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.
This is a D3 male and female form that was used on a limited number of instruments in 2016.
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.
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″.
This is one of our contour guides for sinking shells.
These are the modified pneumatic sand rammers that we use for sinking shells and all fine shaping.
Fabricated by Pantheon Steel, we use this large “smoothing” head for all of our shell sinking.
Also fabricated by Pantheon Steel, we use this head mostly for interstial fine shaping after forming ports and pressing notes.
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.
For our highest notes and for forming ports, we use bossing mallets and a sledge hammer.
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.
Fabricated by Pantheon Steel, this 2 pound hammer is used mostly for loosening notes.
The following 5 hammers were fabricated by Dennis Martin of Rhythmical Steel. We use the #4 and #5 mostly for tuning the port.
We use the #2 and #3 for decompressing interstitial tension and increasing the amplitude of some harmonics.
We use the #1 specifically for increasing the amplitude of the highest harmonics.
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.
We use a drill and steel cup brushes for polishing shells.
The following are photos of the Saraz Building Process
19″ steel sheet ready for shaping into a Saraz Handpan Shell
19″ Saraz shell after shaping with Pneumatic hammers
Saraz shells after Heat treatment for Rust Resistance
Saraz shell note locations drawn for pressing
Papa Steve pressing a note
Pressed note from 2016
It doesn’t always go perfectly 😉
After pressing, hours of pnematic hammer work go into fine shaping the interstitial areas, notes and borders.
After fine shaping
Saraz shell after polishing. It is now ready for tuning.
Josh tuning a Saraz
Glued and clamped Saraz during the intial drying process
Occasionally one is cut open for additional work
Finished 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
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.
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