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Making an ash wood drum (part 2)

The finished capoeira atabaque

We are well please with the stand, so here we go with the drum itself… To begin with I spent a good long time umming and arring about the dimensions I wanted, and researching how the different proportions would likely affect the sound. I ended up designing it to be half way between the one used by the York capoeira group (thanks for the measurements Magrao), and some other ones I had seen on the net. Once I had prepared and thicknessed a bunch of suitable ash, and after working the maths, I carefully measured and marked out the staves ready for cutting to shape. The bandsaw table was setup with a 9 degree slope and I actually surprised myself by not cutting a single piece with the wrongly opposite angle.


Some of the staves ready for plaining to the precise angle. After cutting out the shape on the bandsaw, it is time to take the ash staves to the planer. Here we can get the exact angle on the edges so that when we place them edge-to-edge they form a circle.

To work out the correct angle you can use the formula: (360/number of staves)/2. So for example, to make this drum I used 20 individual staves, so I get (360/20)/2 = 9 degrees. If I was doing it again I would consider going for more staves, while this means more of the wood ends up as sawdust and shavings when you are actually cutting out the staves, when the drum shell is complete, it is more round and need less sanding and plaining to take the edges off.

The drum slats

The drum staves have been shaped and are laid out ready.

As with the stand, we can roll the shape up easily by arranging the staves thus, and using gaffer tape to hold them together. After a dry run to check everything works, we can add a waterproof glue (I used titebond 3) to the touching edges, roll back up, and use a few band clamps or similar (ratchet straps work ok), to hold it in place.

At this point the drum looks like a wooden flower

Once the glue is dry we are left with a nice ash flower.

With half the drum together, we now need to bend in those ‘petals’ to complete the shell of the drum. Before we go ahead and do that, we need to strengthen up the bits we have joined (wood glue doesn’t really like steam) with some metal hoops. I had salvaged some very old strips of flexible steel (which I think came from a long gone bed). With these in hand and my dad’s cheap old arc welder, it was time to get some first hand welding experience.

The metal drum hoop

Not too bad for my first proper weld.

Well ok, so I had a few practice goes on some other scraps. I must say, it wasn’t easy. The metal was relatively thin, so joining them without melting through was a challenge. As you can see, I overlapped them and welded along the top and bottom edges. I think people tend to rivet these hoops, which would probably be easier, but I wanted more welding experience.

The weld of the drum hoop

Here is the metal hoop in position. As you can see the weld has been ground down a bit to tidy it up.

I really like the way the hoops turned out: as well as being made from reclaimed steel, their bumpy joins and general aged blackness adds a nice bit of authentic ‘handmadeness’ to the drum.

Ash flower becomes wooden squid

Here it is, hoops hammered on. That done it is ready for steaming.

Tape to protect the glue joints

Drum shell is going into the steam bag. The glue joints are taped to try and help protect them from the steam.

Drum is Steamed

The drum shell is sealed up and the steamer is attached and going. Now we wait... Also, at this point we need to make sure that the bag does not cling tightly to the outside surface of the drum wood. If it does the steam will be unevenly exposed - in the worst cases only one side of a wooden stave will become saturated. This can lead to big problems with warping later on.

Ratchet strap used in bending

It's bending time! Before we get the drum out of the steamer we need everything ready. This is where things can get a bit frenzied because time is ticking as soon as the wood is out of the steamer - it doesn't remain bendy for long. Here we quickly apply a ratchet strap to get the ball rolling.

Using band clams and ratchet straps

This stage is not easy and it definitely helps to have a friend at the ready.

All sorts of ways to tighten up the drum

Here we are doing are at the final stages of tightening up the drum and bending it. As you can see, lots of different ways of doing it (we tried most of them (mouse over for more).

And then disaster!!!!

Ash slat fails

The heart sinks as one of the ash staves makes a horrible cracking noise during the last bit of bending.

Mild mannered curiosity at this startling turn of events led to close inspection, which then led me to believe that this slat, dispite being one of my favourite ones for its nice grain pattern and colouring, was a poor choice for bending. It had a very pronounced sloping grain across its thickness. Lesson learned.

Dealing with the failed stave

Later, when the steam had settled, so to speak, to deal with the crack I welded up another steel hoop and hammered it down over the cracked slat. Here's a close up, with a load of glue piled in there to help secure it in place. As it was the only slat to fail, there wasn't really any structural problems, and afterwards it was possible to make up and apply some wood filler, and sand it all nice and smooth so that it was hardly visible.

In retrospect better technique for the bending, would be to hammer on quite a few rings while tightening ratchets. Particularly round the bend area this would help support the wood. Another thing I would like to experiment with, is curving the original profile of the staves, to decrease the sharpness of the bend when the wood is then bent.

Sighting down the Drum

The good news is that the crack didn't go through to the inside, so it should not really affect the sound of the drum.

Pampering the Drum

After all that stressful bending we can treat the drum to a nice relaxing nap with an occasional damp towel down to keep it from drying out too fast on the outside face (compared to the inside) - we don't want uneven drying...

After a sand down

After hand planing the edges off to make the shell more round, and a final fine sand down, we can finish the ash with the same eco-friendly polyx oil stuff we used on the stand.

The shell becomes a drum.

The drum head is going on. The moment we have been waiting for. We have made four mahogany wedges that are securing a 10mm cross section steel hoop, which in turn tensions up the rope, and the skin.

For the ‘skin’ we are using some more of that reclaimed leather (remember the stuff we used to make the bike grips). It seems to work a treat and goes with the reuse theme of the drum. The rope is 12mm thick, natural Manila.

Atabaque gets its first testing

All the wedges are in, and it is playable!

The Atabaque is ready to be united with the stand.

Here it is with some added rope jazz. Not sure if I am going to keep this yet - I guess it helps protect the shell from knocks and bumps, but don't know about the way it looks.

So that is the drum. At some point I will have to get some clips up of it being used in a roda. Our group was without one before, so it really has added a heartbeat to our capoeira play. Even at home, the drum has an irresistible ‘play-me’ quality, whenever we walk past, it simply has to makes some noise.  Like I mentioned, there are a good number of things I would like to do better next time round – now I just need someone to commission me to make a new one of these beauties…

Sam is playing that atabaque

If you found that interesting you may also like:

  1. Making an Atabaque (Capoeira Drum) – part 1, the stand

Responses to Making an Atabaque (Capoeira Drum) – part 2, steam bending

  1. Chapa-de-Frente

    Absolutely great, I liked the way the ash turned out, I definitely must try that.How does it sound using leather instead of rawhide?, you have really done some good work here. And I think that “jazz” in the middle does some great things for the overall look of the drum.

  2. Bongo

    Hay Chapa,
    Thank for that. Its sound good with the leather. We were all a bit sceptical at first, but it has worked out quite well. And it fits in perfectly with the ethical credentials of the drum… Of course, we haven’t tried it with rawhide, so don’t know for sure how that would affect the sound.

    Yeah, the ash really does finish up nice, especially when you have book-matched boards together :D

  3. Theo

    How can I buy one?

  4. Bongo

    Hay Theo,
    You in the UK? Give us an e-mail if you fancy us making you one :-D

  5. Theo

    That sounds great! No I am not from UK but I am from Europe. My email is
    Please contact me :P

  6. Pescador

    Great looking atabaque! Can you email me the overall dimensions of the drum as well as the individual staves? My email is in_chun(at) Obrigado!

  7. Tanjerina

    That is an awesome project. I am envious of your woodworking equipment!
    I have really wanted to make my own but I have zero tools here to do so…. I think I am going to start pestering the local woodshop guy for some time on his tools.

    I might be able to bribe him with beer or tequila…

    Really well done.

  8. ruddy

    Hello, great job. Can you send me by email the dimensions of wooden slats? here is my email, thank you in advance.

  9. Brazilian-martialarts

    I use an Atabaque at class and its really interesting seeing the amount of work that actually goes into making them. Very insightful

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