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Cymbal making

Modern cymbal making uses many different techniques, from traditional
hand methods to completely automated mass-production. 

=The Traditional Process=

Traditionally cymbals were made from individually cast cymbal blanks, which were then hot-forged, often with many annealing processes, to form the rough shape of the cymbal.

The finishing stages consisted of cold-hammering to unevenly harden the metal, then turning on a lathe (known to cymbalsmiths as "lathing") to reduce the thickness, and then often a final cold hammering after lathing.

The hot hammering and cold hammering were all performed entirely by hand, a highly skilled and labour-intensive process. The only machine to touch the cymbal was the lathe, and even then the lathe tool was held in the hand.

This lathing step could reduce the weight of the cymbal by two-thirds or more, and resulted in further uneven hardening which produces much of the tone of a traditionally-made cymbal. This effect was deliberately enhanced by use of a course lathe tool, and by very limited if any final polishing, leaving the lathe tool marks as "tone grooves". Traditional cymbals were lathed over the entire surface top and bottom.

Some cymbals are still made in exactly this way today, especially in the top price ranges.

=Modern Developments=

Each stage of this process has been modified by the use of recent technology.

One of the main effects has been that far closer manufacturing tolerances could be achieved. These have sometimes been reflected in more consistent sounding cymbals, and sometimes not. The ear, it seems, is sometimes far more sensitive than the micrometer in measuring differences between cymbals.

This has also provided the opportunity to omit some of the traditional steps completely, and so unlathed, partly lathed, and even unhammered cymbals have entered the catalogs of major makers, and achieved rapid acceptance.

Table of contents
1 Casting Techniques
2 Forging Techniques
3 Hammering Techniques
4 Lathing
5 Polishing
6 Quality Control
7 External links

Casting Techniques

Two modern techniques now provide an alternative to the traditional casting technique.


The more unusual of these is rotocasting, in which the mold is spun to force metal into the details of the mold by centrifugal force. This allows the hot forging step to be reduced or even omitted, as the resulting casting can be made far closer to the final shape of the cymbal, including its bell and taper. It is an expensive process used for a few top quality bell bronze cymbals only.

Sheet Metal Cymbals

Many modern cymbals are stamped from sheet metal. Since only malleable alloys can be cold rolled into sheets, there is no commercially available bell bronze in sheet form, but cymbals of all other common cymbal alloys have been produced in this way.

Some claim that these "sheet" cymbals have a different sound to traditionally made cymbals, owing to their manufacture from sheet metal rather than from individual castings. Others claim that the only difference is the alloy. Top quality "cast" cymbals are normally made from bell bronze, while "sheet" cymbals are normally made from malleable alloys.

The major manufacturer Paiste even claims that the division into cast and sheet cymbals is misleading, as all alloys are at some stage cast, and refuses to say whether or not particular cymbals are made from sheet metal. Their Sound Alloy patent implies that they have a method for making sheet metal cymbals of this alloy, which would make these a unique third category.

The 2002 Paiste Cymbal Guide even claims that all cymbals are "cast", not just their own, but here they are not using the word in the established sense. All other manufacturers openly state that all of their malleable alloy cymbals are made from sheet metal, and that all of their bell bronze cymbals are individually cast. One possible reason for Paiste's claims is that there is still a great deal of prestige associated with traditionally cast cymbals. The first sheet cymbals were brass, and were very cheaply made. It is only in the last few decades that top-quality sheet cymbals have been produced at all.

But whether this prestige is still deserved is doubtful. The major manufacturer Meinl manufactures both cast and sheet cymbals, and currently chooses to make their top premium line from sheet bronze. Some top drummers who play Zildjian or Sabian cymbals now choose to play their sheet bronze cymbals, rather than their more expensive cast cymbals, for the sake of their sound.

Louder drummers tend to choose sheet cymbals, while jazz players and major orchestras still tend towards cast cymbals. So it is more a matter of choosing the correct cymbal for the sound required.

Forging Techniques

Some manufacturers of bell bronze cymbals now use hot-rolling and hot pressing of individual cymbal blanks rather than traditional forging. These processes are faster and cheaper and appear to have little if any effect on the final sound.

Hammering Techniques

This is another controversial subject. Many manufacturers claim that their cymbals are "hand hammered", but again these words may not always mean the same thing. Some hand hammered cymbals are hammered using a hammer held in the cymbalsmith's hand. Others are hammered using a proprietary machine, but are still described as "hand hammered" because the hammering is under the control of an individual craftsman.

In general, truly hand hammered cymbals tend to have darker, lower, richer tones, and there tends to be far more variation in character between cymbals of supposedly identical models.

Conversely, cymbals hammered by automated machines tend to be brighter, higher in pitch, and more cutting. Most significantly, the variation between supposedly identical cymbals is noticeably reduced, assuming adequate quality control.

And not surprisingly, cymbals hammered by proprietary "hand" hammering machines are somewhere in the middle.


There are three significant modern developments here.

Firstly, the lathe itself underwent enormous development during the 20th century. Some cymbal lathes are now automated.

Secondly, the closer tolerances have led to far more use of unlathed and partly unlathed cymbals. The lathing which was once essential to form the shape of the cymbal can now be varied to produce new sounds, especially at the top end of the range.

One pioneering example was the Meinl Raker splash, whose top surface has a single spiral cut by a single pass of a very coarse tool. Another is the Zildjian Earth Ride, whose top surface is not lathed at all, but very sparingly hammered. Many manufacturers now produce cymbals with one or both surfaces unlathed, or with bands of dark unlathed metal. Modern coarse lathing patterns allow unlathed metal and hammering-marks to show through between the tracks of the lathe tool.

Thirdly, at the opposite end of the cost spectrum, some cheaper cymbals are not lathed at all but have obvious (generally rather coarse) sound grooves. These have been produced by pressing rather than lathing. The effect on the sound is similar to lathing, because the parts of the metal that have been most deformed are most hardened. However the effect that can be produced in this way is very limited.

In the extreme it is even possible to produce a cymbal that appears to have been lathed then hammered, by a single operation of a press starting with a flat metal sheet. The result is a round cymbal, with a thickened bell, tapered bow, lathing marks and hammering marks. In large numbers these are very cheap to make but the results reflect it.

Away from this extreme, the line between hammering and pressing can blur. Some excellent student cymbals have a final hammering pattern produced by a single blow of a press, after genuine lathing. The effect on the metal of this pressing operation is very similar to the effect of machine hammering, and the results are very consistent indeed.


Modern cymbals are available in several polishes or finishes.

Traditional fully-lathed cymbals were simply bare metal all over, and were allowed to tarnish with time. This finish is still the most common.

The first departure from this was the appearance of "bright" or "brilliant" finishes. These are the result of abbrasive polishing. Some metal is removed in the process, but the effect is mainly visual. The oxide layer is removed, and replaced by a metal plating, laquer or a combination of the two to prevent the oxide coat from reforming. Some claim to be able to hear the immediate difference that this polishing makes, others are unconvinced. But certainly it will prevent formation of the patina, which is part of the process by which traditional cymbals mellow with age.

Traditional finish unlathed cymbals such as the Zildjian Earth Ride must be polished to remove the thick oxide coating caused by their heat-treatment earlier in the manufacturing process. However like all traditional finish cymbals they are then allowed to oxidise.

More significant is the opposite. On some cymbals, such as Istanbul Turk and Vezir and Ufip Naturals, a thick oxide coat is deliberately left intact on one or both sides of the cymbal. The effect of this seems to be to focus and intensify the nature of what are already extreme sounds, making the cymbals a little quieter but their character even more intense. Unwanted sounds are dampened.

In the case of bands of oxide left on partly-lathed cymbals like the Bosphorus Ferrit Antique and Istanbul Custom Sultan it is impossible to decide what the contribution of the oxide pattern is to the sound, as these tend to be complex, top-quality handmade cymbals. But in giving the cymbal designer more options, they allow more precise and focussed control, and production of a wide range of sounds.

Finally, on some cymbals the oxide coat is deliberately enhanced to simulate age, or a whole new coating applied. Examples are Meinl Champagne Finish, Masterwork Avanos and Paiste Coloursound. Results depend very much on the actual coating and the cymbal.

Quality Control

All the above processes can fail to produce good-sounding cymbals. Machines go out of tolerance, craftsmen have bad days.

Some cymbals are tested against prototype "master" cymbals before issue. With some handmade cymbals this is unnecessary and even undesirable, the craftsman knows when he has made a good cymbal and no two are alike anyway.

There are still two problems with testing against masters. One is that no two cymbals are completely identical, so there must be some tolerance. But how much?

The other is that the process is essentially subjective. Even the best drummers will occasionally recoil in horror at a cymbal that quality control has passed as adequate or even as superior.

External links