How to Make a Hand Pan Drum

By Laura Sky Brown

Things Needed

  • Sheet steel
  • Assorted hammers
  • Drill or drill press
  • Blowtorch
  • Nitriding kiln
  • Tuner
Hammering a steel surface to make a musical instrument is a difficult but satisfying project.

The sound of steel drums calls to mind world music and island vacation spots. A smaller version of the familiar oil-tank drum is the hand pan drum. Interestingly, its developer and major maker is in Switzerland, not the Caribbean. The hand pan drum has a top and is played with the hands. Its distinctive sound comes from the vibration of air inside the two metal halves. Individually tuned, each drum has as many as nine notes, an octave plus a low base note. The drums are expensive and scarce; a challenging alternative is to make your own.

A wok, or Asian cooking pan, is about the same shape as the hand pan drum.

Cut or mold sheets of 20-gauge steel into the rounded drum shapes you need. Measure two pieces to create two halves that fit together snugly. Each half of the hand pan drum has its own role to play in creating sound. The top "ding" side has the eight tone fields that create the notes. These are hammered in around a central gong-like dome called the ding. The bottom side is called the "gu" side, and it has a sound hole called the "gu."

Measure for diameter so it is large enough to hold in your lap when seated with legs crossed, and small enough that you will be able to move your body's position to vary the sounds the drum makes. The drum should look like a large covered dish with circular, rounded top and bottom -- or a little like a flying saucer.

Cut or drill the rounded hole in the bottom side of the drum. It should be large enough to stick your hand inside.

Heat treat the steel for strength and durability. Get a metal shop to do this for you, or fire it in a kiln or use a blowtorch.

Bang out the eight note areas on the top side of the drum using a hammer, jeweler's hammering tool or a large metal ball bearing attached into a wrench handle. Experiment with ways to make the impressions in the drum, and use a chromatic tuner to help you hear when you have obtained the note you want.

Continue to tune each note in relation to other notes as you create them. It will take many attempts and patience to create a complete scale of eight notes around the circle of the drum.

Tip

Watch and listen to many hand pan drums to get an idea of the sound they make. Visit Internet discussion groups to gather the benefit of others' experience. Make a drum out of existing materials if you are not experienced in metalworking. Try making a hand pan drum out of such things as an empty propane tank or even the top and bottom of a wok. Or get a metal shop to make the top and bottom discs for you.

Warning

Don't expect professional-quality results, but a steep learning curve. Ask for professional help if you are not experienced with heat treating on steel.

About the Author

Laura Sky Brown has been writing professionally since 1986. She was automotive editor at "Automobile Magazine," "Classic Automobile Register" and Edmunds.com Inside Line and was a "Twins Magazine" columnist. Brown has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from the University of Michigan and studied journalism and media law at the University of Strasbourg (France), where she obtained a diploma in French studies and translation.