by Mike Czeczele
Stone Custom Drums (SCD) is a high-end drum manufacturing company located in Fort Wayne, Indiana, that utilizes radio frequencies (RF) in making drum shells. The company began making drum shells in 2010 and was founded by Bernie Stone, a musician, master craftsman, drum technician, and entrepreneur. The story of how Bernie built SCD is interesting, inspiring, and nothing short of amazing.
Bernie Stone, a native of Columbus, Ohio, began his musical career at age 11, when he began taking drum lessons. Not long after that, he was playing country and western music in Columbus bars with his grandfather. He participated in his school band program, and during his school years, he also played in several gigging bands. In 1980, he began fixing up old drums on his own. He would take them to The Percussion Center in Fort Wayne, where Percussion Center owner Neal Graham would give him in-store trades for the refurbished drums. This was his first professional experience with restoring drums.
In 1982, Bernie began working at the Columbus Percussion Center (now known as Columbus Pro Percussion). Two years later, Bernie accepted an invitation from Neal Graham to be the primary drum technician at The Percussion Center in Fort Wayne. During his time with The Percussion Center, Bernie was exposed to many high-profile projects and had the opportunity to build tour kits for well-known drummers. Some of these projects included working with Neil Peart of Rush, Jack Grondin and Steve Brookins of 38 Special, “Wild” Mick Brown of Dokken, the late Eric Carr of KISS, Billy Cobham, and Kenny Aronoff with John Mellencamp.
One of the highlights of Bernie’s career came in 1988, when he was presented with a platinum album celebrating 1 million copies sold of the Dokken album Back for the Attack. The award was sent to Bernie in appreciation for his customizing Wild Mick Brown’s Monsters of Rock drum kit – a five-piece Tama that he painted in a custom finish that Bernie called Brilliant Ruby Metallic.
In 1991, The Fort Wayne Percussion Center closed, and Bernie found himself jobless. He made his living at that time playing gigs. Then, in 2003, the opportunity to get into the drum-building business presented itself. Bernie noticed a large amount of drum-making machinery for bid on EBay. The listing was qualified, “as is.” The starting price was too high for him to afford, however, no one bid on it. Consequently, it was posted again, and several times after that; each time receiving no bids, and each time the price was lowered. Finally, the price decreased to a point where Bernie knew he had to have it. Although at the time he didn’t have the money to buy it, he called on a friend for a loan and was able to make an offer. His offer was accepted.
After successfully purchasing the equipment, he was informed he had two days to pick it up in South Carolina. This meant he’d have to figure out how to make the trip from Fort Wayne (and back!) on very short notice. He had a friend who was a truck driver and agreed to make the trip with him. So, with a rented truck and a good friend, Stone set out to claim his fortune.
When he arrived in South Carolina to pick up the drum machinery, Bernie was taken to an area in the back of a parking lot where five pallets of pieces, parts and dangling wires laid on the ground. Having no way to load it onto his truck, Bernie again was faced with a dilemma. He contacted on-site maintenance, and for a few dollars, they loaded it onto his truck. With the cargo loaded, it was back to Fort Wayne, but exactly where was uncertain. He knew it wouldn’t fit in his basement or garage, so he was in a quandary. Again, a friend came to his aid and offered him some storage space in a barn. The equipment was taken to the barn and unloaded, and now it was home in Fort Wayne.
By now, Bernie had almost certainly figured out that the equipment had initially come from the Slingerland® Drum Company. The address where he’d picked it up was the Grestch® factory in Ridgeland, South Carolina, and Grestch had purchased the Slingerland Drum Company in the late 1980’s. To confirm his suspicion and get information on what he’d bought, Bernie began to research the Slingerland Drum Company.
The Slingerland Drum Company was founded in the 1920’s by Henry Heanon Slingerland. The company initially began making banjos, and later “Radio King” drums, which consisted of a single piece of wood that was temperature-bent into a circular shell position. Around the 1960’s, Slingerland began making drums utilizing a “unimold-construction technique” (source: The Slingerland Book, Rob Cook). This consisted of placing three layers of veneer into a mold, each with a layer of glue in between. The mold was then heated, while a large bladder was lowered into it and inflated. This put the wood/glue mixture under extreme heat and pressure, simultaneously.
The machine responsible for curing these drum shells was a radio frequency (RF) generator. This machine was essential for even glue drying and a resultant strong shell construction. Thus, the RF machines were the necessary ingredient for producing the Slingerland multi-ply shell. Slingerland was one of the most famous names and sought after drums from the 1930’s through the 1980’s. They were endorsed by drummer greats such as Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Louis Bellson and many more. In the mid 1980’s, the company began to have financial problems, and within the next few years, were forced to sell to the Gretsch Drum Company. Shortly thereafter, Gretsch sold the Slingerland name to Gibson®. Gibson made Slingerland Drums in a Nashville plant for a short while. However, they did not use the RF method of shell making, but instead purchased shells already made. Gibson later moved the drum-making process to Arkansas and soon after lost interest in it; the Slingerland name slowly sank into the abyss.
Bernie began sorting through his pallets of dissembled machinery and found parts of a radio frequency (RF) machine. It was then that he knew without a doubt this was the old Slingerland drum machinery. He had no knowledge of how the machine actually worked, but began researching to figure it out.
With no instructions, manuals or help from previous operators, he began building his RF machine. Days went into weeks, months and even years. Night after night, Bernie continued to work on the machine, certain he could make it work. After nearly seven years passed, he had everything inside the machine restored, and it should’ve worked, but the machine would still not turn on. He readjusted the settings over and over again, but still the machine wouldn’t turn on. After what seemed like thousands of attempts, he had an idea based on running sound for bands. He thought about being a sound tech in music situations, and before adjusting any volume controls, the controls are all turned to a zero value. So, one by one the controls were set to a baseline value. Then, the switch was flicked, the lights came on, and the machine started! He’d got the RF machine to start for the first time since it was in the Slingerland factory.
Getting the RF machine to work was only a first step. Learning how to operate the machine, what sort of construction ingredients were needed (such as wood and glue) and many, many other processes had to be worked out. But this didn’t stop Bernie. Night after night, he continued his research. He actually located the person who operated the RF machine in the Slingerland factory, and set up an interview with him. It was this person who helped him get the machine running at its best.
The external parts of the machine also had to be researched and made operable. He had to figure out the process of how the machine connected to the molds. In 2010, Bernie made his first drum shell using the equipment, and Stone Custom Drums became a reality. Other machines had to be built, and different-sized molds for different-sized drums had to be configured and utilized with the machines. Bernie went a step further and updated the machinery, materials and processes to modern-day standards. That was just the beginning of Stone Custom Drums.
Today, the advertisement for Stone Custom Drums reads: “Stone Custom Drums creates drum shells in configurations of “Chicago” 3-ply and “Niles” 5-ply style on the actual tools and molds that originally made the famous Slingerland® brand of drums for well over half a century. The molds and tools have been retrofitted and brought up to 21st century standards. The shells we create are nothing short of magnificent.”
Stone actually makes three main types of shells: Chicago Style, Niles Style, and a Super American Series. The Chicago Style consists of 3-ply shells (maple/poplar/maple construction), with 3-ply reinforcement rings of the same configuration. They offer a classic sound that is warm and punctuating. The drums are finished on the inside with an antique amber lacquer and vintage-style 3-angle bearing edges. Classic lacquer exterior gloss finishes are available in maple, walnut or burgundy. Wraps are also available in just about any color or pattern, as well as custom lacquer colors.
The Niles Style consists of 5-ply shells and are created using a maple/poplar configuration, without any reinforcing hoops. The interior of each drum is finished in antique amber lacquer, and the exterior in classic lacquer gloss. Standard colors are Maple, Walnut or Burgundy. Custom wrap or lacquer finish is available upon request. The Super American Series consists of exotic
hardwood drums with a cherry or walnut core in a 9-ply configuration. The walnut inner core provides a drier, more punchy and controlled tone and slightly shorter decay, while the cherry core is just “dripping” with tone.
With patience and perseverance, Bernie Stone accomplished something that very few would dare to try. He demonstrated a passion for making his drum company a reality. Throughout his description of the making of his company, he kept repeating that when something was needed, it seemed to appear just at the right time. He adds that his company was built not only by him, but with several friends who supported him. Bernie has had a 40-year career in building drum sets and being a musician. To sum up his experience, Stone says, “Drums are my life, and they’ve been very good to me.”