Thursday, March 29, 2012

Crafting a Shamanic Drum

Copyright © 1995 by Nicholas Breeze Wood

Nicholas Breeze Wood is a drum maker of many years experience. He has made hundreds of drums for people in the UK and Europe. In this article he describes the construction of a fairly typical Native American style frame drum. The drum described in this article is a traditional Native American single-sided frame drum. This type of drum is not confined to any one tribal group, indeed, it is seen all over North America, and also in Siberia and Asia. The method of construction explained here could, with little modification, make a drum of any size, from a few inches upwards.

Tools and Materials

A piece of animal rawhide -
fairly thick - 0.75 - 1.5mm - such as elk or thick deer or goat.

Wooden hoop for the frame.
Rawhide strip for the lacing.
Stick for drum stick.
Soft leather or cloth.
Water & large container.
Scissors & sharp knife.
Small chisel & mallet.
Plastic ground sheets.
Water soluble artist's pencil.

The Frame

Unless you are used to working with wood and can confidently bend a plank and join it to form the frame I recommend the purchase of a commercially prepared frame. I would not recommend making a drum with a diameter of less than 250mm. The depth of the frame is a variable; for a drum of 300mm diameter or so, a depth of 50mm should be sufficient. For larger drums the frame needs to be deeper. This is partially for the look of the finished drum, but also to give the hoop more strength: the stretched dry skin will put quite a strain on the hoop, and may bend it, or at worse implode it. Because of this I recommend the hoop is made of wood of at least 8mm thick.


The skin needs to be soaked until it is soft. I use the family bath for this, filled with cold water. The time for this will vary depending on the type of skin used. Make sure the skin is totally submerged. Once the skin is soft, it can be worked with. Place it on a flat clean surface and select the part of the skin you will use for the drum head. Place the frame on this area to make sure it is big enough and totally free of holes or very thin parts. If you are satisfied, then you can now draw around the frame in readiness to cut it out.

It is always better to draw on the back of the skin, the part that was inside the animal, as the outer part (the grain side), will be the part that you put on the outside of the drum. The way to tell the two sides apart is that the grain side has a surface that is looks like leather, and the inner side, has small cuts and scraped areas where the skin was fleshed after it was removed from the animal.

Remember that the circle you cut needs to be a lot bigger than the head of your drum, as it will have to go up the sides of the frame and a little way on to the back of the drum. As a rule of thumb, for an 450mm diameter drum on a 75mm deep hoop, you will need a circle of about 650mm. Once the correct sized circle is drawn, it can be cut using sharp scissors. Put the complete circle back into the water to keep it soft and wet until you use it.

With the remainder of the skin, you can now cut the lacing you will use to lace the drum skin onto the frame. This needs to be long enough to do the whole lacing job, wet rawhide is not easy to join, knots slip very easily. The length of lace needed, varies according to the size of drum made, for an average drum, 20 times the diameter of the frame is a good length. This can be cut by spiralling around a roundish shaped offcut of skin. Cut it approximately 10mm wide. It is always better to have the laces too thick rather than too thin, as later when you are tightening up the drum, you will be pulling quite hard on them, and the lace will stretch and get thinner and you do not want it to break. Once you have your lace cut, put it and all the spare skin you have back into the water.

The next job is to cut the holes in your drum head that the lace will pass through. I have found that the best way of doing this is to use a hammer and small chisel. The skin first needs to have the hole positions marked on it using the water soluble pencil.

The number and positioning of the holes is of great importance. There are many ways of lacing drums. For the method described here you will need an odd number of holes spaced evenly around the drum. For the 375mm drum in the photos, I have used 17. The lacing diagram shows how these holes are used. If you want to use a different number of holes, work out on paper the right sequence before you begin. When the holes are marked, you can cut them. Use a wooden block to hammer onto, and cut them approx 12-15mm from the edge of the skin.

Once you start to lace the head on to the frame, you will not be able to stop until the job is completed, if you do not have the time to do this at this stage, either leave the skins in the bath until you do (they will be OK left in the water till the next day), or take them out, leave them to dry in a warm room, and store them until you do have time.


Begin the construction of the drum by placing the circle of soaked skin grain side down on the ground sheet. Place the hoop over it so that the surplus skin is evenly distributed all around its edge. The skin can now have the lace put through its holes in the order shown in the diagram. 

When the skin is laced up, the slack of the lace must be taken up, and the drum skin tightened. Begin this by working the lace from one end to the other, gently pulling it as you go. By pulling it thus, you will take up the slack, and stretch the lace itself. It's just like putting a new shoe lace in a pair of boots, you put the lace in place, then pull it tight, then finally knot the two ends together. 

Once the slack has been all worked through, begin the whole process again, and then again, and again, until it feels like you cannot get any more slack out of the lace. Do not be afraid to pull quite hard on the lace, but do be careful not to break it, or the holes in the drum head; especially be careful if you are pulling on a particularly thin piece of lace. 

Once you feel satisfied that you cannot get any more slack out of the lace, you can begin to bind the back into a cross shaped hand hold. Not only will this make the drum easier to hold, but the act of making the cross squeezes the criss-crossing spokes of lace together and puts even more tension into the drum. 

If you have made a drum with 17 lacing holes in the head, you will have 17 spokes. This cannot be divided by 4 evenly, so I suggest you divide it into 3 lots of 4 spokes and 1 of 5. Select a group of four adjacent spokes, and either using the spare end of your lace, or a specially cut piece, bind them together. Begin in the centre of the drum, and bind outwards approximately 75-100mm. This binding can be finished off by using the spokes as the warp threads and the binding lace as the weft, and weaving a little section at the top of the binding. Tuck end back through weaving and trim underneath. 

When you have done one arm of the cross in this manner, do the opposite arm, and then the two other arms. At this stage the drum is finished. You can leave it to dry out now in a warm but not hot place. Leave it somewhere the air can get all around it, so it will dry out evenly. If it does not dry out evenly, the frame may warp as it dries, and you will end up with a twisted drum.

If you put enough tension into the wet rawhide, when it dries out, you will have a lovely resonant drum; if you didn't, your drum may sound more like a cardboard box. In this case, if you can face it, you will have to take the whole drum apart and start again. If you do the skin and hoop will be Ok, but you will need to cut a new lace.


When the drum is totally dry, it can be painted, if you wish. This can be done with a variety of paints, but there isn't room in this article to go into detail.

The cross at the back of the drum can be bound with soft leather. This is attractive, and it cushions the hand from any hardness of the rawhide.

A drum stick can be made by binding soft leather or cloth around a stick.

Nicholas Breeze Wood is the editor of Sacred Hoop Magazine. He is a shamanic practitioner and has been a maker of shamanic drums and other ritual objects for over 20 years. He has made a lifelong study of the tools of shamanism and Tibetan Buddhism, and never gets tired of going on and on about them.

This copyrighted article was reprinted with permission from Sacred Hoop Magazine, Issue Number 10 at


  1. My first time to heard like it. I wonder how they sound.

    native american style art

  2. Que maravilla y comparto su vision; que fluya por el cosmos y baƱe las conciencias claras.
    que lindo trabajo para el ser y su supraconciencia

  3. I have a question for you. Is the thickness of the skin vitally important? I want to use kangaroo skin and heard that it is thinner than goat for instance. What impact does the thickness of skin have on a drum?

    1. The thicker the hide, the deeper the tone. Thinner hides produce higher, ringing tones, while thick hides produce deeper grounding tones. I have a thick bison hide drum that rolls like thunder.

  4. Thank you for this great post! Maybe you can assist with this question: I want to make a small drum out of lamb's hide. I have completed graining the hide, but google seems to give differing info on what to do next, specifically for drum use: do i stop after graining and then just stretch the hide on a frame before using it for a drum, or do I continue on to braining the hide?

    1. You do not want to brain the rawhide for a drum. Braining is for tanning hides. After scraping and dehairing, your hide is ready to be laced to the drum frame.

  5. Thank you for your wonderfull post! I have a question. A year ago, I made a drum using a self curved birch frame and deer hide. The drum dried and had a wonderfull tone which fluctuated with air moisture and temperature. It kept its tone for about half a year.
    Somehow, during last summer, the tension in the hide dropped to such an extend that the drum now sounds like a cardboard box. I can take it apart and start again, but is there a way to avoid a second loosening of the hide?

    1. Hi Sarah: You may have to soak the drum in water and start over. I recommend you contact Nicholas Breeze Wood at: Nicholas is the author of this blog post, a drum maker, and editor of Sacred Hoop Magazine. He could probably answer your question for you. He posted some information on Facebook a while back about tightening loose drums. I think he put damp tissue paper on the drum hide to tighten the drum.

  6. Recently, I made some double sided drums, in so cal desert, and they resulted in good hide tension and very nice sounds. I just delivered them on the wet side of the big island Hawaii. Now the heads and lacings are loose, still fun to play but tone is muted. Since the hide is thin, I am concerned about possible damage after soaking and restretching. Any ideas? Thanks

    1. William: You may have to soak the drum in water and start over. I recommend you contact Nicholas Breeze Wood at: Nicholas is the author of this blog post, a drum maker, and editor of Sacred Hoop Magazine. He could probably answer your question for you. He posted some information on Facebook a while back about tightening loose drums. I think he put damp tissue paper on the drum hide to tighten the drum.