Handpan Building Details

Building Handpans

We regularly receive emails from ambitious people that are trying to figure out how to make a handpan for themselves.  With a lack of sufficient handpan supply, more and more people have no choice but to try building one for themselves.

Mark, or “don marco”, has shared many insights over the years on handpan.org as he learned the finer details of handpan building. With these sometimes very revealing posts, he hoped to both inspire more handpan builders in the world and help them accelerate faster toward building their own handpan by avoiding some of the pitfalls and lessons that took Mark thousands of hours of hammering to figure out on his own. This has likely increased the number of people that write us asking questions about various details of the handpan building process.  Because it is both time consuming and simply impossible to describe in words many aspects of the building process, we point everyone toward the basics:

1. Hammer on metal!!! While researching the basic building ideas is incredibly useful, hammering on metal provides far more insights into the feel of steel and how it moves. A great deal of hand pan building skill, especially tuning, comes with muscle memory and muscle memory comes only from experience.  The reality is, a high quality handpan is not built without hundreds of hours of hammering no matter how much you read or how many professional builders you talk with or watch making their own handpans.  It is likely to take much more time than that! Almost everyone destroys their first attempt along with many more after that. For this reason, it is important to start as cheaply as possible in order to make sure that you have what it takes for the job.  It takes nothing less than persistent obsession to succeed as a quality handpan builder!

2. For some background on both the successes and failures of other prospective handpan builders as well as endless insights littered among various threads by professional handpan builders, read the entire “Developments, Creations, and Influences” section of handpan.org.

3. Another great literary source is “Secrets of the Steel Pan” by Anthony Achong. With over 1200 pages, it is an incredible resource!

4. On Pinterest, we have additional information, links, videos and pictures related to the Saraz, as well as a board entitled Handpan Building at Saraz which is dedicated specifically to sharing some of the fine details and notes that have lead to our Handpan Building process.

5. It is important to realize that there are many ways to build a handpan. Our way is not the “right” way. It is only a path with a specific material to a sound and timbre that we prefer as both players and builders.

The following are a few photos of the tools that we use.

We have a different steel form for each note, currently from B2 – E5 and still expanding in both directions.

Note forms for making handpans

This is a D3 male and female form that was used on a limited number of instruments in 2016.

Note forms for making handpans

We simultaneously press most dimples and tone fields. The pressure neccessary exceeds 40 tons for the biggest notes. While the press makes a uniform dimple and tone field, there is still hours of pneumatic hammering to do afterward on the interstitial areas.

Pneumatic Press for making handpan notes

This is “Big Mo”, a motorized sinking and shaping table designed and built by the late Jim Dusin of Pantheon Steel. The inner diameter is a bit more than 21″. In the photo, there are 19″ inner diameter rings on top of the table. We also have rings with an inner diameter of 20″.

Table and rings for making handpans

This is one of our contour guides for sinking shells.

Contour guide for making handpan shells

These are the modified pneumatic sand rammers that we use for sinking shells and all fine shaping.

Pneumatic hammers for building handpans

Fabricated by Pantheon Steel, we use this large “smoothing” head for all of our shell sinking.

hammer head for making handpan shells

Also fabricated by Pantheon Steel, we use this head mostly for interstial fine shaping after forming ports and pressing notes.

hammer head used for making handpans

Originally fabricated by Pantheon Steel, we have altered this head many times for shaping the finest details in the interstial around notes, the rim and to create border tension.

Hammer and head used for fine shaping handpans

For our highest notes and for forming ports, we use bossing mallets and a sledge hammer.

Hammer and bossing mallet used for making handpan dimples and ports

The “money maker”. This 16 ounce $5 hammer was slightly altered to be our main tuning hammer. We use it for approximately 80-85% of the tuning process.

Primary hammer used for tuning handpans at Saraz

Fabricated by Pantheon Steel, this 2 pound hammer is used mostly for loosening notes.

Pantheon Steel hammer used for loosing notes while tuning handpans at Saraz

The following 5 hammers were fabricated by Dennis Martin of Rhythmical Steel.  We use the #4 and #5 mostly for tuning the port.

Rhythmical Steel tuning hammer used for tuning ports and shaping interstitial area while making handpans

Rhythmical Steel tuning hammer used for tuning ports and shaping interstitial area while making handpans

We use the #2 and #3 for decompressing interstitial tension and increasing the amplitude of some harmonics.

Rhythmical Steel tuning hammer used for tuning notes and shaping interstitial area while making handpans

Rhythmical Steel tuning hammer used for tuning notes and shaping interstitial area while making handpans

We use the #1 specifically for increasing the amplitude of the highest harmonics.

Rhythmical Steel tuning hammer used for tuning notes while making handpans

The glue that we use is part of the magic of the timbre. It is particularly important to follow the directions and use it above 70 degrees F and 50% humidity. In the winter, this requires a heater and numerous humidifiers.

Heater and humidifier used while gluing handpans at Saraz in winter

We use a drill and steel cup brushes for polishing shells.

Drill and cup brushes used for polishing handpans during building

The following are photos of the Saraz Building Process

19″ steel sheet ready for shaping into a Saraz Handpan Shell

19" steel sheet ready for shaping into a Saraz Handpan Shell

19″ Saraz shell after shaping with Pneumatic hammers

19" Saraz shell after hammer shaping

Saraz shells after Heat treatment for Rust Resistance

Saraz shells after heat treating for rust resistance

Saraz shell note locations drawn for pressing

Saraz shell note position laid out for pressing

Papa Steve pressing a note

Papa Steve pressing a note on a Saraz Handpan Shell

Pressed note from 2016

Pressed note on a Saraz handpan

It doesn’t always go perfectly 😉

busted note during pressing

After pressing, hours of pnematic hammer work go into fine shaping the interstitial areas, notes and borders.

fine shaping after note pressing

After fine shaping

Saraz shell after fine shaping

Saraz shell after polishing. It is now ready for tuning.

Saraz shell after shaping and ready for tuning

Josh tuning a Saraz

Josh tuning a Saraz handpan

Glued and clamped Saraz during the intial drying process

Glued and clamped Saraz from 2015

Occasionally one is cut open for additional work

cutting open handpan with machete

Finished 19″, 20″ and 21″ diameter Saraz handpans

19", 20" and 21" diameter Saraz handpans

Pictures are nice, but the sound is what matters. For a number of videos of Saraz Handpans, please visit our

Youtube Page

Indepth Building Details

The following are posts in an ongoing series about finer details of the Saraz building process as well as our perspectives and decisions about some of the complexities of handpan building in general.

Shell forming methods and why we focus on Hammer shaped shells

Handpan Resonance and Wave Interference

Steel Vibration Wave Interference

Saraz on Shellopan Deep Drawn Shells

B#, E#, Cb & Fb

Is it a Hang Drum or Handpan?

We wish any prospective handpan builder endless endurance, persistence, inspiration, and blessings in their journey of sculpting and tuning singing steel.

“Invention, my dear friends, is 93% perspiration, 6% electricity, 4% evaporation, and 2% butterscotch ripple.”

– Willy Wonka