How To Inspect Vintage Drums

By Ned Ingberman

(Modern Drummer magazine has featured this article with color photographs
in a two-part series in the “Shop Talk” column of the 1995 March and April issues.)

As the momentum of interest in vintage drums grows more and more, so has the need for knowledge about them. Over the past 7 years, we have inspected thousands of vintage drums and have developed techniques and processes on how to do this effectively. We wanted you to benefit from our experience and have put this system into a written format for you to use. Please keep in mind that although this article is comprehensive in its approach, it does not cover every possible inspection point that exists. It has two parts: an Inspection Checklist and Instructional Text. The checklist is a step by step format that keeps you organized and also serves as a record for your inspection findings. The Instructional Text covers basic information on how to do an inspection. Also, it elaborates on those points in the inspection checklist that need clarification and/or instruction. Both of these parts, the checklist and text, are a complete system and together, will yield the best results. We hope that this system will not only serve as a tool to guide you through a successful inspection, but in the course of using it, it will also give you basic insights into the mechanics of how a drum works, especially the vintage ones. Before we get started on the actual inspection process we have outlined some important points about preparation and basic guidelines and procedures.


Before you begin an inspection, the following things will be needed:

LIGHT: Sufficient light will be needed so that all aspects of the interior as well as the exterior of the drum can be seen clearly and easily. Daytime is better than night-time for inspecting, due to the advantage of having full-spectrum, natural sunlight.

TOOLS: Have the right tools ready in case you need them. Most of the time your trusty tuning key will be enough. You might also need a screwdriver, tape measure, and an adjustable crescent wrench. If the drum you are inspecting has a film of dirt, grit, or light rust, some spray cleaner, paper towels, and superfine (0000) steel wool may also be needed to test-clean selected areas of the drum. (Test cleaning is described in more detail in the “Guidelines and Procedures” section.)

PEN & CHECKLIST: With the variety and number of details to cover in an inspection, a checklist will help ensure that your inspection is organized and thorough. Also, the information you gather with the list will be valuable as part of an overall profile of the drum – whether you want to buy, sell, trade, or just get better acquainted with a drum in your own collection. Provided is our Vintage Drum Inspection Checklist. It has been designed to accommodate single drums as well as sets up to 4 pieces. Please feel free to print and use it.


Before we proceed to the actual inspection, here are a few important guidelines and procedures to follow in your overall approach. For best results, we strongly recommend following these pointers:

  1. Have Enough Time. Set aside enough time so that you’ll be able to do a thorough and accurate inspection. Frequent interruptions or rushing through the inspection could greatly effect your accuracy and also result in something important being overlooked.
  2. Be Systematic. This means focusing your attention on only one checkpoint item at a time. Also, if you are inspecting an entire drum set, inspect only one drum at a time. For example, while you’re inspecting the lug casings of a drum, it’s better not to scan the condition of the finish at the same time. Taking in too much too fast could end up with hit or miss results. But, if it does happen that while you’re focusing on a particular checkpoint you happen to notice a potential defect in a different checkpoint area of the drum, just make a mental or written note of it, then continue on with your original focus of attention. Later on in your inspection,when it’s time to cover that other checkpoint, investigate it more deeply. An exception to following this “checkpoint completion system” is when you’re doing an inspection as a potential buyer/trader.You’ll want to detect early in the inspection process any serious defects that could change your decision to acquire the drum(s). In this case, you would interrupt your focus at any point during the inspection process in order to further investigate a potentially serious problem. One last tip for prudence’s sake: even if a drum appears to be in “mint” condition, always run it through a complete inspection process!
  3. Evaluate Four Ways. Inspecting a vintage drum means evaluating it in 4 ways described below: (Please note: not every one of these evaluation points will be applicable to all of the categories in the inspection checklist.)
    1. Cosmetic–Are there scratches, scuffs, gouges, stains, defacement or other visual signs of surface wear and tear? If the drum is dirty, a test clean is needed. Test cleaning is done for 2 reasons:
      To determine what discoloration, stains, or rust, if any, is permanent.To remove any film of dirt and grit that could camouflage corrosion, de-chroming, de-nickeling, pitting, gouges, scuffs, scratches, or cracks, etc. Removing the film could possibly uncover defects that would otherwise be hidden from view. (Please note: spray cleaners usually contain very strong detergents and should not be used on Ludwig Vistalite drums, wood finishes, Black Beauties or other lacquered metal drums.) We recommend using Meguiar’s Plastic Cleaner #17 for cleaning Vistalites and plastic finishes (available in automotive supply stores); for wood finishes, Parker’s Wood Finish Creme; and for Black Beauties or other lacquered metal drums, mild dishwashing soap with water.
    2. Structural/Functional–Is anything in need of repairs? Are any parts missing? Are all mechanical parts working properly?
    3. Originality–Is it in original condition, or has it been modified, altered or changed in part, or whole by anything non-original? We realize that the checkpoints for originality might pose a problem to those of you who are newcomers to vintage drums who might not have the experience needed to determine what is or isn’t original. Our recommendation is to become as familiar with vintage drums as you can – study the photographs in our catalog, collaborate with other collectors and read educational literature on the subject.
    4. Acoustical–Does the drum resonate properly? How is the overall tone quality?




Before you start, make sure the drum is fully assembled. If instead, it is disassembled, there could be reasons why; such as an out of round shell that does not allow the head(s) from fitting on, defective, damaged or wrong hardware that does not align, fit or work properly. (i.e.slipping or jammed up mounts or snare strainers, stripped threads, non-aligning parts, etc.) Any one of these problems could prevent the complete assembly and operation of a drum. So reassembling the drum is in itself a test to flush out any of the above mentioned problems that might exist, and is also a prerequisite to the visual and acoustical inspections that follow.

Visual: This step is necessary only when you do not own the drum being inspected and are evaluating it for potential purchase or trade. The purpose of this test is to quickly visually detect the most obvious serious defect, if any, that could alter your decision to acquire the drum. This could save you time in doing any further and unnecessary inspecting. Take one minute to scan the entire exterior surface of the drum, checking for missing or unoriginal parts, damage, defacement, or excessive wear and tear.

Acoustical: This is a simple and basic test to help detect minor and potentially major functional problems. If for any reason, this test can not be done at the beginning of the inspection, be sure it is done at some point before the inspection is completed.
To begin, first loosen the muffler of the drum (if there is a muffler) to a complete “off” position–this will enable the head of the drum to resonate freely. Next, play several quarter notes at a medium volume and tempo, listening carefully to the tone quality of the drum. Are there bad or dissonant harmonics, lack of body and resonance, choking, or flatness? If so, these ailments can often be corrected by simply tuning the heads or replacing one or both of them if they’ve stretched. Should neither of these remedies work and/or there is difficulty in tuning the head, this could indicate problems of a more serious nature; such as defective bearing edges (see Section 3 “Bearing Edges”), an out of round shell (see Section 4 “Shell and Finish”), or a badly warped rim (see Section 2 “Rims”). One last word about the acoustical test, it should not be relied upon alone as a conclusive indicator of the overall structural or functional integrity of a drum. Regardless of how good a drum sounds, it is still necessary to give it a thorough inspection. Also, this brief test is not meant to substitute for an in depth acoustical evaluation. In the context of this article, details of how to do such an evaluation will not be covered. However, it may be helpful here to point out a few things that an in depth acoustical evaluation involves, e.g.– experimentation with differing head types, weights and combinations of different tuning techniques, different rims, and performance of the drum in a variety of acoustical environments.



A badly warped rim can cause difficulty in tuning the drum, dissonant overtones or lack of resonance. Check for warpage by placing the rim on a perfectly flat surface and following the same procedure (excluding the touch test) used for inspecting bearing edge evenness. (see Section 3 –“Bearing Edges–(Eveness)”. Next, check for out of roundness. Fit a drumhead inside of the rim to see if there is an equal amount of space between the rim and the entire perimeter of the head. If there is not, try centering the head to even out the space. If there is still unevenness, the rim is out of round. Check also for bent areas. This is done by positioning the rim directly in front of you, as if holding a steering wheel. With the top (rim shot) edge of the rim facing you, choose any point on this edge and align it with your eye level. Starting from this point, follow the edge in a full circle around the rim, making sure as you do, to keep at eye level whatever point you’re looking at. As you do this process watch for areas that are bent inward or outward.



Evenness–Evenness of both bearing edge surfaces is critical in order for the heads of the drum to make complete and firm contact with the shell. The best way to verify evenness is first remove the heads and rims. Then place the drum with the bearing edge resting against a perfectly flat surface – a plate of glass or a perfectly flat tabletop works well for this. Slowly rotate the drum from right to left (or visa versa), watching for space between the bearing edge and the flat surface it’s resting on. (Placing a bright light inside of the drum will facilitate this.) If a perfectly flat inspection surface is not available, then position the bearing edge at your eye level. Looking horizontally across the plane of the bearing edge, slowly rotate the drum one quarter of a turn left and then right. As you do this, watch for any high or low spots on the edge. As part of the bearing edge inspection, it is also recommended to use your sense of touch– feeling the bearing edge with your fingertips for any unevenness. It is important to note that a very slight degree of unevenness in the surface of a bearing edge is not uncommon, and does not usually effect the performance of a drum to any significant degree.

Cracks, alterations, damage, etc. – Next, check the edges as well as reinforcement hoops for delamination and hair line cracks. Also, check for recutting or evidence of patch up jobs as well as for gouges, nicks, and dark-gray or blackened areas. These dark areas could mean dry rot of the wood. Test any suspicious looking spot for softness or sponginess by applying light pressure to it. Although dry rot is very uncommon, we have on occasion run into it.



Out of round and oversized shells – A small degree of out of roundness in wood shelled vintage drums is common and acoustically acceptable as long as it does not impair the proper fit of the drum head. Some snug fitting heads, such as Remo, will not easily fit many out of round and oversized shells. Other larger “float-style” heads such as Evans, Aquarian, and Premier will fit. (Please note: the only Premier head that we are currently aware of that can be used for this purpose is the 14″ size. It is also the largest oversized head for a 14″ drum.) While some drummers find the use of oversized heads to be a suitable solution, other drummers don’t want their head brand to be limited by the size and shape of a drum’s shell. If you are one of these drummers, then you will surely want to know if the shell is out of round or oversized. An out of round or oversized shell is in most cases, not visually obvious and can go undetected by all but the most trained eye. Therefore, we recommend using the following procedure:

The Head Fit Test–As just mentioned, Remo brand heads fit more snugly and do not easily (or at all) accommodate out of round or oversized shells. For this reason a Remo head is an ideal tool to use for this test. The process is simple: while removing the head from the shell and then placing it back on to the shell, observe how much force is needed. If the shell is round and not oversized, the head will go on and off with little effort. If on the other hand you have to tug, squeeze, push, or pull, or are unable to get the head back on, then the shell is out of round or oversized and would require an oversized head. If you are a drummer who does not want to be limited to using only oversized heads, then this drum will not suit your needs. However, if you don’t mind having to use oversized heads, then test fit the drum to confirm that one will fit. Use the same procedure as previously described. If the oversized head is difficult to get on or does not fit at all, this means the shell is too out of round to be compensated for by the head and the shell will need to undergo professional restoration. (Please note: we have rarely seen cases where an oversized head did not fit an oversized shell.) For the remaining checkpoints in this section, we recommend that you first go through all of the check points focusing only on the exterior of the shell. After having completed all the points, then go back and do them for the interior of the shell.

Exterior–Check for scratches, scuffs, and gouges. An effective way to do this is by angling the drum so that the finish catches the light and reflects it to your eyes. This will highlight flaws in the finish, and make them easier to detect. For metal shell drums, also check for dings, dents, rust, and pitting. Next, check for stains, fading, and discoloration. Natural wood finish drums showing stained or discolored areas should be checked for sponginess or softness of the wood. This is done by applying direct pressure to the area(s) in question. If the shell is soft or spongy, this indicates weak and deteriorated wood, probably caused by water, exposure to excessive moisture, or in rare occasions, dry rot. Next look for evidence of previous repairs or alterations having been done; i.e.patched in plastic, wood filler, touched up lacquer, gluing, extra holes drilled, etc. The next step is to check the finish for air bubbles, ungluing, chips, and cracks. The latter 3 items most often occur at the seams and edges of the finish. Cracks found in other areas of the shell and especially at points bordering the hardware, need to be checked carefully for softness and sponginess (as described above). Damage such as this is usually caused by forceful impact which when severe enough, can penetrate and crack all underlying plies of the shell. Check the interior of the shell for any evidence of this. Concerning Ludwig clear Vistalite acrylic shells – cracks can occur underneath the hardware, and need to be checked by looking from the inside of the shell outward. Next, check for caved in or bulged out areas of the shell. This problem is found more often than not, at the points where the hardware components are mounted to the shell of the drum. To help spot these areas, turn the drum so that the head sides of the drum are on your left and right. Then position the drum so that the top horizontal crest of the shell’s curvature is at eye level. Next, slowly rotate the drum, keeping your eyes fixed on the crest point. From this angle you will be able to see any deviations in flatness of the surface of the shell. Watch especially for lug casings that angle into and/or away from the shell. This type of shell disfigurement can be due to one or more reasons – including excessive tightening of tension rods, exposure to moisture/water, or damage due to forceful impact. Test any caved or bulged area for softness or sponginess. The next step is to check the finish for originality. Signs of a plastic wrap finish being unoriginal are: imprecise sizing or cutting of the plastic; unburnished edges; uncured (tacky) glue residue at the seam or edges; evidence of the nameplate missing or having been removed and reinstalled; extra holes in the shell that can be seen from the inside of the shell only; the age of the finish looks much newer than the rest of the drum; unevenness of the surface of the finish, (i.e.bumps or depressed spots caused by pieces of the exterior ply of the shell breaking off when the original finish was removed). Signs of a lacquer finish being unoriginal are graininess, inconsistent coloring and or texture, streaking, lumping or other signs of sloppiness.

INTERIOR As mentioned before, use the same inspection points as you did for inspecting the exterior of the shell. In case you see washers that are larger than normal, remove them to find out if they are covering up widened or extra holes or other shell damage. One last point, if the internal bolts,washers, etc., are painted over, it’s a telltale sign that the interior finish of the drum is unoriginal.



With the exception of inspecting tension rods for thread damage and bends, the points in this section (see inspection checklist) are simple to perform, needing no explanation. A practical time to test the threads of both rods and lugs and also the straightness of the T-rods, is when you’re removing the heads to inspect the bearing edges–(as mentioned earlier in this article). Here is how to do these checks: First, before you begin to loosen the rods, tighten each one slightly enough to feel the firm even grip of the threads. There should be no binding or slipping.(Please note: in the case of a small amount of binding, a drop of oil is sometimes all that is needed.) After slightly tightening the rods, loosen them and observe again for binding/slipping. If there is either problem, do a visual check to see if the rod is bent (if it is, it will wobble as you turn it), and for stripped or nicked threads (these can sometimes be visually imperceptible). If you can’t detect anything in your visual inspection, you’ll need to go through a process of elimination to determine the cause of the problem. This is done by installing the questionable T-rod in a different lug (one that you know is OK) to see if it still slips or binds. If it does, then you know the problem is the rod. On the other hand, if the rod functions normally, then you know that the lug is the problem. Because the functioning of the rods and lugs are so interrelated, the thread test for the rods simultaneously accomplishes the same test for the lugs. If not replaced, binding rods and lugs can damage one another. A word of caution about bent tension rods–they should be replaced or repaired before being used again. We have seen many cracked tube lugs and stripped lug casings due to bent T-rods! SEE section 5 of INSPECTION CHECKLIST FOR ADDITIONAL POINTS.



In this section of the inspection checklist the only point needing any explanation is the one on defective threads. Please refer to Section 5– “Tension Rods, etc”,since it has already been covered in that section. SEE section 6 of INSPECTION CHECKLIST FOR ADDITIONAL POINTS.



Inspect all of the metal hardware mounted to the inside of the drum shell (see inspection checklist for points). Exclude the interior components of the muffler which are covered in the next section. Previously, we discussed an important point about oversized washers. If for any reason, you missed this part, please refer back to it–see Section 4 “Shells and Finish (Interior)”.



As you go through the points in this section (see inspection checklist), be sure to inspect both inside and outside components of the muffler. Test the adjustment knob (or arm, if it’s an arm-style muffler) to see if the internal dampening pad engages and disengages fully from the drum head. Also, as you turn the knob, observe for binding or slipping, and for any wobbling motion. Although most vintage drums have only one muffler, some have two. In that case, be sure to check both.



If a nameplate has been removed and reinstalled evidence of this can usually be found on the inside of the shell. Signs of this are a general chewed up appearance (nicked, cut, bent) to the edge of the grommet or the shell surrounding the grommet. SEE section 9 of INSPECTION CHECKLIST FOR ADDITIONAL POINTS.



An often overlooked inspection point concerning vintage kits is the compatibility of color on the exterior finish of the drums. Since most collectors strongly prefer each individual drum in a set to match reasonably well with the others, this inspection is an important one. Check all of the drums in the set to see if there is any difference in the shade of color from one drum to the other. If the bass rims are the inlay style, include the strip of inlay in your inspection. Variations in the shade of color are in most cases due to ultraviolet discoloration or manufacturer’s production variations. Also check that the interior sealing finish of the shells is the same color on all the drums, i.e.not a mismatch of white, clear lacquer, gray, etc.,and that the drums in the set are all from the original group, drums have been added on later. Serial numbers on the drums should be within a reasonable range if the drums are a matched set – check for this as well.



Check for bent or missing strands of wires. Also, if the entire set of wires is completely missing, it will need to be installed in order to test the strainer and butt-end in section 12 that follows. Please note: The check for originality of wires has not been included as part of this checkpoint due to the wide acceptance of non-original wires by collectors.



Of all the hardware components on the shell of a snare drum, the snare strainer gets the most use. For this reason it needs to be inspected with extra care. First, check the functioning of the strainer by tightening and loosening the strainer dial all the way in both directions. As you do this observe for binding and slipping. Also watch for a wobbling motion of the dial (and its connecting shaft). If the drum has an adjustable style butt-end, test it the same way as the strainer dial. Also be sure the butt holds firmly at the connection point for the wires. Next, test the strainer to see if the throw off arm securely locks and completely releases without binding or slipping. Also, check the snare wires to be sure they completely disengage from the bottom head when the throw off arm is in the “off” position. Some older model strainers from the 1920’s and earlier have inherent design flaws that do not allow the wires to completely disengage. In these cases the problem is not due to damage or natural wear and tear and cannot be remedied, as far as we know, without altering the originality of the strainer.



The way to properly test mount and linkage holding power is to set up the drum(s). All mount nuts, thumb screws and connecting linkage should tighten securely without slipping or binding. Further test their holding power by increasing the bearing pressure on them. Do this by either pushing, pulling, lifting, pressing, twisting or turning the drum and/or linkage or leg. Which of these stress tests or combination of them you will use will be determined by the actual configuration of the mounting system. SEE section 13 of INSPECTION CHECKLIST FOR ADDITION POINTS.


Vintage Drum Inspection Checklist

Please note: The check for originality of heads has not been included as part of this checkpoint due to the wide acceptance of non-original heads by collectors.



We recommend using the following grading system to summarize the overall condition of the drum or drumset:

MINT – Looks like brand new, no evidence of any wear.
EXC/MINT – Excellent to Mint condition. Looks almost new, shows only slight evidence of usage.
EXC – Excellent. Shows light wear but taken very good care of.
VG/EXC – Very Good to Excellent . Less than normal wear.
VG – Very Good. Shows normal amount of wear for its age.
Gd/VG – Good to Very Good. A little more wear than usual.
GOOD – Still in decent condition but shows more than normal amount of wear.
FAIR – Rough condition, but usable.



Use this section of the inspection sheet to record all pertinent details of your inspection.


Vintage Drum Inspection Checklist

Mark the appropriate boxes for the drum you are inspecting: snare (SN), small tom (ST), large tom (LT), bass (BD) and where applicable, top (T), and bottom (B), interior (INT) and exterior (EXT). Mark with either an open circle O = OK or an X = not OK.
Please note: The two pages of text accompanying this checklist are meant to be used in conjunction with the checklist. The text contains important clarification and instructions (see How to Inspect a Vintage Drum)



1. Two-Minute Overview


fully assembled


2. Rims


SN  ST  LT  BD  —  Missing or unoriginal
T __  __  __  __
B __  __  __  __


SN ST LT BD   —  Altered, repaired, holes drilled


SN ST LT BD   —  Wood rims : indentations, delamination, cracks, other damage)


SN  ST  LT  BD  —  Inlay on wood rims: missing, unoriginal, discolored, cracked, unglued

T __  __  __  __

B __  __  __  __


SN  ST  LT  BD  — Warped, out of round, bent

T __  __  __  __

B __  __  __  __


SN  ST  LT  BD  —  Finish chipped, worn, scratched, pitted, etc.

T __  __  __  __

B __  __  __  __


SN  ST  LT  BD  —  Metal rims: cracks

T __  __  __  __
B __  __  __  __


3. Bearing Edges


SN  ST  LT  BD —  Unevenness high and low spots
T __  __  __  __
B __  __  __  __


SN  ST  LT  BD  —  Ply/hoop separation cracks

T __  __  __  __
B __  __  __  __


SN  ST  LT  BD  — Modified, altered, repaired

T __  __  __  __

B __  __  __  __


SN  ST  LT  BD —  Gouges, nicks, other damage

T __  __  __  __
B __  __  __  __


4. Shells and Finish


SN  ST  LT  BD — Out of round/oversize shell (heads are tight)

T __ __ __ __
B __ __ __ __


SN  ST  LT  BD  — Scratches, scuffs, gouges, dings, dents, rust, pitting

__ __ __ _


SN  ST  LT  BD — Stains, fading, discoloration

__  __  __  __


SN  ST  LT  BD — Previous repairs, alterations, extra holes

__  __  __  __


SN  ST  LT  BD  — Air bubbles, ungluing, chips and cracks

__  __  __  __


SN  ST  LT  BD  — Caved in/bulged out

__  __  __  __

SN  ST  LT  BD — Unoriginal finish

__  __  __  __


5. Tension Rods (& Washers), Claws, Clips


SN ST LT BD  — Missing or unoriginal

T __ __ __ __
B __ __ __ __


SN ST LT BD  — Modified, altered, repaired

T __ __ __ __
B __ __ __ __


SN ST LT BD  — Bent, thread damage, cracks, other damage

T __ __ __ __
B __ __ __ __


SN ST LT BD  — Rust, pitting, scratches, finish chipped/worn

T __ __ __ __
B __ __ __ __


6. Lug Casings


SN ST LT BD  — Missing or unoriginal, in whole or part

T __ __ __ __
B __ __ __ __


SN ST LT BD  — Rusted, pitted, scratched, finish chipped or worn

T __ __ __ __
B __ __ __ __



SN ST LT BD  — Modified, altered, repaired

T __ __ __ __
B __ __ __ __


SN ST LT BD  — Cracked, defective threads, other damage

T __ __ __ __
B __ __ __ __







7. Interior Hardware – Screws, Washers, Bushings, etc.


__ missing or unoriginal
modified, altered, repaired
rusted or damaged

8. Mufflers

INT missing or unoriginal


INT modified, altered, repaired


INT rust, pitting, scratches,
EXT chipped/worn finish


INT damaged, dysfunctional or inoperable

9. Nameplate & Grommet

missing or unoriginal
bent, scratched, loose, evidence of reinstallation
evidence of reinstallation

10. Drum Set

exterior finish on all drums is same shade of color
interior finish on all drums is same color
original group – no add ons

11. Snare Drums-Wires

completely missing
strands missing/bent

12. Snare Drum-Strainer/Butt-End

strainer —missing or unoriginal in whole or part
strainer —modified, altered, repaired
strainer —rust, pitting, scratches,
butt-end —finish chipped/worn
strainer —bent, stripped, cracked, other damage
strainer —binding/slipping of dial or throw off arm
strainer —wires disengage completely

13. Mounts, Linkage, Legs

missing or unoriginal in whole or part
rusted, pitted, scratched, finish chipped or worn
cracked housing, stripped threads, other damage
modified, altered, repaired
securely hold

14. Heads

T missing
T stretched, punctured, ripped

15. General Information

Brand & Model__________________________ Year ________

Size: SN________ ST_________ LT_________ BD__________

Finish of Shell_________________________________________

Finish of Hardware:__________ nickel________ chrome________

Cleaning/Polishing needed ____ yes _____ no

Grading _____ Mint _____ Exc/Mint _____ Exc _____ VG/Exc

_____VG _____ Gd/VG _____Gd Fair

16. Comments (use an additional sheet of paper if necessary)