El Cheapo Bodhráns

by Bob Denton


I used to make cheap and nasty bodhrans in the early 70s that sounded great!

First, get hold of a garden sifter. They are round, inexpensive and come in a variety of sizes. Remove the mesh and there's your rim.

I contacted my local tannery and told them I was a graduate student researching ancient instruments and I needed to duplicate an Irish drum. I asked them to order and cure 1/2 dozen goat skins in any "traditional" method they could come up with. I believe they used alum.

In addition, they have a machine used to shave the skins to a desired thickness. After a little experimentation, we produced a fairly thin skin which produced a truly lovely resonant sound.

The skin must not be dried first. Once it has dried it changes dramatically and re-wetting will not bring it back to it's initial condition. There was a significant amount of shrinkage in both area and thickness. The skin was essentially laid on the ground inside the hoop and then affixed with a few tacks. There wasn't much stress on the tacks; they simply prevented the skin from falling off. The action of drying around the shape of the rim kept things in place.

I usually judged the tension of the head by how much skin was touching the ground (I made them outside). I eventually got pretty good at "tuning" them.

The total cost of the bodhran was under $10. I assume today it would cost maybe double.

Another issue is stretching it for the conditions you intend to play in. In Ireland the humidity is fairly constant and in winter, there's usually a peat fire to heat the skin to tighten it... liquid to loosen the skin is never a problem.

For the US, I had a variety of tensions. A bodhran that was good for festivals was a problem in concerts. It's always easier to carry a wet sponge then a peat fire, so tighter is better then too loose.

Another advantage of the el-cheapo bodhrans was they were almost disposable. They took a surprising amount of abuse and kept on ticking. Holes in the skin could last for years before causing a failure. My main problem was loosing them after sessions.

I made the beater out of a dowel and two large wooden beads. They had just the right weight and came in various designer colors. Cost: about $2.



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Josh Mittleman

Last updated 30 Mar 1999