Introduction: Making an Atabaque From a to Z
Update: A video to show the process improvements: https://youtu.be/ANNgzChhr-o
Update: We are now selling them. Visit our page: https://www.facebook.com/malucoatabaque
An atabaque is an Afro-Brazilian drum similar to a conga, but not as refined in the sound or the manufacturing process (but that does not mean it does not sound or look good). It's the 'rough' appearance that makes it stand out from other drums.
It is used in Capoeira and Candomble (Afro-Bahian religion) as well as some other activities.
First off, I'd like to express my gratitude to Chapa de Frente for his tutorial on how to make an atabque.
I did quite a lot of research on the topic, watched a good amount of footage and DIY videos
(links are given on the last page) here and there and the work of Chapa de Frente was the more reusable.
Still, all units and materials are specific to the US, and being in Australia, I just couldn't do the same.
Also, there was a number of things I wanted to attempt in a different way.
Lastly, there is no word whatsoever on the metal work involved. I tried to get quotes for that here in AU, and it was ridiculously expensive (like 100$ for a ring that costs 6$ a meter at the shop).
In Australia, capoeira is still developing and not as widespread as other places, but import restrictions are EXTREMELY tough. Wood and Skin are an absolute nightmare to get through. It's also very expensive to buy an atabaque in the first place (say 800$ plus shipping).
For all these reasons, I set out to build 'meu atabaque' from scratch, using methods explained in various places (including coopering ) and in the beautiful tradition of sharing for others to try themselves, I present my humble (sometimes very humble) construction methods.
It will cover
- build methods for both body and stand
- notes on skin (unfinished)
I do not have any prior instrument-making skills, but I like a good challenge and above all I like fixing and tinkering.
If you're keen to make your own atabaque for a cheap price, read on. Bunnings has most of what you need.
The information presented here can be used in pretty much any country, providing you are motivated enough to find the materials and a way to use them to achieve the same result.
Targeted end result
A 24 staves atabaque that looks the part, 1m tall, 300mm at its widest point, 250mm at the skin, rope tensioning system and a matching stand.
A word on materials
The list presented here is probably not the most suited for the task, but it did the job.
The wood I used for example, is Tasmanian Oak because it is a local wood, cheap, pre-cut to the dimensions I needed at Bunnings. My research indicated that atabaques made in Brazil used to be made out of Jacaranda timber, but being now a protected species, nearly all of them are made of Pine. Bunnings has pine (that did not look good or flexible/strong enough to bend without breaking) and then Tassie oak. That's it. Short of going to an expensive special-purpose timber shop (that I have since found), the oak had to do it.
The metal is mostly scrap I collected. If you can buy it to the right dimension, go for it.
The skin remains an issue. I have not sourced a skin (calf/cow) yet and used a large piece of leather instead. It does the trick but I think the sound would be sensibly better with a real skin. Since it involves re-heading and thus re-doing the ropework, I'll save that for later :)
8x 40x10x3000 Tasmanian oak boards
3x 10mm x 10m Sisal rope
1x 6mm x 5m Sisal rope
1x 12mm x 1000mm steel rod
2x 10mm x 1000mm steel rod
4m 1mm x 30mm steel strip
7mm x 4mm steel rivets
1x 700mm diameter skin/leather piece
black metal paint
hard wood for pegs
3x 40x10x3000 Tasmanian oak boards
1.5m 2mm x 30mm steel wrap
7mm x 4mm steel rivets
200mm x 1000mm leather piece
black metal paint
(the more the merrier)
circular saw (better: bandsaw, even better, router)
drill with drill bits and countersunk bits
hammer (large heavy for metal work, smaller ones for other work)
ropes and ratchets
In the course of making the drum, I had to make multiplejigs, for cutting, bending, adjusting etc. I had to get creative for some of them. You will likely find a better way to achieve the same result based on your own resources. Assess them !
IT TAKES TIME so don't rush it. you WILL get stuck at some point. You WILL make mistakes, be it in the preparation, cut or assembly. It's OK. just think before you act. You may have to fix things like I had to, that's OK too. Take your time. Between week ends and evenings, it took me 6 months to make mine.
On to work
This is how we are going to proceed:
1 Making the Base Stand
- leather padding
2 Making the Body
3 Heading the Body
Chronologically, I made the stand after making the body. But this does not matter much.
There is a fair bit of specialized metal work that I completed using very humble means. People with more experience and machinery will likely laugh at it, but I got the job done nonetheless.
I had to pull trigonometry and primary school math to get it done. It was sort of fun. Angles and dimensions are approximative but they do work as intended.
Stand: (TO MEASURE)
Diameter at the base: (TO MEASURE)
Diameter at the top: (TO MEASURE)
Stave length: 300mm
Stave cutting angle: 7.5 degrees (180/24)
Stave cutting point at the top:
Stave cutting point at the base:
Metal hoop cone angle: 5~6 degrees
Body: (TO MEASURE)
Diameter at the base: (TO MEASURE)
Diameter at the widest point: (TO MEASURE)
Diameter at the top: (TO MEASURE)
Stave length: 1000mm
Stave cutting angle: 7.5 degrees (180/24)
Stave cutting point at the top:
Stave length from top to mid-section:
Stave cutting point at the base:
Stave length from mid-section to the base:
Metal hoop cone angle: 5~6 degrees
Metal ring diameters: (top) (below top) (bottom)
Total weight after assembly: (TO MEASURE)
Step 1: Making the Stand
Note: I made the base stand AFTER creating the body. It's much simpler to make the base, but making it after making the body allowed me to build it to size so it precisely fits the body (no nasty surprise) - Consider this, it may be good for you too.
Also, the construction method for the stand is identical (but much more simple) to the body. Have a look at the next step before doing this one.
First, cut 24 staves in 30cm strips.
Next, make a cutting gig (assuming you will use a circular saw) that will let you cut at a 7.5 degree angle alongside a straight line.
Cut all 24 staves on one side then adjust the gig and cut the again on the opposite side.
Sand a bit the newly-cut edge, as it will be glued and must offer the maximum contact surface possible.
On to the assembly.
Before you glue anything, put all the staves neatly sided and tightly aligned then tape them together with lots of strong tape.
(Same as Chapa de frente's photo and also my own)
Bring both sides of the tape together to obtain a full assembly that's solid and tight. Tape it a bit more if necessary and leave it be.
Now prepare a hoop with the 1mm thick steel strip. I got mine from a nearby warehouse that sells mattresses. They use the strips to strap the mattresses on pallets and thus are quite solid and up to the task. It's scrap for them, gold for me.
This first bit of metal work involves turning this flat steel into a cone-shape one.
Short of having a metal angled roller for the purpose, you can use a hammer and a round steel block to get the same result.
The process is simple but a bit tiring (and quite noisy, use ear protection and do it in a place neighbours won't complain): simply hit the metal strip (resting on the rounded edge of the block) on one side only (I only it the right side of the strip), alongside the strip. Repeat the process several times, going as far in as 1/3rd of the width of the strip so it's smooth enough that when rolled together in a cone shape, it shows a 5 to 6 degree angle. This will change depending on the diameter of the hoop so try and adjust as needed until it fits the base assembly we have created.
When the hoop is ready, cut it to length (so that it will fall about 10 cm from the top of the base assembly), drill 3 holes and rivet them onto itself with the rivet head inside (smoother) and hammer the opposite side down.
Now, you can open the base assembly, lay it flat and put glue on the stave edges (not too much) and then re-wrap it together like before. Make sure the base is flat and all staves are aligned properly. Fix those that need be.
This time, place the hoop at the top and hammer it down a little bit (use a steel thin block, it helps a LOT).
Strap and ratchet the bottom then properly hammer down the top hoop until glue squeezes out of the stave joints. Leave it to dry for as long as the glue needs (usually a day or 2).
Note: The use of metal hoop at that stage is not mandatory but it ensures that the staves are aligned and tight. It's also very good practice for the body assembly.
When the glue has dried, remove the strap and ratchet, hammer the hoop out and remove the tape.
Plane the rough edges and sand the whole thing. You can spend a lot of time trying to make it super-smooth, as you wish.
You can decide to cut out some wood with a jigsaw if you want to give more style to the base. A simple diamond shape cutout gives it a nice look.
When the wood is nice and clean of glue and dust, apply a wood stain of your choice.
Now is the time to make a second metal hoop like the first one, adjusting its diameter so it's flush to the top of the base assembly but still tight on the staves. This hoop's role is to keep the staves together when the heavy body is being pushed down and slammed to produce noise (vibrations) so it must be carefully crafted.
Also take the fist hoop you created and adjust it (that may mean re-cut) so it falls nicely below the top hoop and leaves enough space in between for us to nail the leather down later on.
Hammer down those hoops in place until they are tight and secure. You may even drill an extra hole and screw them in place in the wood for extra safety.
Once in place, clean and paint the hoops with 2 layers of black metal paint. Basic paintwork advice: mask tape the wood around !
A bit later when it's dry, apply 3 coats of varnish on the wood.
When the wood finishing is done, nail in the leather so that the fold is on the outside and the open end come to the inside of the base assembly.
You may add an extra insert of padding to adjust for the body's bottom diameter to fit where you want. Leave it as this until the body is finished and come back later as needed.
When you are ready to finish the base and have added padding as necessary, fold the leather and padding back in and nail it into place securely.
That's it, the base is done (and it looks good, no ?)
Step 2: Making the Body
This is the core of the build. Take your time. It will be challenging (especially the bending part) so don't rush it.
Read through all the steps, check out the work of others and come up with your own plan.
It uses visible metal hoops to securely keep the staves in place. I prefer that 'rough' look to the clean one of the congas (which are not bent into place but cut round in the first place by the way)
Build a good cutting jig. Your staves need to be cut as precisely as possible to obtain the best body build possible. Do it properly.
It's doable with a circular saw, but really, a band saw would be better suited. A table router would be the best.
Review your dimensions and make 4 cuts to each stave. It's much easier to do one cut to all 24 staves then adjust the jig for the remaining cuts. That makes 4 sequences to cut all 24 staves (+ extras), more than a 100 cuts...
I advise making extra staves just in case, also to adjust the cutting jig before performing the cut 24 times.
When you have 24 staves cleanly cut identically, sand the edges so they are nice and sharp, clean of dust.
Use the same method as you did when building the base, use tape and do a mock assembly of the staves. Check that things fall into place nicely. It may be required to adjust things a bit.
Go back to doing to more metal work: create a metal hoop or two (remember, they do a better job than the ratchet).
Note:The hoops can be re-used and sized down quite easily. They will need to be sized down for their final placement.
At this stage, open the stave assembly, add glue, close the assembly and ratchet it up. Also press the hoop(s) down and let the glue dry. You can then leave the tape on for the next step, up to you.
Time to bend the wood.
The most exciting part. My research indicated that not all woods bend the same. Some just break. Some bend really nicely.
You can improve the bending capacity by steaming the wood. In my case, tassie oak is quite bendy to begin with, but we are talking serious bends here. I steamed it for 3 hours (but I could have done it better).
When the wood is steamed enough, start bending it using ratchets and ropes.
The ratchet helps but is not good because it pushes some staves in. That's ok for bending but not for gluing.
The rope and rotating stick method works better (see this video at about 3:18)
It requires a lot of strength, solid rope, and multiple stages of bending.
I destroyed some straps in the making. There is a lot of force involved so be careful.
Here is your chance to do a lot better than me. I didn't bend enough at first and glued too early on. Some staves didn't bond properly so I had to fix that later. It can be fixed, but why not make it right in the first place ?
Bend the staves entirely until it's tight and leave it be for a while. The wood should keep its bend shape after drying (that only works for some wood and only if they are correctly steamed).
Prepare more hoops (at least 2, best 3)
Unbend slightly, glue then re-bend and secure with hoops, hammered down tight in multiple places until glue squeezes out.
When dry, remove straps, remove tape (as much as can) and if still securely glued, remove the hoops.
In my case glue hadn't bond properly in some places (not enough pressure) so I left the hoops on. My advice: still leave some hoops first then plane edges and sand to satisfaction.
How to tell is it's glued properly
You can use a light source pointing to the side of the drum. When you look inside, you will see rays of light between staves that have gaps. Fill the gaps with putty for small gaps, fill with glue and tighten staves properly for larger gaps.
At that stage, you can remove (it's better to 'exchange' ) hoops and reposition them to their final spot after adjusting their size.
Be careful with the second to last bottom hoop, that it fits properly when the body is placed into the stand.
Also, the bottom hoop is flush with the edge (cut in) so you must first cut some wood at the base, fit in the hoop tight and level the base cleanly.
You can now flatten the top. Round the top edges for skin softness (file/cut as needed).
Stain the wood, varnish like you did with the base stand.
Paint the hoops.
Body is complete. Go back to the stand's last step to check that it fits properly and finish what has to be.
Body and stand are now complete. On to the heading and ropework.
Step 3: Heading the Body
Now that the base and body are done, it's time to make that drum a drum.
The 'rough' looks of the atabaque that I am after uses a ring+rope tensioning system.
It is more complex than the ring+screw system used on some atabaques and congas, but it looks better in my opinion, and is easier to build yourself.
This system uses 3 rings and whole lot of rope, as well as pegs similar to those you use to lock a door open.
It works by pulling a small ring at the top, locking the skin through a slightly larger ring immediately beneath it.
Tension is achieved using rope kept in place using a third ring placed towards the lower part of the drum and kept into place with the pegs. Those pegs can also be hammered down, thus pulling the tensioning ring further down and hence also pulling (through the ropes) the top ring which in turns pressures the second top ring and the skin down around the head.
It's a simple but really clever system in my opinion. Yet, a few key points must be carefully considered
- The rope must be strong enough to stand the pressure
- The rings must be strong enough to not lose their shape or snap. (An example of a deformed ring is shown in this photo) - The top rings help one another because they are tightly connected, but the bottom one is on its own, bearing the tension of the rope AND the pegs in different directions
- Pegs must be made of hardwood so that they don't break or lose too much shape when rubbing the steel ring
- The body must be very resistant at the spots where the pegs are hammered down. It's a known issue with atabaques using this system, as the peg gradually pushes staves in (sometimes to a point of no return)
In short, we need some good metal rings. I tried to get quotes to have them fabricated and gave up as no one gave me a good price or even seem to be able to do it. So, how hard is it to make yourself, really ?
Metal rings fabrication
You can buy metal rods at a steel shop for about 6$/m in any shape or diameter. Bunnings sells only 10mm rods of 1m or 3m.
Being cheap and extremely experimental, I knew I would have to weld these rods after somehow bending them and that would be the first time I do something like that. So, I decided to get some scrap rods to experiment with. If it works, I'll repeat the operation with newly bought ones.
My scrap rods came from a demolition site nearby and must have been rusting there for about 30 years. They were really badly bent and had some serious rust scale issues too. But, one of them was a 12mm thick one, that I thought would be great for the bottom ring.
So I set out to straighten them with a heavy hammer. My advice: get those rings fabricated if you can. If not, use gloves, protective gear (ear, eyes protection) and work the metal. I hammered on concrete hitting the bends on the sharp angle side. After much sweat and noise, I had decently straight rods. Bonus. much of the rust and crap (IE concrete bits) had come off.
With rods straight, now was the time to bend them into shape. After much research on the subject, I built a bending jig inspired from the mandrel bender for pipes shown on youtube.
Mine is using a central thick disk of wood, reinforced with a metal strip screwed into place. The disc was built to the size of the rings that I needed (about 26cm). I discovered later that I should have made it 2cm smaller all round, as the metal expanded a lot after bending it.
Then comes the torque arm, using a thick 18mm screw in the center of the disc and another with a ball-bearing piece (stolen from a broken trolley axle) to apply the torque to the rod. The arm was later extended for easier operation.
The whole thing is clamped down on a heavy table.
My advice when using a jig like this:
- build it really solid (I used a LOT of screws and palet frame wood)
- make the torque bearing touch the metal rod as close to the metal-strapped disc as possible
- be careful
- do it slowly
- the table itself must be bolted in place or really heavy
- the disc diameter should be 4cm smaller than the target ring, as the metal, even if bent, will expand noticeably
- only bend a little bit more than needs be, keep a straight bit out
- keep in mind that you will likely need to adjust the diameter and cut to length anyways
At this point you have a raw but satisfying round rod.
Before cutting it, check the dimensions against the drum body.
Keep in mind that
- the top ring must be wide enough to accommodate the rope and the skin on the sides of the top of the drum
- the second top ring must be only slightly wider than the top one (like 1 or 2cm wider maximum)
- the bottom ring must accommodate for the rope, but mostly for the pegs. you MUST line it up so that the body metal hoops don't interfere with the pegs (make the pegs first if needs be)
For reference, I used the following dimensions (calculated then adjusted to the body size and hoops placement)
Second top ring:
To adjust the ring size, in my case I had to reduce the diameter, I used a hammer + U-shaped piece of girder trick. By hammering down a section, the U-shaped girder forces the ring to become smaller. The 12mm thick rod was worked out that way. It took time but it worked.
I then cut the rods to length using a hacksaw. If you have an angle grinder, use that !!
I then hammered a little bit more to make both ends meet perfectly.
From there, I went to a friend that has welding gear. He showed me the basics (and I did my research on youtube as well, much recommended) and I did a few test welds then welded the 3 rings. It was a bit frightening but quite exciting.
Remember that all the tension rests on the rings. You need to have deep and solid welds that will last and stand pressure and vibration.
The welds were then cleaned up using an angle grinder and thoroughly checked.
One quick check of the rings over the body (last chance to hammer a bit for shaping if needed) and the rings were sanded, cleaned and painted. Ready for action and feeling solid.
I used a piece of house building wood I collected from another demolition site. I am not sure what kind of wood it is, but it's very hard. Cutting it with a handsaw was some work but I recommend it for some clean and precise work. You can probably go faster with a bandsaw if you have one. I don't recommend using a circular saw at all for this task.
The dimensions I used for the pegs are
They are shaped with a flat surface so hammering them down won't chip the wood. It's good to use a rubber mallet anyways.
Please note, at this stage, it was all experimental and I had not sourced a proper calf/cow skin yet.
Instead, I used a piece of leather (thank you, kerbside collection throw-away leather couch) cut to about a 700mm circle
If you can (and you should), use a real skin and follow the directions from Chapa de Frente page 7
Next, prepare the top ring. I used the smaller rope with the weaving method least intruding for the skin.
I calculated that with 8 pegs (I recommend 8 pegs over 6 or 4), using 2 loops between pegs, I would have 16 strands coming to the ring and therefore needed 16 loops. Make sure that both loose ends are kept a bit longer and tied together (I used a piece of metal wire for that)
When the skin is ready, select the side to be facing up and lay it on the floor, put the larger (second) top ring in the middle then fold the sides of the skin towards the center so you can place the top ring above the second top ring, thus locking the skin.
Place the skin and rings loosely on the drum body head.
Note:do not perform the ropework with the drum body on its base !
There are many ways to do the ropework. I experimented with one and was satisfied with the result. It's up to you to find one you are happy with.
The general approach I used is a straight up/down looping between rings which I later improved with a diamond weave.
First off, I used a second piece of rope to bind the top ring loops with the main ropework (I had hoped I could simply undo this one and the pegs to be able to rehead with a real skin without loosing the whole ropework)
I then passed straight loops up and down, making sure to always hit the top loop and bottom from inside to outside in a consistent way. It took 32 strokes that I evenly split between 2 lengths of the rope, using a standard knot in the middle.
During this phase, I gradually introduced the pegs until the primary weaving was done.
Then, one stroke at a time, I pulled down on the rope from the middle, working all strands on both sides all the way to the loose ends, replacing the pegs and the rings, until tension started to appear on the skin (make sure the skin is flat on when you start). The pegs should be sitting fairly above the ring at that time, not engaged by too much.
I repeated the operation several times, pulling the rope until it was pretty tight. A quick check on the skin showed a quite satisfying progress.
At that stage, I assembled both loose ends in a basic knot so the tension would remain. Sissal rope like the one I used is not a slippery rope at all, meaning that it's easy to build and keep tension.
Next, I created the first diamond weaving, which makes the drum look good but more importantly tensions the skin further.
I used the leftover thinner rope to create a basic handle that I then consolidated with the remaining open ends of the rope used for tensioning the skin.
From there, I weaved a second diamond using the last thick length of sissal rope I had bought, finishing the weave around the handle and adding a few more core loops then wrapping around to make a proper handle. I then tied away the remaining loose ends behind the handle ropework.
At that stage, the drum is pretty much ready
Further tensioning can (and probably should) be done by hammering down the pegs gently.
You can get a few centimeters (up to 10 in my case) of extra stretch, which is quite amazing.
Your drum is now complete. Now hit some tunes away. I recommend maculele for starters.
Step 4: Notes and Comments
The present atabaque I have built is also thanks to the works of various people that have shared their experience:
and a lot more. Do your research. Share.
Here are a few things that I have observed or came to admit (good and bad)
- the drum I created looks good. It received approval from serious capoeira people around me and makes me feel proud
- the total cost (regardless of time) and experience gained makes this project an absolute positive
- the sound is ok. It could be better. It will.
- I should have tried harder to get a real skin. I will.
- I should have used leather for the stand and not a synthetic material (yes, I should, and I didn't). I will fix that too.
- the wooden cuts could have been better, angle was off, creating gaps that had to be filled with putty and glue
- I can still sell atabaques made this way
- the metal work involved was demanding but I am really proud of it (despite using hobo methods)
If I get around to it, I may build more. If I do, I should
- try to make cone hoops faster (machine ?)
- reinforce the rod-bending jig
- use an angle grinder to cut rods
- do better welds
- use thicker wood (more resistant, especially against the pegs, also offering a larger contact surface for glueing)
- make the middle body wider
- use a router for shaping staves (more consistent and angle is guaranteed)
- use a real skin