Music Woodworking
Making the k Odaiko Drum on a Budget

01 - Introducing our homemade Odaiko drum quotTonkaquot

When I ask myself: “Why did I put so much time and effort into building such a crazy, big drum?” it is important to first set the context: we teach at a school that is committed to the Arts as well as to Global Education. Our school’s mission statement reads: “Preparing students for ethical leadership in a diverse and global society.”

With this in mind, our Arts faculty has always looked for memorable and creative educational experiences to provide our students (for example, our recent bridge project which was also covered by Make:). As you can see, over-the-top projects are something that we simply love to do with our students!

Oak Hall School is also proud to maintain the only high school Taiko drumming ensemble in the Southeastern United States. Taiko is a dynamic Japanese art form played on large drums. In support of this program, Music Director Jason Stahl and I attended the World Taiko Gathering in Los Angeles last summer. This conference featured the world’s greatest Taiko players and offered a variety of workshops, classes, and amazing performances.

The centerpiece of a Taiko ensemble is typically a huge Odaiko drum, and this was one of the only instruments our school’s group, “Tsubasa,” did not have. After meeting professional drum makers at the conference, and examining their works, the idea of constructing a drum was born. As a professionally constructed drum this scale can cost more that $25,000, we figured the only way we would be able to obtain a drum this size would be to make one ourselves.

We did a lot of research, and when the school year started, we jumped in and started building (with the help of my Creative Design class). The focus of the Creative Design course can be described as: part art and part engineering. So, they were the perfect group to help with the design and construction of the drum. Over the next few months, however, numerous music and other student volunteers were able to get their hands dirty working on the drum.

The Odaiko drum is constructed out of about $400 worth of simple pine 2×4s. Our class began by building a drum form out of plywood, then slowly but surely constructing the barrel of the drum, screwing, gluing, and dowelling the 2×4s together piece by piece by piece. Many mistakes were made along the way; most commonly it was not cutting or lining up each 2×4 perfectly. This caused us a lot of extra work towards the end, but nothing that a good ‘Sawzall’ couldn’t fix!

Once it was constructed, sanded, and stained, we soaked and stretched two Florida Buffalo hides across the frame of the drum to use as the drumheads. When they dried, we used 1″ upholstery tacks to hold the hides in place; it took 665 tacks! It was messy work, and was a learning process for all of us, but, ultimately, we were pleased at how well it turned out. Our materials budget was around $1,500. We were fortunate that one of the most expensive part of the project, a gantry crane, which was used to lift the behemoth drum, was donated by a student alumnus!

The drum has affectionately been given the name ‘TONKA.” This comes from the Lakota word ‘Tatanca’ which means buffalo. The drum measures 55″ wide and 44″ deep, and we estimate that it weighs about 500lbs. When mounted on its stand, Tonka tops out at nine feet tall! The technique behind playing this drum is extremely athletic and requires not only musical prowess, but endurance and tenacity. It sounds Thunderous!

“This project exemplifies everything we are trying to do in terms of a 21st century education,” says Oak Hall Headmaster, Richard Gehman. “It is multi-disciplinary, problem-solving oriented, cross-cultural, creative, and technical. The result is a blend of all of those things.”

“Tonka” made its debut on May 9, 2015 at the “Silk Road and Beyond” concert to a packed house and much acclaim. We look forward to many more exciting years of hearing this Tonka sing!

To learn more about Oak Hall’s “Tsubasa” check out this short video.

Watch “Tsubasa’s” full performance at the NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools) conference below!

18 thoughts on “Making the $25k Odaiko Drum on a Budget

  1. I have been making frame drums, but love the sound of Taiko, so I am a bit curious…

    Is the drum vented like most western two headed drums? About how thick is the skin? (The goat skins on my frame drums are some of the thinnest rawhide I have ever seen).

    1. This drum is air tight. We own several smaller professionally made drums and based the design off them as well as what we could find out by online research. We even went so far as to fill every gap with Gorilla glue, so the foaming qualities of that would fill every seem tight. The skin is supper thick, (not sure of the measurement), but I would equate it to a dogs rawhide chew toy. There are some thin spots though that appear more translucent.

      1. I like your coopered construction, even if it isn’t that traditional. I wonder how thin a wall you can get away with. most of my drums are laminated from bending plywood as its fairly cheap, and easy for the younger set to work with. An 8 year old can’t be expected to be able to accurately cut a stave, but give them pre-cut strips of 1/8″ bend ply, and they have a great time smearing glue everywhere, and fitting it inside a 5 gallon pail.

        Spiral wound, 4 or 5 layers thick and dry it overnight. (yea, its heavy, but it has to resist the attentions of said 8 year old). I pull thejm out of the drum, and level the ends on a jointer or table saw. Quick bevel with a router bit, and its ready for a 13″ goatskin.

    2. Making a taiko drum airtight is part of what makes them so resonant.

      Taiko drums take a real beating, so they have to have heads made of cow. Goat, Swine, Deer are all to thin and fragile to stand up to power of the hits.

      Depending on your source (do they pre-scrape for you) or how much work you want to expend scraping. A taiko head should be 3/16″ thick for a small drum, up to 3/8″ thick for a odaiko sized drum.

      1. I wonder how the double headed Western drums wound up with vents…

        Anyhow thanks for the details. Getting that thickness in cow isn’t that hard… Next drum project is likely to be a synthetic head, simply because it has to be big, and cheap. (its for a parade float).

        1. Just variants, different sounds. Who thought of adding a spring under one head and calling it a snare???

          For parade floats, contact Remo. I’ve played their big float sized syth drum heads. 8×16 and 10×20. When you get a regular beat going, they get really loud!

          They also have 5-10′ diameter frame drums that you can place in front of resononce chamber.

          1. The snare started out as a single heavy gut string stretched across the striking face (ca: 10th century if the sieve I call memory is correct). How they moved to the back, and turned into metal is another question.

            Thanks for the Remo suggestion.

  2. Wow, this is incredible! I have seen student groups make temporary taiko out of plastic buckets and packing tape, but this takes it to another galaxy! What a fabulous project for your students and school, and something that will inspire them for years to come.

  3. Every taiko builder learns to “love” that special smell of a well soaked hide. {grin}

  4. Cool group project to work on, reminds me of a japanese tv series called Kamen Rider Hibiki. The main character Kamen Rider Hibiki plays a taiko drum throughout the series.

  5. Hi Robert,
    I’m thinking about making this drum, I’m a retired hobbyist looking for new projects to keep me busy. I saw your article on the odaiko drum. A bit of a challenge but I’d like to try it. I’ve been researching it but I have a few questions about materials. Like where do I get the tacks and skins at a reasonable cost? Also do you have any plans for this? I would appreciate any help you can give.
    thanks Dave Brown

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Robert Ponzio

Robert is Chair of the Fine Arts Department at Oak Hall School in Gainesville, Florida and is an internationally-exhibiting artist. As his school's mission statement reads, "Preparing students for ethical leadership in a global society", he works to enrich his students through various global connections, (maintaining active relationships with schools and artists from China, Haiti, Kyrgyzstan, Israel, Palestine, etc). He also believes in challenging his students with unique, hands-on educational experiences that they will remember for a lifetime.

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