - to a rawhide company in Chicago.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Stromberg Invincible Orchestra Drum Completion

Stromberg Invincible Orchestra Drum

As chronicled in earlier posts, this Charles A. Stromberg Invincible Orchestra Drum, built while at his 40 Sudbury Street address in Boston in the early 1920s, arrived to me in poor condition. Fortunately, most of the flaws were cosmetic in nature and could be remedied. The shell and hoops, which had been crudely refinished, were stripped and refinished with the period correct application - orange shellac. And the hardware, which was previously caked with silver paint, was cleaned to reveal the original nickel plating underneath which was then polished to a shine. The batter side calf skin head was cleaned and reinstalled on the drum. The bottom head is new and had to be tucked onto a specially fitted flesh hoop to accommodate the slightly oversized shell. Below are a few before and after photos followed by detailed shots of the hardware.

Stromberg Invincible Orchestra Drum Before:
Stromberg Invincible Orchestra Drum

Stromberg Invincible Orchestra Drum After:
Stromberg Invincible Orchestra Drum

Stromberg Invincible Orchestra Drum Before:
Stromberg Invincible Orchestra Drum

Stromberg Invincible Orchestra Drum After:
Stromberg Invincible Orchestra Drum

The hardware was in mostly good condition although the plating on the lugs and claws (which are made from brass or bronze) has faired better than the plating on the strainer and slotted tension rods (which are made from steel) as is to be expected. Notice the patent date of April 5, 1904 stamped into both the strainer and butt plate.



Do you have a drum made by Charles A. Stromberg? I want to hear from you! Send Lee an email at

Monday, June 4, 2012

What's Inside?


This drum appeared recently on eBay listed simply as an "Antique vintage drum with stand" with little description and only one useful photo to tell the story (top left).

It is in fact a 1910s - early 1920s George B. Stone & Son Separate Tension Orchestra Drum. And regardless of the drum's poor overall condition, it seemed to me like a good opportunity to grab some extra parts at a reasonable price for projects past, present, and future. So, I pulled the trigger and brought it in.

The drum is riddled with issues not the least of which is a badly damaged shell and a host of missing parts including its original Stone Patent Snare Strainer and Muffler along with seven tension rods and claws. Several other unfortunate aftermarket modifications were obvious once the drum arrived, among them numerous extra holes made for a heating element and an unoriginal Ludwig Professional throw-off. But the real discoveries came as the drum was opened up for the first time in goodness knows how many decades.

The white paint job appeared from the outside to be so well done that for a brief moment I was fooled into thinking it was original. But stray paint inside the shell (middle left) tells the more complete story of a refinished drum. Also, the hoops which are now black were originally shellacked in a natural color to match the shell.

Pencil markings inside of Stone drums are quite common, but as the reinforcing rings are completely loose inside of this shell, it allows for a deeper look into how these instruments were pieced together at 47 Hanover Street. Counterhoops and shells typically display a matched single digit number and the same appears true of the reinforcing rings installed inside of the shells. Underneath the snare side reinforcing ring are markings of the shell builder at work (bottom left). The marking reads "5 6 or 7" with the numbers six and seven crossed out. By process of elimination, the builder fitted hoop number five inside the drum and glued it in place.

And lastly, (bottom right) you know an old drum hasn't been well cared for when it comes complete with a dead spider!