Highwood Custom Exotic Ply Series Kit review

British-made drums have never looked or sounded as good as Highwood's ambitious Custom kit

  • £1797
Fitted with a 12"x10" mounted tom and 14"x12" and 16"x14" floor toms.

MusicRadar Verdict

Thin shells, exotic hardwood, natural finish, lightweight hardware, exact bearing edges - it all adds up to a great sounding and looking kit. British custom makers are really coming on and Highwood is probably the most ambitious in scope with five different lines and counting.


  • +

    You kidding? The drums are gorgeous, they sound great, and they're British.


  • -

    Not our favourite snare throw-off.

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Highwood is the name chosen by Gareth Heeley and Simon Eland for their British custom-made drums. Launched in 2004, Highwood has already come a long way.

Drummer Gareth actually started building and repairing drums in 1998 and at first Highwood concentrated on supplying parts/hardware and making shells for DIY'ers.
But with his university background in design Gareth decided to get into drum building seriously.

A couple of years ago Highwood moved into a professional workshop where shell-making is handled by Simon with his extensive experience in the woody crafts. As with most small companies metal parts are bought in, but Highwood has established a strong relationship with a Taiwanese company who provide quality fittings, some of which are exclusive to Highwood.

The result is that Highwood offers a much broader range than the usual small custom maker. At present this includes a pro line called Vertical Grain (VG) Birch and a Modern Vintage line with thin mahogany and maple shells. Enterprisingly, there's also the CustomLite which utilises poplar and birch shells, bringing custom drums to budget buyers.

There's also the new Exotic Ply line, the subject of this review alongside Highwood's first ever single ply snare drum.

Go figure

The kit is veneered in Figured Walnut, fitted with matching, vintage wooden hoops and teamed with Highwood's first steam-bent solid maple snare. The 5.5 mm thick Exotic Ply shells consist of an inner core of Finnish birch with single outer and inner veneers of walnut. The shells are the thinnest Highwood can make without needing reinforcing rings.

They're finished inside and out with Polyx oil, a blend of waxes and oils derived from the wood flooring industry. It's extremely tough but looks completely natural, leaving a slight furry nap to the wood. If you prefer, there's hard gloss lacquer or even coloured fades or burst finishes.

The kit has a 20"x18" bass drum, 12"x10" mounted tom and 14"x12" and 16"x14" floor toms. Normally, the drums are fitted with 2.3 mm steel hoops, but this kit has matching wood hoops, adding about 10 percent to the cost. The hoops are the same on the bass drum and unusual in that they don't have claw hooks. Instead there are metal ears which function like the ears on die-cast hoops.

Tension bolts pass through each ear and into the lugs. The advantage of this for the toms is that you won't be fretting about clattering your sticks on the usual metal claws, instead you have lovely smooth wooden hoops all round.

The dinky little low mass, solid machined chrome lugs have just single mounting points (SMP) for minimum shell interference. The small tom comes with a mini-suspension mount which cleverly bolts to two of the SMP lugs. The two floor toms have standard legs with chunky mounting clamps.

All fittings are pro quality with thick chrome. They certainly don't let the side down... or the toms.

Shiver me timberrs

With extremely thin shells of premium hardwood the toms have extra blast and sustain. They feel bigger by an inch or two than they actually are. Strike the floor toms and they could be timpani - you can feel the thin shells resonating like mad with a 'Big Noise From Winnetka' depth. The wooden hoops make the sound warmer and even darker.

The kick again belies its size with its fat sound. The 20" diameter gives sharp definition and the 18" depth provides the follow-on thunderous rumble.

Bearing edges are perfectly finished with 45 degree inner angles and just a small counter cut since the shells are so thin. All exotic wood kits are one-offs, wood is sourced for each job and prices vary according to how expensive the lumber proves to be. Some woods are more readily available or even in stock. Examples include Bubinga, Walnut, Cherry, Bird's Eye Maple and Ash.

Steam power

You'll notice the snare does not match the kit. This is because Highwood sent us the very first from their spanking new single ply steam-bent series. We're so glad they did because it's brilliant. The maple plank is steam-bent and lathed into the round, resulting in a shell thickness between 6 and 8 mm. The reinforcing rings are 8 mm and 25 mm deep.

There is no air hole in any of Highwood's drums, which just makes them fatter sounding. You can specify air holes if you want though, at no extra cost.

We love the elegant, clean look of the drum with its 10 double-ended SMP lugs. Finished with Polyx oil again, the 14"x5½" shell looks absolutely natural with a matt sheen. A 6½" version is available at the same price.

The strainer is Taye's strong but lightweight side latch design, which actually works by pulling the plate lever away from the drum and dropping it down through 180 degrees. You may have to push it right down to avoid a slight residual snare buzz.

Sound sensation

What matters most is the sound, and this is sensational. There is a quality to the snare response, which you only get with a single ply wood drum. It's a sort of dense crunch, warm and woody, extremely snarey and satisfyingly fat. The shell is superbly made and the reinforcing rings give it the classic sound of a Slingerland Artist.

Credit also goes to the quality wires, which are Highwood's own 20 strand Phosphor Bronze, plus the fact that Highwood cuts a proper, smooth snare bed. Tuned low, the drum is greasy and dark. Tuned high, you get that cricket bat-like clonk, as heard from a hundred yards on a summer's day. Unmistakably woody.

Exotic wood versions will be available soon and there will also be custom sizes on request - Highwood builds to order and will try to satisfy your every whim.

Music Radar Team

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