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Recently there is a noticeable trend towards stainless steel handpans. Why use stainless steel? Does it make a difference? Is it any better, or is it just a fad?

I have the pleasure of writing this article with Rafael D’Arco, successful maker of “Tacta” stainless steel handpans. We have joined forces to explain the concept behind using stainless steel and to answer some of the main questions we see online on the subject.  

What is stainless steel ?

There are literally hundreds of stainless steel alloys. By definition, stainless steel is an alloy containing different elements that provide corrosion resistance by preventing the iron content from oxidising. In most stainless alloys, that element is chromium. The chromium content can vary a LOT from one alloy to another. For example, the one I use varies between 12% and 18% chromium.

Chromium’s main property is resistance to corrosion and rust. Chrome oxide creates kind of a barrier that protects from oxygens and humidity. This alloy is impermeable to air and water as a result.

What is the difference with nitrated steel mainly used for handpans up until now?

Nitrided steel and stainless steel are completely different materials. From the perspective of rust prevention, stainless steel is far superior. Another advantage is that, unlike nitrided steel, any surface damage will not “expose” the shell to more rust, as stainless steel is not simply a “protective layer”. Stainless steel  is very resistant to corrosion, which means your instrument will be more resistant to different weather conditions. Stainless steel is also a very different material to work with, it doesn’t react to the hammer the in same way and is more difficult to handle.

There are also many other differences, especially when it comes to the mechanical properties of both materials.

Does a maker have to use different tools for working with stainless steel shells? How does it affect the making process?

Well, each maker has their own personal approach to most processes. But, from my personal perspective, you don’t need different or special tools to work with stainless steel. That doesn’t mean that working with and tuning stainless is identical to nitrided steel. It’s actually quite different. It’s fair to say that every maker that has decided to try stainless steel, has had to adapt some (if not most) of their techniques, because the material behaves VERY differently. There are many reasons for that, but most fall into the analysis of their mechanical properties (and that would be boring for this article…)

What’s the difference in the way the handpan sounds?

A lot of the sound properties of handpans are related to the building methods, not just the material. But it’s safe to say that, overall, stainless steel has these properties, when compared to nitrided steel:

  • Sustain: longer
  • Timber/tone: brighter/more open
  • Amplitude: higher
  • Bigger dynamic range
  • Less “ceramic”

Are handpans made of stainless steel stable?

Stainless steel not being stable is a myth. Stability is much more related to the building techniques and ability of the maker, than the material itself. That being said, it doesn’t mean all stainless instruments out there are stable… but it doesn’t mean all nitrided instruments are either!

If any maker decides to try to make stainless steel instruments, they need to understand how to manipulate the material properly, instead of just jumping into it using the same techniques applied to other materials. This is actually how the rumour of it being unstable started, and it took some time to prove it wrong, since most people were sceptical about it.

It’s always a good idea to go with a reliable/reputable maker, regardless of the material.

Why do we see more and more makers using it?

Well, there could be an element of following the latest trend. We can’t speak for everyone, but we believe makers just want to try out different possibilities, and be able to offer different sound textures to their customers. Stainless steel is very durable and offers real advantages for protecting your instrument in different environmental conditions. Finally, we can say with confidence that the “stability myth” has been proven wrong and we are seeing more and more handpans being made in this material.

What’s the best material for handpans? Nitrated or stainless steel?

The answer will always be: It depends on your personal taste.

Is stainless steel hard to find? Is it expensive?

Stainless steel is usually more expensive than regular carbon steel (it depends on several factors, though). But nitriding isn’t cheap either, so in the end, using stainless can end up having the same costs (or even less, depending on the country and what’s available locally). Some stainless steel alloys are more common, but some are much harder to find.

How do we take care of a stainless steel handpan?

Now this is an important subject: stainless steel is MUCH more resistant to rust, but is not immune to it. It should be cared for in the same way all handpans are, the difference being that it doesn’t need to be oiled/waxed as frequently. The most important thing is to wipe it with a dry cloth every time you finish playing it, to remove all moisture/salts from it. And of course, contact the maker of your instrument for more detailed instructions, as advice can vary from one to another.

So… is stainless steel just a fad or the future of handpans?

There is no doubt that it is a bit of a fad, in a similar way that the latest “Monster” handpans with many notes have grown in popularity.  We are of the opinion that makers simply like exploring new possibilities and developing new ideas. Stainless steel is one of the ways they are doing this, in order to offer a different sound texture. It isn’t THE future of handpans but definitely has its place.

Do you play a stainless steel handpan? What are your thoughts? Leave us a comment!