Building a Djembe – Start to Finish

Djembe Photo - Artistic

I’m so excited to be reporting on this drum build.? It was somewhat of a rush job…on a time crunch, but I had been wanting to document a complete build from rough lumber to completed djembe for a while… well, with the aid of my iPhone I was able to get the photos as I worked.? This drum was especially… special… because I did some carvings I don’t normally do, as well as added in some custom metal work.? Of course I got in my professional final photos at the end of the process and a few artistic shots because this djembe deserved it!? My drumming abilities aside, I also recorded a short video of myself playing this drum to showcase its wonderful texture and dynamic range.

To check out the video, scroll to the bottom of this page.

Be warned!? This post has lots of photos so may take some time to load.? I’ve optimized them as best as possible, but with 30+ photos, its sure to still be slower than normal.

Djembe wood DryingSo here goes.? This first photo is actually cedar wood drying.? I wanted to include it because this is how I get in my rough walnut lumber as well.. I had already pulled the walnut wood so I wanted to still show that after hand pick this rough lumber from a local sawyer, I sticker it like in this photo for about two weeks to make sure the relative humidity in the wood matches the shops humidity.? Otherwise I could end up with problems down the road.

Walnut Lumber for drumThe next photo shows the rough walnut wood pulled out and marked with estimated amounts I’ll be able to get out of each board and whether I’ll use that board for the top bowl (T) or the base (B).? I check the wood carefully for characteristics and imperfections to get the absolute most out of the lumber with minimal waste.? The wood you see here is enough to get two of my RHD Djembes.? I acutally started this with two drums, but ended up finishing the project with only one drum as it was on a time crunch and I have some room with the second djembe.? I’m still working on the second.

After I have determined how much wood I’ll need for the djembe, I need to mill it down to workable slats.? There are many ways to do this, but this is what I’ve found works well for me.? I start by cutting the boards to a rough length, so they are easier to manage on the table saw.

Miter SawRough wood Cut for drum staves

?Sorry if my shop seems messy… it is!? :)? I have a TINY shop measuring just under 300 square feet and this includes room for storage.? I do everything in here from lessons to my product shots to building drums.? Organization is key.. and I don’t even have a key chain.? I go through weeks of picking up after myself and having a tidy shop, to weeks of not being able to see the floor.? I’ve recently started doing lessons out here, so that inspires me to stay clean… now to just get organized…

After I cut my boards to length, I have to get them square, flush, parallel, level, …perfect.? Any bit of imperfection at this early stage carries over to every other process making my final steps not work well.? The first step to getting these boards the way I want is jointing one edge perfectly flat.? This is my starting point for all other operations.? Here the photos show the rough edge and then the edge after its been pushed through the jointer.

edge jointing 1 edge jointing 2 edge jointing 3

Alright, I’ve got all my boards cleaned up on one edge so I know I’ll be square to the table saw fence.? My next process is to cut these boards into equal widths that will eventually become the slats or staves for my djembe.

clean edges cutting slats


You can seerough djembe blanks that I’ve got two piles going here.? Like I said, this is the wood for two djembes.? The larger slats are for the bowl of the djembe, and the smaller slats are for the bottom half, often referred to as a trumpet, base, down tube, foot, etc.? Now that I’ve got my walnut wood cut to the right length and width, it’s time to make sure the faces of these boards are level and parallel to one another.? For this step, I go back to the jointer for one face to make sure it’s flat and level, then I send the wood through a planer to surface the other face, making both faces parallel and flat!

This photo shows one of the many reasons I love building drums.? The first photo shows the rough walnut, the next shows the same piece after it has gone through my jointer and been cleaned up.? I love how the grain pops, and then it pops again and the color really comes out after it’s sanded smooth and oiled.. but hang tight, we’ll get there..

face jointingface jointing 2

When you’ve got a kid this cute.. you just gotta take breaks from the drum and snap a few shots of girls goofin off.? …Hey, I’m a small family business, this girl is my inspiration to try new ideas, and stick it out even when sales are down…? So yeah, it’s relative!? Love you Adelaide!

adelaide1 adelaide2 adelaide3

Ok, back to ththickness plane woode lab again… This shows the before and after of the wood being surfaced through the planer.? This is a thickness planer so this is where I can adjust the thickness of the slats.? The lumber I usually get is about 7/8″ thick actual measurements, but sometimes has slight twists or cups in it, so planing it down is necessary.? I usually plane my slats down to… well.. it’s a secret, and acutally varies per drum and per section of drum I’m doing.? The tonal variances of wood is different with different species so this is taken into account also.? OK, it’s not really a secret, but is different depending on the project, and if you are wanting to buwalnut wood ready to be djembe drumild one, then experiment!

Here is my beautiful stack of ex-rough lumber.? Its now smooth, square, and ready to be turned into staves for the djembe.? Up until this point has been pretty standard woodworking routine for getting rough boards into a workable block.? Nothing too exciting about it, other than the knowledge and excitement of whats to come.

I guess now would be a good time to mention that all the sizes and specs that I use for building my drums are my own designs and calculations.? I’ve developed, over the years, what works and what does not to get the best sound possible from the drum.? There is a bit of insanity that must be present in someone who tackles something like this. It’s not easy, it’s not quick, it’s not cheap.? It’s hard work and as rewarding as it is… there are tons of headaches.? Whether it be a machine not working properly or hidden tension hiding in the wood that only comes out a day after you’ve milled it down.. or when you forget to measure twice before you cut.? Working with organic substances is always a bit unpredictable.? I guess that’s part of the challenge / fun.

Part of this challenge that I love is building jigs to do what would otherwise be dangerous or just not possible.? I’ve built one such jig for cutting my tapers as the slats that I use are wider at the top than they are at the bottom because the drum itself is tapered.? There is a commercial taper jig available that I used for a few years, but was always a little ‘funky’ and never exact enough for me.? This jig I build glides int he tracks set in the table saw so there is no movement and no need to use the fence.? I have an adjustable fence built into the slide.? With this jig, the wood doesn’t move as its pushed through the saw blade, it’s clamped down tot he slide and the slide moves, this gives a much more accurate cut and is actually a lot safer as well.

sliding jig to build drum djembe staves cut

And all my slats cut for the two djembes, the bowl slats on the left, and the base slats on the right.

This is a good time to mention shop safety.? I love woodworking, but just as much, I enjoy drumming.? When things go wrong in the wood shop, they go wrong fast.? My table saw is a 240 volt 3hp saw.? That means if a chunk of wood gets caught in the wrong spot, tough turkey, the saw isn’t stopping.? I have invested in what I believe is one of the best table saws made.? Not only are they extremely accurate, well built and have an excellent dust collection attachment, these Saw Stop table saws have a break that activates if you touch the blade while it’s on.? Check this out…

I’ve seen too many shop teachers half a digit short.? This was a huge purchase for me, but one I feel was a sort of insurance plan to prevent an injury.? I would not be a happy camper not being able to drum…

Aside from the table saw, almost every other machine in my shop can cause serious injury if not paying attention.? These tools take time to learn and require a certain amount of respect when approached.? Never rush a simple task, it’s just not worth the risk.? Always follow safety guidelines for your specific tool if you are getting into woodworking or venturing to build your own drum.

OK that’s out of the way lets get back to this djembe…

bevel jointed on edges

Here I’ve came back to the jointer after I cut the staves on the table saw.? For this operation I set my jointer fence to a specific angle and joint both edges to form the bevel or edge taper.? This will allow me to joint up multiple slats to make a round cylinder or cone.? There are other ways to do it, but I get the best results on my jointer.? I’ve seen it done on routers and even the table saw, but the jointer is made for, well, joints, so the edges are clean, flat, and just right for gluing up.

After I bevel all the staves I lay them out on the floor and align them paying close attention to grain, sap wood, and any other characteristics to make the drum flow better once its glued up.? This is a crazy optical illusion… in the photo below, showing the slats laid out, these are the bottom halves to both djembes, exactly the same number of staves and exactly the same size.? This catches me by surprise still and I have to recount and make sure I’ve cut things the same.? Something about this shape, I actually took a photo of something similar before and cut it in Photoshop and put one on top of the other to make sure.. and it aligns up perfect… just looks like the bottom row is much bigger.

layout djembe design

Once I’m happy with the grain pattern and the alignment of the slats, I’ll do a dry fit.? I just tape up the slats of wood and make sure I have cut my angles correct.? The the piece will the be size I intended and that it will form a nice tight circle top and bottom.? Sometimes I have to make minor adjustments here, this time they came out perfect.

dry fit djembe bottom Sections of djembes

After I glue the sections up and let them dry for a day or so, it’s time to smooth out the edges and start shaping up my drum.? This is where the math goes out the window and the creative juices start to flow.? Probably the most rewarding part of the drum building process for me is shaping the drum on the lathe.? Before I had a lathe, I would shape these by hand, I’ve actually only had the lathe for just over a year now.? It makes the process so much quicker and lets me get really creative and explore what I can do.turning djembe on lathe Bottom of drum 1

Above is the foot in its final carvings from the lathe.? Below I have added the custom wave carvings.? This is no regular drum.? This is a very special djembe built for a man with a wonder woman who is purchasing the drum.? I like to think of this djembe as the LOVE DJEMBE.? :)? Shes got me numbering the drum as 143 which is a code for I love you.? The custom metal bands that will be added are xoxoxo’s that we didn’t want to look too lovey, so they are somewhat abstract / tribal.? The wave carvings have significant meaning to the couple as well… it just makes me so happy to be able to offer something to somebody like this.? I LOVE getting custom orders which have meaning and feeling to the drum… they always turn out exceptional.

Bottom of drum 2

Here we go with the metal band.? The bottom half is still not oiled up or attached to the top.. looking at the photo now, I haven’t put in the tacks symbolizing the ‘o’ of the xoxoxo’s.? I’ll add small tacks to the middle of the x’s to complete the design.

metal work on djembe drum

Testing out the look of the top of the bowl, it’s not been attached yet, but I feel its a bit to bare for the bottom half, so I go back to the lathe to add some grooves.? I purposefully left out how I connect the top and the bottom.? I’ve put a lot into exactly what I do, and close inspection of my drums will reveal the ‘secrets ‘ to most any seasoned wood worker, but I never use screws, and my drums are SOLID.? This middle connection shapes the bottom of the bowl and opens up the sound hole to the foot.? It takes almost as long to build this middle section as it does the top or bottom, although when done, it seems fairly simple.? It’s one of the factors that helps my drums stand out from anything else that is mass produced and gives my drums a very authentic djembe sound.

rough drum top djembe sanded on lathe

My second favorite part of the djembe building process is oiling the djembe.? This is when all the work (for the shell) comes to an end and the fruits of my labor are so sweet.? This is where the grain pops, the character is defined and the djembe is born.? The photo bellow shows the djembe with a fresh coat of oil.? I use a danish oil which is a mix of linseed oil and additives to help it dry faster.? It’s a great go-to oil for walnut wood and seals the wood nice without leaving a glossy finish or a build up of fishing that ends up looking like plastic.? It keeps the wood looking like wood, which is a look I like!

Final djembe shell oiled

Bellow are my final photos of the completed shell and the final djembe.? I didn’t document the process of welding the rings and roping up the drum.? I do weld my own rings for each drum as the fit is very important to final sound / aesthetics.? After the rings are welded, they are wrapped with fabric (black in this case) and then knotted with rope (grey rope here).? Then I loop the main vertical rope (black) through the grey loop knots all the way around the drum.? I use the traditional Mali Weave for tuning the djembe head to get it to final pitch.

Scroll on down to the bottom to watch the video of this djembe being played.

Custom Vegan Djembe Shell

Vegan Djembe Metal Work CloseUp

Final Djembe Photo


I have thoroughly enjoyed building this djembe, and learned a bit too.? I’m often timid to do any hand carving, but I’m almost always please with the results.? Maybe I should do more of it.? It’s a very meditative process, and I find it very rewarding / enlightening.

This is what I do, this is who I am. -Kevin

I hope you enjoyed this documentary of a djembe build from start to finish.? My customers are my business, my dinner, my drive, my reason for doing what I do, and I look to you all as my inspiration.? This djembe was a collaboration of a loving soul and an artist with a heart open enough to see it through.


8 thoughts on “Building a Djembe – Start to Finish

  1. Michele says:

    The Love Djembe! Now that?s my kind of drum. Sweet!

    I so much enjoyed this. Learning how you turn beautiful but simple slabs of lumber into a stunning, dynamic djembe is awe-inspiring. The process truly makes my head spin. And the math involved…Oh! The Horror! I?ve mastered folding an origami crane…a 30-second commitment…an entire minute if I?m stuck in a churning mind cycle. I?m pretty sure I?d have tapped out after stacking the wood to dry in an endeavor like this. Kudos to you for such a labor of love that creates a wondrous work of art. But I have to tell you, Adelaide totally stole the show! :) She?s a swooning beauty!

    So glad you purchased the Saw Stop table saw. Chilling to think about fingers around those fast moving blades. Hmm…I?ve never been a fan of hot dogs (even soydogs don?t rate high on my grocery list) and I?m not sure I can trust them…they?ve been known to be full of crap (hahahaha) so don?t go testing the stop action in person. :)

    The grain really does pop. I adore how the light picks up the shades of blond and dark wood. The hand carvings are beautiful. I?m a big fan of the xoxoxo bands. His Drumming Highness would probably die a thousand deaths because I?m certain I?d have had you carve hearts of all shapes and sizes all over the drum. :) The wavy carvings for a tribal effect were a good call. The lucky fella receiving this drum will feel the Love <3 and yet still be able to bring his djembe into public without crushing his pride. :)

    This djembe is truly exceptional!

  2. Bernd Katter says:

    What a beautiful drum you?ve created! One thing I don?t understand: How does the middle connection piece look like? Is it also glued or made out of a whole woodpiece? What shape does it have?

    • Kevin Brown says:

      Thanks for the comment Bernd. I don’t show how I make this middle section for a reason. :) It’s taken me a while to figure out an excellent way to do this, and it’s sort of a signature of my Djembe drums. I haven’t seen any other drum builders use this method. It’s actually pretty complicated and takes about as much time to do as it does to do the rest of the drum. I love sharing what I do, but I also have to be careful about how much I share because this business feeds my family! :)) Hope you understand. -Kevin

  3. Ian Malcolm says:

    i have just built my first 12 sided drum. my son plays it and it is louder than the traditional one of same size.
    cheers Ian

  4. Timb says:

    Beautiful love Djemb?!
    Did you ever try to cut out circles and stack them to build a djemb?? I was wondering about that since I saw your report. If you did not, what are your thoughts about that way?

    • Kevin Brown says:

      Thank you. I’ve thought many times about building a drum that way. It would open up a lot of possibilities for style and pattern. However, it’s a lot of work and a lot of time to build a drum that way. There wouldn’t be any benefit to the sound of the drum, just the style. I’ve never tried it. :) Maybe one day!

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