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Djembe Skinning Guide

Djembe Skinning Guide

Welcome to our guide on skinning a djembe. Here you will find step by step instructions and tips for how to put a skin on a rope-tuned African drum.

We will be using our Whole Hide African Goat Skins on some of our Pro Series Djembe Shells for this guide, but many of the basic ideas in this guide are applicable to dununs and other rope-tuned African drums also.

For experienced drum builders looking for more than the basics, please see our Advanced Studies Djembe Building Page.

Steps:

Step 1: Gather the necessary materials
Step 2: Begin soaking your skin
Step 3: Wrap your rings
Step 4: Create top and bottom ring loops
Step 5: Thread part of your main vertical
Step 6: Mount your skin
Step 7: Finish threading your main vertical
Step 8: Pull your skin tight
Step 9: Finish skin and let it dry
Step 10: Tune it up and enjoy

 

Step 1: Gather the necessary materials

For this guide we'll be starting with a fully carved shell that already has a shaped bearing edge and the bottom ring welded on the shell. For information on both of these steps please see our Djembe Bearing Edge Guide and our Djembe Bottom Ring Solutions page.

If you are reskinning a djembe you may have some of these materials already. We'll be starting with our shell, rings, rope for top and bottom ring loops, cloth for wrapping the rings, rope for the main vertical, and a hairless whole hide African goat skin (available here). We'll also be using a new razor blade, a lighter, and either tape or a stretchy rubber tube a bit later on.

Step 2: Begin soaking your skin

Place your skin fully under water. We do this in a big sink and put a weight on the skin to keep it fully submersed. The soak time will depend on how thick the skin is. A good rule of thumb is to soak the skin overnight. It won’t hurt it if its in the water for up to three days, and we’ve seen skins soaked for as little as 30 minutes and re-headed on a djembe during an intermission, but overnight is optimal.  The skin is ready to work with once it is floppy and hangs loose like a wet towel when you pick it up.

Skins that are very thick like steer, water buffalo, and cow hides will not get as floppy as thin goat skins will. Thicker skins will also swell up, and sometimes double in thickness when they’re wet so you have to take this into account when you are sizing your rings.

Step 3: Wrap your rings

Take your cloth and make long strips about 2-3 inches wide and at least 3 or 4 feet long. Next fold it in half so you will have only one frayed edge which will be the edge that you cover up as you begin your wrap, leaving a clean trailing edge. Use a small piece of tape to anchor the strip to the ring, and begin wrapping the cloth around the ring. When you make it around the ring, use a tiny amount of glue on the last inch to glue it down. Or you can tape the end, or even tie a small knot and then cover it up with a loop of rope in the next step. Both of the top rings and the bottom ring should be wrapped to prevent slippage, rust, and to improve the look of the finished djembe.

Step 4: Create top and bottom ring loops

For a standard rope-tuned system, a.k.a. the Mali weave, begin by making loops on the bottom ring and one of the top rings. The length of rope that you will need for your rings will depend on their size and how many loops you want to put on them. We like to use about 15 feet of rope per ring for a full size djembe. Check out our Advanced Studies Djembe Building page for some alternative options on your loops.
 
Be sure to make the same number of loops on the top and bottom rings, with the top ring loops spaced about twice as far apart as the bottom ring loops. A good rule of thumb is to have your bottom loops about one finger apart and your top loops two fingers apart. The more loops you put, the closer together your main vertical rope will end up looking. We like to end up with anywhere from 20-30 loops for a full size djembe.

To begin making your loops find the middle point of the piece of rope you'll be using and fold it around the ring. Pull the rest of the rope through the loop that this creates to make your anchor. From the anchor you can go either left or right first, and if you started in the middle of the piece of rope as we did you'll do your loops in one direction and then the other so that the two ends of the rope meet on the opposite side of the ring from your anchor.

Once the ring is full of loops and your ends have met you can tie them together with a square knot. Remember that a square knot is two half knots done opposite each other so that the knot gets tighter as the ends are pulled. You can seal the knot as you wish. We like to use a lighter to melt the ends of our rope and stick it down to itself, but beware trying this on cotton-core or other non-meltable kinds of rope.
 

Step 5: Thread part of your main vertical

You can make this whole skinning process much easier by threading part of your main vertical before you mount your skin. The idea is to thread an many loops as you can while leaving enough of a gap and enough slack that you can easily pull your top ring over your skin once you have mounted it.
 
Before you thread the rope through the loops make sure of two things. First make sure the rings are facing the right way (see photo), as it’s easy for first timers to put the rings on upside-down. And then secondly, you want all your knots to be lined up. So the knots on the top ring, the bottom ring, and the anchor or end of the rope will all be lined up. (And then later on the spine of the goatskin will line up with these knots, and the drum will generally be played with all the unsightly knots facing the back of the drum and not visible from the front.)
 
We like to start at the center point of the rope and thread in each direction until about two-thirds of the loops have been threaded. Keep enough slack in the rope that you can get the top ring off when you pull it to the side of the drum, letting the top of the shell come through the unthreaded part of the main vertical. Remember to thread your main vertical the correct way on your loops, as seen in the pictures.
 

Step 6: Mount your skin

 
Your skin is ready to mount when it is nice and floppy and hangs loose like a wet towel when you pick it up. Hang it up or shake it out for a few minutes so that it is workable but not dripping.

Pre-stretch you skin! This is the point in the process where you want to “pre-stretch” your skin a bit. Take the skin and wring or knead it. Oftentimes in Africa drum makers will walk on it with their feet, and we’ve seen some drum makers put it in a washing machine to achieve this result. If you think about it, the skin has been dry and crispy and you are basically re-training it to move and to expand and contract again.

A side benefit to pre-stretching is that if you have any thin or weak spots or bug bites, they will open up or tear at this point. Don’t fret, you can choose to mount the skin so those spots are not on the actual playing surface, or if it’s in the middle of the skin you’ll see it at this point in the process and save yourself hours of work.  This crucial step is often overlooked, and is the chief reason why skins split in the final tuning during a re-head. Done properly, pre-stretching can also help keep the drum in tune later on, as you’ve already taken the slack out of the skin so it stays at maximum tension with little stretch.

Decide which side of the shell you want to be front facing and lay your skin over the bearing edge (top) with the spine running down the center and the hair (if using hairy skin) pointing toward the front facing side of the shell. You want the spine running down the center of the drum because in theory the thickness of the skin will then be the most even where your hands will be playing the drum, which allows for the most consistent tones between your left and right hands.

Place your wrapped top ring (flesh hoop) over the skin and fold the portion of the skin outside of the ring inward around the ring so that it bunches up in the center. While keeping the skin bunched, grab the ring with your top loops and pull it up and over the skin so that it lines up with the ring that is now wrapped in the skin (flesh hoop). Once you've got it looking centered and even flip everything upside down to finish threading the main vertical rope.

Step 7: Finish threading your main vertical

With your drum upside down, finish threading your main vertical rope. Choose an end (usually the shorter end) to become your anchor loop and thread until you've met the longer end that will become your tail (a.k.a. diamond rope).


There are several ways of making your anchor loop, but we prefer this way because it gives you lots of flexibility if you need to work on the rope later on. Tie the knot seen in the video, put the other end of your vertical through the loop created by the knot, and pull it just tight enough to stay in place. Until you pull the excess slack out of your skin you will need the rope to be loose, so don't tighten anything yet!
 

Step 8: Pull your skin tight

 
With your main vertical rope threaded all the way around your drum, pull the excess skin as hard as you can to take out the slack in the skin in the center of the ring. You want the skin to be as evenly tensioned as possible, but you also want the spine to remain centered, so watch for both as you pull all the wrinkles out.

Once the excess skin has been pulled out you can also pull the slack out of your main vertical rope. Start where your anchor loop is. The knot should be big enough to prevent it from being pulled through the top loops. The tension on your main vertical comes from pulling it against this knot at first. Go all the way around the drum several times pulling as much slack out as you can by hand each time until the main vertical rope is hand tight, evenly tensioned, and your skin remains centered and even. Pay close attention to your bottom ring and try to balance the tension around your main vertical so that your bottom ring remains centered on the shell.
 
Where should the top ring be during this last step of the mounting process? We like to mount the top ring even with the playing surface. This will come down as you tune it later, to a nice and clean one inch “gap” which is the distance between the ring and playing surface. Mounting the ring too low at this stage will make a large and unsightly gap.

Step 9: Finish skin and let it dry

 
There are two main ways to finish your skin, the traditional cut (seen in the video above) and the wrapover (seen in the video below). Either way will work just fine, the choice is just about what kind of look you want the drum to have.

To finish the skin with a traditional cut make sure you've got your rope work hand tight and your skin pulled and centered how you want it. Once you make your cut you cannot go back, so be very careful to make it even and to leave yourself enough skin. If you cut it too close you run the risk of the skin slipping around the rings and coming undone when you tune up the drum. If you leave the skin too long it may stick back up around the bearing edge of the drum when you tune the drum, but you can always clip it back with scissors, so better to leave it too long than too short. Grab a fresh razor blade and make your initial cut leaving yourself enough skin to make a second, closer cut. You can use your top rings as a guide but be careful not to nick your rope with the razor blade! Once the cut is even and you are happy with it, wrap the whole top ring/flesh hoop area with something like clear packing tape to keep the skin from slipping around the rings while everything dries.

To finish the skin with a wrapover you'll most likely want to use an extra length of rope to make a top circle that will rest above your top rings in the wrapover. Doing this makes the skin fold more evenly away from your bearing edge and makes the wrapover look better, because without it the wrapover rests on just your top ring loops. Use a single length of rope and make it just big enough to fit around the bearing edge of the drum once without doubling over. Tie it using two of the same knots you used on the top and bottom ring loops, or a square knot (bulkier). With this rope piece in place and your skin and rope tension even, wrap the excess skin over the rope and top rings and pull it straight down around the drum. Try to get all of the tension out, and watch for folds and other signs of uneven tension. Pull the skin as hard as you can until it is hanging down around the drum evenly. At this point you want to use some sort of tie to put around the wrapover (below the top rings) to keep the skin tight against the drum while it dries. We like to use a piece of stretchy rubber, but rope, tape, and other methods work just fine. Try to get the tie as tight as possible to ensure that when you cut the excess skin away the wrapover stays tight against the drum.

Your skin will dry into whatever shape you leave it in, so really work at it until everything is as even as possible. When you are happy with it, put the drum in a safe place to dry and wait patiently. This part of the process is where many people have trouble, because they don't give their skins enough time to dry before cranking up the tension on the drum and the little bit of moisture that is still in the skin around the flesh hoop causes the skin to slip around the rings. We like to allow 10-14 days for the skin to dry, but if you live in a warm, dry area then it may be ready sooner. We let our drums dry indoors at room temperature. Even when the skin looks totally dry there can still be moisture around the rings. Proceed with the last step only when you are confident that every last bit of moisture is gone from the skin.
 

Step 10: Tune it up and enjoy


Once your skin is completely dry you are ready to crank up your drum and start playing it. Remove the tape or rubber tie and find your anchor knot. If you finished the skin with a wrapover then your anchor knot may be up under the wrapover. This is fine, leave it there and begin on the next vertical, pulling your tension against the knot which should not be able to fit through the top loop.

The idea with the initial is to gradually dial up the tension with each pass, always being sure to keep even tension as you go around, and watching to be sure that one side isn’t pulling down more than the other. Start by getting it hand tight, then switch to a tool such as a stick, Clamcleat Puller, or Djembe Pulling Bar. Take your time, and go around 3 or 4 times. Keep your anchor knot snug against the top loop that keeps it from pulling through until the last pass.

All new skins go through an initial stretch period. After the first initial tuning, let it sit for a couple days and then tighten the verticals again. This gives the skin time to acclimate and gradually stretch before reaching cruising altitude. Rushing this part of the process is where you often see split skins during the final tune.

We use specialized tools for tuning, available on this page. Each tool has its own method, but the idea is always to keep raising the tension on the main vertical rope. In most cases you will raise the tension on the main vertical as high as you can with the tools that you have and then start putting in diamonds if you want the drum to be even tighter.

The tools allow you to have more leverage than you can get by just pulling at the rope, but if you don't have any tools available you can still tune your drum up effectively by hand. Just follow our Djembe Tuning Guide to learn how to put in rows of diamonds, which take minimal physical effort and can still get your drum up to a very high tuning. Diamonds are also the method that you'll want to use on a drum that already has a skin on it and just needs to be tuned higher.

We recommend that you take your skin up to tension gradually, so that the skin has time to stretch and level out as it gets tighter. You'll notice that when you tune it for the first time the top rings will lower relative to the bearing edge of the drum, and that when you come back to the drum after first tuning it the drum will be at a lower pitch than when you left it. This is all part of the process of the skin settling into place. We tune our drums 2 to 4 times before they stabilize completely, but once the drum stabilizes it shouldn't take more than a couple of diamonds every couple of weeks to keep it sounding like a master drum.

With your drum freshly skinned and tuned you are ready for action. See our Djembe Care & Maintenance page for more information and our selection of Drum Building Supplies and African Drum Accessories for all of your Djembe and African drum needs.
 
 
 
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