One of the most common questions that people ask themselves when choosing a Meridian handpan is ‘what material do I want it to be made from?’. This seemingly simple question is easier to answer if we first look briefly at the pro's and con's of the materials which have been used thus far…
The Steelpan drums of Trinidad (1930’s - present day) from which the handpan has evolved were typically made from ‘raw steel’, a term used to describe mild low-carbon sheet steel in its bare form. These instruments were traditionally made from surplus 42 gallon barrels, with the term ‘raw’ referring to the steel being in its base form, with no additional treatments/coatings.
Raw steel is a low-cost and widely available material which is relatively easy to work with and produces a bright and lively sounding instrument. However, the presence of carbon in this un-treated material means that it can easily corrode and a meticulous cleaning/maintenance routine must be used in order to avoid the rapid onset of rust. To avoid corrosion, raw steelpans were typically subjected to a chrome-plating process, which produced a protective chromium surface with the signature mirrored finish people often associate with the steelpan.
When handpans were in their infancy, raw steel material was also initially used. However, unlike the steelpan, where chrome plating was commonplace, the material choice of the handpan instrument swiftly moved in a different direction…
Around the millennium the makers of the Hang, PANArt, adopted the use of a common industrial hardening process called ‘nitriding’; this process involves placing the raw steel in a large furnace, where it is heated up to >500ºC in an atmosphere of ammonia gas. At these elevated temperatures, the nitrogen from the gas permanently bonds to the surface of the steel producing a composite material with a ‘nitride’ layer on the outer surface of the steel. Nitriding is a process more typically found in the manufacture of mechanical gears. It creates a hard outer layer which is both corrosion and abrasion resistant, whilst maintaining a softer non-nitrided material core which is able to receive shock and impact without fracturing.
Compared to raw steel, handpans made from nitrided steel have a satin surface texture more akin to ceramics/clay. When heated, nitrided material can produce deep colours and from a players’ perspective the notes have a controlled and stable character with a dry timbre. Nitrided steel proved very popular with handpan makers due to its corrosion/scratch resistance but also, crucially, because the increased hardness of the material produced an instrument that was less susceptible to detuning over time than its un-treated, raw predecessor.
Nitrided steel was slowly adopted by the majority of makers as the industry standard for handpan production, and this remained unchanged for many years. However, the story doesn’t end here…
After more than a decade of nitrided steel being the industry standard, some makers (Meridian included…) began also exploring the potential of handpans made from stainless alloys. An alloy is a metal made by combining two or more metallic elements, with the intention of improving the material properties; typically strength and corrosion resistance. The key ingredient in stainless steel for corrosion resistance is chromium (hence the chrome plating of traditional steel pans).
From a manufacturing perspective, stainless steel is more difficult to work with than raw/nitrided steel and far more expensive. However, the instruments produced with this material have a number of distinct worthwhile benefits:
Increased corrosion resistance
Longer, warmer sustain
Increased dynamic range
There are many different grades of stainless steel, each with their own subtle differences. At Meridian, we choose to stock a small selection of different stainless alloys each carefully selected for a specific purpose:
Classic Series - 1.2mm hydroformed 430 stainless material
Extended & Deep Series - 1.0mm Deep drawn Ember stainless material
Traveller Series - 1.2mm hydroformed 430 stainless & 1.0mm deep drawn 441 stainless
Which material should I choose?
In our professional opinion, we strongly feel that stainless steel material produces a superior instrument. Our stainless Meridians have a sustain, volume and warmth which could not be achieved with nitrided material and when you combine this with the unrivalled corrosion resistance and easy maintenance, we feel it is a clear choice. We have been working with stainless steel since 2017. Until 2020, we routinely made our instruments in both materials. However, we soon discovered that 99% of our customers preferred our stainless Meridian, and therefore we decided to phase out our nitrided instruments. We still offer nitrided material for custom orders. However, the overwhelming majority of customers still opt for their Meridian to be made from stainless steel.