Here is a background on myself and how I got into the world of tuning steel. I have shared this story countless times at the many wonderful handpan gatherings I have been able to attend, and many folks have encouraged me to post it here on my website.
It was 2004, I was 12 years old, and high school was approaching quickly. I had already known I would be attending Santa Margarita Catholic High School in Rancho Santa Margarita, California. However, I was trying to decide on what programs I wanted to partake in at this new school. The band program had caught my eye. I had played music years before in elementary school, but my music knowledge was overall quite rudimentary. However, there was one thing special about the band program at SMCHS; they had a Steel Band. At an incoming student night, the band program invited everyone to see the steel band perform at a local venue a few days later. The performance captivated me and it was at this venue that I just HAD to know how to make steel sing. I mean, they are made from trash cans using hammers, so it must be easy, right?
That evening, after watching the incredible performance of the SMCHS steel band, I got home and found a coffee tin and a ballpeen hammer. I proceeded to “sink” the bottom of the coffee tin just like a steel pan, and then hammered a dent into it. I got myself a pencil, wrapped rubber bands around the eraser and proceeded to strike the dent I had made in the sunken bottom of the coffee tin. It did not sound like anything I had just heard an hour before at the steel band concert. There must be more to this steel tuning thing after all…
Before my first year of high school started, my parents and I went on a summer vacation to Europe. While in Germany, we visited the large church in the town of Freiburg. It was here, in the square around the church, that I first saw a hand-played steel instrument; a Hang. While watching the busker, I knew I recognized the sound of tuned steel, but there were so many differences in appearance, and even some differences in the sound. Recognizable, yes, but definitely different. After the musician finished her performance, I asked her what the instrument was and where she got it. She told me it was called a Hang made by the company known as PANArt located in Bern, Switzerland. I had no idea that a decade later, my profession would be directly related to that instrument. For the time being, I mostly forgot about this encounter, and continued studying the steel pan.
In the weeks that followed, I convinced my father to drive me around the local places of industry in search of full size 55 gallon steel barrels. Eventually, we found a used barrel behind an Arco station. It was covered in old motor oil, and I must have used ten or so rolls of paper towels cleaning it out. I then found a large sledge hammer, shortened the handle, and proceeded to absolutely destroy the bottom of this poor barrel. I had sunk it maybe 2 inches before cracks started to form all over it. I hadn’t rounded the face of the sledge hammer. Woops.
This trial and error continued, time after time, barrel after barrel, all while I was slowly getting better at each step of the process. Eventually, I made it to the point of trying to tune what I had formed. I had gotten in contact with a steel pan tuner in Mendocino, California, by the name of Kevin Grant. It was Kevin who helped me tune a C5 note on my first tenor pan… over the phone. It still bewilders me to this day. At this point, the flood gates opened in my head, and steel tuning started to ‘click’ for me. It was just the beginning.
Following this, I needed to find a better supply of barrels. At first, I had located a company that makes specialized greases and utilized barrels to transport their product, so I would purchase barrels from them. However, they were painted and had stamping in the bottoms which would commonly causes cracks in the steel. Kevin Grant, the gentleman mentioned in the above paragraph, had also very generously sent me his copy of the video “How To: Make Your Own Steel Drum”, made by none other than the wonderful David Beery. I had watched this video countless times, and recalled that Dave had contact info on the VHS case. I gave Dave a call, and inquired about purchasing steel barrels from him. Being a steel pan builder, Dave knows how to order barrels that meet the requirements of steel pan building.
I visited Dave shortly after contacting him, as he was only about 30 miles away from me. I also brought along my first tenor pans to get some pointers on. Dave was more than happy to give me many great tips, and we left (my father and I) with 2 brand new barrels in my mothers mini van.
Around this time I also purchased my first air hammer for use in building the steel pans. I purchased it from Kyle Cox and Jim Dusin of Pantheon Steel. This was before the Halo had been born.
In the years that followed, I ended up working on a contractual basis, tuning steel pans for David Beery when I had time outside of high school. At this point, I was 16 or 17 years old, and my experience in tuning steel was growing rapidly. Throughout this time, Dave was always happy to help whenever I had questions. I had also built and sold several sets of my own steel pans to various steel bands across the United States.
Upon graduating high school, I sort of forgot about steel tuning. I ended up working at Disneyland in Anaheim, California from 2009 to 2013 while I attended college, studying mechanical engineering. I occasionally would tune up a pan here and there, but it was by no means a primary focus.
At the beginning of 2013, David Beery contacted me regarding making the shells for these new instruments called “handpans”. He knew I had the tools and the know how, and I took him up on the offer. It was only a matter of time until I decided to go down the handpan path as well, since I also knew the rest of the process in regards to note shaping and tuning. It was at that point, in the spring of 2013, when I started working on building my own handpans.
I first started working with barrel lids, and then quickly moved to raw steel sheets. I also contacted Kyle Cox and inquired about the shells that Pantheon Steel was selling on their website. This resulted in my use of the rolled shells for building my instruments over the next several years. Things have since changed and now, hydro-forming, popularized by Colin Foulke, has become the dominant method of creating handpan shells.
So here I am today, and what a wild and fun ride it has been so far. It would not have been possible without so many people, and I’d like to thank them here in no particular order.
- My extremelysupportive parents (steel pan and handpan building is LOUD, and it was in their garage!)
- My Grandparents, who paid for my first air compressor for my air hammers.
- Kevin Grant
- David Beery
- Kyle Cox and Jim Dusin
- David Weinberg (my high school band director during my freshman year who pulled strings to allow me to play in the steel band)
- Michael Wang (Band director during my 3rd and 4th years of High School, who was supportive of my steel pan building as well)
- The people of Trinidad and Tobago
Once I got into handpan building, several others were and continue to be of tremendous help. In no particular order:
- Mark Garner, Saraz Musical Instruments
- Kyle Cox, Pantheon Steel
- Colin Foulke, CFoulke Handpans
- Todd Garlow and Rusty James (For making space to attend my first handpan gathering!)