Updated: Aug 22, 2019
Whenever I tell people that I am buying a set of steel pans there are usually two responses. A) “You can have a set of pans from my kitchen cupboard for much less!” B) “Are steel pans really only made from oil drums?” The latter is a really interesting topic and I have been reading up on the transition from oil drums to musical instruments.
Making steel pans is indeed a big task. It takes an expert a whole day to make one and for someone making their first it may take a week for them to still not get it right. It is heavy, noisy work that you will probably get blisters from. I was quite interested in learning how to make them myself until I read about the blisters part!
Here is an outline of the process in four stages:
Stage 1 - sinking
The top of the drum is stretched to create enough space for the notes. A sledge hammer (with a sawed off handle) is used to stretch the metal into a smooth concave basin. The depth to which the drum is sunk depends on the type of steel pan being made.
Stage 2 - marking and grooving
Exact care is needed here to mark the positions where the notes will be put. Templates are cut in the shape of the notes of a finished pan and are placed on the stretched surface. They are then outlined using a pencil or chalk.
The area in between the note outlines is flattened using special tuning hammers. This forces the notes to protrude slightly and take on a convex shape.
Grooving is next which is where indentations are created on the note outlines using a nail punch struck by a hammer. This isolates the notes from each other.
Stage 3 - cutting, ponging up and burning
The pan now has to be cut down to the required size. The bass pans use full sized drums but the others need to be cut. An electric saw or sometimes a hammer and chisel is used to cut the shell.
The pan is then “ponged up” - notes are hammered from below into a shallow dome. This needs to be done carefully as the surfaces must remain smooth.
Next, the metal is tempered by rapidly heating and cooling the drum. Tempering helps steel pans to hold their tuning for longer. The pan is placed face down on a hot fire for a while. It is then cooled by pouring water over it or it is left to cool naturally.
Stage 4 - tuning and finishing
The pan is now ready for the delicate and difficult task of tuning. Small tuning hammers are used to tap both the underside and the tops of the notes until the correct pitch is achieved. Once tuned, steel pans need to be re-tuned once or even twice a year to maintain a good quality sound and to prolong their life.
A protective finish needs to be added to the pan to prevent it from rusting. The most common finishes are chrome plating, painting and more recently powder coating.
The pan is then fine-tuned and blended with other pans in the steel band.
So there you go. A process which I admit is much more complex than I had imagined. After reading this I’m sure you will appreciate the time, skill and effort that has gone into making each one of my steel pans!