It is a common question to ask how a handpan is built. While I can't teach you how to make or build a handpan, I can show you a bit of how I build a Veritas Sound Sculpture and briefly explain what you are getting when you request an instrument from me.
After years of experience tuning and building handpans formed from a wide variety of thickness and shaping methods I have chosen to build my instruments on 1.0mm thick, "deep drawn" 53cm diameter stainless steel shells sourced from the knowledgeable team at Ayasa Instruments. They have spent years forming a deep relationship with their nitriding facility and creating their own drawing machine to create a stable and consistent canvas for me to create on.
By drawing the shell into the "bowl" shape with one large press the steel is thus formed with the most consistent and even thickness across the steel of almost any other handpan shell forming method.
I used to be adverse to stainless steel but after 15 months of working with it while dialing in low scales such as E2 and F2 I have found 430 stainless to be incredibly diverse in timbre! Ranging anywhere from short/percussive sustain to long and dreamy sustain, this material paired with specific heat treatments and shaping can have a wide range of timbre and achieve consistent results.
Now that the steel has been sourced it is time to lay out the scale you have chosen. The notes are arranged in a way to optimize sonic clarity and decrease crossing wave interference as much as possible. As simple as this process may seem, there are quite a few problems that can arise if not done carefully and thoughtfully. The interaction of so many frequencies resonating on one sheet of steel can be either incredibly beautiful or incredibly problematic and dissonant! This step involves the least amount of physical labor during the entire process, yet requires years of knowledge to analyze and anticipate potential irreversible problems if the notes are laid out incorrectly. The more notes that are involved, the more knowledge required to understand how they interact with each other and how to optimize their orientation for the most pleasing sonic character.
Adding the Dimples:
Now that I know where the notes will be formed, it is time to create the dimples, or "domes" for each note. While it is possible and less laborious to use a pneumatic press for many of the upcoming shaping methods I have chosen to use hammers for as much of the process as possible. I can't help but feel drawn to the sound of a handpan that has had as much "hands on" time as possible. From doing this process by hammer every dimple depth and curvature will have the slightest variance adding to the overall unique character of each dimple created.
Creating the Borders:
How the handpan note borders are created, to me, is one of the most important aspects of how the instrument is built before tuning begins. The shape of the border, whether created with sharp and thin lines or wider softer lines and everything in between can have a huge effect on the sonic character of each note. It can help determine how isolated each note is or how integrated the note is with the body of the shell. Again, I have chosen not to use a press for this step as well and choose to use air hammers for the creation of borders. The variation of border styles and interstitial work (work on the metal between the notes) is a complicated and fine dance of balance and control that will determine a lot of the character of each handpan.
Heating The Steel:
After all of the hammering has been done to the shell it is time to put it in the kiln for specifically controlled heating and cooling temperatures. Metal tends to have a "memory" in ways and wants to return to its original shape before all of the shaping for the dimples and borders have been done. By creating specific heating recipes based on some basic metallurgy, how the heating and cooling is controlled can have a significant effect on timbre, stability, and sustain.
The Tuning Process:
The handpan tuning process is considered to be the most difficult skill to master. Up to this point, the steel has been made to look like a handpan, but it sounds more like a lid to a garbage can than a beautifully singing instrument. There is so much going on during tuning it is hard to know where to begin explaining it!
Tuning can technically be considered to start in the shaping stages above. The idea is that tuning is shaping, and shaping is tuning. Preparing the metal in the most optimal way to allow the tuner to have all the tools necessary to make sonic adjustments is half of the tuning process completed during the handpan shaping process.
After the shape is dialed in across the handpan, each note is then manipulated by hundreds, if not thousands, of hammer strikes and stability tests by hand hammering to bring the notes to life. While I use incredibly accurate tuning software, having a good ear is absolutely crucial as a tuner. This is the stage where a skilled handpan tuner has to make the most decisions regarding not only the current instrument being built, but as well as what adjustments to the overall shaping and heating methods may be needed in the future. Each note is typically generating 3 tones. The fundamental, the octave, and usually a compound 5th. For example, an A4 fundamental note will also have an A5 Octave and an E6 compound 5th. So on an 8 note instrument, that is 24 different tones to blend together on one sheet of steel! Once tuned and singing, the next job is quite important....... to listen. Even if a note is technically in tune, it doesn't always mean it sounds good. This is where having truly developed and skilled ears will come into play. At this point, and throughout tuning, it is incredibly important to critically listen to the overall sound quality and not just individual frequencies. This is a resonating body that needs to work together, and sometimes slight detuning and shape adjustments can be the key to bring the whole sound sculpture together. A delicate balance of imperfections and deviations being skillfully blended with the beauty of purity is what I find to be the best characteristics of a quality handpan.
Final Touches and Details:
The final steps involve etching the logo onto the handpan and gluing it together. After the glue has cured for the appropriate amount of time the rim (flange) of the two shells are trimmed and polished to a smooth finish. The handpan is then cleaned and a wax protectant, Pure Sound Wax, is added to help protect the shell from moisture and other corrosives. As the glue cures the Handpan will be tuned multiple times to insure stability and blended (fine tuned) a final time before it is ready to ship to you or be picked up.
Your Veritas Sound Sculpture is now ready to be loved and enjoyed for years to come! Thank you for your interest in my creations and if you are interested in the Handpans I have immediately available for sale or to request a custom handpan made for you just click HERE!