PM Percussion: Making Music with Old Wine Barrels

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“I use the Wagner MMC205…It delivers accurate readings over all species of wood without scarring the workpiece.”

In Northern California, Peter Musser has been working in an interesting niche since 2002: making conga drums out of old wine barrels.

“I was building drums out of local hardwood for years when a friend brought an old Cuban drum in for repair,” Musser explained. “I noticed that it was oak and that all the staves were different sizes. This was a vintage drum from Cuba, yet it was oak. Oak doesn’t grow in the tropics.”

After a little research, he learned that the greatest resource for materials for drum making in Cuba back in the day was the discarded barrels that were a byproduct of commerce. They were everywhere and they were oak.

Afro-Carribean music is steeped in tradition so for Musser to want to create instruments that reflect this tradition seemed natural. “I built these drums to reflect that tradition. If you look at those old pictures of Cuban orchestras, you’ll have three congueros each playing one drum.”

The tradition of building drums goes way back — back beyond good glue, so to keep drums together early builders needed to put steel bands around the drums to hold them together, and so the folkloric look was born.

“In the early days, they didn’t have very good glue, in fact, I don’t know what kind of glue they have in Cuba to this day, so they had to put the bands on them,” Musser explained.

One Man Operation

Peter’s a one-man operation working in 650 square feet and that means that he wears a lot of hats. The nature of this business is that most of these guys work alone. So everything that happens is done solo.

Peter makes his own traditional hardware for use with natural skins. He will, however, size drums for those who might want to use synthetic skins.

Where do the wine barrels come from? “Well, I live in Sonoma County wine country in Petaluma,” he explained. “I have dear friends that are wine makers so that’s where I get my barrels.” The barrels can only be used for wine making for a couple of years then they need to be replaced.

A Moisture Meter Is Critical

Knowing moisture content is crucial to building instruments that will survive. Too much or too little moisture will cause the drum to fail and open up. For building drums, the ideal moisture content is around seven percent.

“I use the Wagner MMC205,” says Musser, “It delivers accurate readings over all species of wood without scarring the workpiece.”

Easy to use and easy to adjust, the MMC205 can quickly and accurately scan many pieces of both hardwood and softwood species in just seconds. Wagner Meters’ IntelliSense™ technology ensures that moisture is read accurately without damaging the wood surface and without interference from surface moisture.

“There’s just no getting around the fact that moisture is a huge issue in my life and controlling it or at least being able to monitor it makes this business possible.”

He has also discovered that Wagner Meters has a superior technical support department. “I’ve called Wagner Meters for technical support a time or two and they’ve been very helpful. The guy I talked to was very knowledgeable.”

Future Plans

So what’s on the horizon for PM Percussion? “I’m branching into bongos and will be making more cajons, a Peruvian box instrument which you sit on where the playing surface is thin wood,” Musser revealed.

“The box creates resonance and produces a wide spectrum of sounds. Some have guitar strings inside that give the instrument a sizzle when hit.”

Musser uses an adjustable snare that allows the player to adjust the amount of sizzle from none at all in the tradition of Flamenco to a full snare sound.

“Bongos are really interesting. They are small but the role they play in Latin music is huge, and, like the congas, they are made up of many pieces that all need to have the same moisture content.”

And what about changes in his congas?

“I think I’ll probably get back to using local hardwoods. It’s a lot of fun, a lot more rewarding working with exotic woods with unusual grain patterns. Mostly I use bay which is beautiful, stripey, and colorful. It’s very stable, one of the more stable American hardwoods and it makes an excellent drum. If I combine that wood with the Folkloric hardware, I’ll really have something.”

No matter which business model Peter Musser decides to leverage, one thing is certain: Wagner Meters will help him protect his investment by providing accurate wood moisture content measurements.

What can we do to help your business thrive? Give us a call at 800-634-9961.

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Larry Loffer

Larry Loffer is a senior technician at Wagner Meters, where he has over 30 years of experience in wood moisture measurement. With a degree in Computer Systems, Larry is involved in both hardware and software development of wood moisture measurement solutions.

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