How to install new skin heads on your hand drums.
by Miguel Ruiz
Taking good care of your hand drums and getting the maximum life out of the heads means that you should tune down the tension on your heads in between gigs or practice sessions. Nevertheless, you're probably going to reach a point where the heads need changing, due either to breakage or because your drums just don't sound as good as they used to.
The simplest method is to purchase a replacement head that has already been mounted on the skin wire. All you have to do remove your old head, seat the new head on the drum, and tighten down the lugs with this option. For those who prefer to use a synthetic head, there are some excellent varieties available nowadays.
However, if you have access to skin heads, you can prepare your own replacement without a great deal of effort. Don't discard the old head; instead soak it in lukewarm water until you can remove the skin wire ring. You'll also need a pair of needle-nosed pliers and a very sharp utility or X-acto knife. Just take your time and go easy.
1.) Get a good skin head. For congas, cowhide is generally used. For bongos, use thinner calf or goat skin. Soak your old heads in lukewarm water until the head is pliable enough to work with. This takes approximately a couple of hours for bongo heads, and 6-8 hours for thicker conga heads. Lay the skin wire on top of your skin head as shown in figure 1.
2.) Fold and gather the skin around the skin wire, place the counterhoop over the wire and skin, and pull the skin between the wire and counterhoop on top as in figure 2.
3.) Place the head, skin wire, and hoop assembly that you have created over the top of the drum as in figure 3. Check that the skin and hoop are even all the way around. Attach the lugs.
4.) Using the pliers, pull the skin nice and tight all the way around the drum. Make sure all folds and wrinkles are pulled out.
5.) The final and most CRITICAL step. Using the hoop as your guide, use your knife to cut away the excess skin as shown in figure 5. BE CAREFUL, always cut away from yourself, and take care not to slip and cut the head. Even the slightest of nicks can ruin the skin. Let the head dry. This usually takes about 24 hours or so. After checking that the head is dry, tune the head up the rest of the way. At some point, rub a little hand lotion containing lanolin into the head. This helps the head retain its natural pliability, protecting it and your hands as well. Happy drumming!
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