Creating the Steel Pan
To witness the making of a pan is an opportunity that every pan player should experience. Each pan is a work of art by a disciplined and dedicated craftsman. Each pan tuner will produce pans with a unique tonal quality reflective of his technique, experience, and artistry. Since the pan was only created in the late 1930’s there is still a strong emotional connection to the early pan tuners.
“It takes on average two days to produce a pan.”
Who made the first pan is a question that has gone to a great extent unanswered? Because the pan started as a cultural expression of the underprivileged and oppressed class in Trinidad.
There has been and is a great amount of experimentation in the area of designs, styles, and sounds. I believe many would agree that it is best to give credit to the entire era of talented and innovative pioneers who used their determination, skills, and discovery to pave a way for this musical expression.
Some of the first set of pans were made from zinc-coated containers like paint pans or biscuit pans, using a hammer and punch, the bottom surface was sunk into two parts, which produced two distinct sounds. This provided a rhythmic bass effect and sound which served as the basic pulse among various groups. Which has led to the use of the 40-gallon oil drum.
Pans today are still made from oil drums, the process of recycling discarded oil drums into the sweet-sounding instrument. Is time-consuming and complex. Today it is still considered an esoteric art. The tuning process is typically the same for the different types of pans, as the tonal ranges of each instrument move towards the bass, the drums are sunk to a shallower level and the number of notes on each drum decreases.
The bottom lower ends are cut off, early concepts were to hammer the bottom out from the inside the top of the drums are then stretched by a process called sinking, into a convex shape with a sledgehammer, the various sizes of musical notes are then grooved into the sunken surfaces with a small sledge and a coal chisel, later the preference of sinking the surface down from the outside to give the concave shape allowed for more notes to be added, and the oil drum was cut to produce a shorter instrument, the notes of this instrument was in the range of Soprano, this pan was called the Ping Pong, first Pan or Tenor.
Double pans (together formed a single instrument) were created to accommodate more notes and lower ranges, these used three, four, five, six nine, and even twelve pans were invented. Sinking the drum is carefully done with a hammer to a specific depth, the higher the pitch of the instrument, the deeper the surface is stretched.
The lead instrument “Tenor” Soprano range is sunk into a concave hemisphere of about 200mm or 8 inches in depth, from the outer to the middle surface which is reduced by about 50% in this range, the next step is to chart the placement of the notes on the surface.
Once the design is charted it is then grooved out with a hammer and punch. This locates the notes to the shape and placement of each note on the pan this is called grooving the drum. This grooving causes a further reduction in its thickness of about 10% and it serves to isolate the notes to a certain degree.
The note area of the drum is then placed over a fire to temper the steel. This heat treatment is applied for a few minutes, which stress relieves the metal and causes some hardening by strain aging. After which the drum is then cut to the desired length, the higher-pitched instrument is cut shorter and the full-length drum is left for the bass.
Last but no means least comes the actual tunning of the instrument. The instruments are tuned to concert pitch C, the pan tuner uses a hammer with smoothly rounded edges, he carefully taps and shapes the notes on each side to raise or lower the pitch.
This skill of the pan tuner must not be underestimated, as it requires a great deal of technical ability to ensure that the metal responds as desired. Electroplating gives modern steel pans their chromed finish. This enhances the appearance and adds life to the instrument. It takes on average two days to produce a pan.