Alan van Kleef
Mike Hughes meets Alan van Kleef, a drum maker who is beating out a rhythm for entrepreneurs.
You might think the pun in this article’s headline deserves a short drum roll and a cymbal clash for its sharpness and hilarity. No? Well, if you did then Alan van Kleef is the man to provide it, as one of the country’s leading drum makers for musicians performing with the likes of Sir Paul McCartney, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Manic Street Preachers, Paul Weller and The Who.
His snare drums are a symphony themselves, with Sheffield stainless steel for lugs, hoops and tension rods and with skeletons of bronze, magnesium, copper or even silver – that one will set you back a quid under £5,000 – and using oak and birch to produce the perfect sound for recording studio or football stadium. If you want an 18-carat solid gold drum, let van Kleef have £200,000 and he’ll deliver that as well, anywhere in the world.
This is a craftsman, working in Yorkshire with one of the region’s greatest assets to produce jaw-dropping products for eager superstars around the world. Not bad for someone who could have been a Boys’ Brigade bugler.
He is a musician at heart, which is where VK Drums first started to form as a possible business, and the question that made all the difference came from one of the leaders of his local brigade, who asked if there was anyone who would play either snare drum or bugle to fill a gap in the band. “I tried the bugle but didn’t have any joy with that, it was the drums that seemed more interesting,” he says at his workroom in Catley Road, Sheffield.
“I got some lessons and ended up playing the cymbals in a marching band at the age of ten, with competitions all over the UK, which then spread into the school orchestra where I was on timpani, bass and snare drums – just basically anything I could get my hands on that involved percussion.
“There was no musical background in the family – no piano in the house or anything – my parents were in the catering trade, so I was brought up in restaurants. I just loved drums and would use my pocket money from washing up in the restaurant to buy bits and pieces and slowly assemble a kit week by week. That taught me how important cash flow was.
“Then, after seeing Top of the Pops and the drummer in the background whacking away, I was in covers bands around Weston-super-Mare and Swindon playing in the local pubs by the time I was 15. It had become a real passion.”
It is a sound piece of advice for any prospective entrepreneur to go with what you know best. If you love working with metal or wood, if you’re a cyclist with a design for a new brake system or a doctor who sees a way a medicine might be better administered – if you want to start your own business look at what drives you and that passion you already have will be a huge boost to your aspirations.
That’s where van Kleef was, loving drumming and playing live with drum and bass DJs at various events, then running his own recording studio in London. Wanting to plan a secure future with his new girlfriend, who was from Sheffield, the couple moved there and the power of steel renewed its grip on him.
“I remembered getting Meccano for Christmas once as a lad and used a couple of brackets from that to make a high-hat stand out of a cheap music stand, rather than have to save up and buy one for £100. I still couldn’t afford the two cymbals for it, so I use an old beer tray for the bottom one. It was a crude way of achieving what I wanted to achieve, but from there I developed this interest in the engineering side of things.
“I joined the Royal Navy as an aircraft mechanic, but I hated the discipline side of it, so when we moved to Sheffield there were plenty of metal fabricators and engineers and the hobby I now had started to grow and I wondered if I could make my own lugs as well as the shells, then my own badge… and then I had a company.
“I didn’t worry too much about it becoming my main business because I was just fascinated by it and it was more of a labour of love for me. I would often sit up to the early hours trying to find ways to make a certain piece for the next drum.”
Word was starting to get around that the bloke from the drum and bass sessions who used to have his own studio was now making something very special, and it was a push from Facebook that really got things moving. He created a page and put pictures on of the half-dozen drums he had made, joined a few forums and became friends with a number of drummers.
“Before I knew it, there was a small following and a few months later I booked an exhibition space at the London Drum Show, got some banners printed and made two impressive-looking kits and a few snares. I met a few other builders and sent a few drums to magazines to be reviewed, which led to an eBay page and website.
“In the first year I only got orders for about half a dozen drums, but I was still only working from my one-car garage. I then started experimenting with some less-common materials, which created a bit of a buzz and one of the first famous names who came to me was Steve White, who worked for Paul Weller. From him it started to snowball.”
So, apart from the artistry and craftsmanship, what goes into a van Kleef drum? The aforementioned silver snare at £4,999 has a 14” by 4.5”, 1.5mm sterling silver shell, stainless steel lugs, hoops and “VKlaws” gripping the rim. It comes with the laser-marked VK logo, hallmark, date and serial number, a foam-lined hard case and – nice touch this – a pair of white gloves.
Towards the other end of his extensive catalogue, for £699 you get a 14” by 5”, 13-ply Sapele and Birch shell, with those stainless-steel lugs and hoops.
“I don’t think I set out to create a particular sound with them,” he says. “That is something you first hear from the completed drum at the end, but I think it helps if you choose different materials and perhaps something a little thicker – many drums have thinner shells with a bead for reinforcement.
“I know that works because I’ve had 30 years of experience of drums and engineering. That means I am creating a drum that no-one else has done, so that will have a slightly different sound.
“Also, most hardware that drum-builders bolt on to the shell is chrome-plated steel that they all buy from the same place in Taiwan, or sometimes cast aluminium. I use solid stainless steel so that there is a different resonance that helps set me apart – and there’s no plating to do.
“If I have got all the parts and there is a completed shell, I can assemble a drum in a day or two, but if you are talking about rolling the shell, hoops and tags, it can take between four and six weeks for all the processes to start from scratch.”
He prides himself in doing most of his work himself and takes a wary view of expanding the business too far. “The problem I have seen is that you can end up growing too fast and then you have this machine to feed. Part of the appeal of my drums is that I make them by hand, so I don’t want to go down the road of having an extra two people producing twice as many drums, but they are just being bolted together with me sat in an office.
“That loses the appeal of why I started to do it all, and I am 45 years old now, so I have a few years left in me yet to continue making them by hand, providing enough for my family and not being too greedy. With an eye on preserving the skills, maybe in a few years I will take on someone with a bit more experience who has a bit of background – and that same passion for drums.”
The orders keep on coming from customers who appreciate that ethos, with some drummers coming back and building a VK drum kit piece by piece, or replacing earlier drums. The new business and old is split more or less 50-50 with van Kleef doing all the dealing himself, except in China or Japan where the complexities of the languages mean an intermediary is very useful.
Wherever in the world he travels and sells, hearing his drums being played is still the biggest thrill of all. But then that’s BQ entrepreneurs for you – inspired by their own possibilities and never happier than when someone else appreciates their high standards and spreads the word with the same passion.