Musical instruments are uniquely personal items. They are something you can develop a deep, enveloping relationship with which only grows stronger over time. Will Roffers is taking that concept to the next level with his hand-built, custom snare drums.
While Roffers has only just entered into the immersive world of drum making, he is no stranger to working with his hands. Roffers developed many building skills from working on racecars. Though many of the materials and tools differ greatly from those used in drum building, the idea of producing a physical, usable product is quite congruent.
"Wood has been a bit of a challenge. I've been able to do as much with the drums because of my love for them, but building a cabinet? It just never turns out right," Roffers said. "Metal is so forgiving. If you drill a hole in the wrong spot, just fill it. Wood is a challenge and it's been a learning process. But, I get a large sense of satisfaction in seeing my work come to life."
The drums emerged in Roffers' life relatively early. After first having a pair of sticks in his hands, he became instantly hooked.
"The first time I hit a snare drum was in fifth grade. Our elementary school music teacher would come around once every two weeks, and one time they brought a snare drum. Guitars were cool, but that snare drum hooked me," Roffers said. "I think about 18 students expressed interest in drums. I stuck it out, and by the time I was a senior, there were just three of us left."
Today, Roffers is the owner of Northland Music Center in Rhinelander. He began playing himself at a young age, and in a true full circle series of events, he purchased his first drum kit from the store he now operates. Well, sort of.
Prior to being Northland, the store was known as Lakeland Music, which opened its doors in the mid-1990s. Owned and operated by Don Peters, Lakeland Music sat on Davenport Street in Rhinelander. From there, with the help of his parents, Roffers purchased his white Pearl Forum drum set.
Echoing the idea of instruments being personal and holding memories, Roffers still uses that drum set, teaching lessons to students.
"I even gigged with it last week," Roffers said. He is know as a "drummer for hire" in the Rhinelander area, while also holding a regular engagement playing with the Kyle Mertz Band. "I have other sets too, but there's always going to be something about that kit. I can't thank my parents enough. If they hadn't gotten that for me, or hadn't gotten a good quality kit, I don't think we'd be sitting here today."
Peters and Roffers became business partners in 2009 and started Northland Music together in 2010.
Roffers first endeavor into the world of drum making came through creating an electronic kit. Cutting down some cheap drum shells, Roffers incorporated a triggering system, which produces a previously-recorded drum sound upon striking.
"That turned out OK. It was kind of cool," Roffers said, a bit sheepishly.
From there, Roffers began using the vast resource of information that is the Internet to research just what it might take to build an acoustic, wooden snare drum. Always inclined towards to the working parts of an individual drums, Roffers said he had much experience taking a drum apart and rebuilding it. Creating it from scratch, though, that was a different story.
Roffers said he received a large amount of his drum making education through simple resources, such as YouTube videos.
He started small, refinishing an old drum kit which he now displays as a rental kit in his shop. Not ready to take on the time commitment which comes with creating his own drums, Roffers honed certain skills through working with old, often discarded equipment.
Time and the tools were two of Roffers' main opponents. His zeal eventually won out, though, and he began taking the necessary steps and investments which gave him the capability to begin work.
Roffers has now created a handful of what are known as stave drum shells. Similar to the process of making a barrel, individual pieces of wood are arranged vertically with bevelled edges to form a circle. Once bonded via glue, the inside and outsides are sanded to create a smooth spherical shape.
"I wanted to make my own drums, because first off, I'd like to be able to say 'it's mine,' he said. "But also, I had confidence that I could probably put out a product that is pretty well comparable to a high-end drum, that didn't cost quite as much."
The high cost of drums (with a new, intermediate set, without cymbals costing $600 or more) is very understandable to Roffers now. Knowing how labor intensive it is to create a well-built drum has given him a new appreciation for the work some of the most well known drum companies - such Pearl, Gretsch or DW - do.
"I'm sure I'll be able to get better and faster as I go along, but I totally understand why drums cost what they do," he said. "Many people think that a machine does a lot of the work, but that's just not the case."
Recently, Roffers completed a maple/walnut snare drum for local drummer Shilo Dunlap. It was his first completed drum from beginning to end, although he maintains it's Northland Music Center Drums model No. 2.
"Serial Number one is going to be for myself. I haven't finished it yet, though," Roffers said, laughing. "I'm way more excited to build drums for other people. Other drummers have ideas in their head of what they want. I'm able to sit there and think 'yeah, I can make that happen.' It's fun."
That's only fair, though. Roffers will continue work on creating custom drums for those interested in having a percussion instrument that is uniquely theirs. He will also continue work refurbishing old drum kits through re-wrapping, refinishing or rebuilding.
Northland Music Center offers drums, guitar, bass, keyboard and band equipment, as well as lessons. The store is at 16 South Brown Street in downtown Rhinelander. You may reach the store or Roffers at 715-420-0555, and can track Roffers' custom drum work on Northland Music Center's Facebook page.