Have you read Part 1? A Rare Treasure Found in the Twin Cities – Minnesota.
Taking The Drums Apart
These drums were hand-made, including all of the hardware.
They were not made by automated machines using the latest CAD computer technology to carve the same shape over and over again.
So, one must be very careful to photo-document and label each piece of the drum so that it may be re-assembled just as it had been originally.
Thus, the first marking one should make is the location of the skin (in its hoop) relative to the crown and drum. Older Valje drums were made with a convenient reference locator. The overlap of the metal band at the foot of the drum, the handle, and the sticker identifying the drum as made by Tom Flores were all lined up vertically. I used this reference point on the drum to always be able to orient the hoop, crown, and skin in its original position.
The crown and hoop may look pretty round, but it is not likely to be perfectly round and the drum has grown accustomed to stresses and shaped to accommodate that particular orientation of the crown and hoop. Additionally, the lug loops on the crown that the hooked lugs use to pull down on the drum skin are not evenly spaced; so again, it is important to mark a reference location on the crown. Use tape if no other marking is available.
Also, be sure to mark the drum skin on the hoop at the reference location, in this case, in line with the handle (I used permanent marker and made a small black line on the skin below the crown, as you can see in the photo on the right). It, too, must be re-installed in its proper orientation. If a new skin is going on the drum, an effort must be made to mark where on the hoop was relative to the reference mark.
It was a simple matter to remove the tuning lugs and set them aside with the accompanying nuts and washers. The lug anchor plates that are attached directly to the drum shell were marked and number as a series as they were removed. I, again, used the handle location as my reference and labeled each lug anchor plate with masking tape as I removed each one, starting with the lug to the right of the handle and proceeding around the drum until all were removed and numbered in order. Once all of the hardware was removed, I collected the crown, lug anchor plates and lugs together for chrome re-plating. It is not easy to find re-plating service for a small order these days. I was fortunate to find, by asking at many other shops, a small company that processes small orders. Car and motorcycle restoration people are a good resource for finding a shop that can do small orders.
It cost approximately $200 to re-plate the hardware for one drum. I also asked the Plater to mark each lug anchor plate with its respective number, since the masking tape I used would be removed. Re-plating took about 4-6 weeks to turn-around.
Tom Flores was a master craftsman and took special pride in making drums that were very durable. I have read that he took great care to dry the oak prior to shaping and assembly; thus avoiding shrinkage due to drying out that can cause catastrophic cracks. Valje drums typically will not have major cracks or blow-outs.
But, one may find some minor ones. These drums are 40 years old or so. My drums were no exception. There were a few small and hairline cracks and some old repairs that didn’t take well that would need attention. One detail I find remarkable is the thickness of the oak on both drums is not very thick compared to modern conga drums. Quite a thin shell actually. Even the Valje Quinto I own has thicker staves than the Conga and Tumba.
There was evidence that some staves started to blow out at the belly of the drum when it was built, but didn’t appear active currently, as they are smooth to the touch. The hairline fractures were at the head and foot of the drums. Fewer than 5 total for both, and none were major. To prepare for the crack repair, I obtained a belt cinch from a woodworking shop, some nylon rope, rags, and some other soft materials. You see, once glue is applied to a crack, pressure is used to close the crack until the glue has set. The pressure is applied by the cinches, ropes, and assorted woodworking clamps. When using cinches and rope, care must be used to not let the rope, cinching hardware, or belt bite into the wood when ratcheted down. Rags and newspaper can be helpful in providing a cushion with some grab. The trick is to apply the pressure on the curved drum without having your rope or cinching belt slide off the curved surface of the drum.
Tony’s Conga Adventures on the web has many pictures of drums he has repaired with a virtual rat nest of straps and ropes, newspaper and rags, and clamps to hold a drum shell together as the glue sets.I used a similar collection of devices to hold my drum together. Fortunately, I did not have to apply an extreme amount of devices or pressure to repair my drums. Creativity will be needed in each case.
I used Elmer’s Probond Polyurethane glue to bind the hairline cracks. This glue is an expanding glue and is activated by water. I wanted the glue to get into the small crevices and cracks and be strong. The polyurethane glue will be stronger than the wood it adheres to and will not degrade as quickly over time as other glues. I first wet the crack with a sponge or paper towel, making an effort to get water into the crack. Sometimes I was very careful to expand the crack ever so slightly to help get water and glue deep into the crack. Once the crack was wetted, I applied the glue. One does not need much of the expanding glue; it expands quite a bit! You may want to experiment to see how much this glue expands. How much it expands will be related to how much exposure to water it has as well. The expansion of the glue helps it get into very tiny spaces and far into a crack.
As a precaution, I applied expanding glue in the scored staves on the interior of the drum where a blow-out appears on the drum in addition to the cracks. Once the expanding glue has set, that stave will not bend under most stresses. On some hairline cracks I used the hairs of a paintbrush to get glue into a crack. I waited about 5-7 minutes to allow the glue to expand and then applied pressure with the cinches and ropes to close the cracks. Excess glue could be wiped with mineral spirits, or shaved with a razor later. Wait time for glue setting was 24-hours. I glued all cracks using this method. I didn’t worry much about the glue on the interior. Glue excess on the exterior I removed by carefully using a razor scraper. When the shells were repaired this way, after all cracks were repaired, I could slap the outside of the shell and it would ring. Try that on a mass produced conga.
Refinishing the shells could now begin. I used “Circa 1850” heavy paint and varnish remover to remove the old finish. To help remove the old finish material, I used a plastic scraper and rags to completely remove all, or most of the old finish. Since these shells were already very thin, I did not use an orbital sander or any other mechanical sander to remove all dings and blemishes. Those dings and imperfections would have to stay and remain as “character” on the drum. I then used 400 to 1000 grit sandpaper in steps to prepare the surface for refinishing. This produced a deliciously smooth surface on the old oak.
Since these are antiques and not really “gigging” drums, I wanted to treat them as if they were fine furniture. I chose the Sam Maloof Oil/polyurethane and Oil/wax finishes. Each drum received 5 applications of the Sam Maloof oil/poly mix and 2 coats of the oil/wax. The result is a semi-gloss finish that is decadent to touch and worthy of museum quality furniture (picture on the left). The shells are protected, but don’t go leaving them in the sun or let your toddler knock ‘em down like a bowling pin.
I also feel that the Sam Maloof finish helps to preserve the sonic quality of the shell by not placing a heavy plastic-like coat over the outside.
In part 3 of this article we’ll see how Jason replaced the 40 year old skins with a new one – Stay tuned, and subscribe our Newsletter!