Inquisitive engineers, musicians, hobbyists, and metal workers who have heard the music of a handpan, all seem to blurt this question inevitably, “How to make a Handpan?”
Usually, the exterior shape of instruments helps us guess how they can be made. For drums, we see hands or mallets bouncing upon a taut membrane, whereas, we lift the lid of a piano to discover the hammer striking the strings.
With a handpan, the exterior look can be deceiving. You feel the presence of a machine only to meet a hollow body. What captures people’s attention is exactly this new sound and form.
In this article, we will be following the steps that many makers implement to build a robust handpan. We are not pros in this field, but we have tried to mention all the steps required.
You can also read: How to EQ Drums?
The Steps You Need to Follow to Make a Handpan
Begin with a flat steel sheet. Many makers buy square and thin steel sheets – this steel is an alloy of iron and carbon. With the precise carbon to iron ratio, makers usually put forth their preference of the steel they want to use.
Sink the shell. It refers to making the main dome shape of your handpan. Different makers employ different methods for this, as there are a couple of techniques to choose from. Hammer the shell by hand, the most common method, is used to hammer it into the dome shape.
Some makers, like the Pantheon Steel, develop a method named “rolling the shell”. Here, a machine rolls on the metal sheet, molding it into a dome shape.
One of the newer methods is hydroforming. Here, water pressure propels the steel sheet around a circular mod, urging the metal to balloon out like a dome shape. Makers refer to this specific way when they mean they “sink the shell” for any of their instruments.
3. Nitrating step
This step involves chemistry. If you are good with chemicals, this step is going to be a breeze for you, we promise!
Cut out and then gas-nitride the (now dome-shaped) steel sheet. Now, what do you mean by nitriding here? It means to allow the metal to go through a heated chemical reaction for adding nitrogen to it.
To prevent any kind of rusting and make your steel stronger, the nitrating step is an absolute must. Some instruments need no nitrating – for example, stainless steel instruments. They are tough and anti-rust.
Decide the notes and the scale that will go on to making the handpans, and remember to indicate these on the metal. Many makers employ various sizes of molds to outline the oval area of a ‘tone field’ on the inner side of the handpan dome or shell.
On the topmost shell, handpans generally have a ‘ding’ note and other 7-9 notes. As per the maker’s plan, these notes are evenly spaced out in general following a particular planned pattern. The maker can hammer or even ‘press’ the mentioned tone fields inside the shell.
According to their positions, they are named ‘outie’ or ‘innie’, and also ‘apex’ or ‘inpex’.
5. Readying for Tuning
It’s time to get your handpan ready for tuning. From maker to maker, this approach is different. It essentially involves pre-stressing tone fields to shrink the metal surrounding the notes. Later, the instrument is heated to balance the newly designed architecture.
Tune your handpan! One of the advanced levels, tuning, requires a skilled tuner – even s/he takes months after months of practice.
The main concept is to hammer that tone field into a particular shape. Imagine two Pringles placed on top of each other in a perpendicular position. This is how the tone fields are stacked!
Having two axes that give out different notes while playing, the tone field helps to give your handpan a rich sound. Often, the makers use software to figure out the different notes that ring when you play the axis.
Later, they shape the metal subtly for being in pitch with the proper note for every axis. Having an octave, a fundamental note, and an overtone – all 3 in one – each note will be tuned properly.
Adhere the top shell to your bottom shell. By following steps 1 to 3, the bottom shell is prepared by cutting a hole in the middle and pulling the metal to form a port.
To allow the air in the instrument to reverberate with the scale’s other notes, the port must be in the correct size. It is then named the Helmholtz resonator.
In fact, the helm also gets tuned in this scale of the instrument. Using some extra notes, the bottom shell might or might not be tuned following steps 4 to 6. To stabilize these notes, more heat treatment could be provided.
Between every tuning, let the handpan rest for a week or so. You need to fine-tune and re-tune it multiple times.
Metal tends to go back to its previous shaps even after being shaped and tuned – all it knows is to revert to its original position.
Thus, you need to let your instrument settle down after waiting for a couple of weeks between the tuning. Next time when you re-tune it, it will know how to hold the novel tuning better.
You might think this is not a mandatory step, but trust us, it is. It boosts your desire to play the beautiful handpan. With the help of a microfiber cloth, you need to polish and clean the handpan.
Some polish it by buffing the metal or using a small amount of lubricant.
That marks the end of our article. Hopefully, now you know how to make a handpan by yourself (if you are a sucker for DIYs) or with the help of makers.