Caring for a Bodhrán


Too Tight?

Some people swear by a few drops of beer (variously Guinness Stout, Bass IPA, etc.) as the One and Only True Way to loosen the head of a bodhrán when it's too tight. According to the best advice I've been able to gather, this is a mistake: The sugars in the beer will clog the pores of the skin, which reduces its flexibility. The best way to temporarily loosen the head is a little bit of water, rubbed evenly into the skin.

If your drum is always too tight, you may want to apply a little oil or moisturizer to the skin. This treatment will permanently loosen the skin, so don't be hasty. If you live in a place (as I do) where the humidity varies a lot from one season to another, then you should consider waiting at least a full year before treating your drum. If you do decide that your head needs this treatment, you can use a variety of moisturizers. Some people, including Jackie Moran of the Drovers, suggest using a good hand-cream or baby oil, on the theory that skin is skin; one correspondant got good results with an aloe-based lotion. Buck Musical Instruments sells something they call head oil, which I think is mostly neat's foot oil. Tommy Hayes suggests almond oil. Robert Padron posted to that he uses mink oil; he said "Wipe it on, let it soak for an hour or two, wipe it off." What's best for you probably depends on the climate where you live, the climate where the drum was made, and the thickness and quality of the skin on your drum.


Too Loose?

When you have the opposite problem, a head that's too loose (either playing too low or simply unplayable), the standard short-term solution is dry heat, applied with care. A blow dryer or heating pad works well; you can also hold the head up to any source of heat, like a fire, burner on a stove, or even a strong lightbulb. When I do this, I keep my hand between the drum and the heat. I figure that as long as I'm comfortable, it can't get hot enough to hurt the drum.

For a drum that is always too loose, some people suggest soaking the head thoroughly with water, then letting it dry out slowly in a dry place. The skin tightens up as it dries. Lark in the Morning gives one version of this procedure; I'd also heard it from Jaime Rodriguez, one of the better drummers in New York City. His version was to place the drum skin down on a flat surface, and pour about an inch of water into it; then dump out the water, turn the drum over, and let it dry. I tried it with my Buck drum recently, and it worked pretty well; the drum is still not perfect, but it is more resistent to heat and humidity than it was before. Richard Griffiths wrote me to say that he also used this treatment on his drum. He warns that it doesn't work as well a second time as it does the first.


Just Right?

And this suggestion was sent to us by an unknown contributor. (March 2001)

Believe it or not, a really good bodhran-skin conditioner is "Wise Woman Salve", now known as Dr. Burt's Comfrey Ointment by Burt's Bees Inc. in Raleigh, North Carolina. It's an olive/almond oil and beeswax base with lavender & comfrey extracts. Something about the beeswax keeps the drumhead just right-- not too loose, not too tight. I only apply it occasionally but it seems to keep away the humidity, and my drum sounds and feels perfect. (The salve gives the goatskin a beautiful translucent shine too after a while.)


Tunable Bodhráns

Tunable bodhráns avoid most of the problems with skin tension, but have their own needs. Some makers recommend that you always de-tune the drum when you are done with it, to avoid stretching the skin out of shape and ruining it. Other makers say you don't need to do anything of the sort.


Repairing Holes

A hole in your drum's skin is not the end of the world. In fact, you may not want to do anything at all: Tommy Hayes' favorite drum, a Charlie Byrne drum, acquired an inch-diameter hole from mildew; but it still sounds wonderful, and Hayes would not dream of changing it. So, if your drum sounds good despite the hole, leave it be.

But a small hole can get bigger; if you develop a tear, then you should do something quickly. Andy's Front Hall sells a patch kit for a few dollars, which comes with a goatskin patch and glue. It looks like a simple process. I've seen drums patched with duct tape, and I suspect that would work just as well.

If all else fails, you can re-skin a drum. If you want to do it yourself, several retailers sell replacement skins -- Elderly Instruments, Boston Music Company, Andy's Front Hall -- and many drummakers would be happy to sell you a skin. For a good drum, I wouldn't want to do anything other than take it back to the original maker.


Other Opinions

Brent Santin has some suggestions based on his experiences.

Lark in the Morning offers another opinion on bodhrán care, plus a few specific comments on caring for a natural skin head.



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celtic music archive

Josh Mittleman

Last updated 30 Mar 1999