I have to say that I am very impressed with what Michael Outlaw in Sylvester, Georgia is doing. He has a great talent and a wonderful story to tell. He drives dirt roads to find old houses, tobacco barns, and structures that have been abandoned and are falling down. He sees great beauty in that old sculpture of a house. Some have trees growing through the middle of them; most of their roofs are falling down, and most of the time you cannot even see the house because of trees and vines. Michael says it is a great passion to use something that would have been otherwise destroyed. He knows that there is so much history under that tin roof that needs to live on.
The wood that was used on these houses is virgin longleaf pine timber. These trees were readily available back in those days. Due to the trees’ slow growth rate, they were not replanted as much. These original longleaf pine trees reached heights of 175 feet and grew 300 to 600 years old to reach maturity, which is why it is rare to find longleaf pine trees with such tight growth rings. Michael has an eye for finding old buildings that were built before the1920’s. Once he gets permission to dismantle a house, he slowly pulls all nails out of the boards, being careful not to split the aged wood. Michael truly loves what he does, he has worked under some of the best carpenters around; Keith Lacey, Jake Lacey, Sam Brown, Al Knapp. These guys, Michael says, are the best at what they do.
Michael, being a drummer too, loves to play music, so he decided to experiment if a drum could be built using this 300-year-old dry timber. He told me he loves a great challenge and hates repetition. His first attempt was a big success, he said, “I am blown away at the deep tone of this drum!” which he believes is linked to the grain tightness of the wood. The mission to improve his design started. Seven years later Michael is still at it. Michael claims that his drums sound just as good, if not better, than any other high-end drums you can buy. What makes these drums so unique? The sound combined with looks speaks for themselves. On some occasions, for character, the actual cut nail from the original board is still in the drum. How he does it? No clue! He says, “It takes patience, perseverance, and a little determination.”
Michael grew up in Sylvester, Georgia, born and raised. His parents said, “he always went to bed with a real hammer in his hand every night as a young boy.” It should have been obvious from the beginning he was going to be a carpenter. He was always building things, his friend said, “When Michael was 13 he already built his first eight-foot tall half-pipe ramp.” Not knowing that he was setting the stage for the rest of his life. When he was 21 he found himself building more than the actual riding. So he decided to go to college for carpentry and got a degree in carpentry, while working at a cabinet shop. He was introduced to antique heart pine and fell in love with it right away. But it was too late; he had the fever for it. The aroma of heart pine was fantastic; you could actually smell the oil where it was sitting under a machine when cut. He was on the search for heart pine.
He started developing a strong love for building. He built houses, cabinets, barns, porch, decks, guitars, curved staircases and more. He would build furniture just to give away. He was also featured in southwest Georgia Living. Michael, known by his friends as the next Norm Abram, would always smile and laugh as he humbly spoke of himself. He was never truly happy about anything he built. He would pick it apart, the average person would say, “What! Are you crazy that looks great!” 1/16 of an inch is like a mile in his eyes, always looking for a challenge. He was seen on many occasions smelling the wood after the cut. He would always say, “I wish they made an aerosol spray like this.” His wife Frankie would always look at him sideways when he said thing like that. Michael has built many drums and made videos of the sounds. Michael still to this day takes orders and builds custom drums one by one. His love for woodworking and passion for music is here to stay. Michael is a true old-world craftsman who creates drums to last a lifetime.
About the drum: The drum that Michael sent to Tom Tom (which we will be reviewing in this coming issue #8) is a 7×14 stave construction snare drum with black chrome tube lugs. The shell is 7/8” with quarter sawn virgin heart pine. This turn of the century wood is from a Plantation house built in the 1880’s by Charles Edward Wilder. The house was built from the virgin long leaf pine trees on the property, some of which were over 200 years old. This was the first house to be disassembled and reassembled as an Outlaw Drum. For this drum in particular, the floorboards of the house were used. According to Michael, thousands of drums could be potentially made from all the wood he has acquired from this specific house.
By Randy Saunders