Basswood, poplar, and lauan shells

David M Scott

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It seems that many here are convinced that Basswood and Poplar are used on only the very low end kits. While I'm sure that they are in many cases, in my experience they are superior to Lauan/Asian Mahogany. Having been in "the commercial wood business" for 40 years plus being a drummer I have a reasonable knowledge of types. There is a standard testing system for wood hardness called "Janka"
The test consists of pressing a .444 inch steel ball into a block of test wood so that the ball sinks to 1/2 it's diameter. They higher the number the harder the wood. So here are the numbers:
Basswood 410
Poplar 540
Lauan 800
So if one were to go by hardness alone then Lauan would be the winner by far.
Yet L
 

Tornado

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There's way more to a kit than the wood. You can absolutely make a nice expensive high end kit out of these. C&C does with lauan. However, it doesn't make sense to make a low end kit out of expensive wood like North American maple. So if you're selling a low end kit, it's always going to be made with the lowest cost materials.
 

Frank Godiva

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Sonors take from the 1987 catalog; the maple numbers have been disputed over the years cause they used an Italian maple sample for the test rather then a North American rock maple variety which is more commonly used

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David M Scott

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It seems that many here are convinced that Basswood and Poplar are used on only the very low end kits. While I'm sure that they are in many cases, in my experience they are superior to Lauan/Asian Mahogany. Having been in "the commercial wood business" for 40 years plus being a drummer I have a reasonable knowledge of types. There is a standard testing system for wood hardness called "Janka"
The test consists of pressing a .444 inch steel ball into a block of test wood so that the ball sinks to 1/2 it's diameter. They higher the number the harder the wood. So here are the numbers:
Basswood 410
Poplar 540
Lauan 800
So if one were to go by hardness alone then Lauan would be the winner by far.
Yet Lauan is used to make cheap wood panelling, door skins, low end plywood etc.
It's very prone to grain splitting and "fuzzes" when sanded or after paint or stain application. Basswood and Poplar on the other hand makes fine plywood or used solid for furniture framing.
They also take paint and stain and paint very well.
As regards drum shells. I have owned a fair number of kits, admittedly most low to medium priced, and found that those made of Lauan were for all intents and purposes "dead" as far as sound projection regardless of heads used. One MIJ Lauan kit was so bad I stripped it down and had a local body shop spray the inside of the shells with body filler. That improved the sound greatly. And, I had one or two Badge kits with
"white" shells which were either Basswood or Poplar that sounded just fine. Then I got stars in my eyes and bought a Yamaha DP kit that was $700 Can. for a shell pack. It was Lauan but hey, it was Yamaha and it had their legendary hardware.
I changed to quality heads and while it was ok, the sound was always muted especially the 20 inch kick which always had a flat sound no matter what head I used. About 15 years later, 2013, I bought one of the original Sonor Safari kits. It has 9 ply Poplar shells with a 16in kick. I was blown away by the sound right out of the box with oem heads. And of course the hardware was genuine high end Sonor and the wrap very thick and attractive. So, my experience with Lauan was not great yet it has been used with success by most of the major drum manufacturers either straight or blended in plywood with other hardwoods. During the drum rush after Ringo, Ludwig ran two shifts, six days a week just to keep up to orders. I read where Wm Ludwig Jr admitted that in order to keep up production a variety of woods were used and quality varied so much that they painted the inside of the shells white to hide the knots and other imperfections. Yet today those vintage kits are treasured for their sound ?
There is a video on you tube that shows a series of 10 in Toms being played. They range from low to high end price. The overall difference is clearly the head more so
than the shell.
So, are we being influenced by marketing as regards shell material and construction ? Do exotic woods like Burbinga really sound better ? And what about shells made of composite/press wood resin material.
Jeff Hamilton played Remo drums for years with composite shells and they sounded great. And then of course there were the Acrylic
shells that sound just fine, maybe superior to wood in some drummers minds.
Thought provoking isn't it ?
 

Paradiddle

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I have a Sugar poplar snare. It kills. Cranked up it can pop like a metal snare.
 

Bri6366

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70s Tama and Pearl pro kits made of Luan sounded good. Everyone has their formula. Ludwig and Slingerland used maple / poplar, Yamaha and Pearl used Luan as middle plies in their mid level kits. In the 80s-90s, the all maple shell became the gold standard for high end drums, but things have circled back now with the popularity of Gretsch and bringing back the classic formulas.
 

CC Cirillo

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Fully satisfied with my wee Tama Club Jam, which is poplar and mersawa ply.

(What is mersawa and how janky is it?)

With nice heads the sound is round, mellow, just what I was looking for. I have a maple kit for cut boom and a birch for funky focus.

I see nothing wrong with a kit made from less janky wood for a different tone. The fact that they tend to be cheaper, that’s just a plus.
 

Drumbumcrumb

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I came from a woodworking/remodel background before I started playing drums and when I saw Lauan drums I was turned off because (like you) I associated Lauan with cheap, crappy ply. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pulled some surface and found Lauan underneath and every time you go “oh man, there’s freaking Lauan under here!” Out it goes. But there’s Lauan and there’s Lauan. Lauan started out as a generally high quality product, and due to many factors plummeted in quality in later years. By the 90’s, what we in the States would find in the big box stores was junk and basically unusable for any serious construction. But drum makers can (and do) still source primo Phillipine Mahogany.

I initially had the same thoughts regarding Lauan, because to me it meant “crap plywood”. But (as I was reminded) C&C made their Player Dates from QUALITY Lauan that has nothing to do with the junk in the building industry. Those drums sound fantastic. Philippine Mahogany is a good drum wood when it’s good. It’s been brutally over harvested and so there’s been some really low quality product made in its name. But the ‘good’ stuff has great drum qualities - it has a warm, woolly sound with a fat low end and no harsh overtones.

Same with Poplar and basswood. Lots of crap has been made with it, so it has some ugly associations. But good quality drums made from good quality Poplar sound great and have some characteristics that many drummers love.
The softer woods are more prone to dents and dings, so you gotta take care especially with bearing edges… but they have a definite place in drums. Often a bit of both is a great combination - a thin soft shell with hardwood re-rings is a tried and true recipe and even some of the cheapest vintage drums made this way sound awesome.

The more drums I play the more I’ve come to believe that build quality, edge quality, material quality, etc. (plus a little magic) is more important than “which wood”. An exotic wood drum with bad edges sounds bad. A pine drum made to perfection sounds good. It’s hard to beat a good Bubinga or Walnut drum IMO, but when you get into wood characteristics it’s all opinion and nuance and much of it is lost in the mix. Bubinga has a clean, balanced sound that’s inherently musical. Walnut has a darkness and low end that comes through even at higher tunings. Maybe you like the brighter tone of hard maple, or the fuzzier tone of a porous mahogany - it’s all nuance and preference at that point. If you give a master builder some good wood of any specie - he’ll give you a masterful drum.

Sure, a composite or acrylic drum can sound pretty good if it’s made well. But they’re kinda ‘dead’ and one-dimensional. Dry to a fault. Likewise a drum so thick that the shell doesn’t really get into the mix, it’s just a cylinder. Give me a thin shell of quality wood with lightweight hardware every time. I love a thin, sensitive drum that lets you hear the shell and actually FEEL the response. A concrete shell looks cool, but breathy? sensitive? responsive? rich tone? No.
 

JimmySticks

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70s Tama and Pearl pro kits made of Luan sounded good. Everyone has their formula. Ludwig and Slingerland used maple / poplar, Yamaha and Pearl used Luan as middle plies in their mid level kits. In the 80s-90s, the all maple shell became the gold standard for high end drums, but things have circled back now with the popularity of Gretsch and bringing back the classic formulas.
I think Pearls President Series, which celebrates their 75th anniversary, is made of luan. They bond it all together like their old phenolics drums, so they're not cheap, but I have to say they sound really good.

Greyson Nekrutman (I know everyone is tired of hearing about the kid!) plays them and they do sound great. Nice warm vintage sound. The wood is just not as important as we would like to think.
 

bellbrass

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There is marketing, and then there's drum building. Marketing responds to popular opinion, regardless of fact.
I think that the Janka hardness number factors into the sound of a drum in a significant way...but, the construction of the shell, head selection, type of drum hoops, and the shell mounting system can all collectively outweigh the wood species used for the drum. Also, the shell's diameter (undersized, average sized, oversized) factors in as well.
To me, the stiffer the shell, the more a wooden drum can/will sound like a metal drum. So - take a super-dense wood species, make it into a solid shell, and you have a drum that is sonically very close to a metal drum.

Marketing is what got Ludwig to change their basic USA shell - what used to be known as the "Super Classic", I think - from maple/poplar to all maple. I remember people complaining about the use of the term "filler plies" - the opinion was that anything but 100% maple was a cheap manufacturing decision to save money. I can still hear drummers, even as internet forums came into being, complaining about "filler plies" and the term "choice select hardwoods."
The funny thing now is....drum roll, please - I love the sound of a maple/poplar layup. Those drum builder guys knew what they were doing.
If I remember correctly, the reason Ludwig used mahogany plies and the reason Gretsch used Gumwood plies back in the day was that they were cheaper at the time than rock maple, and more readily available...and now those layups are looked at as premium shells.
 
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Frank Godiva

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There’s this:

Acousticon® is an advanced, specially developed wood-based drum shell material that offers the highly sought after sonic qualities of wood along with the added benefits of consistency, stability, durability, and value. Acousticon® drum shells are hand manufactured with 100% recycled wood fiber.
 

Cauldronics

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My late 70s lauan-shelled Tama Imperialstar kit fell flat of my expectations. But so did my Rogers XP-8 kit with its North American maple shells.

I realized that it was due to reading internet lore more than anything else, and willingly taking the plunge into acquiring kits I’d not heard in person much if at all, or that I’d heard sounding great on recordings, which of course can employ tricks of the trade.

It takes only a few fans of a kit to build a positive review while others who might’ve tried it might not take part in the discussion, either because they’re no longer interested in the kit or they see no point in being negative about something another group of people enjoy. That is the influence of internet lore. Those who do discuss it negatively are often outnumbered by those who appreciate it. If you think about it, it’s rare to see almost any kit roundly trashed on a forum. All drums are at least good or useable, a sentiment with which I don’t totally disagree.

It all comes back to using your ears and building up enough real world experience to make sound judgments. I know that I’m more inclined to go with tried and true, trusted choices for drum tone wood than I am to try ones that are questionable. I think that’s the overall truth for most drummers. But nothing can beat sitting down with a kit in your normal playing spot and really getting to know it. That takes time.
 
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1988fxlr

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You will come across a lot more bad sounding lauan and basswood drums than you will bubinga or walnut but thats not because lauan and basswood can’t sound good, its just the reality that very few builders are going to spring for the extra costs of premium hardwoods and then cut corners on build quality. The easy workability and reasonable cost of lauan make them appealing to builders who will cut other corners
 

ThomFloor

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Its not just the wood its the build.
There is also magic in cheap woods. Witness the classic coveted '60's Ludwig 3 ply sound' - one of the plies is poplar. Take it out...its not the same.
But in any ply based drums 50% of sound comes from heads, tuning, hardware and its mass.
 

Paradiddle

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There’s this:

Acousticon® is an advanced, specially developed wood-based drum shell material that offers the highly sought after sonic qualities of wood along with the added benefits of consistency, stability, durability, and value. Acousticon® drum shells are hand manufactured with 100% recycled wood fiber.
Interestingly enough - the gen II acousticon Remo drums sound amazing. I was always floored at how good Jeff Hamilton's set always sounded when I saw him live or heard the album. As good as his old Gretsches - easily.
 

K.O.

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The majority (60-70% at least) of the shell in all the "classic" 3 ply shell designs (Ludwig, Slingerland, Gretsch) was poplar. In all three cases they are a fat ply of poplar dressed up by sandwiching it between two plies of mahogany and/or maple.

Certainly poplar has a decent pedigree as a "drum wood", at least when used in combination with other woods.
 

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I am grateful that we have our internet and forum(s) so that we can learn about the truth......which can many times differ from the marketing we have been force-fed for years.

Several times I have played my lauan (sp) drums and see my fellow musicians blown away at how good they sound. If I can identify 2 essential factors (other than roundness/manufacturing flaws, etc.) - it would be heads and good edges. If you have those two factors - any wood specie can sound great. Same - nope. Still 'great' - yup.

The only footnote/exception to this discussion - in my mind - is Alder. I have a ddrum Reflex in storage - waiting for some setup/playing (and a 20in BD shell re-wrap project). I always use EQ rings on my toms - regardless of which kit/specie. This alder Reflex kit will be the only exception. I will not be using any EQ ring on those toms - they already have an EQed sound to them. It is really remarkable. If you like that warm EQed sound - you might love them. If not, you might find this kit impossible to sound like you want it to. BTW - different than the warmth of thin 3-ply Slingers, MIJs.
 

drummerjohn333

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My late 70s lauan-shelled Tama Imperialstar kit fell flat of my expectations. But so did my Rogers XP-8 kit with its North American maple shells.
Edges. Heads. These two factors might change EVERYTHING about the performance of these kits. Definitely have your edges inspected on these before you sell them. That sound you were hoping for when you bought them - might totally be attainable and waiting for you to enjoy it.
The kit I played for 10 years and recorded 2 CDs on -- included a 12 inch tom that never would sound 'right'. No matter how I tuned it or what heads I used on it - it sounded different than the FT and did not sound right - requiring considerable EQing in the studio. I had the edges recut - and it changed everything! That drum sings beautifully now and fits right in with it's siblings. EGDES....make a huge difference. That's why I acquired a real good router table/ bits...and I hope to get into edge cutting soon.
 

Cauldronics

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Edges. Heads. These two factors might change EVERYTHING about the performance of these kits. Definitely have your edges inspected on these before you sell them. That sound you were hoping for when you bought them - might totally be attainable and waiting for you to enjoy it.
The kit I played for 10 years and recorded 2 CDs on -- included a 12 inch tom that never would sound 'right'. No matter how I tuned it or what heads I used on it - it sounded different than the FT and did not sound right - requiring considerable EQing in the studio. I had the edges recut - and it changed everything! That drum sings beautifully now and fits right in with it's siblings. EGDES....make a huge difference. That's why I acquired a real good router table/ bits...and I hope to get into edge cutting soon.
I agree about edges and heads but that wasn’t an issue for either kit. The edges were fine on both and I tried new heads more than a few times.

It was a matter of them not sounding the way I wanted like when you choose a guitar that you thought would match the sound in your head, but it doesn’t.

I was happy to sell both kits to people who are hopefully enjoying them more than I did.
 


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