Conga Drum Build

RHD Custom Conga

I recently completed a mini conga drum.? It was my first attempt at this type of drum, so I’m happy to report that it was very successful.? Using my sort of signature flare, I built the conga the same way I build djembes – with different sections.? After thinking long and hard about how congas are traditionally built, the problems that arise with traditional built congas, and my own skill set, I decided on keeping RHD congas consistent with the image I’ve built for Rhythm House Drums through my djembes, ashikos, and other drums… I think this might be a big advantage to the construction process as well as have that signature look.

Edit: I have since built a set of these mini congas and the feedback was great. So good in fact that I took on building full size congas as well. After you read this wonderful article on the difference of these RHD congas vs the others, come on over to the conga page and check out whats for sale.

Conga Construction Breakdown:

So Here Goes –

Congas are made in a variety of ways, and here I’ve outlined some of the different methods used to build a conga and how my congas will be different. Steam bending the wooden slats to give the desired shape, and cutting the staves to give the shape both end with a final stave that has the same shape out of a single piece of wood.? Solid wood congas are rare but are available by some very talented artists – this method uses one large solid chunk of wood and the drum is shaped on a lathe.? More modern congas (the mass produced ones) are built in two ways – wooden ply or fiberglass.? I’ll break it down a little more in this next section.

Steam Bending the Conga Shell:

This process is one of the older processes.? At one point congas were cut out of solid planks of wood, and would be assembled around a fire.? The fire would heat the inside of the shell pulling moisture out of the wood and causing it to shrink while the outside stayed moist and would flex.? Rings would be forced around the drum to help pull it to shape, then the drum would be left.? When everything cooled off? the rings would be removed and the slats would somewhat retain their shape – despite a small amount of spring back.? Then the glue up process would begin..

This process has it’s benefits and flaws as well.? A major benefit is that the grain of the wood is consistent all the way down, like a flat board.? This gives the drum a very smooth / uniform look.? The process is also fairly easy to do, and with more modern steam benders – pretty quick.

The downside is that there is always spring back.? The stave really wants to be in it’s natural position.? When bending, you are crunching one side of the stave and elongating the other.. this causes tension.? This is why you see metal bands around congas to keep the staves where they are at.

Cutting Slats for the Conga:

Cutting the slats as opposed to bending them is another common way to build these Latin drums.? To do this, you have to start with a thicker stave of wood.? Picture a large block of wood that you can draw the shape on, then cut it out.. One would think that by cutting the stave this way you would not have internal tension that you do with a steam bent shell… however, because you cut through the grain at different angles (the curve) you are opening up the possibility for twisting and shifting.? The tension is not to spring back, but to twist as the humidity changes and climate takes its toll.? More stable than steam bending, but with new issues arising.

Another plus for cutting the slats is that you can control better the thickness of the wall.. and you also end up with a rougher interior – Only having to smooth the outside.? The rougher interior is one of many trade ‘secrets’ to a warm conga sound.? Deciding where the drum walls are thinner or thicker is also a way to fine tune the overall sound.

Congas from Solid Wood:

Solid wood construction is not readily available for conga drums.? This method takes one solid body of wood and works the inside hollow.? In my opinion this style makes the most beautiful drums, as it really shows off the grain and the natural beauty of wood.? The outside, and sometimes the inside, is shaped on a large lathe.? I believe this method gives the best potential for an excellent conga.? The artisan has complete control over the shape as it’s being turned and can therefor shape the drum exactly as wanted.? This, combined with a beautiful grain pattern stemming from a solid vessel makes these drums hard to beat…

So what’s the downside…. They’re hard to find.? There are only a few drum smiths that build congas this way – It takes specialized equipment and time.? Drying a solid shell conga can take close to a year – usually 1 year for every inch of wall thickness.? Typical wall thickness would be between .5 and .75 inches.. so about 6 – 10 months – just for the shell to dry.? When it does dry, it can shrink and warp, this will make each drum unique – but with good planning one can do final shaping after the shell is dry.

Modern Laminate Ply Congas:

Most all the congas you find in music stores or major online retailers are production builds.? In my opinion this takes away from a drum.? The goal with these companies is to minimize cost and gain profits… so typically you find poor quality construction, lots of advertising, and a pretty finish – not to mention overseas work labor.? These production drums are made from thin plies of wood, somewhat like plywood, where the thin staves are set into a mold, perhaps 5-10 sections and glued together.? The thin stave is easy to bend, so gluing 10 of them together gets a nice sturdy stave – well.. as nice and sturdy as plywood.

The staves are then glued up with the same methods used for the steam bent and solid wood.

The good side – They’re cheap (usually) and plentiful? available almost anywhere.
The bad – Typically sound unnatural and not as warm as real wood congas – the difference between one companies mid line and most expensive, is a lot of advertising, perhaps different looking hardware, and hype from, well, lots of advertising.

Even More Modern Fiberglass:

Built for the same purposes as above – they do have some positive points.? One is that they are very lightweight.. which is a good thing if you are a gigging drummer toting around 3 congas to each session.? The other positive is the sound.? Though not very melodic, if you are playing live, the fiberglass really projects the sound.? You get a louder conga with minimal effort.? Again, if you are a gigging drummer – fiberglass congas probably have a lot of appeal.

How they’re built.. out of fiberglass resin and molds – :) I really don’t know much more about it…

How RHD Congas are Different:

The congas I am building are different than any other method currently used to make them.? I use multiple straight sections to form the shape that I need.? I cut the slats the same, but smaller requiring no cutting through grain or steam bending.? The sectional design gives me great control over the final shape, the wall thickness, and the stability of each section is solid – not requiring banding.? This method lets me be creative in my designs and even inlay wood rings to mimic the old school banding that a lot of people have grown to love about the congas.

Check it out!

Mini Conga Photo
Mini Conga Shell

This conga was somewhat of a prototype.? It satisfied the customers needs and let me go through the process of building one. It’s smaller than a regular, full size drum, at only 28 inches tall.? I love the size, weight, portability, and sound of this and just might build these as a set of portable mini’s.? I like the rope tuning, it keeps it lightweight and if a set is rolling around in your trunk, there is no metal to gouge the wood or stick in the skin (not that anyone would put these in their trunk).?? For the full size version I’ll probably be doing custom stainless steel conga hardware (still working on sourcing it), and offering the rope tuning as a custom option – along with rope color, inlay, wood type, etc. the way I do djembes.

This is the first step in what I hope to be a fulfilling journey.? Check out how this little guy stands up to some full size LP Matadors in this quick conga demo.

I’d love some feedback and comments about where I’m going with this.?? I’ve seen more than a few excellent conga conga builders that start building African drums and just miss the mark.? I specialize in African styled drums and am now branching out to Latin drums.? What I don’t want to do is be known as the guy that builds excellent djembes – but stay away from his congas.?? So when I do this, I’m going to do it right!? Your input / advice / comments and questions will only make this better for all of us.

If you’d like to be one of the first to get a set of my congas please contact me – They’re going to be hot!

9 thoughts on “Conga Drum Build

  1. Dave Bullard says:

    Sounds pretty great to me!
    I think that that this may be what I’ve wanted for years.
    I also happen to be local. Can we set up a time to where I can see your work in person? I understand that this one is for a client so I don’t expect that I would get to play it….

    • Kevin Brown says:

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I love getting them :) I’m more than happy to build one like it… In fact, I’d love to build a set of three – like a portable mini conga getup. You want to get the first ever set??? :)

      • ken long says:

        as you know, i got a pair of the mini’s and an XL ashiko for some warm bass, and the trio were the hit of the drum circle all last week, where i use drums to help teach about trading the markets; the drums filled the room and were a nice complement to the djembes. the custom box ashiko you made was simply amazing, a brilliant piece of work!

  2. Darren Swanson says:

    I think this drum looks and sounds great. I’ve been trying to find a design to embark on my first go at making one. Could you give me any tips or recommend any tutorials? Cheers.

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