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Réalta Scuaibe

        Do you want to play the conga drum but are held back because of the stiff price attached to a commercially made "professional" conga? If you can build a bird house then you can make a conga drum—satisfaction guaranteed. 

       I am not sure what this instrument is called. I first heard it in London where it was played by Cuban musicians. If I were more attentive I am sure I would have encountered it earlier. I think it has been in use by rumbaleros for a long time. As it is made to look and sound like a conga drum, and because it succeeds so well on each count, that is what I call it. This new (old) kind of conga drum is the one to have if you want to get started as a percussionist.


        The plans here are for the trapezoidal (type 2) conga. It is a bit more pleasing to the eye than type 1, probably more rigid and certainly more compact. The method for building types 1 and 2 are similar, and will yield a first class product. The method for types 3 and 4 is usually a stave construction or glass fibre. . . either like a wooden wine barrel or like a boat. A lot of careful hand fitting is called for in one, and moulds and expensive chemical products in the other.

        Occasionally drums like these are built from one solid block of timber, hollowed out with a chainsaw, drill, chisel, fire. This can give good, distinctive, results, but one-piece construction is also heavy, and prone to serious cracking, and calls for one large piece of high-quality timber. When assembled from multiple pieces, the requirements for high-quality timber are much reduced.

        The musicians I heard were pro players and could have used any type of conga, but this was their first choice. It readily gives a tight, hard, dry sound associated with the better made conventional congas of type 4. The note our instrument gives is probably lighter and with a little less depth than a type 4 instrument, because these have a weightier and more substantial construction. The heavy type-4 shell is better able to resist sound wave absorption because the inertia of the greater shell weight causes it to be sound-wave reflective. But our plywood equivalent does not have to be built to these heavy-duty standards because we do not have to tension the skin. We are playing on a wooden deck which is under no tension at all, and can consequently build nothing more than a light and resonant box.

        The example offered here is built from plywood. It could also be built from sheets of solid (but not laminated) timber. This is a more challenging woodwork exercise, but certainly possible. To make wide panels of thin timber the wood must be carefully chosen and glued up edge to edge to produce pieces of sufficient width. Building at a low humidity/moisture content means that in the future the wood in the drum will most likely swell rather than shrink. This swelling is beneficial, making for a tighter, stronger construction. Shrinking means cracks and it is a likely prospect for an instrument made of solid timber to have some cracks. These cracks can be repaired, but so long as they don't buzz when the conga is played, they are not a serious problem.

        Plywood will have none of these cracking problems, but it does have other problems of its own. Try to find ply that has no gaps or pockets between the leaves. These could rattle and buzz later. Try a destructive test on a sample to see if the plies are securely glued.

        Look for ply which has veneers on the exterior surfaces which are thick enough to allow for substantial sandpapering, and, especially for the top playing surface, wear. Veneers 1.0 mm thick should be fine, 0.75 mm. is probably the lower limit.

        Plywood gets very splintery along the edges. Make a little extra effort to cover these edges when building with ply to make the work safer to handle and visually more attractive. The design offered here is just a bit more complicated to ensure this. If your choice of ply is not too fractious, or if the extra trimming out is too difficult or time consuming, you could simplify the design by just planing and gently rounding the edges by hand.

                                      Figures 1-8

         Cut the four side panels to the dimensions given. I glued the lining strips to the back of the sides using panel pins nailed in temporarily in place of clamps.

        Assemble the sides as per figure 2, again with the pin-glue method. Keep the pins close to the edge of the sides, and when the glue has set withdraw them. Remove a rebate along each edge with a circular saw or router. Size the rebate so as to wipe out all of the holes from the pins.

        Glue the binding strips into the rebate, and hold them in place with heavy string wound around the workpiece, one strip at a time. I left the bindings about l mm. proud because it improves the appearance and it's easier.

        Add bracing at the top and bottom, about 12 cm. in from each end. These braces can be glued into place by pushing "go-bars" up against them (thin springy bits of lath that will take the place here of C clamps).

        Pit and glue re-enforcement panels shaped similar to fig. 6, the bottom one first (while you have access to it), and then the top one.

        Glue more bracing to the top edge and level it carefully. This will hold the top, playing surface. All the bracing pieces in each of the three locations use only simple butt joints.

        Glue the top into position using weights such as bottles of water.

        Lastly, cap the edges of the top with strips of wood compound mitred at the ends and gently rounded at the top edge to accommodate a player's hands. Glue the same capping once around the bottom. The compound mitre is cut at 45 degrees with a saw and then beveled to the angle of the sides with a sharp chisel working across the end grain. This is tricky hand fitting, but who cares if it is not perfect? You could put some filler in to any accidental gaps and then add some colourful paint top and bottom to hide the filler.

        Polyurethane varnish is very tough and would make a good clear finish for the conga. Or perhaps paint first. Polyurethane clear finish laid on top of a paint job looks terrific, heightening the colours, and creating a sensation of depth. By sanding lightly between coats, and dusting off carefully, you will get good results. Keep the brush clean. Three coats are sufficient, but four is the magic number.

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Repairing Cracks

To repair a crack: trim a long wedge-shaped fillet and tap it into the crack with a mallet. Clean and regularize the edges of the crack first, and apply just a little glue to the crack edges and the fillet. When dry, shave the fillet flush. Cracks are best filled in this way rather than forcing the two edges back together, because the wood has shrunk. Forcing the two edges back together and gluing would only cause cracks to reappear elsewhere.


© 2001 Réalta Scuaibe

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