Bongos are drums. Drums need drum heads, which stretch over time. Stretched drum heads sound bad: they will need to be replaced. You have two choices when it comes to replacing bongo heads: you can buy pre-fitted heads, or you can make your own. Unless you have access to inexpensive rawhide, replacing your heads with pre-fitted drum heads is significantly cheaper and more convenient. Unless you're unlucky, like me: my bongos are a nonstandard size (Meinl Headliner series, 6 3/4'' macho and 8'' hembra), thus making it next to impossible to find appropriately sized heads. And so began my quest to make The Perfect Bongo Heads. A quick Google search revealed that sheets of rawhide are expensive and next to impossible to find for sale locally. For this reason, I chose to seek alternative materials with which to craft heads.

Having read on a forum that X-Ray heads are popular among bongoceros in Cuba1, I set out to find some X-ray film. This stuff is expensive. If you choose to skin bongos with X-Rays, don't expect to buy an envelope from your local pharmaceutical dealer. Instead, find some MRI's: most people have some laying around which will suit your bongos just fine.2 Keep in mind that MRI's come in all different sizes, and not all films will fit your bongos.

If you've fitted skins onto drums before, this will be familiar: find the diameter of the drum you are fitting the film to, add a few inches to this integer--six inches is sufficient, but the more the better--and cut out a circle3 of film with roughly this diameter.

Before making new heads, I recommend that you have a minimal understanding of standard bongo drum anatomy. The most important piece is the shell, which is the cylindrical wooden chamber in which sound resonates. Sound is projected into the shell by the drum head, which is stretched over the shell (under great physical pressure) by either tacks4 or metal hardware. The latter consists of four metal lugs (which are essentially small J bolts), a "skin wire", and two metal hoops: the counterhoop, or rim, and the base ring. The base ring fits cozily over the base of the shell. It is fastened by the lugs (which are held onto the base ring with nuts) to the counterhoop, which is suspended below the top edge of the drum shell. The counterhoop is held in place by the skin wire. The drum head, which is semi-pliable, is wrapped around the edge of the skin wire and stretched over the top of the shell. An illustration of this setup is available here.

Assuming that you don't a spare skin wire, you can remove one from your old skin drum head. Soak the drum head in warm water for about a half hour, so that it is soft and pliable, and remove the wire from its fold.

Now comes the hard part-- stretching the MRI over your bongo's shell:
  1. Remove all of the hardware from your drum (be sure not to lose the nuts and washers, yadda yadda) and place the cut MRI on top of the shell.5
  2. Fit the base ring onto the bottom of the shell.
  3. Place the skin wire on top of the MRI.
  4. Fold the edges of the MRI so that they overlap the skin wire. The wire should not be visible at all. You may want someone to help you hold them in place.
  5. Place the counterhoop over the drum head, make sure that the MRI is still completely wrapped around the skin wire.
  6. Apply force6 to the counterhoop, thus stretching the MRI over the shell.
  7. Quickly fasten the counterhoop to the base ring with a lug.
  8. Still applying lots of force to stretch the MRI over the shell, fasten all of the lugs in opposing pairs. Make sure that the MRI is still looped around the skin wire, so that it doesn't slip out of the counterhoop's grip!
  9. If there is a lot of excess film poking up from under the counterhoop, cut it down with scissors or a knife. However, be careful not to nick the film that is under high tension; it will rip extremely easily.

That's about all there is to it. If you have any questions or concerns, feel free to /msg me!
1 Additionally, MRI's on bongos have the added "cool" factor of having a skeleton on your bongos :)
2 If you are friends with anyone who works around X-Ray machines, ask them if they have any spent film. My friend works at an animal hospital, and he has provided me with MRI's in the past.
3 This doesn't have to be a perfect circle, so long as a it is a reasonably symmetric polygonal shape. I usually cut film into hexagons or octagons.
4 If your drum head is tacked onto the shell, give up now; they will not sustain the pressure needed to stretch an x-ray head over the shell.
5 It doesn't make a difference which side of the film is facing "up".
6 You will need to use a lot of force. Either have someone stand on the counterhoop while you work, or throw the whole assembly into a vise grip. Either way, this is a tedious process--use discretion, and don't crush your fingers!

Responses with novel tidbits:

shaogo says: re Fitting X-Ray Bongo Heads: Methinks that the coolest X-Ray Bongo Heads of all would be twin films of one's own skull; an expensive proposition unless one has a friend who's a doctor. You might suggest contacting a teaching hospital for excess MRI films/XRay films.

Apollyon says: re Fitting X-Ray Bongo Heads: this may seem naf to you but if you perform please put a lightbulb in your bongo! maybe have it linked up to a microphone/amp and a reed switch so it flares on each time you hit the drum! Take a friend at your local computer hardware store, they basically live for this kind of stuff. The way i would do it (searches the annals of time) would be to have a magnetic switch activated by ...wait stop. you know those flowers which dance, they have the same circuitry. all you need to do is annihilate one of those and use lots of LED's instead of a flower. DO IT NOW! Don't think do!! Rip out the flower part. put in some xmas lights instead. dont burn down your house. I recommend running everything off a battery. You might need a simple switch or something but all the complicated microphone etc is done for you. :)

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