This Crash Is Not Trash: A Look at the People Who Repair Cymbals

When I was ready to upgrade my first drum kit, I quietly asked the universe to provide me with a better crash cymbal. I didn’t have the few hundred dollars it would cost to buy a new one.

Miraculously, I got an unexpected visit from my friend Jim who rescued a cracked 16" Meinl Classics Custom crash from a city dump. Jim took that cracked crash to a cymbal repairman named Ken Burman, the owner of Midwest Custom Cymbal Repair in Joliet, Illinois.

The bulk of Burman’s business comes from simple repairs (like modifying my Meinl) and making custom effects cymbals. But rather than calling himself a cymbalsmith, Burman refers to himself as a "cymbal modification artist," sometimes using broken parts to create functional pieces of art.

When Burman was through with it, my new Meinl crash was brilliantly polished and buffed. It also boasted a small smile, a half–moon gap where the crack was removed like a tumor extracted to prevent spreading.

When I struck it, the crash’s sound shimmered and raised the hairs on my arms to attention. That was when I wanted to learn more about the people who repair and refurbish cymbals.

11" White Noise Cymbal Stack from The Cymbal Project

"I love cymbals because—unlike my computer—the more you hit them, the better they work," jokes Lance Campeau, a cymbalsmith and YouTube personality based out of Ontario, Canada.

Over email, Campeau briefly described his day job in industrial manufacturing and sales before excitedly recounting the turning point in his life that led to his current hobby. About five years ago, a relative delivered a box of old, corroded hand cymbals with oxidation choking each of their natural voices. "It was at this moment I realized that making videos about cymbals might be an interesting project,” Campeau recalls.

“It didn’t take long for the videos to attract some attention so I started to do more complex cymbal modification experiments. What started out as a practical solution to a problem has morphed into a thriving, artistic passion” that’s followed by more than 17,000 subscribers. Depending on the time of year, Campeau will spend anywhere between four and 20 hours in his cymbal workshop.

In his YouTube series The Cymbal Project, Campeau demonstrates a wide range of experimental projects that typically result in recycling, "upcycling", or radical conversions. One of Campeau's proudest challenges was converting a cracked 14” Wuhan hi hat top into a small crash cymbal in episode 15 of his series.

He recalls enthusiastically, "The results were pure audio gold. The repair work I did wasn’t very remarkable, but this little 12” cymbal is now one of the best sounding splashes I’ve come across since taking up the hobby."

Watching episodes of The Cymbal Project is the closest I've come to understanding why some guys spend hours listening to other guys talk about fixing cars. There’s something meditative about seeing Campeau pound concentric circles onto the top of a refurbished crash with a ball–peen hammer or carefully gouge a ride on a lathe.

Despite his amassed experiences, Campeau says he's still mastering his trade. He often receives advice from full–time, independent smiths like Matt Bettis, Craig Lauritsen, and Steve Hubback. But perhaps the most valuable expertise comes from the artisan cymbalsmith Matt Nolan of Bath, England.

Nolan constructs his own personal line of cymbals using customized tools. He has made cymbals, gongs, tam–tams, triangles, and other percussion instruments for dozens of musicians such as Frank Zappa’s drummer Terry Bozzio, Damon Reece of Massive Attack, and legendary journeyman drummer Bashiri Johnson. In 2015, Nolan handcrafted custom bronze tone bars for an original hybrid instrument for Icelandic singer Björk called a Gameleste.

Both Campeau’s and Nolan’s accomplishments made me curious to learn more about Ken Burman, the man who repaired my cymbal. Over the phone, Burman tells me he was recently commissioned by Will Calhoun of Living Colour to convert cracked Signature Sabian Mad Hats into a stack.

What's more, Burman had to design the Mad Hats so they resemble a West African tribal symbol for "time changes" or "symbol of change." Designing the piece was extremely difficult, requiring precision measuring tools and scraps of bronze templates.

Midwest Custom Cymbal Repair's Will Calhoun Stack

As I was wrapping up my interview with Burman, I couldn't help but wonder if there are any female cymbalsmiths.

"Yes," he says. "There's one."

Her name is Heather Stine, and she runs her own cymbal design business called 37 Cymbals in Simi Valley, California. Her work is stunning.

Stine’s lifelong attraction to metal was put to use when she started to work with different alloys under the close guidance of legendary cymbalsmith, Matt Bettis. Stine and I engage in a rapid exchange over Facebook Messenger.

When asked why there aren't more female cymbalsmiths (given that there are female drummers), she speculates that it might have to do with the amount of hard, physical labor required for the job combined with an innate interest in metals. Stine, for instance, has a preferred alloy: B20, which is 80% copper, 20% tin.

While I admit I'll be occasionally watching cymbal–making videos, I don't think my fondness for bronze, brass, and nickel is strong enough to make me consider becoming the world's second female cymbalsmith. Instead, I think I'll stick with reconstructing my kit. Which gets me to thinking I could really use a nice, refurbished A line Zildjian 14" hi–hat. If only the universe might comply this time too.

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Lead photo from 37 Cymbals

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