Following a different beat: Lineman making noise with custom drums

Sam Thurau of HHG Drums is shown in his garage-turned-workshop in the Sylvan Hills neighborhood of Altoona.

He may not be a Buddy Rich, but Sam Thurau figured out how to marry his two childhood loves: playing the drums and woodworking.

Today, he makes custom drums from raw wood in the backyard garage of his Sylvan Hills neighborhood home.

“I saw on the Internet about four years ago where people were building drums and I thought, ‘This has to be the coolest thing ever,'” Thurau said. “I told myself, ‘Good God, I have to do this.'”

Since then, he has churned out more than 100 drums — he’s not exactly sure of the number because he didn’t start counting at first, or branding them with his company’s logo, HHG for Haggerty Hollow Guild, as he does today.

Two of them were for Gabriel Renfroe, formerly of the indie rock band Northstar and now a drummer for Andy Jackson and the Mary Tyler Mormons. That group released an album earlier this year with an “alt country vibe” and Renfroe on the drums, including a snare that Thurau made from Brazilian Ipe wood.

Renfroe of Madison, Ala., said he stumbled on Thurau’s website and found him easy to work with. In addition to the Brazilian snare, he also ordered one made from the rare exotic wood called ziricote, “simply the most beautiful drum I own to this day,” said Renfroe, who plans to order more from Thurau.

“What sets Sam and HHG drums apart for me is Sam is just as excited as I am about coming up with a cool idea for a drum,” said Renfroe. “He is great to just talk with and ping ideas back and forth about woods to use and hardware and wood finishes. Sam has an excellent eye for wood grains and colors. I really love all the drums HHG has made for me.”

Thurau (sounds like “to row”) said his customers mostly are professional musicians like Renfroe, as well as collectors from Switzerland to California.

“This is high-end stuff,” he said, noting that his drums start at $600. “People who order from me already have 25 snare drums.”

Thurau said most drums today are made from plywood, but he uses the real thing, including maple, ash, walnut, cherry, mahogany, oak and even softwoods like Douglas fir.

His favorite? “Whatever the customer wants,” he said. “I try not to do a lot of stock stuff.”

Because he is a drummer, too, Thurau says he knows how different woods affect the sound and he hand-picks the lumber.

Then, he cuts it into staves — the individual segments of the drum side — miters the angles and uses minimal glue to hold them together before turning the shell on a lathe to produce a smooth, perfect circle using a chisel.

“Our shells sound better than any ply (wood) drum shell out there, because there is almost no glue in our shells compared to a ply shell and there is no tension from bending the wood to form a cylinder,” he explained. “The wood is milled into a cylinder.”

He then puts on the finishing hardware touches, including hoops and mounting lugs.

Thurau, who will turn 29 later this month, said he has been “”anging on drums since he was 3,” growing up in rural Haggerty Hollow near Franklin, between Pittsburgh and Erie.

“My dad was the original hippie, homesteader guy,” he said. “He played drums and I remember playing them. I went on to play in a crappy punk band with my brother.”

Thurau said his father also had a huge woodworking shop on the family’s 60 acres, and he shared his knowledge with his teenage son.

“He was really into woodworking and he taught me the basics,” he said. “I took every shop class in high school,” graduating in 2006.

Thurau then opted for trade school and was accepted into the Power Systems Institute with FirstEnergy Corp., the parent to Penelec. Two years of school followed by a three-year apprenticeship was paid for by the company, but Thurau had to go where the company sent him.

“I didn’t care,” he said. “I just wanted to get out of Franklin.”

Thurau moved to Altoona in 2008, and quickly came to like his new town. Without his father’s woodworking equipment, though, he turned his attention to playing the drums in several bands, including Saving Jake, when he wasn’t working as a lineman for Penelec.

The party rock band became popular enough to perform two gigs every weekend from State College to Cumberland, Md. But band members also had their day jobs and some were becoming parents, so they decided to break up two years ago. Thurau says he still plays occasionally for fun.

Meanwhile, his itch to work wood returned and, living in an apartment, he rented a shop in McKee and took over some of his father’s machinery. His father had intended to create a guild of craftsmen to work in the hollow and came up with the name, Haggerty Hollow Guild.

“The guild never happened, and I ripped off the name,” Thurau said.

Four years ago, he bought his house with the sprawling two-car garage in back, and set up shop. In June 2015, he married his long-time girlfriend, Madison, who today handles all the shipping duties.

Thurau said his hobby more than pays for itself, but he has kept his day job. He uses profits to reinvest and buy or upgrade equpiment in his two-car garage.

He owns two lathes, which otherwise are becoming obsolete, he said, because computer numerical control (CNC) lathes used today to make chair legs and spindles don’t require a human operator and are cheaper for manufacturers.

Thurau also has a jointer and a planer so that he can even and smooth rough cuts, enabling him to get lumber from just about any mill.

He also has a band saw, miter saw, table saw, drill press, sandblasting cabinet, a work/router table, several bench grinders and sanding machines for flat and curved surfaces.

A dust collection system connected to every piece of equipment keeps it all clean.

He recently purchased, but hasn’t set up, a computerized, three-dimensional router.

“I love to marry 100-year-old hand planes with new technology,” Thurau said, as he manually planed a plank of zebrawood from the west coast of Africa.

That piece will go into a kitchen island for a Pittsburgh customer.

“Drums are my bread and butter, and I don’t take a lot of non-drum orders,” he said.

And, he doesn’t let anything go to waste.

Thanks to his day job, Thurau snags wood that would be tossed; many of the vintage braces for telephone pole cross arms are made of Douglas fir and are “perfect” for some of his projects.

He also saves all his “cut offs” and makes cutting boards as gifts or for sale on his online shop at Etsy.com, an eBay type site for crafters, where he also sells custom-made flyfishing rod cases and a large salad bowl that started out as a drum shell. (Search for HHGdrums).

“It got messed up, so I put a cherry bottom in it and made tongs to match,” he said.

Thurau said anyone with basic woodworking skills could do what he does, but he admits his curved projects aren’t as easy to make as “square stuff.” And he doesn’t take all the credit for his success.

“I’m standing on the shoulders of giants,” he said. “I didn’t come up with all this on my own.”

Mirror Life Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.

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