In today's global economy there are many quality drums available. Many drum circlers prefer full-sized hand drums. For most, the djembe is the drum of choice for it's volume, portability, and range of pitches. Drums are a bit like people: on the surface they all look a little different, but all are basically made the same way. When choosing one, there are several things to consider.
WOOD, SKIN, & SOUND
First thing, pick up a potential drum and consider it's heft. Denser woods are going to have fuller resonance and greater projection. They are going to weigh more than a tourist-grade drum made from lighter, spongier woods. Lighter drums won't have the same rich tonality. Fifteen to twenty pounds is going to be normal for a well-made djembe. The type of wood is only one of MANY factors affecting the sound, however.
The size of the drum, shape of the bowl, the shape of the bearing edge, the diameter and length of the "trumpet", and the roughness of the interior all affect how the sound exits the drum. The thickness of the skin, it's imperfections, and it's tightness on the drum all affect the quality of the vibration that the drum head produces. Even the origin of the goat makes a difference; American goats are thought to be fattier due to their feed and this affects the sound, too.
There are several things to examine in order to ensure you buy a good instrument. First and foremost, inspect the wood. There should be no cracks. Cracks will usually start on the bottom edges of the drum where it rests on the floor. These are relatively easily repaired. Surface cracks in the decorative carvings aren't uncommon, but beware any cracks that go all the way through the wood. These are cause for concern, but not alarm. Good craftsmen have been repairing cracks in wood for hundreds of years, but that doesn't mean you need to buy into a potential problem if you don't have to do so. If you see cracks near the top edge of the drum, steer clear! These can cause a buzz that is difficult to get rid of and that can prevent the skin from making a good seal against the lip of the drum (and thereby ruining the sound).
Decorative carvings are just decorative, find something you like - whether it be a village scene, Adrinka symbols, simply a nice pattern, or nothing but plain wood. The exterior of the drum should be relatively smooth. That's smooth, not polished; odds are there's going to be some texture there. It's a hand-carved instrument, after all. When sitting upright, the drum should sit flat on the floor, not wobble unevenly. The top of the drum should be parallel to the floor. The top and bottom of the drum should be round rather than oval, but keep in mind that no hand-carved drum will have absolutely perfect symmetry (though a lathe-turned one might).
The bearing edge (the top edge of the drum that the skin stretches over) should be curved and consistent all the way around. The shape should be like your thumb; imagine the profile of your thumb with the flat nail as the inside of the drum shell and the rounded pad as the outside of the drum's bearing edge. The gentler this curve, the more comfortable the drum will be on your palms when you play it. A sharp bearing edge is likely to hurt your hands.
The interior of the shell should be rough but not splintery. This bit of roughness helps the sound to bounce around in there (it's a physics thing). The thickness of the shell should be consistent all the way around - roughly an inch or so.
Inspect the head for holes by holding the drum up to the light and looking through the bottom. There will likely be shades of light where the hide was scraped, but look for nicks or pin pricks that let light all the way through. Small holes can be patched with a bit of extra skin and some super glue, but there's no need to buy a drum that immediately needs repair. Nicks smaller than a dime can most likely be mended, but anything larger should probably have the hide replaced.
Inspect the rings that attach the skin to the drum. There are usually three - two at the top that clamp the skin and one under the bowl that anchors it to the drum. The rings are typically welded iron re-bar. Look for any breaks in the weld, in particular on the bottom ring because it is often welded onto the drum shell and cannot be removed. Feel for burrs that might cause problems or punctures. The rings are often wrapped in fabric to prevent rust from getting to the skin and for aesthetics; ideally they are painted before they are wrapped. They should be round, not warped. They should fit closely to the drum shell with very little clearance between the diameter of the top edge of the drum and the inside of the rings. The rings should be parallel to the floor when the drum is sitting upright; uneven rings show in-attention by the drum builder.
Inspect the ropes for nicks and frays. A few stray threads is no big deal, but any big gashes may cause problems. The ropes are under a LOT of tension. Those nicks are going to be the weak points that eventually give way, and when they break will require re-lacing the whole drum. The vertical ropes are one long piece - about 60 feet or so on a full-sized drum. The tail of the rope is then used for the fancy macrame' that fine tunes the instrument.
There are also separate ropes that form the loops/cradles on the top and bottom rings. Check these loops to make sure they are even and consistent all the way around the drum. Check the knots that join the ends of the ropes where they come together on the rings, too. Make sure they aren't pulling loose. Good drums usually have the ends
trimmed and melted together in a blob of black plastic-y goo that will hold the knot permanently.
A well-made drum will have vertical ropes that are nice and taut already. If the drum has been fine-tuned, the knots used to lace the verticals together in the Mali Weave (called flipping diamonds because of the triangle shapes they make) should form a nice straight line around the drum that is also parallel to the floor when the drum is sitting upright.
Tuning is a bit subjective. You want the drum to sound good to you, but these aren't tuned to any specific note. The drum will have some magical ideal resonance where it sounds best. The only way to find that is to experiment by tightening the drum skin until you get a nice rich sound without choking it out by making it too tight. The head should be tight, not flabby. If you push the center with your finger there should be very little give there - maybe 1/8 inch.
In general, drums in a big-box store are going to come right out of the carton and onto the showroom floor. Most likely the drummers who work there are not folkloric percussionists and probably don't even know HOW to tune a djembe. It is therefore important to consider that what you hear in the store probably isn't how the drum could or should sound.
If you're a new player, you probably aren't going to be able to articulate those sounds on the drum anyway and it's even harder to do on a poorly tuned drum. Try to take an experienced player with you to help with your selection.
Most people here in the US play their drums seated. In a normal chair, the tops of your thighs will be parallel to the floor. You want your drum to come above that height so that your legs aren't interfering with your hands. A drum that sits 24 or 25 inches tall is about right for most people under six feet tall. When you play, you'll be spreading your knees, pulling the drum in close, then tipping the top AWAY from you in order to allow sound to exit the bottom AND to align the drum head with the natural ergonomic extension of your hands and arms. The top of the drum should be beneath the height of your elbows.
To select the proper diameter drum, put the heel of your hand on the edge of the drum closest to you and lay your fingers flat across the top of the drum. The tip of your middle finger should cross the center of the drum head. If you reach more than 3/4 of the way across, however, the drum is probably too small for you to play with your full hand. If you don't quite reach the center, you may have more drum than you need. The diameter of the drum head (between the outer edges of the wood - not the rings) for a full-sized drum will usually range between 11 and 14 inches.
DON'T buy a smaller drum just to save costs! Get one that fits you so that you can learn proper technique. Advanced players can certainly "short-hand" it or play finger-style on a smaller drum, but as a beginner please don't handicap yourself with a drum that is too small for you.
These tips for buying a djembe apply to any sort of full-sized hand drum like an ashiko, a bougarabou, and even a conga drum. If you're NOT going to study traditional West African drumming, then there are lots more options available. One good choice are drums made by Toca Percussion in Malaysia of plantation-grown rubber wood (also called Siam Oak).
These are turned on a lathe and consequently have great consistency in their craftsmanship. Toca also makes a super light-weight "Freestyle" shell of PVC plastic fitted with a natural skin head that combines a bit of the best of both worlds.
To go all the way to the other end of the spectrum, consider Remo synthetic drums. Remo receives all sorts of sustainability awards for their shells of recycled wood fiber. Their drum heads are made of mylar and are impervious to changes in humidity that plague tuning of animal hide drums. Remo's NuSkyn head is in my opinion the most natural look and feel of any synthetic available. Their newest Skyndeep heads even have animal hide patterns embedded in the material with a special ink. Even so, no synthetic head will have the warmth and sound of a real goatskin hide.
Over the years I've owned all sorts of djembes. In general, I prefer drums from West Africa both for their cultural authenticity and for their sound. I like drums from the Ivory Coast, Guinea and Mali. I like drums made by Kangaba in Mali; these are imported to the US exclusively by wholesaler Overseas Connection and can be found in various retail outlets like Guitar Center.
I highly recommend djembes imported from the Ivory Coast by my dear friends at Djembe Drums & Skins. These drums have consistently great construction and sound. In my opinion, they're one of the best values on the market. I used one as my personal drum for ten years.
In my everyday fleet of equipment I use a variety of drums and percussion instruments. I have a few full-sized Toca Freestyle II djembe drums that I love for their super lightweight synthetic shells with traditional rope tuning and humidity-proof synthetic heads. I also use smaller djembe drums from Ghana imported by friends who purchase directly from carvers in the village. They are well-made and very affordable entry-level drums, and they're essentially fair trade in everything but label.
Here's my biggest tip: you're unlikely to play a drum you don't like, so don't bother buying one that doesn't somehow call to you! If you learn to love to play, your drum will be more than an instrument - it becomes a companion. So, choose your friends wisely....