Sacred Drum-Making

excerpt from Wightridden: Paths of Northern-Tradition Shamanism

If you would like to buy a ritually made shaman drum, I highly recommend Erik & Susanne's drums. Their website details their process for drummaking, and show the drums they have available. After writing this piece, my first world-walking drum was damaged beyond repair and I bought a drum from these fine craftsmen, called a spirit into her, and named her Talu. You can see a photo of Talu on the Shaman Drum website. Their drums are made in a traditional manner, and well suited to this work.


Ideally, in the shamanic practice of our tradition, the shaman builds their own drum as part of a week-long retreat. A similar process is described by Jaana Kouri, a Finnish shaman, in her presentation "The Other Side Of The Drum". I expect that it's possible that eventually I'll have to do this. Although it's acceptable to start out with an already-made drum, this is a good way for any would-be NT shamanic practitioners to start dealing with spirit drums, especially if they aren't sure what this drumming thing is all about. Sometimes going about things the long, hard, ritual way can help you to form a better understanding of what you're supposed to be doing.

1. The would-be drum-maker spends time in a piece of land, ideally one with whom s/he has a good relationship with the land-wight. In fact, I would suggest that this be the first order of business, because a cooperative land-wight can help you find the right tree. Saami folk make their drums out of pine, mostly due to its availability. Ash wood is good as well, as it recalls the World Tree, and oak will do, although it is harder to bend. The best wood was chosen from trees which are grown in a swamp beside a rock, with the caveat that there may not be any spruces nearby. Offerings are made to the spirit of the tree, who must be willing to sacrifice themselves. They should be sung to, and asked that their spirit will pass into the drum.

2. The tree is cut down, split, and the long narrow board that will be the drum's frame is sawed out of it along the heart. Each end should be cut with a bevel at least 2" long, facing in opposite directions so that when the board is bent in a circle, the two beveled ends will overlap and join perfectly together. The length of the board will determine the diameter of the frame; for an 18" or thereabouts frame you want at least five to six feet. Have the ideal measure ready beforehand. Smaller drum-makers might want a littler drum; there's no shame in that. As the tree is cut, a song is sung in praise of Earth, who gives us these resources. The board is placed in a stream, lake or pond overnight to soak. The drum-maker rests, meditates, and sings.

3. The next morning a fire is built, ideally a sacred fire (see chapter on Mastering Fire), and a large cauldron of water, preferably from a lake or river or stream, placed on it. A song is sung in praise of Fire. The rest of the tree is burned on the fire. The board is drawn from the water like a midwife draws a baby from the watery womb, and with the same attitude. A song of birth should be sung while it is drawn out, and a song in praise of Water.

4. Then the wet wood is laid across the cauldron - or if you can do it, several cauldrons - and steamed until it can be bent by the hands. The drum-maker has to keep moving it around so that all parts can catch the steam, removing it, bending it, and then putting it back to steam again. When it can be bent like a bow, a very long strap (about 12' long) with a buckle and holes along its whole length is placed down its length on the outer curve, and buckled where a bowstring would be. At this point, a song is sung for the Hunter. At any point in the steaming, a song can be sung in praise of Air. The four elements must be present and active for any birthing, including the drum, but Air is last, of course - it is the first breath drawn.

5. The drum-maker keeps steaming the wood and cranking down the strap. This should be done quickly - don't delay. Strike while the iron is hot; bend while the wood is wet. No part of it can be allowed to dry out. If any part looks as if it is drying out too fast, dunk it in the boiling water. Songs are sung to the fire to keep it going, and to the drum to keep it bending. This part of the ritual symbolizes how the shaman is cut, bent, submitting to their fate to become a tool of the spirits.

6. Another tree is found. It should be a live tree of any kind, but with special energy, preferably close to the fire-site, and exactly as big around as the interior of your drum. (It should probably be found and measured beforehand.) The strap is temporarily taken off, the board bent entirely around the living tree so that its two beveled ends meet, and the strap rewrapped again to hold it in place. More straps can be added if need be. This "mother tree" will be the mold for the new drum, which is left overnight to set.

7. When the frame is entirely dry - which may take an overnight our a couple of days, depending on the weather and humidity - it is removed form the mother tree, and the mother tree is thanked with an offering on her roots. Two small holes are drilled in the overlapping ends of the frame, and two small wooden pegs are hammered in. If necessary, wood epoxy can also be applied, if you're not sure that mere pegs will hold. When that is dry and firm, the frame is sanded.

8. A skin is found for the head. This can be deerskin, goatskin, or what-have-you, but ideally it is from an animal that you got to know while it was still alive, and saw killed. Some of the animal's blood should be saved to anoint the inside of the drum frame, giving it life. The skin should have been thoroughly scraped, stretched, and dried, and then it is soaked overnight, possibly in the water of the great cauldron. It is stretched over the frame while wet, trimmed so that it extends only to a couple of inches beyond where it wraps around the frame, and holes are punched in the edge. Rawhide is laced through the edges, lacing them to a metal ring about the size of a coaster, which should "float" in the center of the back of the drum. As the skin is put onto the frame, the meditation is of how we ourselves are a skin stretched over a frame, how we are drums for the Gods to make music and magic upon.

9. After much adjusting and retightening, the skin is allowed to dry. If it is too loose when dry, it is pulled off, soaked again, and retied tighter. The tightening is done to the four directions, East, South, West, North, asking for blessings from all these directions. When it is at its best tightness, and makes a good sound when struck, it can be nailed to the frame with tacks, or laced to the frame (which keeps it adjustable, but requires drilling a series of holes around the back edge of the frame).

10. Then the drum is awakened fully in a ritual which will vary depending on what its purpose is to be. Sometimes one might make a drum thinking of one purpose, and the drum that is made will actually end up being for a different one, so the spirit of the drum should be asked before it is forced into a job. The drum will give you its name, and then it is alive, and your responsibility. It should be blessed with the elements that are associated with its final purpose - healing drums are generally dipped in the ocean or a lake, and then laid at the roots of a tree; worldwalkers are waved around a fire, and so forth.