Complete Instruction for Heading a Djembe Drum with Goat Skin

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Instructions for how to Head an
African Djembe Drum with Goat Skin

I have re-headed over 300 djembes in the past twenty five years and discovered many tips and procedures to get the best result. Start with a sound shell with a good playing edge, good rope, and a fine African Goat skin!

While there are many ways of doing things, (and I have tried most of them) these work the best for me, and so my way must be THE RIGHT WAY !    {grin}. I typically do this whole job from start to end, in under two hours. I put the goat skin to soak in cool water right away and within an hour I have prepared the drum and am ready to mount the skin on the hide ring. You can take shortcuts here an there but you risk the quality of the result. Know this is a skill using both hands, and judgment, and don't expect a really good result till you've done several.


First some definitions:

  • Shell - The whole drum body
  • Bowl - The top part of the djembe
  • Trumpet - The base of the Djembe
  • Head - Both top of the drum and the process of adding the skin
  • Top Ring - The ring with rope near the Head
  • Hide Ring - The ring the hide wraps around, second from the top
  • Bottom Ring - The ring with rope at the bottom of the bowl
  • Cradle - The series of knots on the top and bottom rings
  • Half Hitch - The first half of tying your shoes
  • Neck end - The end of a goat skin from which the hair all flows away from
  • Tail end - The end of a goat skin from which the hair all flows toward

Here is a tool list:

  • Cloth or leather gloves
  • Athletic Bandage
  • Custom cloth for rings
  • Small locking pliers
  • Needle nose pliers
  • Scissors
  • Smooth curved blade knife
  • Razor knife
  • Bic or Lady Bic Razors
  • Pulling stick or Rope Wizard
  • 120 or finer sand paper
  • butane lighter
  • 100 - 120 feet Drum rope
  • Goat Skin
  • Piece of Bees Wax

Instructions for preparing the Djembe for the Goatskin Head

First inspect Shell and Skin. Hey, you are about to put a bunch of work into this drum, better make sure you don't need anything. Is the shell sound? Any cracks to fix or sanding to do? Do the rings fit well (about 3/8 gap all the way around if bare metal)? are they sound, with good welds? Hold the skin up to strong light. Is there a large enough area centered over the spine area to get a circle at least 3-4 inches larger than your rings? Is their any blemishes, scars or loose bot scars (small insect bite thin spots) that might affect head life.

Want more information before you start? Read: Drum Repair Tips and What to look for in an African Djembe !

Inspect the Djembe Drum shell

You should have the djembe drum body all ready to go. Here I touched up and leveled out the head profile before beginning. Some maintain it should have no waffles and be perfectly flat. I haven't found a big difference. To level it, put on a course level concrete floor, head down, and rotate the body until all surfaces touch. I round off with a belt sander, but you can use a good rasp as well. Many drums have the bottom ring welded on, as here, because the trumpet flares toward the bottom and other wise it would ride to high up the bowl. A local welder can help you out if you need rings or to make the existing ones smaller to fit more snug.

The whole drum body or shell

Rework the Djembe Shell Top Edge

This is what a good head edge profile should look like. a look at your thumb sideways is a good guide. Sometimes it may be thick enough to round all the way over to the inside, leaving the high point right in the middle of the thickness. In hardwood drums this is the easiest area to carve thin and sometimes carvers try to make up for weight here, leaving a sharp uncomfortable edge. Consider lowering the whole edge down till you find thicker wood to allow some rounding. Theoretically the edge shouldn't matter, your hand should not hit it. No big consolation when you do however! This edge just has a tiny bevel on the inside to assure a clean edge for hide to take off from the wood.

Profile of head edge of djembe

This view shows you the typical spacing of the rings around the drum. Typically I leave about 5/8" total gap (just under 3/8" on each side). If you are making the rings, you can refer to this Ring Sizing Chart I made up. If your drum is oval, I hand bend the rings (a knee works good here)so they match the shape. If your drum has no decoration that determines front and back for you, you might consider aligning the goat skin spine on the widest sides of the oval. The thicker skin at the spine may help pull your drum back round over time.

Consult the Hawkdancing Ring Sizing Chart

Ring spacing from the top of the djembe 

I check to see that the skin is big enough here. This one is marginally big enough. I wanted to use up this smallish hide. a little more room would be better, and if I have the choice I cut the circle nearer the neck end (above in photo) than the tail end. I tend to center it like this if the neck skin is a little too thick compared to the rest.

Is the skin big enough? 

Now I flip the skin and cut out my circle. I wish I had more room outside the rings because I want to be able to trim it a little and also wrap it back down over the rings when finished.

Hide flipped and circle cut out 

This is important, so I do it as soon as I remember to, else I end up forgetting! Take a bit of Bees Wax, or any candle in a pinch, and wax the head edge profile. It coats and will effectively lubricate the surface and allows the hide to slide over more easily when tuning. Remember wet hide makes glue, and you don't want the goat skin glued to the edge here!

Be sure and Bees Wax the head profile! 

Prepare the Djembe Hide and Rope Rings

I always wrap the rings. I believe rust forming against the goat skin creates sharp particles, and is a major cause of head failure. Note I wrap "on the bias" the hide ring with textured medical cloth tape.

Wrap the rings 

... and then also the top ring with electrical tape.

Wrap the top ring with electrical tape. 

If I have a choice, I make the top ring a little smaller than the hide ring, like this. If they are equal that is fine too, as long as they are snug. Never put a larger ring in as the top ring, it may pull right over the hide ring as you tune the drum later!

You can see there is just barely room between the top ring and the drum body for cloth, cradle rope, and two layers of skin (the skin comes over the wood edge, goes behind the top ring, wraps under - around the hide ring and the goes back behind the top ring, making TWO layers there) .

Two different ring sizes is an option 

Here is how I start the decorative cloth wrap. it is about an inch wide but I fold over what becomes the exposed edge as I wrap on the bias, making one side have a hem. All it take is a little glue to hold the start, the first few rounds, and then keep tension on as you wrap.

Now wrap the rope ring with decorative cloth 

As I get to the end, I fold the other edge in as well, cut the cloth end at the wrap angle, add glue and smooth it around. If it takes two pieces just end one and restart over the first's ending.

Double hem on cloth end 

Here the drum is flipped upside down, and I am going right over the old ratty African cloth installed without the folded hem. I swear I have found rings wrapped with old underwear. I know when I get to Africa there will be tales of underwear thieves!

Redoing the bottom ring 

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This page was last modified on 02/17/15 11:39:46 AM