In the year 2000, the Swiss company PanArt presented a newly created instrument called hang®. The instrument is inspired by the steel pan, a traditional Caribbean instrument in which PanArt specialised. For several years PanArt was the only company to build these instruments, but later on several craftsmen decided to build their own version. Since the name hang® is a registered trademark, these instruments were given the name handpan. There are currently around 300 handpan manufacturers in the world.
The construction of a handpan starts with two round, flat sheets of metal, from which two domes are made. The metal used is generally nitrided steel, but in recent years instruments made of this type of material have been joined by instruments made of stainless steel.
The domes can be formed by various processes, including the use of a hammer, pneumatic hammer, lathe and hydroforming. The actual notes are obtained by locally flattening the dome and obtaining within these flattenings a pit called a dimple, which has the function of making the note more stable and facilitating the production of harmonics. Once the notes have been obtained, they must be tuned. The tuning operation is one of the most complicated and requires a great deal of experience and skill. In the lower part of the handpan, which acts as a resonance chamber, a hole called gu is drilled.
Notes have different sizes depending on their pitch. Larger notes have a lower pitch, and smaller notes have a higher pitch. A standard handpan usually has 9 notes, but thanks to experience and refinement of manufacturing techniques, instruments with a much larger number of notes have been available for some years now. This is made possible by increasing the number of notes in the upper part of the instrument and also by creating notes in the lower part. Handpans with 13, 15, 19 notes are increasingly common, and have even gone as far as having 28 notes. The lowest note of the scale is generally placed in the middle of the instrument, and is called a ding. The ding is generally projecting outwards, and this characteristic gives it a more percussive tone. The ding can therefore be used not only as a note, but also to create the rhythmic structure of a composition.
Unlike other musical instruments, handpans with a so-called chromatic scale, i.e. a scale containing all tones and semitones and which would allow playing in any key, are not produced due to problems with interference between notes. On the contrary, handpans are constructed with different choices of notes producing a wide variety of different scales (e.g. major, minor, Celtic, Arabic, Japanese etc.), each of which will create different atmospheres. When choosing a handpan, there are therefore two important elements: the tone of the instrument (which essentially depends on the manufacturer and the type of metal) and the choice of scale.