Michael Outlaw, of Sylvester, owner of Longleaf Millworks, and Outlaw Drums, makes snare drums from heart pine wood he finds in old houses and barns. Outlaw says the wood is from trees 200 years or older when cut and then left standing in the structures for around another century.
SYLVESTER, Ga. -- Michael Outlaw believes in reincarnation. At least he does for the centuries-old heart pine wood he finds in abandoned Georgia houses. If Outlaw has his way, he'll make each and every stick into unique, upscale furniture and -- snare drums?
For the uninitiated, a snare drum is equipped with "snares," or strands of twisted wire, pulled tight against the bottom head. They're what give the drum its distinctive "pop" when whacked with a wooden stick.
For a decade Outlaw, 33, has owned and operated Longleaf Millworks near Sylvester, making cabinets and unique furniture from cypress and "curly" pine woods. A few years ago, as he was driving near his home, he stumbled on an abandoned plantation home in the process of being torn down. According to Outlaw, it was built from the hearts of ancient Longleaf Pines, more than two centuries old when felled. In another hundred years the wood had reached its peak of color and texture.
A drummer for his church and for his own enjoyment, Outlaw couldn't help but wonder what the rare old wood might do for the sound of a well-constructed drum.
"The problem is that all those trees are gone," Outlaw said. "The trees that built America were all harvested around 100 years ago. The only sources now are the old homes, tobacco barns or mills. Sometimes logs are dredged up from river bottoms."
Outlaw took a while to make a perfect drum, he said. In fact, he gave away his first few products, their quality not quite rising to his standard of perfection. The basic body or "shell" of the instrument is constructed similar to a barrel, with long wooden "staves," lightly glued in a circular frame. In contrast, most drums from music shops are made from a sheets of plywood, layered and warped into shape with steam. Outlaw says it makes a difference.
"This is the next best thing to a solid drum carved out of a tree, Outlaw said. "Plywood goes against the grain and the sound quality suffers. Plus, it takes more glue to make a drum with plywood. More glue makes for dead sound."
On the inside top of every shell is a 45-degree "bearing edge," over which the drum head will placed and tightened. Outlaw claims it's "sharp enough to cut fresh bread." The finished grain can be detected with a finger tip.
"It extends past the surface of the drum, like old siding would do," Outlaw said.
According to Outlaw, the greatest factors influencing sound is the drum's bearing edge and the surface of its interior. He compares a rough interior to the sound-absorbing qualities of indoor carpet.
Other woods, like maple, birch and mahogany, are used to make the drums and, as the choice of wood affects a violin's tone, it works the same for drums.
"Maple is bright and loud, like heart pine," Outlaw said, "while mahogany is a lot softer."
After being fitted with commercial heads and hardware, Outlaw drums are ready for retail distribution. The unique and finished nature of the product and the effort spent in finding seasoned wood make the price of Outlaw's drums higher than those in music stores. Snare drums prices start at $850 for the Weathered 3.5-by-13-inch snare. Other sizes are available, with finishes such as Sunset Clear and Tobacco Glaze. All drums are custom built to order.
Outlaw plans to move toward making other drums, including "tom-toms," and basses, he said. He's made a prototype set for his own use, including snare, mounted "toms" and bass. The set would sell for around $5,000, Outlaw said, if put into production. For information on Outlaw Drums, visit www.outlawdrums.com.