Promark is In the Groove
Pausing to inspect the cut end of a 15-inch-diameter hickory trunk in the log yard at Promark Percussion in Elkton, Ed Moore rubs his hand over the white layer of dense, hard wood – the only part used for drumsticks – between the bark and the darker heart.
“A whole lot more goes into making a drumstick than people realize,” says Moore, plant manager at Promark, a subsidiary of Long Island, N.Y.-based D’Addario, which produces parts for musical instruments. “Hickory gets natural defects. Worms like it, so the birds like to peck holes in it. Bird pecks are a no-no in drumsticks.”
The only company with its own sawmill, Promark was founded in 1957 by Herb Brochstein, a professional drummer and drum shop owner. Each month, the Elkton plant ships about 200,000 dowels to a Houston manufacturer, which shapes them into tapered drumsticks for high school marching bands, garage musicians and performing artists like Phil Collins, Neil Peart (drummer for Rush), and Rich Redmond, who plays with country crooner Jason Aldean. After fire destroyed the old mill in Prospect in 2014, it reopened in Elkton a year later at a 75,000-square-foot site that is four times larger, with space for new products and double the dowel output.
Inside the facility, an oversized circular saw slices each debarked tree into rough 1-inch-thick boards, which are smoothed into long pieces that resemble interior house trim. The “green” boards, which still contain a lot of water, are then shortened and stacked, log-cabin-like, and slow-dried for three weeks in kilns averaging 90 to 100 degrees.
“Our drumsticks go all over the world,” Moore explains. “So if you put a drumstick out there that is too high of a moisture content and I stick it out in Arizona where there is no humidity, when it’s on the shelf waiting to be bought, it’ll just start to turn into a banana and do all kinds of crazy things. We’re just trying to make sure we put a stable product out there that won’t warp and bow before the customer gets it.”
After the drumsticks-in-the-making are dry, they are shaped into three-quarter-inch dowels and bundled according to color – pure white for premium pro sticks, slightly darker with grain variations for less expensive ones.
“Frankly, it’s purely a visual thing,” says Moore, a drummer and forester whose great-grandfather ran a sawmill in Mountain City. “And drummers are a goofy bunch of guys. They’ve been trained over the years that drumsticks have to be pretty, where in reality there’s no difference.”
Sound quality, on the other hand, is critical. In Houston, each set of sticks is carefully weighed and tone-paired to make sure the pitch is exactly the same when they hit the drum.
Tennessee is the perfect place for hickory timber production, says Moore. “Every major drumstick manufacturer in the world has some presence in Tennessee,” he says. “Hickory doesn’t have a humongous range. As you start going north, it’s not very prevalent.”
“We are a hardwood state with forests consisting of oak, hickory, maple, beech, yellow poplar, ash and walnut,” says Tim Phelps, forestry communications and outreach unit leader for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture’s Division of Forestry. “One half of the 20 most dominant tree species in Tennessee are either oak or hickory, so we often refer to much of our forest as oak-hickory forest.”
No two hickory logs are the same, which can pose challenges when it comes to pinpointing that perfect white wood. Loggers and sawmill operators don’t have a clue about what’s inside a tree until it’s cut down. To cut waste, Promark utilizes every part of the log. The heart is turned into railroad ties, hammer handles and special-order lumber for the flooring and cabinet industries. The bark goes to a mulch company, scraps to a paper factory. Even the food-grade, chemical-free sawdust is used to make hickory smoke flavoring for cooking and grilling. In addition, the company works with the state’s forestry division to plant five trees for every one felled to make drumsticks.
For Moore, who enjoys trying out new Promark sticks in his garage, one of the best parts of the job is seeing the custom orders requested by well-known entertainers. For one jazz musician, the company etched a special notch in each stick. Phil Collins asks for a new design for each tour, selling the products at concert souvenir stands and often playfully throwing them into the audience during a performance. Some drummers like their sticks heavier, some lighter, some with grip, some without and with different degrees of tapering.
“Some guys want it to be a real heavy thud. Some guys want it to be light and bounce,” Moore says. “I like ’em to bounce.”
TN Timber Tidbits
Number of timber industry jobs in Tennessee
The state’s ranking in U.S. hardwood lumber production $19.6 billion Economic impact
Free seedlings grown by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture annually for landowners for wildlife habitat enhancement, timber production and other conservation purposes
Trees planted for every one felled to make drumsticks $1 billion Forest products exported from Tennessee each year