“I believe timber can absorb the soul of a place,” says Andrew Johnston, founder of artisan drum makers REpercussion Drums, “and I like to tap into that. I’m on a mission to find wood that tells its own story.”
His most recent project is a drum kit made from bog oak unearthed from east of England fens that has been carbon dated to between 4,800 and 5,200 years ago. Johnston has also made drums from a Soho bar top and, at the time of writing, is waiting for a shipment of 120-year-old Douglas fir to arrive from a lumber yard in the US; it was taken from San Quentin Prison Hospital and he has plans to turn it into a series of three snare drums for private clients.
Johnston is excited – San Quentin Prison is where Johnny Cash famously recorded an album in 1969, so for someone who values provenance so highly this is akin to striking gold. However, he won’t know whether it makes a good drum until the instrument is made. “It’s dry and has been quarter sawn, so it’s certainly strong enough,” he says, “but you never know how a wooden drum will sound until the shell is finished. I’ve had to burn drum shells in the past because they sound dead.”
And ultimately a REpercussion drum is all about the sound. Johnston makes his drums using the stave construction method. Unlike most drums, which are formed by wrapping thin strips of wood around a metal frame, this technique involves cutting solid wooden staves at precise angles so each butts tightly against the next to form a perfect circle. It is more time consuming, but it results in better breadth of tone because, rather than being bent into shape, the wood is allowed to sit and resonate naturally.
Johnston only makes between 20 and 30 instruments a year, and each one is meticulously handcrafted to the client’s specifications (prices for snare drums vary according to material, but start at around £700; full kits start at £2,000). It is a deeply collaborative process, as no two drummers are alike and everything from the type of wood to the thickness of the shell and the shape of the bearing edges (the edge of the drum kettle the skin rests on) will affect the sound.
One thing that won’t affect it is the REpercussion logo: a subtle sterling-silver bar with an R punched into it set into the shell. “I think putting something on the outside could change the tone,” he says, “and I want to get as close to perfect as possible.”