Out of the Woodwork: Oliver Snare Drums
Eric Lee’s custom snare drum operation
Eric Lee is a long-time drummer (Franklin Airmen, I Torrent, Oliver Humanzee, and Bon Iver’s drum tech last summer), but before he landed back in Eau Claire he was moving around so frequently that he decided to ditch his drum set. When his living situation became more stable and was ready for a new kit, he had little money and a specific sound in mind. So he started buying pieces online to create his own. It was in doing so that he realized how much fun he was having building and experimenting, so he decided to dig even deeper. And Oliver Snare Drums was born.
“I’ve been working on it for years, and I had a lot of duds before I made good-sounding drums,” he said. “I’m no carpenter … but I made enough mistakes to know what not to do.”
Named after Eric’s first child and operated out of a shed at his Shawtown residence, Oliver Snare Drums is a custom drum-building operation. The specifics of Eric’s process (dryness, grain, etc.) are too ridiculous to detail here. Suffice it to say that drums are typically made by the ply method, in which thin layers of material are slathered in glue and set into a form one after the other.
“Glue is a sound killer, and takes away from the tone of the wood,” Eric said. That’s why he employs the stave and segmented methods. Stave involves slabs of wood (in his case, 16 of them) aligned vertically and secured side to side by minimal glue. (Think of how whiskey barrels are built.) Segmented is smaller slabs arranged horizontally.
“I also do it because there’s a ton more design possibilities,” he admitted. Options such as sound vents (where and how many), different woods, varying thicknesses, and altering depths. “There’s a ton of theories out there about what makes the best sound, but there’s so many variables that it’s hard to know for sure,” he said, citing other things like the venue, PA, the player, and the music they’re playing. “It’s a lot of physics.”
While his business allows tons of options, one thing Eric’s very passionate about is the use of domestic and/or recycled woods. So far he’s worked with maple, virgin pine, mahogany, and oak, some recycled from a grain elevator in Superior. His price sheet also includes walnut, birch, cherry, poplar, and ash.
Eric’s first commercial drum was a 14-by-eight hard maple snare for Joey G (Jim Pullman Band, Jaggernauts), who was looking for a snare with a crisp warm sound and no “buzz” that would require moon gels or o-rings. “Every drummer and every engineer is very particular about what sound they want in their snares, and what I wanted to do is make a focused studio-sounding drum,” Eric said. He more than succeeded in doing so, with that drum already being featured in recordings by Hello Death, Altos, and The Ronald Raygun.
Eric expects to build future snares not only to similarly precise sound specifications, but also to budgets. (And speaking as a drummer who has looked at other custom builders’ websites, Eric’s prices are very reasonable.)
“It’s like when you get a car; it can be fully loaded or basic,” he said. “With this, either way the starting point is a really high-end drum shell.” So while Joey G’s Signature Series (with premo brass fittings, paint, hoops, and strainer) came in at about $1,000, a shell with cheaper accoutrements could be in the $300 range.
Eric is currently in talks with Brian Joseph (Bon Iver) to develop a warm woody snare model, and with a local school for a symphonic snare. “Then I might try to make one with a lot of bark that’ll hopefully appeal to the metal drummers,” he said.
So will he ever try doing toms or full sets? “I’ve got my hands full with this right now, but I might one day.”