Spirit in the Wood
Built from local hardwoods and recovered Central American timber, Spirit in the Wood drums – especially the one-piece shell models – are causing a stir among World Music Percussion enthusiasts.
On a small road in rural Eastern Pennsylvania, Conrad Kubiak maintains a garage full of equipment that can suspend 500-pound logs overhead and work them down into single pristine drums. Djembes, congas, dunduns, ishikos, condumbe, cajons, and even kit drums – Kubiak makes them all with striking skill and in bold designs in his shop, using indigenous hardwoods from throughout his own area and from a company that exports gorgeous rescued wood from Belize. His company, Spirit in the Wood, has slowly attracted an international customer base as Kubiak’s self-taught skills have broadened, attracting World Percussion enthusiasts from all genres and styles. It’s a grassroots phenomenon in every sense of the word.
“I have to keep myself interested,” he says over the phone from his headquarters in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. “Because I’m curious, I wanted to explore all the different drums in the world. It’s not just a single drum that fascinates me.”
Kubiak didn’t start out as a drum maker. He says he found an early career as director of national sales for a tech company in the early ‘90s, but left that position dissatisfied with the corporate world. He worked for a bit in fine cabinetry and home improvement – carpentry had paid his way through college – and one day found himself at a friend’s drum circle. “It was a bunch of old hippies with a bonfire playing didjeridoos and drums,” he says. “I got turned on by the whole thing so I went to a local drum store later to check out the drums – they were so expensive! I took a look at a cajon and thought, ‘I’m a cabinet maker. I can make this.’” The drum he completed blew friends away and a business was born.
Nowadays, Kubiak’s expertise spans cultures across continents, from the Uruguayan condumbe to the African ashikos, Puerto Rican bombas and Native American frame drums. To achieve better control over the quality of wood he was working with, he eventually developed his own system for turning shells out of domestic wood. This process centered on a 3,000 pound, 100-year-old pattern maker’s lathe that he purchased in 1999.
The son of a metalworker, he had learned to arc weld as a kid and now builds all of his own hardware. After working with djembes for awhile, he also decided that he wasn’t happy with the rope available to tune those drums. He contacted a rope mill and had designed his own rope specifically designed for djembe use. He’s now shipped over a million feet of this rope to Africa alone. He’s even designed his own custom drum cases.
But the flagship product at this point might be his one-piece shell drums. These drums, rolled using his large lathe and unique in a market of staved or fiberglass drums, present a full product from one solid piece of wood. “I saw that no one was making solid wood congas, so I did that,” says Kubiak. “Having it all come from the tree with no glue lines and no bands allows the shells to sing and project. They’re as loud as a fiberglass drum, but they have this warmth that you can only get from solid wood. The vision is, of course, to have the most exotic drums I can put together, as well as the sweetest sounding drums.”
To that end, Kubiak has found a very interesting source for his wood. “Mahogany is an amazing tone wood and I found a guy who is bringing river-recovered Mahogany logs up from Belize.” Kubiak goes on to explain that, during British harvesting 200 years ago, when most of the timber would be transported to ports by floating cut logs down rivers, around half of the wood sunk before it was able to be shipped away. This was common practice throughout the world – millions of logs were sunk in Lake Superior in the early 1900s as well.
The five million board feet of wood left in Belize rivers comes with added value. “When you put a log in cold water without oxygen, it preserves it and also washes out the resins, so you get an even improved quality to the sounds.” The wood ends up being twice as dense as typical mahogany.
Kubiak isn’t the only instrument maker who’s made the connection in Belize – he says he’s aware of a variety of guitar manufacturers who use the same supplier, including Martin, whose headquarters are “up the street” in Nazareth.
Spirit in the Drums works with dealers regionally and throughout the East Coast – these drums are in about 13 stores in all – and sells directly at drum shows and festivals. Kubiak also has a robust online ordering component that includes costumers across the country and in England, Finland, and Canada.
An active relationship with well-known drummer Michael Pluznick has helped spread the word. Pluznick, who’s performed solo for decades as well as drumming with Todd Rundgren, Jerry Garcia, and building instruments for the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart, says there’s nothing like them. “With just a little higher price than the perhaps best thing from a typical company, you can have this incredible thing,” he says. “Not to mention the energy from the tree. I think they’re the best drums on the planet.”
Kubiak just points to economics. “There are lots of companies mass producing low quality instruments in foreign countries, and they’re making middle of the road sounds,” he says. “I can’t compete with mass production, so I just decided to make the finest drum I can.”
So far, it’s working well. Kubiak has taken an extensive knowledge of woodworking and, with a few significant steps (you don’t whittle a tree into 480 pounds of sawdust with one 20-pound drum remaining unless you’re serious about your product), he’s built a one-man percussion force.
“The whole thing is incredible,” he says. “That’s it for me – the joy of doing this kind of work. And I’m doing it all.”