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The steel pan is the national instrument of Trinidad*
made from a 55 gal. steel oil drum. The development of the steel
pan in the 1940's soon led to the replacement of the traditional
carnival bamboo stick bands by groups of steel pan players. Within
a few years steel bands were established throughout the Caribbean
and elsewhere, giving a distinctive new sound to music in a variety
of different styles*.
The following pages will illustrate an attempt to make a similar
instrument. Please bear in mind that the builder has never been
to Trinidad, nor has he been passed the secrets of the most holy
pan artist; his attempt is only to create a piece of musical metal
sculpture and find solace in the heat of the tempering fire. A
drum not of wood; where the elements of water and fire transform
metal into magic. One can only hope!
A clean 55 gal. steel drum that has a round beaded welded base
is probably the best starting material. The metal does not have
to be absolutely free of dents, but drums with large gashes and
holes near the base should be avoided. I got my drum from a food
processing plant. It originally contained vegetable oil. The bottom
had a serial number stamped into the metal. I at first thought
that the imbedded numbers would cause trouble, but after a few
days of working the metal, the serial numbers were virtually obliterated.
When you choose a drum, make sure it is clean! Do not get a drum
that has been re-used-- you don't know what they put in those
things. Know what the drum contained originally. Avoid toxic and
flammable materials. This is important because you will get very
close to this drum while you work with it and you must avoid industrial
Caving in the base
Turn the drum up-side down so that the drum base is at the top.
You must now begin to form a concave surface on the base of the
drum by pounding on it with a sledge hammer or some heavy blunt instrument.
I do not have a sledge hammer, so I used part of a bar-bell set
with one side of the weights removed. CAUTION:
If you do this, make sure the single weights are attached to the
bar securely and work out in the open someplace so that if the
weights slip, you won't end up breaking a window or whatever.
Generally just pound the hell out of it. If you had a frustrated
day at work, this will calm you down!
SAFETY TIP: Wear your safety shoes and glasses!
If you can inspect a completed traditional instrument, study the
workmanship and make note the patterns
of hammered out sections. These sections are the tuning patterns
for the instrument. I don't believe that I am ready (or worthy!)
to make any of the traditional patterns. If you have seen the
last drum project I built, you will know that I like to experiment
a little. So to that, I have dreamed up a rather simple pattern
that will section-off the pan into varied sizes (and hopefully
tones). I chose to have six sections on my pan, with the center
section as an irregular pentagon. The sections would fan out from
each corner of the pentagon. The pentagon pattern, or whatever
pattern you use is traced onto the drum base. I drew a pentagon
that has side lengths of 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 inches. A marking pen
was used to transfer the pattern on the surface of the drum.
Working the metal
The three cross sectional drawings show
how the metal pan is worked. Figure 1 shows the formation of the
concave pan using a heavy blunt hammer. Figure 2 shows how the
pattern is indented into the concave pan. You may want to begin
the indenting process by hammering along the pattern with a ball
peen. Keep pounding until there is a noticeable bulge pattern
on the other side of the pan. Sometimes a center punch is used
to indent the pattern (as shown in the figure).
Cutting the Drum
Between figure number 2 and figure number 3, the drum is cut to
the desired depth . (I have seen some references that call for
cutting the drum first before any metal working is done-- it's
up to the builder I guess) The depth of the pan depends on the
pattern type (usually), and I have chosen a pan depth that seemed
to be 'about normal', as I am not sure what effect the depth has
on the final sound of the pan. If you are making a bass steel
pan, you do not need to cut the drum at all. Something to keep
in mind however: A shorter depth pan will be easier to transport
to your next gig-- a bass pan IS the whole oil drum.
I used an abrasive circular saw blade*
to cut the drum. I used the left side of the blade guide to slide
along the rim of the drum base to keep the cut even. CAUTION:
This takes a bit of concentration and should be done by an experienced
builder. Power Tools can turn on you at any moment. Adjust the
blade to a depth of no more than an eighth of an inch deeper than
the thickness of the metal. Don't force the saw. Use a face shield
and don't cut near flammable materials!
The drum was placed up against a tree. A 50 lb. bag of dry cement
was placed inside the drum to keep it from moving. The circular saw was 'rocked down' slowly onto the metal to make the initial cut.
I could cut about 12 inches of circumference before stopping and
rotating the drum for the next cut. Be especially careful when
cutting through the welded seam. Remove any burrs from the work
piece when you are done cutting.
After the pan has been removed from the drum, the next metal working
procedure is to hammer up from the bottom of the pan and 'bring
up' the sections on the metal surface (See figure 3).
This operation further delineates the pattern and helps separate
each section from the other. Do not hit the pan too hard! I have
found that I could shape the pattern fairly well by lightly bouncing
the hammer within each section. Sometimes you have to touch-up the other side of the pan to stay within the pattern.
If I used too much force, there would be a dent in the pan that
I would have to hammer out later. Lots of continual pounding of
the metal is necessary to get the desired effect. Use ear plugs
if you have them. Here's what it looks like.
This is where the fun part comes in. The steel pan must be hardened
by heating the metal over a hot fire and then quickly cooling
the pan with water. For proper hardening of steel, all of the
metal sections must be heated to redness and then cooled quickly.
It is important to cool them all over rapidly and as close to
the same time as possible. Otherwise there is a risk of cracking
The resource material I have seen is not very clear about the
hardening process. It has been said that the pan developed over
the years through experimentation; that the metal is heated and
tempered-- by a process usually regarded as a secret to be jealously
guarded.* That seems
to be the case because the term TEMPERING is used too freely in
the literature. It is possible that the steel is not actually
tempered at all during the making of the pan . If it really is
a secret however, then the process undoubtedly requires some tempering
because tempering procedures can get quite involved; i.e., the
metal is heated to a specific temperature judged by the color
of the oxide film on the surface of the metal, and then it is
quenched in a bath of water-- and sometimes the water is a set
temperature. So, really all you have to do is figure out what
those specific temperatures are, and you have the secret!
OK, I don't know what the secret is to making this here pan, but
I do have a plan! Let's call this experiment #1 where we try to
do a simple hardening process on the pan and then go from there.
Hardening is easy: just heat up the pan so it's real hot, and
then cool it off real fast!
A fairly large camp fire will accommodate this kind of process.
Check local laws about this-- I know that I could not simply build
a fire in my back yard without being noticed by the police and
fire departments-- and neither will you! Find a camp ground that
allows camp fires and take a few buddies and some beers or whatever
and have a night of it. Unleash whatever spiritual demons and/or
pagan rites as you see fit while you place the great pan on the
fire and watch it heat up.
My fire for this process was fairly small (about three feet in
diameter) but I was confident that there would be ample heat because
there were fairly high winds that day. As part of the ceremony
I wore the traditional furnace suit with
face shield and extra heavy oven mitts. This getup also allowed
me to get in real close to the fire and inspect the metal surface
for irregular heating. The pan was kept in a constantly fed fire
for about 50 minutes and it seemed to be fairly hot
by then. I kept a shovel nearby to help remove the pan from the
fire, but because of the fire suit I was wearing, it was just
as easy to grab onto the pan and flip it onto the ground. This
was quickly done and without wasting any more time, I quenched
the hot metal with a bucket of cold water. That is, I poured cold
water into the pan...
When I got the pan back home, I cleaned it off with oil*
and let it sit for a while. The next and last thing to do to the
pan, if everything went all right during the firing, is to tune
it. Pans can have a fairly wide musical range*,
and it looks like there may be a real trick to get some of these
notes out of this particular pan. Pan tuning
involves making 'adjustments' on each section with a small hammer
and then whacking the section with a rubber hammer to hear the
'ping'. There is undoubtedly an art to this and it will take some
time to figure this one out. If you need to know lots more on
this, then check out what Ulf Kronman has to say on tuning*.
Some of my sections are beginning to make the characteristic 'ping'
sounds after some adjustment, but some just won't talk to me.
Sigh! It's gonna take some time to do this!
I will continue to work the pan to get the notes I desire...perhaps
a trip to the islands will help? Now, that's an idea! See you
later, and thanks for reading!
See these links also*
Spaced Out Index
The following is an index and/or bibliography and/or foot notes,
depending on how you use it.
See the Trinidad Page
when you have the time, man. <return>
Black & Decker Metal blade #73-216, diam=6.5
Blandford, Percy W. "The Practical
Handbook of Blacksmithing & MetalWorking", Tab Books,
Blue Ridge Summit, PA. 1980 p. 91 <return>
Diagram Group, "Musical Instruments of the World," 1976,
Paddington Press LTD. p110
Contains drawings of the steel pan making process <return>
Rifle Bore Cleaner MIL-C-3728 & AM 2
I got this bottle of oil from an army surplus store. It works
well for cleaning off old paint and rust and it should protect
the pan from further deterioration<return>
Marcuse, S, "A survey of Musical Instruments," 1975,
Harper & Row. p53<return>
Blades, James, "Percussion Instruments & their History,"
1970, Frederick A. Praeger. p 456 <return>
Kronman,Ulf,"Steel Pan Tuning,"
1991 & 1995, Musikmuseets Skriftserie. If you are a serious
student of the Pan, you just gotta see this web site. More than
I ever want to know about this instrument!! <return>
The Toucans' Steel Band
Web Page is cool. Contains links to other steel pan pages.
gets you in touch with metal artisans
And, of course there is the Upper Midwest Blacksmith's Association