Percussive Arts Society

Mounting Tambourine Heads by Jeff Luft

Jeff LuftOver the last two years I’ve put a few hundred calfskin heads onto tambourines and replaced a dozen or two broken ones. Some were salvaged off eBay as I looked to understand jingle design and history. Others were broken by friends or customers. Like lots of crafts, understanding the tools and finding the right ones to help you achieve your goals is half the battle.

I was never quite happy with hose clamps or the giant rubber band method. Since I was trying to sell the instruments I had recently started making, I had to make sure that the finished product was as clean and as repeatable as possible. Like most of what we do as percussionists, trial and error was my method for improvement and understanding where I had to go next when one attempt wasn’t quite right. 

For the tambourines I make, I mount the pins through the bottom of the shell. This method was appealing to me because when I was starting out making my own instruments, I did not have a lot of nice shells to work with. I utilized this design so I could change the jingles until I was happy with the sound. At that point I would glue the pins in. Another reason was that I didn’t want glue to get on my jingles and inhibit the ring. This turned out to be not as big a problem as I thought it would be. By just using a wet microfiber towel and a minute of care, it was easy to remove all excess glue after replacing a broken head. 

The hero of the clamp world for the tambourines is actually called a bolt clamp. I purchased it from McMaster-Carr. The product number is: 5420K8. When I first bought it in late 2020 it was $3.02. (As of July 2022 it’s $6.32 — still very affordable.) It can actually go up to 14.5 inches in diameter. I have clamps set up for 8-, 10-, and 12-inch tambourines. Once they’re set up, they’re good to go, but small adjustments can be made when needed. I’ll show how this is done in the presentation. 

Here is a breakdown of my process. I generally do batches of four instruments at a time when I’m mounting new heads on new frames. Later, I will explain some tips for fixing drums with broken heads. 

First, I’ll fill up a garbage can lid with cool tap water. I use this lid because I had it and it was right size. It’s about 15 inches in diameter and 1 inch tall. I use this to soak the heads.

While the heads are soaking, I get the shells ready. The other supplies needed are:

  • Titebond III wood glue
  • flat head screwdriver
  • small paint brush 
  • bolt clamps 
  • microfiber clothes (Zwipes, purchased from Amazon)
  • razor blades for cutting excess skin
  • paper towels

I’ll then double-check the fit of my clamp on the raw shell, then loosen it all the way and set it aside. 

After the heads have soaked for at least a half an hour, I take one out and let the water run off into a sink until it stops dripping. I place the calf head on a flat surface with paper towels, then wipe off the top so there are no pools of water. They are soaked, I just don’t want them dripping wet. 

Next, I’ll go back to the shell and paint the area with glue where the head and clamp will go. Not too much, not too little. You don’t want the glue running all over the place, but you don’t want it so thin that it just soaks into the wood. I’ll squeeze a 6- to 8-inch bead of glue from the bottle, then brush it flat and smooth with the brush. I’ll repeat this until the entire circumference is covered. 

Next, I pick up the new drumhead and the wet microfiber towel. I place the head as centered as I can onto the shell. Then I carefully put the loosened bolt clamp over the frame and try to keep the skin as still as possible. Seeing this in action at my PASIC presentation will help you understand it better than reading about it. Like most things, you’ll improve the more you do it. Luckily, it’s a fairly forgiving process. If the head slips all over the place and everything goes too crazy, you can just wipe off extra glue or add more where needed, then try again. 

Once you have the clamp down flush with the top of the shell, start tightening the bolt. The only “weakness” of this clamp is that there is a 1/8–1/4 inch area that doesn’t get clamp coverage. Solution: cut a 1-inch piece of excess clamp off of the tail end of your clamp and slide that piece into the area where the gap is. Then continue to tighten. You don’t HAVE to do this, but it looks a bit nicer. Once you see some glue squeeze out on the top of the shell under the skin, you’re tight enough. 

Now it’s time to cut off the excess calfskin. Use a fresh razor. I use the metal band from the clamp as my guide and go around until it’s done. The only part I cannot cut off is the area underneath the bolt, but that area can easily be cut off after the skin is dry. 

I then use the damp microfiber towel (or rag or paper towel) to wipe off any excess glue that has gotten on the shell and jingles. 

I let the skins dry overnight. I don’t put anything on top of the heads. I do this in my basement, so it’s not a dry place. If you live in an apartment or it’s extremely dry in the winter, you may let the heads soak a bit longer, but I’ve never had a head pull off during drying. 

There may be an even better method out there, but this has produced excellent results for my instruments and made the process very repeatable. 

Luft Image Group 1

Left: All the materials needed to mount the head except the head itself.
Right: Close up of the screw mechanism for the clamp.

Luft Image Group 2

Left: Closeup of the extra piece of metal inserted before making it flush with the tambourine shell.
Right: Closeup of the extra piece of metal flush with the tambourine shell without the head.

The challenge with replacing broken heads is getting the old head and glue off. You want to get back to the raw wood to ensure the best glue bond. The two best tools I have found for the removal of the old head and glue is a heat gun and a box cutter (razor blade in a handle). 

With the heat gun on a low setting, work slowly. Go over a 3- to 4-inch area of the frame where there is still calf stuck to the shell. After you have done that, place the box cutter/utility knife perpendicular to the surface so only the front part of the blade edge is touching, and rub it back and forth. The blade acts as a scraper and will gradually scratch off the material until you hit the raw wood. You could use sandpaper or a file, but I have found this method far more effective.

The process sounds more difficult than it is, so I invite readers to come to my PASIC Symphonic Lab/Workshop and see, in person, how I repair tambourine heads. 

Jeffrey Luft is a percussionist, and he also makes timpani mallets, drum pads, and tambourines for Luft Mallets. He received BM and MM degrees from Carnegie Mellon University.  

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