THE GOATSKIN HEAD


The head and its attachment are the most important elements contributing to the sound of a good bodhran. The traditional material is raw goat hide, which many people feel produces the best sound. There is much myth and dogma associated with the production such as burying the skin of a freshly killed goat in manure for weeks before preparing it as a drum head, soaking it in beer, soaking it in milk. The stories are endless. I buy mine from White Eagle Rawhide (WERCo) in Chicago and order the heaviest skins they carry.
   White Eagle Rawhide Mfg.
   216 W Campus Dr
   Arlington Heights, Il 60004
   (847) 392-8966

The skins may be grey, tan or white, depending on the breed and/or color of goat. Often the skins are bleached white in which case they will soon turn darker with use. In many skins the backbone of the goat will appear thicker in texture and darker in color. One can produce different tone and sound textures depending on where the beater strikes the head with respect to the backbone. Although not desirable, it OK for the skin to contain one or two marks, no larger than 1/8")left by the tannerís scraper, these flaws will not cause the skin head to rupture.

The animal skin is extremely sensitive to moisture. In a damp environment such as the Pacific Northwest, Ireland or the US East Coast in summer, the skin will swell with moisture and loosen. In opposite climates with low relative humidity, the skin will shrink and tighten. When playing the drum the musician frequently wets the skin head to loosen it (some Irish players insist that Guiness Stout works best for this) before playing, thus deriving a deeper tone with more resonance and variety of sounds. Other times the player frequently holds the drum above the nearest heat source to tighten the head. The effect of wetting or heating the head is very rapid; it is common practice for folk musicians to adjust the tension of their drum heads several times during a performance.

Although not traditional, many builders these days build in mechanical devices that attach to the drum which the musician can use to adjust the tension of the head.

The skin is attached to the rim while wet then dries or stretches overnight. My preference is to attach the skin so that when it dries it will be tight. Skins mounted too loose will produce a dull sound and buzz against the rim. The main concern of the music store retailer has been that if a drum with a tight head is subjected to a hot, dry climate the head will shrink and rip away from the tacks or pull the tacks out with it. The way I have overcome this is to use carpenterís glue between the rim and the skin. I have never had any problems with skins shrinking and pulling the tacks out in hot, dry weather. In general, my own customers, other builders and players have asserted that they prefer a drum with a tight head which then can be moistened with a sponge before playing. They maintain that it harder to find a heat source if the head is too loose.

MOUNTING THE HIDE

When all the above is taken into consideration, attaching the skinhead may seem tricky. It really isnít. With the following technique I have come out with good tension on all the bodhrans Iíve made so far. My advice to customers is to try to keep the drum at a reasonable temperature and humidity (i.e. donít store the drum in the attic in the summer and donít play it outside in the rain).

I order skins 2 Ė 3 inches larger than the outside diameter of the rim. Before the skins are mounted they are soaked in warm water until they are supple enough to be rolled up. Soaking times vary between 5 and 30 minutes. They are blotted dry with a towel and set on top of the rim, smooth side up and hairy or rough side down. The skin is evenly centered on the rim.

I use upholstery tacks of differing designs to attach the skin to the rim. Before the tacks are hammered in, pilot holes are drilled in the rim through the skin with a Dremmel Moto tool and a miniature bit just under the diameter of the tack post. It is important to note that THE SKIN IS KEPT LOOSE! It sags in the middle about 1-½ inches during the entire attachment process.

The first tack is installed 1 inch below the top of the rim. The second tack is hammered in 180 degrees from the first, the third and fourth tacks installed at 90 degrees from the first two. The locations for the first four tacks are right where the crosspieces join the rim, from here on must either measure or guess. Holes 5 Ė 8 are drilled and tacks hammered in between the first four, the sixth tack installed 180 degrees from the fifth , tacks 7 and 8 are 90 degrees from 5 and 6. Using the same pattern, tacks 9 Ė 16 are hammered in-between the first eight. (diagram)

These 16 tacks are about 1 inch below the top of the rim. Some builders prefer to use a hide, which extends farther over the rim attaching the tacks lower, reasoning that the skin is more secure this way. Between all the tacks now attached I apply yellow carpenterís glue and then attach three tacks in the diagrammed pattern. The tacks zigzag around the rim. An alternative pattern (seen in the color photo) is to place the tacks around the rim in a straight line. This pattern is believed to be less secure than the zigzag pattern.

The drum is hung up over night for the skin to dry. In the morning the skin is tight and excess overhanging hide is trimmed off with a knife blade. It takes another 24 hours for the head to dry completely.

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Main Bodhran Page

Constructing the Rim

The Crosspieces

About Beaters