Brenda Sinclair Sutton
Conditioning the Hide: The unconditioned skin of new bodhráns often feels rough and scratchy. Often, a new drum’s head will still retain hair from the animal. Some are stretched and tanned so thin that you can see the lines of your palm from the other side when pressed to the inside of the drum. Tippers that accompany many less expensive bodhráns/wall decorations are usually made of unpolished pine. They are often short in span, probably meant for a child’s first drum. The sound produced by a combination of unconditioned, taught, and/or thinly stretched hide, and a small, light-weight, cheap tipper doesn’t even come close to matching that low, thrummy drumming on your favorite recording. Don’t despair. There are a few things you can do to improve this situation:
- With frequent use, the oils from your hands will eventually soften your bodhrán’s hide. Speed the process along while lengthening the life of the drum head with a few applications of mink oil, a creamy, rather strong-smelling paste. Find this wonderful stuff in shoe repair or leather goods stores.
(Note: If you are averse to using an animal-based product on the animal hide of your drum (rolls eyes), you can use almond oil. It will eventually go slightly rancid and may become a little sticky, but…there you go. In a pinch you can use pretty much any good hand creme, but I would shy away from using any with strong scents.)
- Slather the mink oil all over the outside of the hide. Let it sit for 10 – 15 minutes, then wipe off the excess with a paper towel or rag. (NOTE: Don’t put the mink oil on both sides of the hide. Depending on who makes it, the oil could have water repelling qualities that, if applied to both sides of the hide, could keep the skin from absorbing any water at all. That would be BAD!)
- Put your drum away for a day or two while the hide absorbs the oil. Don’t play it during the conditioning phase, as the pressure of your hand and fingers on the back side can warp the hide.
- Condition the hide once a month for the first six months, then once every 3 – 4 months for the remainder of the first year. From then on, condition once or twice a year for the rest of your drum’s active use, depending on your location’s humidity or lack thereof.
- Rub raw, unpolished tippers with the extra mink oil from your rag to smooth them as well. (But better yet… find yourself a really good tipper and toss out that cheap piece of pine.)
Dampening the Hide During Performance: If your bodhrán is not tunable, or if you’ve cranked it as low as it will go and the hide is still too taut, lower the high-pitched snare tone with an even application of tepid water.
- Keep a spray bottle of water or a dampened sponge handy.
- Apply a very light and even coating of water over the inside of the hide, then wipe away any excess.
- The hide absorbs the water quickly and the tone of the drum lowers almost immediately.
- Too little water is better than too much. You don’t want to end up with a flabby piece of skin that won’t resonate.
Someday some doofuss is going to tell you to dampen your drum with beer or whiskey.
NEVER USE ALCOHOL TO MOISTEN THE DRUM HEAD!
- Alcohol evaporates too quickly, dries the hide, smells rancid and leads to cracks and splits.
- Besides, alcohol is sticky, and attracts flies.
Tightening the Hide with Heat: Scenario – Your bodhrán is not tunable and the night is hot and humid. The drum hide sucked the water right out of the air, leaving you with a lose, flabby, unplayable flap of skin… a fairly common occurrence, especially when playing outside.
Keep a small hair blow dryer in your drum case. Other tricks that work in a pinch: a warm lamp, a campfire or oven burner. Once, I even used a heat lamp in a popcorn vending machine!
- If all else fails:
- Wet the skin head both inside and out with a damp cloth. (Avoid wetting the rim.)
- Then place a wet 2-3 inch square of cloth in center of the top of drum head.
- Let the bodhrán dry in a warm place, keeping the wet cloth in middle of the drum head for 5-10 hours.
- Once the outer edge of head is dry, lift your small wet cloth off the drum head. Let the drum dry completely in a warm place for another 5 hours.
- Do NOT try to play your bodhrán during this process or you will warp the hide.
Care of Tunable Bodhráns: If you live in a region where temperatures and humidity fluctuate, loosen the drum hide to its lowest level when returning it to the case. Why? Let’s say that you’ve been playing where you’ve needed to really crank the tuning to the highest level to maintain the drum’s tension. At the end of the night, you pack the drum away without lowering the tension. The drum dries out and the humidity decreases. You now have a stretched hide, or worse… cracks or a split in the skin.
Repairing the Hide: Someday, some doofuss won’t watch where he’s putting his big feet and knocks over your bodhrán. After your pals pry your hands away from his throat and give him a head start to get away, you’ll be left to fix the gaping hole in your drum.
- If the hole is less than the size of a quarter, loosen the hide and repair it with a piece of duct tape to the back side of the skin.
- If the tear is larger, consider replacing the hide or…
- Get a new drum if the hide is not replaceable.
Protect your Drum with a Case: Drum cases come in a wide variety of styles and sizes. Built of wood, vinyl, cloth, and reinforced cardboard, the protection varies from material to material, depending on the construction. Some allow drums of different sizes to stack, one inside the other (provided you have no cross-pieces or removable cross-pieces.) Most come with a large handy pocket for storing your tippers and tuning wrench.
The very best bodhrán case is the known universe is Kaces Snare Drum Backpack. It not only slides onto your back, but has wheels and an extendable handle to roll along, contains a large lower zippered area to hold sticks and tippers and shakers and bones, and two front zippered pockets to hold music and such. It runs between $40 – $50, and it is worth every penny. (And I’m not getting a dime to say that.)