New Project – Late 1970’s Premier “Elite” Drum Shells, “Natural” Finish. Assessment for restoration and rebuild

I’ve already recently begun work on the “strip and re-build” of a Premier 1026 Steel Snare Drum. As I progress into learning to drum – I intend to eventually build other drums around it, with more and more of the kit added as I need it. Getting hands on is a good way to immerse yourself in a new learning experience. There will be some bits of new research required, and a chance to learn and try out some new techniques and processes – combining them with those I already have a pretty good grounding in from my guitar projects. And all that alongside learning to actually “use” the instrument properly, of course. I didn’t expect to be moving onto any other drums for a little while yet – let alone a whole kit – but then I got a chance to pick up a vintage set of mixed shells at a very reasonable price. The possibilities became quite compelling. With a few guitar builds all approaching completion at exactly the same time – I’m looking for new potential projects for the year ahead, and this year’s diary now looks much healthier – and a whole lot busier.

Working with the Premier “1026” Snare drum – I really like the fact that it’s a solidly built, traditional style snare – all shiny chrome, and a little bit of that same “made in England” mojo that reminds me of Jaguar cars, Rolls Royce, Triumph Motorcycles, and episodes of “The Sweeney”. As a child in the 60’s and 70’s – I learned to ride at the age of fourteen on a Triumph Tiger Cub – (taught by a man smoking a pipe. Those were the days!) I couldn’t afford a bike of my own, and somehow failed to convince my Dad that it would be “a really good idea to learn early”. I’d dream of rocket ships, streamlining, polished chrome and Triumph bikes, (when a “Chopper” was the only realistic possibility, and even that was a big wish). Instead, I used to collect bits of chrome off of “classic” bikes, from breakers yards. A tank badge here, a bit of trim there. Now – hunting down spare bits of obsolete chrome and steel for drums so I can rebuild them – it seems all too familiar, somehow.

Premier drums have been around for 100 years this year (2022). A proper English “family business” that eventually built drums for the whole world. They have a long history serving the military and marching band market – but as popular music developed – some “star” players in the 60’s and 70’s were noted using Premier kits – (Keith Moon’s famous “Pictures of Lily” kit was a customised Premier outfit. All their drums were made in England, and from 1940 until its’ recent closure and demolition, they operated from the same factory in Wigston, near Leicester. The company is still in operation even now – although the company has restructured, and their main focus now seems to be back with the marching drums they were initially involved with.

Premier – whilst perhaps not having the same “Rock and Roll credentials” as some of the other “big names” – eg. Gretsch or Ludwig – seems to have always had a reputation for good, reliable and solid builds. I’m reminded that there are echoes in this, and a similar ethos at Fender guitars – in that the instruments are designed and built to be functional, as well as stylish. Critically – they’re also easy to maintain and customise, with only basic maintenance skills required. Fettling a drum kit shouldn’t really be a million miles away from restoring or fettling a Fender guitar – or even a vintage car or motorcycle, for that matter. There seem to be plenty of spare parts out there, lying unused in musical versions of “breakers yards”, all over the place. To build and personalise my own kit – all I have to do, (theoretically), is find some suitable vintage shells, research the original build, and then source and fit the associated hardware required. That’ll get me started, anyway…

A drum kit is primarily a collection of individual drums. (I’ll get onto cymbals and extra hardware later). The snare provides the main rhythmical motifs and flourishes, with lower tuned tom-toms, and the steady thump of the kick drum to keep the beat moving along. I’m looking to build a basic kit to begin with – a kick drum, a floor tom, perhaps one or two rack toms, in addition to the snare. Snare drums always seem to be dealt with separate to the rest of the kit – so what I’m initially looking for is often referred to as a “22, 13, 14, 16” kit – based on the diameters of the various drum shells required. Now – obviously – vintage shells usually become available as older kits are broken up, and they’re usually broken up for a reason. Perhaps one, or more of the actual shells is broken… perhaps the hardware required to repair a kit difficult to find, and there’s a more compelling finiancial reason for breaking a kit into it’s component parts for resale, than for fixing it up any longer… perhaps it’s just not “financially viable” to rebuild a kit like this, for any other reason than for the pure hell of it… perhaps it’s already someone else’s partly completed, and abandoned project…

Premier kits from the 1978/79 “Drums and Accessories” catalogue

So when I got a chance to pick up my “starter” shell set – I realise there’s a fair bit to research and establish… I already realise that it’ll probably cost me more to rebuild a vintage kit, than the finished kit will eventually be worth – but I’m in it for the process and experience, more than I am for any real financial outcome. I do this sort of thing for pure enjoyment, and the satisfaction of learning new skills, and putting them to use – not merely for any sort of monetary gain. After trawling around the usual online second-hand markets for a suitable shell set – I chanced upon an unusual combination of shells which apparently had a natural, (veneered?) finish, and which looked to be in quite a reasonable condition, given its’ age. A fair bit of work maybe required – but then looking after, and refinishing wood has been a thing of mine for a while now. Given the possibilities – this might be exactly what I’m looking for, to get up and running. At worst – I’ve just bought a collection of lumber to be “upcycled” into unusual coffee tables – but I think I can make this work for me.

The shells are devoid of all hardware – save the distinctive Premier badges. From the style and typography of the Premier logo – the shells appear to be late 70’s / early 80’s vintage. Checking some old period catalogues, and checking the hardware fixing holes against pictures of the available ranges – I figure this is a customised “Elite” kit, most likely based on the late 70’s standard #304 pattern. There appear to be plenty of original spare parts on the “after-market”, and having checked the prices some similar shells were realising individually – I settled on the job lot of shells for a price I was very comfortable with. Maybe I could have got them a little bit cheaper – but this combination will give me plenty of flexibility, and a few options to create different kit configurations – depending on how each of the individual drum restorations go.

Late 70’s Premier Drum Kit in “natural” finish

When the shells eventually arrive – I get a chance to give them a really good look over, and better assess which directions I can possibly go. I measure up, and it looks like we’ve got:

2 x Bass (Kick) Drum Shells @ 22″ diameter x 14″
4 x Wooden Bass Drum Hoops @ 22″ diameter
1 x Chromed Snare Shell @ standard 14″ diameter
1 x Large Floor Tom Shell @ 16″ diameter x 15″
1 x Rack Tom Shell @ 14″ diameter x 10″
1 x Rack Tom Shell @ 14″ diameter x 8″

At first glance – it looks quite promising – Most of the shells seem to have a natural, perhaps unfinished, wood outer, and it all looks to be in good condition. Scraping away a little of the painted interior of one of the smaller drums reveals a similar, sealed interior. Perhaps these are shells which have been stripped of their “wraps”, and which have had their natural wood exteriors sealed with shellac or similar? The surface certainly looks like birch, or a similar light, tight grained wood. Then I notice one of the small toms seems to have a thicker veneer applied over the top. It’s similar in colour to the rest of the set – but the veneer is applied with the grain running vertically. This one drum looks to have more like a sort of maple-looking, straighter grained veneer. Checking inside the “odd one out” – and scraping away a little of the covering paint – reveals what looks like a mahogany shell. This odd tom is also exactly the same diameter as the other rack tom, but differs in having a slightly shallower depth. A double kick kit is unusual – as is having two rack toms at the same diameter. Normally, a second tom might be expected to have a 13″ or even a 10″ diameter. I wonder if this is what is left after someone has already pieced out, some of the most useful shells?

But then what’s left, still looks very useable, nevertheless. The basic wooden shells look perfectly serviceable, and should scrub up well – or perhaps even provide the perfect base for a re-wrap, (apart, perhaps, from the smallest tom where the existing veneer is lifting in a few places. That might indicate deeper damage). All shells display circa late 70’s Premier badges, although the serial numbers don’t really help confirm a date of manufacture. Unfortunately – this seems to be typical of Premier drums, and whilst a close grouping of numbers might normally help relate to a particular date, or even suggest the drums were originally supplied together – it seems Premier just went ahead and stuck any old number on any old drum. At least the reinforcement rings are of a form and shape in-keeping with a 70’s vintage kit. They’re wide and deep, with the bearing edge angle quite shallow. More modern kits often have no re-rings, and a sharper bearing. The older style re-rings are supposed to help produce a more mellow sound, with a little less attack.

Birch(?) drum shells with later-painted, white (emulsion?) interior

The shells appear to be undistorted, and the bearing edges seem to be free from any major bumps or gouges. All of the shell interiors have been painted with, what looks like, a thick white emulsion paint. There are evident brush marks, and the wash goes up and over the bearing edges in a couple of places. It’s not the most tidy of paint jobs. If possible – I’ll try and scrape away the paint layer, and reveal the original, plain wood finish underneath. I may even find some identification marks there. (Or, perhaps some damage a previous owner wanted to “cover up”). From initial scrapings, and where the internal fixtures have masked the applied paint – it looks like the shells are possibly birch with beech re-rings. If it turns out I can’t remove all of the paint – I’ll try to remove as much of the texture as possible, and then re-paint with a casein based paint instead. A casein coating will bond with the wood much better, and will probably enable the coat to appear much flatter and more consistent – with an attractive, even matte sheen.

Vintage Premier 16″ x 15″ Floor Tom in “Polychromatic Silver” finish

While I’m assessing the kit – I spot a similar orphan Floor Tom on eBay. The drum seems to closely match the other floor tom I have – beech re-rings, birch shell, identical fixing placement – although this one is finished in a typical Premier “Polychromatic Silver” wrap. getting a second floor tom will give me a few more options, moving ahead. For one thing – I’ll be able to remove the wrap, and see if the other drums I have, really are just plain birch, sealed shells. If so – I can look at piecing out a “natural” looking kit, perhaps with two floor toms in “Buddy Rich” style. Or – if the new floor tom looks out of place – I can always look at re-wrapping it to match with the second kick drum, along with any other remaining shells – possibly adding others if required – to create an additional custom kit with a newly wrapped finish. The second tom is on order, and should be with me shortly.

Let’s have a quick look at the other shells in a bit more detail…

Bass Drums #1 and #2 (Serials #13461 and #13490)

Late 1970’s Premier “Elite” Bass Kick Drum Shells – 22″ x 14″ – Natural Finish

Both 22″ kick drums are in pretty good condition, and the finish is a quite attractive, honey-toned amber varnish or lacquer – which may have darkened a little with age. There are a few areas on both shells where it looks like the colouration has possibly lightened slightly under the lacquer. (A bit like fading due to exposure to sunlight – but it’s quite subtle). Like most of the rest of the kit – these may have had their original wraps removed, and the plain shells left with a thin protective layer of lacquer. If they have been veneered – it’s a very thin veneer, but both coverings are still evidently solid – with no bubbling, or any other signs of detachment anywhere. The interiors of both shells have been painted with the same, thick, white emulsion paint, which displays brushmarks, and which has become a little bit dirty and ingrained in places. A test on one of the other, smaller, shells shows that this matte emulsion can be quite easily scraped off – leaving a clean and apparently sealed, birch interior underneath.

Of the two shells – #13461 has the most gouges and scratches to the finish, but they’re not that noticeable, and may be realtively easy to deal with. Even if they turn out to be un-repairable – the worst will be physically covered by the main tom mount. Drum #13490 is virtually unmarked – so this will be the one to go for on a “natural” kit – with no stripping, re-varnishing or other major finishing required.

The bearing edges on both shells look mostly good, and appear consistent. The angle of the bearings is quite shallow. Again – this is an older style, and is supposed to provide a little less “attack” than sharper, more modern bearing edges. I’ll have to check the edge bearing condition a lot more carefully as I proceed – but I can’t see any immediate requirement for major filling or re-shaping. All four of the beech(?) hoops supplied are in good, mostly unmarked condition, and are plain – with no groove to accept a decorative coloured “skin”. They look to have been varnished to exactly match the amber colour of the shells, so perhaps a “natural” finish was intended at manufacture? Only one of the hoops shows a few significant scratches, (most likely the result of gouges from the tension claws), but I’d hope to be able to restore and freshen up the finish on these, so they look almost like new again. With the chrome hardware restored – I’d at least hope to get both bass drums back to good, playable condition. If I can freshen them up any more – then all the better.

For comparison and research – Someone else’s Late 1970’s Premier “Elite” Kit – Polychrome Gold Finish

Both of the kicks are drilled to receive exactly the same hardware, and the drill holes still seem to be mostly crisp and clean, with no splits to the shell visible anywhere. The hardware required for each bass drum will be ten long lugs, a top-mounted tom post holder, and two folding legs or “spurs”. From the cutouts and drill holes, their placement and configuration, and by comparing everything to original, late 70’s Premier catalogues, and similar period kits – it looks like I also need to source two L-rod type tension bolts per lug, with ten claw fixings anchoring the L-rods around each hoop. That’s 20 L-rods and 20 claws in total. The oval opening on the top of each bass drum indicates that they require older-style fixtures which can receive an oval post. These fixtures are seen with either one or two, square-winged thumb-turn bolts. The fixture is intended to support one of a selection of different posts – depending on the number, and configuration of Rack Toms required. The folding legs look to be a quite basic system, which uses the exact same type of mounting brackets as found on the rest of the kit. (Similar mounts also support the three legs of the Floor Tom, and mount any toms to their support post).

Original” Floor Tom (Serial #8644)

Late 1970’s Premier “Elite” Floor Tom Shell – 16″ x 15″ – Natural Finish

The floor tom which came with the mixed set has the same honey-toned amber lacquer finish, and has the same finish notes as the better of the two bass drum shells. The exterior is quite clean and appears unmarked – certainly without any major scratches or gouges. The interior has the same emulsion paint, and the coverage extends out onto the bearing edges. It’ll scratch off – but I’ll have to be careful not to damage the edges of the shells.

Hardware-wise – the drum requires 16 lugs – (eight for the batter head, and eight for the reso) – and it’s likely that the tension rods originally used on a drum of this period may have been of the older, slotted pattern. (Premier switched to square-head rods some time in the late 70’s / early 1980’s). The drum hoops should, (I think), be cast “Streamline” examples – rather than more modern, “triple flange” pressed steel ones. The shell is also drilled to accept a damper mechanism. Quite often – these are removed if largely unused – but wear to the interior emulsion paint seems to show signs of an adjustable internal damper being present in this case, with associated wear to the inner paint coverage around the fixing screw.

When in use, the floor tom stands separate from the kick, on three metal legs. These allow for height and angle adjustment, and anchor to the body using the same universal “LokFast” type fixtures, (which also act as mounts on the rack toms, as noted before).

As with most of the hardware – getting hold of some vintage examples in good condition may be tricky, and it may take some time to hunt down everything I need to get each drum up and running. Some of it might not be in great condition – so I’ll likely have quite a lot of metal cleaning to do – but again – I’d hope to be able to easily restore the floor tom to a good, playable condition and pair it with one of the bass drums.

Chromed Snare Drum (Serial #3301)

1970’s Premier “2000” Snare Shell – 14″ x 5″ – Chrome on Aluminium

The chromed snare shell which came with the set is – to use the technical term – “completely shagged”. Well – the finish is, anyway. The chrome has pitted all around the outside of the shell, and the damage is quite extensive on the side opposite from the badge, which displays a serial number #3301. This might indicate that it’s somewhat older than the other shells – (but with the Premier numbering system – who can possibly tell)?

A closer look, and a quick test with a magnet, and I can immediately tell this isn’t a steel shell. That, and the tell-tale rectangular cut-outs for a parallel “Flo-beam” snare system means this is probably the shell from a Premier “2000” snare. Since the shell is drilled for a damper – it would appear to be quite an early version. Maybe late 60’s / early 70’s. I think most people would probably scrap a shell in this state – or, perhaps have it shot-blasted or powder-coated – but I’m intrigued as to what a heavily distressed shell might look like if the rest of the chrome parts were replaced with highly polished examples. Distressed metal can, sometimes, have an attractive “character” finish all of its’ own, and a restored, functional, playable instrument with a visually “roughed-up” look, might suggest a, quite individual, back-story. Perhaps that’s what marks out, what is sometimes referred to as, a “players drum”. Perhaps this is an ideal opportunity to “upcycle” a visual wreck, and to focus on the function and build quality – rather than the cosmetics.

I’m going to have plenty of chrome to clean and polish with the rest of the kit, as it is. It might just pay to use this as a testing ground for some chrome cleaning techniques. I simply can’t leave the shell as-is, and still use it. Those edges where the chrome has flaked up are as sharp as razors, and corrosion is still potentially spreading underneath. It will be essential to stabilise what’s there and remove any corrosion – before any attempt to polish the remaining chrome up. Functionally – the drum should still work just as well – providing the fixtures added are in good, serviceable condition. The aluminium shell will still be able to do it’s job – it’s just that it’ll have an “individual”, scuffed-up exterior. “Wearing it’s history as decoration”. If I succeed – I’ll have rebuilt quite a sought-after “classic” snare, and kept as much of it as original as possible, (whilst saving my hands from considerable injury). If I fail… well – I can still opt for shot-blasting further on down the line. Looks like I now have a second snare project to pursue

14″ x 10″, and 14″ x 8″ Rack Toms (Serial #15284. The smaller Tom has no serial number)

Late 1970’s Premier Rack Toms – 14″ x 10″, and 14″ x 8″ – Natural Finish

The rack toms look, at first glance, to be identical in colour and tone to the “natural” finished bass and floor tom shells – but there’s a subtle difference between the two. The exterior finish of the deeper tom is consistent with the others noted above, and it seems that they’ll sit together as a “natural” set quite well. The lightening and fading on the finish is subtle, and consistent across the basic 22, 16, 14 “set”. This deeper tom generally appears to be in pretty good, unmarked condition. The interior has the same, white emulsion cover-up job, with some areas of paint extending out onto the bearing edges again – but tests on the shell show that the paint will eventually scrape off quite cleanly, with a sharp Stanley Knife blade.

Mystery, Premier(?) Rack Tom – showing veneer delamination

It’s the shallower tom which looks to be the “odd one out” here. Although the colour and tone of the finish initially appear to match the others quite well – it’s obvious that the actual surface wood is different. The grain is much straighter and more pronounced – and it runs vertically, rather than round each shell. At a few places around the edges, and midway between – the veneer has de-laminated and “blown”. It could be water damage – though there’s no apparent staining to the finish. Perhaps the adhesive just failed? Perhaps the veneer has swollen and lifted in places, or perhaps it just wasn’t terribly well done in the first place? It’s difficult to tell if the veneer is original – but when I clean the dshells up a bit, I may be able to count the ply rings, or measure the thickness of the different shells and see if this veneer amounts to an additional layer. It does seem odd that this second rack tom has exactly the same 14″ diameter as the other. In what we nowadays see as a “set” of rack toms – it might be more expected to find a smaller 13″ x 8″, or 13″ x 9″ example. However, after a little research, I discover it was, apparently, quite usual for drummers of the 60’s and 70’s to utilise a selection of identical 14″ x 10″s simultaneously. Keith Moon, at one point, was using three – presumably tuned slightly differently – alongside a whole battery of other-sized toms. Perhaps this is an indication of how this odd tom was utilised in this set? Perhaps an orphan 14″ mahogany tom was veneered and coloured to visually fit with the rest of the birch kit?

Taking a look at the Premier badge on the smaller tom – it looks like it’s been removed and replaced at some point – indicating a possible re-finish. The badge is the only one of the set which displays no number, and the centre, where the attachment is located, has been somewhat distorted. I’m not sure when Premier first introduced serial numbers on their badges – but this might indicate an older tom which has been cosmetically modified to match with the “natural” birch kit. It certainly doesn’t exactly match the rest of the set when viewed close-up, and it may be worth keeping an eye out for a smaller birch rack tom instead. I may be able to remove the veneer – if that’s what it turns out to be – but that Mahogany tom will probably always be an odd-one-out. Perhaps it might act as the tom on a re-wrapped set?

Hardware-wise – each of the toms requires 8 lugs, again probably using slotted pattern tension rods. The drum hoops should be cast examples,, and each tom will have a standard mounting block, which allows attachment to a “TriLok” support post, mounted through the clamp fixture on top of the bass drum. On kits of this period – the rack toms have hoops and heads – both top and bottom. (Premier, at the time, also apparently produced a range of “Concert Toms” which featured only batter heads, and which were left open at the bottom. Photos of Keith Moon and Phil Collins Premier kits from the late 1970’s feature impressive ranges of different sized concert toms).

Additionally – and perhaps again indicative that these drums are of slightly older origin – both of the rack toms here, have holes drilled to accept damper mechanisms.

Moving ahead

So – the plan will be to combine the better condition shells into a working kit – keeping the “natural” finish, and refurbishing the drums as I require them, and as I begin to combine them into my practice schedule. Sequentially – probably the kick drum first, then the floor tom, then a single rack tom. There are enough shells in the right sizes to complete this first phase – it’s just a matter of how long it takes to source vintage hardware in decent condition, and then to re-build the individual drums. The “natural” finish is unusual and somewhat distinctive and whilst, without doubt, a cleaner, and “newer” overall finsh could be provided by re-wrapping the shells – I’m unlikely to be able to get hold of at least some of the hardware, in a similar “as-new” condition. Initially, at least – the emphasis will be on getting a fully working kit, with all it’s vintage mojo still evident.

As regards all that hardware – whatever I find is going to be of differing quality. Most of the metal hardware will, most likely, show signs of age and use, and some may require a considerable amount of cleaning and polishing. Premier’s chrome was typically nice and thick – but even the best chrome will be prone to pitting and corrosion after 50 years. It’s probably best to see what I can find first, and then to focus on getting enough of the different components to nominally complete the re-build. It will, however, then be possible to grade the parts, and sort the better ones from the “beaters”. I’ll try and keep tabs on the hardware as I acquire it, and sort it into an “A” set and a “B” set – depending on condition. With, eventually, two sets of hardware, (and one working kit), I can then begin to look at building up a second kit – based around the second kick drum in the set. Since that one is slightly scratched – it will probably look better re-covered anyway. New wraps on old shells means I’ll be better able to adopt any “orphans” into whatever configurations I choose, to complete the second kit. Since any wraps will be shiny and new – it makes perfect sense to eventually assign any “A” grade hardware to this second build. Wherever I establish early duplicates – I’ll tend to use the component in rougher, more “functional” condition, for the initial “working” build, and save the better one for the second kit.

Two kits, (eventually), from one set of shells…. One for the “daily grind”, and the other for “Sunday best”. Plus – I’ll see what I learn along the way…

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