Alan van Kleef turned a hobby making drums into a business lauded by rock stars - giving hope to garage-based ‘tinkerers’ everywhere.
The former pro drummer had re-trained as an electrician and was fulfilling a dream of designing and making his own kit when demand took off.
After a ‘gypsy’ life he had settled with his family in Sheffield and was experimenting with different metals, partly because they are easy to obtain in the Steel City.
Then Paul Weller’s drummer Steve White heard one of Alan’s prototype titanium snares and had to have one.
Five years on, VK Drums have a reputation for chunky weight, durability and sound that is revered by a glittering roster of stars including Sean Moore of the Manic Street Preachers, Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Rick Buckler of The Jam.
Alan, aged 45, said: “I have found my meaning in life. I couldn’t have done this anywhere else. Sheffield was the place that made this happen. There’s a great hub of engineering companies.
“I didn’t set out to make a different sounding drum, it’s just that I’m using materials no one else was at that time.
“I enjoy the feedback from drummers, I’ve had a few nice quotes from some famous ones. If I’d had just one 10 years ago I would have died a happy man.”
Alan’s name has also grown among collectors who want bespoke designs - including one in gold that cost £200,000.
Today, orders pour in from China, the US and South Korea and some 80 per cent of what he makes is exported.
And while his working life is a satisfying mix of twin passions - drumming and metalworking - he’s happy to remain a one-man band in a workshop inside the Laser Cutting Company on Catley Road, Darnall, strewn with tools and parts he describes as “organised chaos.”
“It can be lonely, but I’m happy to carry on like this, I’m quite fussy about how I want things.
“I’d rather the waiting list got longer and remain hands on.”
Born in Glasgow, Alan developed a love of percussion in Boys’ Brigade and the school orchestra. Later he played live for 90s drum and bass superstars LTJ Bukem, Fabio, Grooverider and Goldie at venues including Cream, Wembley and Manumission in Ibiza. That was where he met his wife Emma in 1995.
When the scene fizzled out he set up a recording studio in their London flat making hypnosis tapes, advertising jingles and telephone hold music.
At the same time he was playing in rock bands. But when their first daughter arrived it was time for a change and they moved back to Emma’s home town.
That was when he retrained as an electrician and embarked on a life outside music.
He later became a solar panel installer until the Government cut the subsidy and the market collapsed.
It was at that time he was making drums in the garage as a hobby.
Today he is the dad of two girls, aged eight and ten, and he has mastered skills including milling, turning, welding, laser cutting, rolling, anodising and polishing.
There can be few people in the world who know the difference titanium hoops make to the sound of a stainless steel drum shell.
Or that a VK sterling silver snare has an almost “bell bronze tone” which, according to Drummer’s Review “is a really great drum.” It costs £4,999.
SHEFFIELD WAS THE PLACE THAT MADE THIS HAPPEN
VK Drums is based in a small workshop in the back of the Laser Cutting Company factory on Catley Road, Darnall.
Alan van Kleef moved in after getting to know Jon Day, boss of Charles Day steels which owns the site.
The pair struck a deal and the drum company flourished in possibly the best incubator a metals-based drum maker could have.
Alan said: “Without this place it would have been tough. But the business is doing all right - it’s bought us a new house.”
Jon introduced him to Charles Turner, chairman of the Made in Sheffield club and he was invited to join.
Alan said: “It’s well known, it’s got a nice ring and a quality factor.”