Late 1970’s vintage, Premier “Elite” Drum Kit (#1) – “Natural” Finish. Matching the finish on a 13″ x 9″ Tom (Polyurethane)

My Premier “Elite”, “Kit #1” – has a “natural” wood finish. Although I know Premier did offer a “natural” option as a special custom order – I can’t seem to find out whether the finish was a thin external veneer, or just an applied lacquer or varnish over the standard 3-ply shells. The kit certainly has a character to the wood grain and figuring of the finish, consistent with birch – but the placement of the overlap on the top ply – directly under one of the lugs – is much more characteristic of the treatment given to applied wraps.

Late 1970’s Premier Finishes – Note “NW” option – “natural wood” (light birch)

As I’ve gathered together a few other orphan “Elite” shells, and examined them – I’ve discovered that the usual placement of the overlap on “run of the mill”, wrapped shells doesn’t seem to have been quite as carefully placed . I’m beginning to think that my “natural” finish is a thin birch veneer applied over the standard, birch / mahogany / birch, three-ply construction in the factory. Possibly the “NW”, light birch offering, referred to in the late 70’s catalogue – pictured above. The possible veneer then looks to have been given a thin lacquer finish, and since the wood underneath looks clean – I can only presume that it was originally a clear lacquer, which has aged and yellowed over the years. I don’t think there is any staining involved. Clear finished birch would normally be very light – almost white – so there’s presumably some significant effect of ageing to consider. Matching it will be a challenge. It may be possible to source some suitable veneer to reproduce the placement of the overlap, (possibly using a thin, paper-backed sheet of birch), but alternatively – can I find a way to simply apply a matched finish to a standard, stripped birch shell – so that it at least approaches the appearance of the originals? Why apply a birch veneer over birch shells at all? The overlap might not be “spot on” – but as long as it’s hidden away at the “back” of the drum – it may look OK to all but the most observant. At worst – previewing the clear coat on a bare shell – always with the possibility of covering it later – does provide an ideal ground for some experimentation.

Premier “Elite” Tom shell with a “natural” finish

The question is – “what is the actual lacquer finish used by Premier?”. My usual tests are inconclusive. To find out what’s been used – I normally test an inconspicuous area first with some kind of finishing oil. Linseed oil is good. If a small area is swabbed with oil, and it beads up and stands on the surface, without any sign it’s being absorbed over a period of 15 minutes or so – then there’s a fair chance the finish isn’t an applied drying oil. More likely polyurethane or shellac. I then try another inconspicuous area with a bit of acetone on another swab. If the finish beads – it’s normally polyurethane underneath, wheras the acetone will tend to soften lacquer after a while. A third check with some alcohol will tell you if the lacquer is shellac-based, and a dab will begin to soften the finish after a short time. It’s important to reiterate that these tests should only be done where they won’t normally be seen. On the edge – underneath where the hoops or lugs sit. Or under where the badge will go, if you’ve taken it off.

Well – that’s what’s supposed to happen. I’ve tried these tests on the bass drum from my #2 kit, (the one which will eventually require covering), and although I’m still not absolutely convinced – I think it’s a thin polyurethane lacquer. Certainly – the other tests don’t suggest, perhaps more obvious, oil or shellac-based finishes. The thing is – the finish just doesn’t have the feel of polyurethane. There’s something hard – almost crystalline – about the touch of the finish on the “natural” shells, and it just doesn’t have that waxy, plasticky sort of feel I think you often get with poly. Polyurethane – to me – always tends to feel sort of warm, and soft – even when it’s “cured”. It also tends to squeak when you handle it – reminiscent of that noise you get when handling balloons. I suppose it could harden up and appear more crystalline after 40-odd years – or maybe formulations have changed over time? Since the clear coat has obviously aged, and has now developed an amber / yellow tint – normally more characteristic of oil-based lacquers and varnishes – perhaps this really is what 50 year old oil-based polyurethane looks and feels like?

If I’m going to try and reproduce a matching finish using modern-day materials – I may as well start with a run-of-the-mill DIY, oil-based varnish, (although I’d still like to see if I can match some of the warmer, crystalline characteristics, and try out a shellac lacquer on another shell. I think I’ll have a better chance of matching the colour, and the variations in tone, that way). I have obtained two 13″ x 9″ orphan tom shells to experiment with. I’ll try a polyurethane-based approach on one, and a shellac on the other. I want to try match the natural amber finish in a way which avoids physically staining the shells, if possible. The best match will hopefully be close enough to make a good, occasional, add-on to my “natural” kit. The “loser” will be covered over and re-wrapped – as another potential add-on for my other “Elite” kit, (#2).

Orphan, 13″ x 9″ Premier “Elite” Tom shell

Since I’m still dubious about a polyurethane finish – I’ll assume it’ll be a failure, and so will therefore proceed first, with the shell most likely to ultimately benefit from a wrap. Of the two 13″ shells – this is the one in “worst” shape. The shell was obtained stripped, and without its’ original Premier badge. Although the bearing edges are both in reasonably good shape – it looks like the shell may have originally been wrapped in “Polychrome Red”, or some other semi-translucent red wrap. The shell has either obtained a red tint from this wrap, or the underlying wood has been lightly stained to complement. Consequently – the outer ply of birch is visibly stained pink, and the stain appears to have penetrated the surface of the wood. Signs of the stain are denser where the usual glue residue has been left on the surface. Perhaps the original glue had this tint? Someone has also, and very obviously, at some point scored a thin crease – in a line down alongside where you might expect the wrap overlap to be, (perhaps when removing the wrap, or perhaps as an alignment aid when re-wrapping?). This is going to be hard to hide under a clear finish, and even if I do manage to clean up the wood – the line is gouged all the way down through the top birch ply. It’s unlikely I’ll be able to simply sand it out or fill it. All-in-all – this flawed candidate is simply ideal for experiment…

13″ x 9″ Premier “Elite” Tom shell – smoothing the interior finish

So… before any attempt to finish the shell – I need to get it in the best shape I can. The interior of the shell is still in good condition. It’s a little dirty here and there, and the original seal – whatever it is – is just a little bit rough in places. My favourite approach is to scrape the surface with the edge of a sharp blade. This shaves off the outer layers of any applied finish, and also smoothes out any irregularities in the surface. The end result is clean, and silky smooth. It’s almost like flat-sanding. The existing finish tends to remain and “fill” depressions in the finish, whilst any high spots, flaws and dirty marks are shaved away. Since the shell still has its’ four digit production stamp intact alongside the inner seam – I take care not to completely rub that away. Otherwise – the interior of the shell is scraped clean, and then given a light rub over with a fine sanding pad, to regularise the finish and lessen the effect of any particularly “stand-out” shiny or dull areas. Once given a light rub with the sanding pad – the overall finish is matt with a soft sheen, and it’s hard to tell if the surface actually has any of the original finish remaining on it, or not. (It has – but it’s thickness may vary, and some areas of bare wood may also exist).

The beech reinforcement rings are still in good condition – as are the bearing edges themselves. I tend to only use the scraper lightly on the re-rings, and then work them – together with the edges – with some fine grit paper wrapped around the contour. This “feathers-in” any treatment over the edges, and helps to smooth out where the heads will seat – without actually removing too much material. Keeping the edge profiles as close to original as possible. I really don’t want to create dips, or change the contours at all. I’m focusing much more on cleaning away dirt, any loose surface defects and any obvious, flaky finish.

Finally – to seal and protect the newly smoothed interior, and the “renewed” bearing edges themselves – I treat all of the interior surfaces with an application of Renaissance Wax. This micro-crystalline wax quickly dries hard, and even a thin, wiped layer will help seal and protect the wood from dirt, and even moisture. It’s surprising how little you need, and how quickly it dries. Once it has dried – a quick buff with a soft cloth is all that’s required to leave the interior looking fresh and “as-new”.

13″ x 9″ Premier “Elite” Tom shell – sanding away the stain

And so, onto the outer shell. It looks like the “stain” may actually be from a glue used to apply a previous wrap. However – it’s penetrated too far into the grain to allow me to use a glue dissolver, like “Goo-Gone”. Instead – all I can do is sand away at the outer ply, and hope I don’t have to rub through, all the way down to the middle, mahogany, ply. I start with a coarse grit paper, and work around the drum – with the grain. It means I have to take off quite a bit of the exterior birch – but eventually, I manage to expose clean wood again. I’ve certainly reduced the thickness of the outer ply a little – but there’s still no mahogany showing through.

13″ x 9″ Premier “Elite” Tom shell – saving some of the sanding debris

There’s a fair amount of sanding dust produced, and once I get down to clean birch – I begin to start collecting some of the “cleaner” dust. It will come in handy for fills and repairs. This shell does require a couple of repairs. Now is the best time – so that they can be smoothed into the eventual finish with finer grades of grit paper.

Whoever has removed the original badge, has apparently done it by grinding away the inner flange of the air grommet with a countersink bit. It’s a good and effective method to use – but if you go too far, you can end up creating a much bigger, countersunk hole on the inside of the shell. That’s what’s happened here. I’ll need to entirely fill and then re-drill the grommet hole. Since the outside of the repair will eventually be concealed by the replacement badge – I can use a strong, “natural” coloured, two-part filler. The repair will be hidden underneath the badge from the outside. I tape over the back of the hole, inside the drum, to stop the repair just short of the inside surface. Once the fill has cured and hardened, I can then top the repair, inside the shell, with a paste made from wood glue, and a little of the reserved sanding dust. Whilst this doesn’t make for a very strong repair in itself – it will more closely match the internal wood for colour – where the repair will normally be more “visible”. Once the repairs are hardened – they’re sanded completely flat and “feathered” – to blend in with the level and curve of the original, surrounding wood.

13″ x 9″ Premier “Elite” Tom shell – drilling the repair for a replacement grommet

Finally – the repair is drilled to accept a replacement grommet. This will eventually secure a replacement badge in place. The grommet isn’t actually fitted at this stage, (I may decide to use the other shell if it works out better) – so it’s just checked for fit.

The shell has, so far, been rubbed down with 120 grade, coarse grit paper. Now I need to repeat the whole thing with a couple of finer grades – to properly smooth the finish. Any lacquer over the top will only exaggerate any scratches and imperfections in the finish. I work over the finish again with some 240 grit paper, followed up with some 400 grit. Finally – I like to use a scraping blade again. This gives the smoothest possible finish. By hooking the edge of the blade over slightly – (run a Stanley knife blade down the edge of a cast iron beam) – a super-effective, sort of, tiny spoke shave is formed, and this can easily level out any fine imperfections in the surface. Again – working around the shell – working with the grain – I gradually refine the finish till it’s super smooth to the touch, and ready to take the clear finish.

13″ x 9″ Premier “Elite” Tom shell – “Natural(?)” finish – Polyurethane lacquer

Once the shell has been scrupulously cleaned over – I run a tack cloth across the surface to ensure that the smooth birch is completely free of contamination. A rub over with naphtha is sometimes a good idea too – especially if the shell has been well handled. However – I’m pretty confident that the surface here is now clean, dry and free from grease. The shell is suspended over a horizontal padded beam – so I can apply a finish and rotate the shell around, without it having it sit on one of the bearing edges.

I’m not really certain which “modern” polyurethane would be best to use. Water-based ones can sometimes be “wiped-on” – resulting in a super thin coat, which shows few (if any) brush marks. However – I’m never going to get that aged, amber tone unless I either use an oil-based poly, or resort to a tint. Since the first coat of any tint in direct contact with the bare wood will be absorbed – (and thereby just repeating the problem of the pink glue all over again) – I’m more minded to use one of the common DIY, oil-based polys on the market. Made by Rustins – their clear, gloss polyurethane varnish is solvent based, and can be brushed on, or applied with a sponge. I opt for a fine-bristled varnishing brush, and apply a single coat – brushing it out as best I can, and leaving as thin a coat as I can manage, without overworking.

Although the single clear coat does bring a touch more colour out of the bare birch – it’s still a way away from having the depth of amber tone that the original “natural” finish has. Things may improve with another coat – but I’m already a little dispirited with the way the finish looks and feels. Although the clear coat levels out a bit after brushing – it’s still a very “thick” looking coating, and there are clear brushing ripples in the reflection highlights. After cleaning my brush in white spirit – there’s an obvious, waxy residue left behind, which thickens as the solvent evaporates. Once all of the solvent has gone – what’s left behind is a thick, waxy, “fatty” residue. It’s reminiscent of how the finish “feels”.

It’s a high gloss varnish too – so again – not quite as close a match to the original as I’d hoped. The original shells have a mellow, soft sheen and there are no real brush marks evident. Perhaps I’d have been better using a wipe-on poly finish after all? (Although I’d probably have even less of an amber tone, and would have to build up a thicker coat to exaggerate any colour tone change). Perhaps this particular experiment is already over? (and failed?). Well – if it has – this shell is destined for a re-wrap anyway. I may as well try out a couple more things which may be useful in the future…

13″ x 9″ Premier “Elite” Tom shell – “Natural(?)” finish – Tinted polyurethane lacquer test

The poly takes 24 hours at least to properly cure – but overcoating is possible after just a couple of hours. I can take the high shine off the varnish by rubbing over with a coarse Mirka Mirlon sanding pad – but this just exaggerates the plasticky “feel” of the finish. I really think I’m going to be better working with a harder, lacquer finish of some sort. But how to get that exact colouration? Now that the wood is “sealed” with a clear layer of varnish – I try a second coat of coloured varnish from the same, Rustins range. They don’t do a “natural light birch” – (of course). Instead, I try a coat of “Antique Pine” coloured varnish. A pine varnish will normally have a strong orange tone – (to counter the characteristic green tint often found in un-aged pine). The coloured varnish is applied as before – but it’s harder to “brush out” the stain evenly without overworking or overloading. Eventually, however – the second tinted coat is completed, and left to dry for 24 hours. It’s certainly picked up more orange tone – but probably too much now! The original, natural shells have a more yellowy amber, which darkens to a warmer orangey tone in some areas. Perhaps I can soften the tint by “rubbing back” the top coat a little?

13″ x 9″ Premier “Elite” Tom shell – “Natural(?)” finish – Shellac over polyurethane?

I rub the tinted coat back with another clean, coarse Mirlon pad. It seems the colour isn’t quite as strong now – so that may be down to the drying process or, perhaps, the lighting conditions I was reviewing the varnish under. (Late afternoon under a west-facing window). The tinted coat, after rubbing-back does appear to be getting the overall effect somewhat closer to that of the originals – although that plasticky feel is still there, and the coating – if anything – now feels and looks even “thicker”. I know you can apply shellac over polyurethane. It is often used as an isolating barrier between oil and water-based finishes, and has the advantage of being able to be applied very thinly and sparingly over a surface. Perhaps it’s worth trying a final shellac coat to see how the dried surface looks, and to gauge how the colour of the shellac might modulate the overall tone of any finish?

I use a pre-prepared “button” shellac by Liberon, and apply a thin coat by wiping with a fine cotton “rubber”. Button shellac has a typical orange / brown colour, as opposed to “clear” shellac – (which has a very light, straw colour when applied and overlaid). The button shellac does slightly modulate and tint the underlying polyurethane – but it’s so much easier to control than the tinted poly. The shellac wipes on extremely thinly, and it’s easier to leave no obvious application marks behind – (although the finish soon shrinks back to reveal the original slight unevenness left in the poly coat). The finish of the shellac also has it’s own high gloss – but I think that may mellow more naturally with regular handling – as oils from the skin build up on the surface of what is, essentially, a very hard waxy resin. (Much like the nitro coat on guitars). After just a single coat of shellac – I’m coming round to the opinion that lacquer might be the way to go.

13″ x 9″ Premier “Elite” Tom shell – “Natural(?)” finish – how it stacks up next to an original

The cured shellac is given a very light rub over with a fine Mirlon pad – to reduce some slight lines in the surface, where the rubber has overlapped fresh shellac onto an already drying finish. The outside of the drum is then given a fine application of Renaissance Wax – before it’s buffed up and polished.

The end result isn’t a million miles away from the original, and once the drum has chrome hardware replaced – it may, just about, pass as a match with the rest of the kit. When the shell is stacked on top of my 14″ x 10″ tom – the swirl of the figuring on the birch is certainly similar – but there’s just something different in the way that the wood sits under the finish. The original finish, (bottom) is “clearer”, and has a slighter less obvious orange note to the amber. The new finish appears “waxier” somehow – and ever so slightly cloudy. Although the finished sheen is a reasonable approximation – there’s no doubt that a slightly thinner, flatter application would be even closer. Once again – the main challenge will be getting the colour to match. I still can’t find any information on Premier’s processes back in the 70’s – (so if anyone is in “the know” – please, do share) – but later, post-“Elite” catalogues do show a “Topaz” lacquer finish which has something of the character. At least in photographs it does. I still haven’t seen examples of the Topaz finish “in real life”, and it certainly didn’t exist as such in the 70’s palette.

The polyurethane isn’t a bad match though – and I’ll continue, and fit the drum out with it’s chrome hardware to see how it fits into the rest of the kit. meanwhile – I’ll prep the other shell with a shellac-based lacquer, and see if my hunch is right. I’m pretty sure I can get closer to the originals with a lacquer – but the polyurethane-finished experiment will work practically – just as well – whilst I get things organised.

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