Paper Maché Art Drums




Introduction: Paper Maché Art Drums

About: Math/Science Educator and writer with more than 30 years of experience in science and industry.

Myself and a friend have made quite a few drums of various designs recently using gourds for the shells and goat skin for the drum heads. As a result, I've been thinking a lot about drums and drum design. That is the inspiration for this instructable, which shows you how to make drums using paper maché for the shells, goat skin for the heads and rubber for the banding around the rim. No gourds were harmed in the making of these drums.

Comparing Paper Maché and Gourd Drums

There are some pretty neat things about paper maché drums.

1. For an instrument the size of a drum made from a bottle gourd, a paper maché drum is about half the cost in materials.
2. The materials are easy to procure.
3. You are not limited by the shape and size of gourds as far as shell design goes, and can make outrageous instruments.
4. Paper maché, especially if made extra hard, is stronger than gourd wood, making for more durable drums that are almost impossible to break.
5. They sound like gourd drums.

Gourds and have a few things going for them though too, when it comes to fabricating percussion instruments.

1. A gourd drum is lighter than one made from paper maché (but there is room for improvement in paper maché technique)
2. A gourd drum can be ready to play in about 24 hours (allowing for drying of the stretched head) but a paper maché drum takes several days (at least) to complete.
3. Making drums from gourds is not quite as messy and is easier to clean up after.

Before you can employ advanced techniques like electrifying or adding programmable LED lighting to a percussion instrument, you have to have a percussion instrument. This is a great way to make unique drums that sound good for very little cost. Time to make a drum.

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Step 1: Tools and Materials

The basic scheme is to apply paper maché over a frame made of chicken wire or hardware cloth. Nothing special is required in the way of tools. The method of installing a goatskin head is the same as used when making a basic gourd drum. It's easy.


1. Something to cut wire. Lineman's pliers, or sheet metal shears work.
2. Something to bend and shape wire. Regular, lineman's and needle nose pliers have done the job for me.
3. Something to pound wire. This is for shaping the wire frame of the shell and for hammering down any bits of wire that protrude through the paper maché. Some combination of a hammer, wood blocks and metal pipes will work.
4. Something to cut curves with. A band saw, scroll saw, jigsaw, coping saw or some combination of these are needed to cut plywood rings to be used as drum head mounting surfaces.
5. Something to cut cardboard and goatskin. Scissors, a box cutter or hobby knife will do.
6. Something to heat with. A pan on a stove or a hot plate is needed to cook the paper maché glue.
7. A stirrer. Spoon or whisk.
8. Stapler. For installing the goatskin drum head. 5/16 or 3/8-in staples are fine.
9. Rubber gloves. For your hands when applying resin glue paper maché.

For a work surface, a rubber cutting mat works great. Paper maché doesn't stick to it and it is a snap to clean up.

Note: You may be tempted to work over newspaper thinking it will keep your table from getting messed up. DON'T. Wet paper maché loves newspaper. You will constantly be pulling the newspaper off of the shell as you work and it makes an even bigger mess than it would if you didn't use newspaper in the first place.


1. Something to make a shell frame with. Chicken wire is easy to work with but not very rigid. Hardware cloth is harder to work with but makes a stiffer frame. Sometimes both together are the right solution, depending on the size and shape of your shell.
2. Stuff to make paper maché glue. This project uses extra hard paper maché made with the following materials: 1 cup white flour, 1/2 cup plastic resin glue, 4 cups of water.
3. Brown craft paper. For the paper maché. Makes stronger paper maché than newspaper. Torn (not cut) into strips about an inch wide and 4-8 inches long. Paper grocery bags are a good source of paper for this project.
4. Cardboard. For making an initial rim to paper maché over.
5. Masking tape. For holding things together and masking for a paint job.
6. Rawhide goatskin. Available at leather supply shops or from an online vendor.
7. 1/8-1/4-in plywood. This is used to make a flat and stiff rim ring for mounting the head. Some other kind of thin wood would also work.
8. Epoxy or other strong glue. This will be used to attach the wood head mounting ring to the shell. JB Weld works great.

An optional technique is to use ready made paper maché mix called Celluclay II to for forming the basic shell shape. It is easy to use. But, if the drum is large, you'll probably still have to go over it with a layer of extra hard paper maché to fill in gaps and provide additional support.

Step 2: Make the Frame

For an initial try at a paper maché drum I modeled a gourd (Figure 1). The frame was made by cutting hardware cloth to size and pushing it around with a hammer and wood block or metal bar until it was more or less the desired shape. Hardware cloth is stiff, so cut it in numerous places to weaken it so it can be bent into shape. Then, fine tune the shape with needle nose pliers. You may need to use small pieces of wire twisted on to the frame to hold parts of it together (see Figures 2-4).

Note. For small frames use chicken wire. For larger ones use hardware cloth or a combination of hardware cloth and chicken wire.

Cut a ring of cardboard the size of the opening at the top of the frame to set the basic shape of the mounting surface for the drum head. Use masking tape to hold it all together and to provide something for the paper maché to grab onto at both the top and bottom openings (Figure 5).

A second, more unusual instrument was made using chicken wire for the frame (Figure 6), Chicken wire is much easier to work but does not provide as much support as hardware cloth. This can lead to sagging when the heavy and wet paper maché is applied, but it can be dealt with.

Step 3: Paper Maché the Frame to Form the Shell

Prepare the Glue

Heat 3 cups of water in a pan. Mix 1 cup of white flour and 1/2 cup of plastic resin glue into 1 cup of warm water in a separate container. Add the flour and glue slowly with much stirring to avoid lumping. Just as the water in the pan reaches a boil turn down the heat and slowly stir in the glue mix. Keep cooking on low heat with much stirring until a smooth brown paste is formed (Figure 7). Let it cool until it is comfortable to touch.

Note: If you can't get the lumps out, let it cool a bit and throw the whole batch in a blender and mix it that way. After blending, dump the glue mix back in the pan. Clean the blender immediately. Do it outside with soapy water and scrub and rinse until clean.

Optional Celluclay Mixing Procedure

If you choose to use Celluclay, DO NOT FOLLOW THE MANUFACTURER'S INSTRUCTIONS. Put a handful of Celluclay in a bucket and add a large dollop of white glue and a little bit of water. Smush it around with gloved fingers to mix it and keep adding mostly white glue and a little water until you achieve a smooth clay-like consistency.

Paper Maché the Frame

Dip strips of brown craft paper in the flour-resin glue and apply them to the frame. Start at the rim and then go to the bottom. Then fill in the middle with strips going in alternating directions. There is nothing special about this paper maché job so just do it like any other paper maché project. Two layers in alternating directions should be enough, both inside and out, but put three on the top rim and do your best to make the rim as flat as possible. The cardboard will help with shaping the rim but it gets flexible when wet.

If you use Celluclay, glob it on and squeeze it around to get it as thin as possible over the frame.

With either method, when you are done applying paper maché, run wet gloved hands over the surface to smooth it and to fill in any gaps or voids (Figure 8).

Note: Be careful. There may be sharp wire ends protruding from the paper maché. Hammer them down and cut them off after the paper maché is dry.

Let the shell cure, preferably outside in the sun until it is perfectly dry all the way through and hard as wood.  Depending on the weather, it will take anywhere from a couple of days to a week for the shell to fully dry. Figure 9 shows a frame made with craft paper strips and Figure 10 shows one made with Celluclay requiring innovative support while drying.

Step 4: Prepare and Install the The Rim Ring

Unless you are incredibly good at making flat circular surfaces with paper maché you will need to add a wooden ring to provide a mounting surface for the drum head on the top of the drum. If you don't, chances are you will have buzzing, clicking or other unpleasant sounds when playing the drum.

Trace the shape of the top onto a piece of plywood and cut it out on a band saw (or any other saw you have that will work). You now have a circular piece of wood.

Drill a hole in the center part of the circular piece and get a blade in there to cut out the inner circle. A jigsaw would work but a scroll saw is ideal for this job (Figure 11).

Sand the ring to remove rough spots and round off the top edge so the head will not be stretched over a sharp edge.

Test fit the rim ring and make any size or shape adjustments with sandpaper (or a belt sander if you have one).

Run a bead of glue around the top of the drum (l mixed up a small batch of JB Weld). You only need enough to level out any non-flat spots and to make contact with the wood ring (Figure 12).

Place the rim ring on the glue and set a weight on it to push it onto the glue (Figure 13). Let the glue set at least for several hours.

Step 5: Cut and Install the Drumhead

Cut a circular piece of rawhide goatskin to a diameter about two inches larger than the mounting ring. This allows about an inch of overhang all around. If the overhang is only a half an inch, you can probably get away with it. You can do this before or after attaching the ring to the top of the drum (Figure 14).

Toss the drum head in cool water and let it soak until it becomes soft and pliable. There is no need to heat the water. It takes only about five minutes for it to soften up (Figure 15).

Now for the fun part. This will be easier if you have a helper but it is possible to do it by yourself.

Place the wet goatskin over the ring and fold over one side against the shell. Drive a staple in with a staple gun to hold it in place.

Note: Put the staples in fairly close to the top the drum to make them easier to cover up with some kind of trim.

Go to the opposite side of the drum and tightly pull the skin over the rim and against the shell. Drive in another staple. Now rotate the shell 90°, stretch and staple the skin. Rotate the shell 180° and stretch and staple. You now have four staples in the drum, 90° apart (Figure 16).

Now work you way around the drum, going in between previously installed staples, and keep stretching and stapling in the head in place, always to one location between existing staples, then move to the opposite side and do that location. You follow the same pattern you would use if you know how to tighten the lug nuts on a car wheel.

Do not spare the staples. Keep putting them in until there is no more room for staples (Figure 17).

Now use scissors or a knife to cut off all extra skin remaining below the staple line.

Let the head dry and shrink overnight (or at least 8-12 hours). DO NOT PLAY THE DRUM WHILE THE HEAD IS WET OR YOU CAN LOOSEN IT. I warned you.

Step 6: Finish the Drum

You have a lot of options for trimming the head to cover the staples. Twine, hemp, jute, yarn, leather or anything you can think of can work and look good. For those materials, use brush some white glue around the area over the staples and wrap your trim material on. You may need to brush on a little more glue when you are done to keep it in place.

For this job, I used a wide rubber band that happened to fit perfectly and required no glue (Figure 18).

The sky is the limit when choosing how to finish the shell. You can paint it pretty much any time after the shell is dry or you can wait until the end. I tend to prefer simple solid colors but how you proceed is up to you. Figure 19 shows a finished drum. I call it The Coelacanth because its shape reminds me of that prehistoric "living fossil" fish (sort of). Note the sound holes. Since the drum is meant to sit on the floor when played, it needed some way for the sound to escape the shell.

This instructable just scratches the surface of what is possible using these basic techniques. Drums of just about any shape and size are conceivable and alternative designs using other natural skins or synthetic materials such as Mylar for drum heads are well within the realm of possibility. What kind of art drum will you make?

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