Archive of International News Items

Feb 24, 2015

Making of the steel-pan... UWI Research in Action

T&T - The traditional method of manufacturing the steel-pan included ‘dishing out’ a bowl from a 55 gallon oil drum and hammering out the notes. Notes are then marked and grooved out. To make a steel-pan the craftsman first chooses the drum, then finds and marks its centre. Next, the flat surface of the oil drum is sunk using a series of hammers of decreasing weight until the surface resembles that of a concave bowl. Sinking the drum is followed by counter sinking; grooving the steel-pan, by using a dull punch to avoid bursting of the surface; cutting the drum; cutting the skirt length; burning the pan to temper the steel, making notes more resonant; tuning the steel-pan; then finally blending the steel-pan.

Source: Express Modern Methods, Prof Winston Lewis, Mark Fraser

This hand-forming method is very time-consuming, noisy, and labour intensive. It can also be dangerous. A craftsman can damage his hearing sinking a drum, if he is not careful. Prof Winston Lewis explains that these problems could be solved by mechanising the sinking process, and replacing it with a simple stretch-forming process performed on a hydraulic press. What would usually take hours of hammering by hand would now take only a few minutes and produce the mechanical and metallurgical properties specified by the craftsman.

“Since I started my research work into the mechanization of the manufacturing process some thirty years ago the rest of the world has embraced the instrument and started manufacturing it,” Prof Lewis observed. As foreign investors and researchers gained interest in manufacturing the steel pan, more innovative and cost effective methods were developed and tested to make the steel-pan a viable product. Already, researchers have proposed and tested new manufacturing methods such as Spin forming, Flow forming, Aqua forming, and Marforming. Although these manufacturing methods have been in existence for some time, their potential advantages have only recently been realised in the fabrication of the steel-pan. Prof Lewis’ research focuses on adapting the Spin forming and Marforming processes in particular for application in steel pan manufacturing.

“One of my dreams is to see pan in every school,” Prof Lewis said, “To do that, you have to mass produce.” Mechanisation would make this possible. It could also reduce the price of steel drums, bringing them within the reach of more people.

Still, according to Prof Lewis, mechanisation techniques are not being fully exploited locally. Professor Lewis believes there is an opportunity for local businesses to draw from the research already conducted at UWI to develop the manufacturing process.

“We have to listen to the pan-men and give them what they want, which is a lighter, stronger drum with excellent tonal qualities which is easy to work with.” Professor Lewis said.

But what would an increase in mechanisation mean for today’s pan makers using the hand-forming method? Prof Lewis does not believe that machines could ever replace expert craftsmen. Instead, he sees a future where they would upgrade their skills and act as tuners.

According to Prof Lewis, mechanization in the manufacturing of the steel pan not only leads to greater consistency in the quality of pans produced, but could also lead to more innovation and development of the instrument.

“If instead of being restricted to the 22 ¾ inch diameter drum, pre-sunk drums of varying depths, in a range of sizes from 15 inches to 30 inches in diameter were available to the craftsman then the creativity of the country could be showcased further.”

For over 30 years Prof Winston Lewis has been hearing a bass man in his head. But unlike the Bass Man in the Shadow’s 1974 hit, this one does not want him to sing. Prof Lewis is a Professor of Industrial Systems Engineering at The University of the West Indies who has been developing techniques for mechanising the manufacture of the steel pan. He hopes to modernise the process, making it more efficient and cheaper for local pan makers.


In this process sheet metal is placed on a fixed die. A flexible rubber punch descends on the die and deforms the sheet metal. The die has the shape of the dome of the musical steel drum, with some notes pre-marked on it. The sheet metal, when deformed, takes the concave shape of the steel drum. This eliminates the manual sinking process and assists the tuner in marking the notes.

The rubber pad forming technique produced high quality products and had a low reject rate, making it especially suitable for the mass production of instruments.

Spin forming

Spin forming is a cold forming process in which a metal disc is spun on a type of high speed lathe. As the metal rotates, the operator applies pressure, using a round edged wooden or metal tool. When used to make steel pans, a wooden dome, made to the profile of the desired end product, is used as backing.

Researchers found that preformed bowls could be made faster than with the traditional hand-forming method. They also observed that they had greater control over the thickness of the metal.