12×16 Antique Rope Tension Restoration

I’m with Bill Whitney at the Calderwood Percussion shop in Avon, MA. It’s raining, the sound of heavy rain against the windows is enticing – that is, when the sander isn’t running! Bill’s niece Amber is doing finish work on a bass drum for Randolph High School. WCRB is on in the background, playing the Henry Purcell Trumpet Voluntary.

Today, Bill is restoring an antique drum. (He’s also repairing my guitar, overseeing the finish work on the bass for the high school, and laser cutting some custom drum gift certificates for some very lucky drummers’ Christmas stockings, among other things.)

This particular drum is a 12×16 rope tension snare made by the George B. Stone company. The shell is single ply steam bent maple, and it’s about 100 years old. It belongs to Robert Schulz of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (and many other projects), who wanted to have it repaired to play at some upcoming shows with period music. It needs new hoops and hardware repairs, but Bill says, “like most George B. Stone drums I’ve seen, the shell is in amazing shape and totally round.” It’s in such good condition, in fact, that when I walked in, I actually thought he’d just refinished the shell!

“There’s actually quite a rich history of drum making in Boston, dating back at least 150 years. The most prominent was the George B. Stone company. George B. Stone was not only a fantastic percussionist and teacher, but also a drum builder. He started the company with his son, George L. Stone, who carried on the business and wrote the book Stick Control. Of all the old drums that come through our shop for repairs, his are the ones I like the best.”

The way he talks about Stone is almost intimate. It’s like he’s building a posthumous relationship with the drum builder, and when I suggest this, he doesn’t call me crazy.

“Yeah, for sure. You start to see the way that person liked to do stuff – seams, edges, how holes are drilled, things like that. It’s interesting. It’s like when you buy tools from another woodworker, especially things that somebody used for a long time and now they’re retiring. Just the way the tool was set up and how they customized it gives you a really strong sense of how they liked to do things and who they were as an artisan. There’s a certain amount of personality in these things.”

“I love working on old drums – stuff that’s a hundred years old or more. Once things were made in factories, you can’t really see personality in that. But these Stone drums, or Cooperman drums; even a Ludwig from the 20s – it’s cool to bring those back to life.”

An original Stone Catalog listing for this drum. vintagedrumguide.com

An original Stone Catalog listing for this drum. vintagedrumguide.com

It turns out, instrument makers and repairers are often aware of and even foster this kind of relationship with one another – appreciation of each others’ work, the sense of being part of a lineage – even if it comes generations later.

“When I do a lot of work on an instrument, I mark on the inside what I did and when I did it. Maybe 50 years down the road someone else will open this thing up and do other work on it. Occasionally I see marks from other people who did work 40 or 50 years ago, and I like that kind of tradition. Luthiers do that all the time, and maybe there is something more intimate about that – you don’t open up a violin that often, so it’s like luthiers talking to each other in secret, across time. A drum you open up any time you change heads so it’s less of an instrument-makers secret message, but I still like to do it.”

There’s a 16×32 George B. Stone bass drum in stock here, just waiting to be restored for the right project. It’s going to make an amazing drum for a drummer who appreciates the history as well as quality.

The original George B. Stone label inside the shell.

The original George B. Stone label inside the shell.

Bill Whitney