Drum Maker Carries on Tradition

American Artisans, Made in America, People, Traditions
on October 22, 2009
David Mudd Wood shavings fly from the edge of a drum shell being trimmed into shape by a lathe.

Jay Jones works the pedals on a 130-year-old wood-bending machine at the Noble & Cooley Drum Co. in Granville, Mass. (pop. 1,521), using steam from the wheezing and popping contraption to turn a single plank of maple into the circular shell of a snare drum.

"There's nothing like the clean sound that one piece of wood" gives a percussion instrument, says Jones 55, company president and the great-great-great- grandson of James P. Cooley, co-founder of the drum-making business.

Jones revived a lost art in drum manufacturing when he helped design the Noble & Cooley snare drum. By returning to the company's roots, Jones shaped a single-ply solid wood shell on the same machinery used to manufacture drums more than a century ago.

The company got its start in 1854 when Cooley and mechanic Silas Noble began making drums in Noble's farmhouse kitchen. Though they manufactured other items, including marching drums for the Union Army, their primary product was the toy drum.

"A toy drum was big and showy under the tree" at Christmas, Jones says.

In the early 1900s, tin replaced wood as the basic drum-building material, allowing Noble & Cooley to churn out even more toy drums. At its zenithafter rock 'n' roll had swept the nationthe company was producing more than 1,000 toy drum sets a day. Still, Jones concedes that he, like his father John before him, was looking for another product to keep his workforce busy year-round.

In the 1980s, Jones found it: the single-ply solid shell snare drum. While other drum companies were using multiple-ply wood shells, Jones decided to make a high-end, single-ply snare drum, using some of the same equipment designed and built by his forefathers more than a century ago. Because of its true sound and deep resonance, the Noble & Cooley snare became an instant hit throughout the music world.

Today, the company employs five workers who make and paint the shells and install the hardware and heads for 1,000 drums each year, including snares and complete drum sets, with prices starting at $1,400 for the classic snare, and $2,500 to $6,000 for a full set.

For professional drummers, a custom-made Noble & Cooley drum is worth its premium price.

"It's the Lamborghini of drums," says Jim Rupp, 52, a jazz drummer and owner of a drum shop in Columbus, Ohio. "They brought back the single-ply solid shell drum and they do it better than anyone else."

For Jones, innovation and making a quality product go hand in hand with keeping his family's drum-making legacy alive. "It's gratifying to have kept the company going for another generation," he says.

Jones' son Nick, 25, joined the company three years ago and began learning every aspect of the family-owned business. "There's a lot of history here, and it's fun to be a part of it," he says.

The company is keeping its heritage alive in another waywith plans to convert 20,000 square feet of manufacturing space into the Noble & Cooley Center for Historic Preservation. Jones envisions the center as an interactive, hands-on museum that lets visitors see how a toy drum was made 150 years ago, and actually help assemble one.

The project is in the fundraising phase but, last year, the company opened an exhibit at the factory of classic wooden drums and other memorabilia from its early days. One particular treasure is a Civil War-era marching drum made by Noble & Cooley, which was collected from the Gettysburg (Pa.) battlefield.

As the company marches forward, Jones is looking for new challenges while rememberingand maintainingthe beat of his ancestors' drums.