Belonging to the idiophone family of instruments, a steel drum is just another name for a steel pan. Yes, it is actually a pan and not technically a drum. It was accustomed to be called a drum, because just like one, it is also played by striking two sticks. It originated during the early 20th century in Trinidad and Tobago and has become their national instrument.
Steel pans have been traditionally built using oil drums or barrels, specifically the ones that are already used and emptied. Although the basic material is old, it can still produce the best sound depending on how it was perfectly tuned. Modern steel drums today are quite expensive because high quality materials are used and they are accurately modified to produce the correct sounding notes.
If you love music and happen to love drums, why not try to make your own steel pan? It is not as easy as it looks like, but the steps are bearable to follow.
- Prepare your drum. Firstly, prepare an empty drum (the oil drum about 55 gallons in size is the best to use) and clean it thoroughly. Remove rust stains if any. It is advisable to use newer oil drums rather than the older ones because the quality of the sound that will be produced depends on the quality of steel material used.
- Perform the sinking process. This is a procedure of shaping the pan into a concave using a hammer. It is a tedious process that pounding the steel can last for like five hours. You also need to watch out as it may tear off the rim if overdone.
- Trace the templates into the playing surface. When your pan is in perfect shape, trace the templates of your notes into the playing surface. You can use a marker, a pencil or a chalk as long as it is not easily erased. Ensure consistency on the placement of your notes into the steel pan.
- Grooving process. Before doing the process of grooving, pound the in-between part of the outlines to level it and letting the notes slightly protrude. Using a special tuning hammer, pound the outlines of the notes with a nail punch. These indentations will help each note be different from the others. Flatten the in-betweens again to get rid of the bumpy surface.
- Cut the skirt of the pan. Next, measure and cut the sides or skirt of the pan to the desired length. Remove any unnecessary part of the barrel. You can also pierce holes into the rim if you want to hang the drum while using it.
- Temper the steel. This is done by heating the metal quickly until it is red hot and subsequently cooling it afterwards. You can place it in a water to cool it off or just let it cool naturally. This burning and cooling process makes the steel resilient and helps hold the tunings longer.
- Tuning process. The next step is the most complicated of all. The tuning process requires the use of small tuning hammers to tap the grooves beneath the pan. Slightly pound the surface and the bottom side of the pan until the desired pitch is attained. Do this in all of the grooves.
- Give your steel drum a finishing look. You can apply a protective steel coat to help prevent rusting in the long run. You can also paint it or dip it in chrome for a glossy shine.