Late 1970’s vintage, Premier “Elite” Drums – Kit One, “Natural” Finish. Shell cleaning and preparation

Having had a good look over the various shells, from the “natural” finished job lot I acquired – there are three in good overall condition, which should go well together to make a basic “22, 16, 14″ kit, and which are in good enough condition to remain as-is. They’re the Bass drum, (#13490), which is in slightly better condition than the other 22″, the 16″ Floor tom, (#8644), and the deeper, 14″ x 10″ Tom, (#15284). The other Bass Drum shell, with it’s slight surface damage will make an ideal candidate for re-wrapping, and will pair with the shallower, apparently mahogany shelled, 14″ x 8” Tom with the detatching veneer. (I’ve also acquired a couple of other candidate shells for this second kit, and I’ll be detailling the progress of this other, wrapped, “Elite” kit here.

Premier 22″ Bass Drum. Might as well get the biggest job done first…

But back to the “natural” kit. Since these shells are clearly 1970’s examples – there remains a possibility that they were originally supplied with this “natural wood” finish. Premier lists “natural wood (light birch)” as a special order finish, in their late 70’s catalogue. Certainly – the outsides of the shells show a few staples located near to the join, where wraps and veneers are normally secured. It could also, however, be a retro-finish. A kit where the original wraps have been stripped, and the bare shells cleaned up and simply varnished. To find out, and with no other examples of a Premier “natural” finish to compare with – I’ll need to strip another Premier shell of it’s wrap, to find out if the finish of the bare shells is consistent. I’ll find out more as I proceed – but whatever its’ pedigree, the finish is consistent across all of the three shells, and the varnish has a mellow, warm amber tone. A bit patchy here and there perhaps, (fading due to sunlight?) – but quite attractive nevertheless.

Otherwise – the construction of the shells looks sound, the bearing edges look OK, and there should be bags of useful life left. The kit will look great with a bit of a clean, and some shiny chrome hardware fitted again, and it’ll be interesting to see how much of an authentic vintage sound it has.

Painted drum interior… I think it’s Dulux “Brilliant White”, but it doesn’t look brilliant

But that white emulsion painted interior really looks tatty. It’s thick, and has been slapped on – leaving brush marks and hundreds of tiny canyons in the finish, which marks easily and which has trapped dirt and grime over time. Whilst some like a flat, painted interior to their shells – these would, most likely, originally have had a clean, smooth birch veneer interior. Perhaps it’s still there – concealed under all that paint? There’s only one way to find out…

Scraping… infinitely better than sanding

I’ve already tested the thickness of the white paint on one of the smaller toms, and it looks like the best approach will be to scrape the finish off with a sharp blade – rather than sand with a coarse grit paper. I prefer to scrape paint off flat surfaces if I possibly can, because I think it leaves a much finer overall finish, and doesn’t tend to erode the underlying substrate. You have a little bit more control over how deep a flat scraper goes. The scraping blade, when used with the right pressure, tends to crack the surface paint, and dislodge it. Providing the underlying surface is already smooth and clean – (which it appears to be here) – you can end up with the desired, smooth finish in pretty much one operation. Additionally, sanding creates a lot of dust – especially if you’re tying to blast a paint or varnish layer off, and if you’re using a really coarse grit to begin with, then it can end up damaging what’s underneath – requiring more, and finer sanding to eventually provide the required, smooth finish.

I just so happen to have a box of new Stanley Knife blades in the workshop – so I have plenty to experiment with. The key is getting the right “action” of the cutting edge, on the blade you’re using. If you run the sharp edge of a blade down the edge of – say a heavy cast iron beam, (I have a heavy Morso cutter in the workshop, and the cutting “bench” attached is ideal) – then you can bend the cutting edge of the blade over slightly to form a sort of shaving edge. A little like a minature spoke shave. (You can feel the effect much easier than you can see it). Some attempts are more effective than others – but by gradually building up a kind of “tool kit” for the job – different shaving blades can be identified which are particularly good for a particular task – Stripping thick paint fast – getting into corners – removing underlying varnish and “ground in” paint layers – smoothing – etc. With luck, I’ll be able to use these shaving tools to remove just the white paint, and leave whatever is underneath, smooth and clean – whether it be bare or lacquered wood. Hopefully – it won’t take too long. I’ll start on the bass drum, and get the worst of the job out of the way first.

Premier 22″ Bass Drum. Stripping the interior paintwork

It takes a while, but an hour or so in, and I’m making progress. (I’m beginning to get the callouses on my fingers to show for it). Some of the little shaving blades I’ve made are great for stripping thick paint fast. Others are better for the edges, and for digging out tiny, paint-filled scratches in the shell interior. The results are beginning to look encouraging.

The scraping blades are leaving a really flat, smooth finish. From the look of the shavings – there’s the white paint, which comes off in tiny flakes – but underneath that, there seems to be a thin polyester-type varnish, on top of the birch shell. (The polyester produces fine, transparent shavings, and always seems to have a particular smell when you abrade it). I think my scraping may get all the way down to the wood in places – so what lacquer remains may end up being a little patchy, but acting as a thin, sort of levelling, sanding sealer coat. I’d quite like to try and get the shells to a point where the interiors are fully “unfinished” – but as long as they’re clean and smooth, anything will be an improvement…

Premier 22″ Bass Drum. Stripping the re-rings and bead edges

Underneath the paint on the bass drum – there’s evidence of an original serial number, or date stamp. Looks like 4587, or something. Because I’ve scraped rather than sanded – I know I haven’t erased any of the stamp with the paint. However – it looks a little faint and blurry. This either bled into the wood, spread out and lightened when it was applied – or someone’s previously had a go at it with sandpaper. Perhaps before applying the white paint? – Maybe I’ll find out more with the other shells?

Having got all the way round the bass shell – I now turn my attention to the beech re-rings. The paint lifts off even easier here, and the only areas of difficulty are where the texture of the beech endgrain leads to some pitting, which is filled with specks of paint. On the bearing edges – I really don’t want to remove any of the wood at all. Fortunately – scraping is the ideal way to get the paint off whilst, simultaneously, lightly burnishing the edge.

Premier 22″ Bass Drum. Checking the clean bead edges

The right blade, and the right action ensure that the paint is lifted in a series of single passes. Using a scraper is also an ideal way to “feel” the condition of the bearing edges. Any dips or notches are immediately apparent. Underneath the paint – I’m pleased to find that the bearing edges are in good condition, with very few – if any – indents. The few “pitted” areas which still demonstrate a little residual paint are all located on the sloping, non-bearing edges of the re-rings. These are cleaned up with sandpaper, or by repeated scraping with the blade held at an angle, where it can’t possibly touch the bearing edge.

Premier 22″ Bass Drum. Stripping underneath the re-rings

The last areas to get attention are the underneath parts of both re-rings. Once again – the paint comes off easy enough with the right blade – but there is more of the general pitting noted before, due to the direction of the beech grain. Fortunately – the use of sandpaper isn’t a problem here, and gradually the last of the white paint is purged from the shell interior.

Premier 16″ Floor Tom. Stripping the interior paintwork

The bass drum is complete. I may yet give the interior a light sanding with fine grit paper, to bring the finish together – but I want to see how the other shells turn out first. I’d like to keep the surfaces as consistent as possible. Next up is the 16″ Floor Tom shell.

Premier 16″ Floor Tom. Signs of a previous silver paint interior?

The approach is the same as with the bass drum shell. When I get towards the damper mount – I begin to pick up traces of a silver paint layer underneath the white emulsion. This is patchy, and may be the remains of a full lining coat which has been sanded off, prior to the application of the white paint layer. I’ve heard of vintage Ludwig and Gretsch drums sometimes having a silver sealer paint applied to the shells – but never a Premier kit. Perhaps there have been previous refinishes in the kit’s history?

Premier 16″ Floor Tom. Interior stripped back to bare wood

The silver undercoat makes stripping the paint a little more difficult. It seems to have penetrated the surface of the wood more than the white emulsion – but again, the right blade strips most of the paint away, and another levels the substrate to show clean, flat birch again. There are still just a few ingrained lines where the silver paint still clings, and this tends to make the wood look a little bit grubby – but this won’t show, when the heads are installed.

Premier 16″ Floor Tom. Cleaning off the re-rings

It’s easier to work “through” the drum, and to complete one side before switching to the other – so the upper re-ring get the same treatment as on the bass drum. Once again – paint comes off revealing bearing edges in good condition. I note the shallow angle of the edge profile on this kit. With modern drums, this is usually quite sharp – sometimes 45 degrees, and is supposed to help provide good attack and sustain. This flatter profile is another indicator of an older kit, and should provide a warmer, “fatter” vintage tone.

It’s quicker to work my way round the smaller floor tom, and after a couple of hours or so, I’m halfway through the job. So far – still no sign of the serial number stamp on this drum… Perhaps it’s underneath the paint on the other side?..

Premier 16″ Floor Tom. Interior stripped back to bare wood

…actually – it turns out there’s no sign of any stamped serial number inside the floor tom shell at all. Perhaps it’s already been sanded away during prep for the previous silver and white paint coats? I encounter a bit more of the silver layer underneath the white paint – but mostly localised around the inner seam, and relatively easy to get rid of. Eventually, I manage to scrape everything away – back to smooth, clean-looking birch again. A little staining from the original, and apparently rusted, lug fixings is apparent – but what remains will be covered again when the lugs are re-fitted. The lower re-ring cleans up really nicely – but the smaller diameter means it’s a little harder to get to the hidden, lower edges underneath. Persistence, and couple of smaller, curved scalpel-type blades eventually wins the day.

Premier 14″ x 10″ Tom. Stripping the interior paintwork

Finally, the 14″ x 10″ Tom gets the same treatment. The covering paint is quite thickly applied here, and scrapes away much easier. Once again – no stamped serial number or date stamp is discovered, but once the paint has been removed, the original interior surface is clean and smooth. By now – I have discovered and identified the best blades for each part of the drums’ anatomy, and the whole shell is covered relatively quickly.

The bearing edges, again, look clean and regular – without any noticeable dints or dents, but it is noticeable that the varnish from the outside of the shells appears to be laid over the interior white paint, in a few places. Perhaps this indicates that the shells have been retro-finished with the paint and the varnish? That may make them much more likely to be bare, sanded, plain birch shells which have had their original coverings or “wraps” removed. As I clean the outsides of each shell, and as I check around the badges, I can see a few areas where varnish has crept over the edges of the plates. It flakes off easily enough with a fingernail – but again, it’s looking much more likely that the exterior varnish was probably a DIY retro job – like the white lining.

Finally the outsides of the shells are given a clean with a soft cloth, which has a little bit of Renaissance Wax residue in the weave. The solvents in the wax help clean off any dirt which is clinging to the finish, but there’s not enough to add up to a proper wax “coat”. There is enough, however, to help clean the drums a bit, and then leave them looking good, with just a light buff from a soft cloth.

Premier “Elite” Shells – 22, 16, 14 – “Natural” wood finish

So that completes the paint removal for the basic “22, 16, 14” kit. Of course, I’ll have to go through this all again with the remaining shells, in order to start the second kit – but I now have the basic shell set, with a period, “natural” finish, to get me started on “Elite Kit One”. As regards the shell exteriors for “Kit One” – they’ve all been selected as the ones that are in the best shape, and which show very few cosmetic marks or scratches. The finish doesn’t look too bad. The varnish displays a bit of a brushed texture – but it’s been applied with a bit of thought and, although perhaps a little bit “old-fashioned” looking now – the finish suits the age of the vintage kit. It’s probably a keeper, for now, but I still need to make a final decision on whether to ultimately sand the surface back, and re-do the lacquer.

Although the varnish is OK – The decision may depend on how further investigations go into discovering whether the finish is an applied veneer, or is merely what you get when you apply a lacquer, (tinted or not), to clean, unwrapped drum shells. I’ll try and strip an orphan drum with the same, or similar construction – (which looks like a 3-ply shell, birch/mahogany/birch, with beech re-rings). If I can find one with a damaged, but original Premier finish – I can strip the covering off, and have a look at what’s underneath. If I can discover the recipe to reproduce the same “natural” finish on the rest of the set, then I may yet be able to expand the tom selection to include other drums.

Then again – it’s worth bearing in mind that the primary purpose of this “Kit One”, is to work some used, vintage components back into a playable state. A fresh, modern looking set of refurbished shells won’t necessarily gel with any of the knocked-about, original chrome hardware which is available to re-fit them. Basic playability, for this kit, is much more important than looks, and it might always be a mistake to remove some of the “authenticity” and obvious age.

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