it's many a year since any drummer worth his/her salt was able to say they would 'bash those skins' and mean precisely that. remo belli, founded remo drumheads in 1957 and spent many of the following years trying fearlessly to introduce the plastic (mylar) drumhead to a market that had relied entirely on stretched calfskin since the advent of the drumset in the early part of the 20th century.
for many drummers, the remo drumhead was manna from heaven, while others, traditional to the last, held onto the calfskin option for as long as they could. the advent of rock'n'roll in the early sixties no doubt aided remo belli in his marketing attempts, since here was an entirely new breed of drummer, no longer, quite literally hide bound by tradition.
natural drum heads were often the bane of the earnest percussionist, for though the sound produced from calfskin is arguably superior to that of plastic, the former suffered greatly from the vicissitudes of both temperature and humidity. neither of those had any effect on mylar, meaning a drumset could be tuned on receipt and pretty much remain that way for days if not weeks on end. remo have been joined by a number of competitors, most notably aquarian and evans and it is of great testament to the legacy of the deposed calfskin head that both remo and aquarian have attempted on several occasions to produce a plastic head that emulates the traditional model not only in sound but visually.
drum construction, however, has remained almost entirely traditional with both steam bent single ply shells and multiple ply, glued shells taking precedence. british made drums historically were predominantly made from birch, based mostly on the ready availability of that particular wood in the uk, while north america has relied pretty much on maple, a remarkably common wood across the larger continent. oddly, despite its reputation as perhaps the most versatile of wood types, very few drum companies have fashioned drums from ash, one that might have been expected to feature heavily in the uk, where ash is almost ubiquitous in all walks of life.
but that's not to say that ash hasn't featured in the percussive world at all.
robert penn is perhaps well-known amongst velocipedinists for his previous book, 'it's all about the bike', in which he documented his worldwide componentry search to pursue 'happiness on two wheels. this was also the subject of a television documentary. mr penn is probably the only author i can think of, who could successfully write a book in which the hero is a rather large ash tree.
this is not a work of fiction in which we learn of the allegorical arborial travels of said ash tree, but a remarkably engaging tale of what happened to the tree after felling and the subsequent conversion of its sawn planks into a variety of utilitarian artefacts, the precise number of which penn enumerates in the final chapter. it's an impressive total.
robert penn purchased a small wood on the edge of the black mountains in south wales. "The woodland is on a south-facing slope. Fields and moorland enclose it on two sides... Mixed deciduous trees, including rarely planted species, are arranged haphazardly. Perhaps trees have stood here for a very long time."
as the third most common broad-leaved tree in britain and historically used in the making of "ladders, tent pegs, butcher's blocks, boat hooks, beanpoles, looms, bobbins, sieve rims, fishing rods..." and at least eight other items listed by penn in his opening chapter. even roald amundsen made dog sleds out of ash for his successful 1911 expedition to the south pole. the point is well made that the wood's ubiquity is pretty much all-encompassing, even if i do not own any ash wood drums.
as the owner of a wood containing several ash trees, penn decided "...the best way to learn more about the ash tree was to fell one." 'the man who made things out of trees' is perhaps a slightly misleading title, for though the book goes on to document the many uses to which penn's ash tree is put, in point of fact, it is not mr penn who does the making.
though his travels do eventually bring him into contact with folks who construct bicycle frames out of wood (these won't be seen in the peloton anytime soon, principally on the basis of their weight being around 2kg), i'm hanging on the tenuous thread that robert penn is a published cycling author and that at least a portion of his ash tree is placed in the hands of a traditional wheelwright. though the resulting wheels are ostensibly destined for some form of horse-drawn vehicle ("The wooden wheel is one of the greatest technological advances in the chronicle of the human race..."), on appraising the wood brought to wheelwright phill gregson, it seems there was some hope that the welsh-grown ash tree would find some service in the bicycle world "This 1-inch board has got lovely straight grain. I'll steam-bend it, to make some wooden bicycle wheels."
throughout this particular chapter, in a formula that is repeated across the remainder of the book, penn investigates the history of that which is about to be made from his tree and of its makers. in this case, the wheel and its builders. because robert himself is obviously fascinated with every possible aspect of the skills demonstrated by the myriad of craftsmen he meets and indeed the heritage of the industries in which they exist, as a reader there is no other choice but to inhabit his world. compulsive would be something of an understatement.
the size of penn's felled ash provides an almost endless opportunity for a set of comprehensive narratives where the wood becomes cereal bowls for the penn family, a writing desk, tent pegs and an arrow. penn also visits a baseball bat workshop in north america, a toboggan fabricator in austria and an irish hurling stick maker. for reasons pertaining to distance and specific wood requirements, not all of these situations were able to make use of the black mountain ash, even though all traditionally use the wood at the centre of their world.
part of the restrictions concerned the very real threats to ash trees in europe via ash die-back and in north america with the presumably accidental but devastating introduction of the emerald ash borer beetle. the former has already infiltrated the united kingdom; the latter has yet to be seen on these shores, but penn's postscript posits that it may well be only a matter of time.
'the man who made things out of trees' is a fascinating read, made all the more so by penn's infectious narrative style. he is well-versed in the intracacies of wood, something of a dying art it seems and if the book comes across as a subliminal means of instilling the same delights in its readers, then that is something to be loudly applauded in my opinion. i was left with the embarrassing knowledge that i knew remarkably little about the many roles ash has played and continues to play in our daily existence, it is a situation for which we should be truly grateful. i also know a few more arcane and eminently quotable facts about baseball that had previously escaped me.
and it could well explain in a convoluted way, why i now have this overweening need to fit my wooden drumset with calfskin heads.
thursday 5 november 2015..........................................................................................................................................................................................................