Making handpans

The stars aligned in Jenny Robinson’s quest to manufacture beautiful music.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Plato, the wise Athenian philosopher, is often credited with the quote, “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything.”

Jenny Robinson’s soul was lifted several years ago after hearing the haunting and melodic strains of a handpan, an oddly shaped metal instrument played in a lap or on a stand. With fewer than 100 handpan manufacturers in the world, her company, Isthmus Instruments LLC, is the only one that is woman-owned and operated.

The handpan is a relatively new instrument created in Switzerland nearly 20 years ago. It resembles two steel woks glued together, but the music that emanates at the hands of a skilled musician is ethereal in its sound and captivating to watch.

Robinson, a high school trumpet player and self-taught guitar player and percussionist, had never heard of a handpan before searching YouTube several years ago looking for percussion instrument videos. Suddenly, a handpan video popped up.

“It was a weird, UFO-looking, steel thing sitting in a person’s lap,” she recalls, “but the sounds it was creating were just incredible.”

With the help of Shlomo Calvo, a talented handpan musician Robinson met almost by accident, Isthmus Instruments has brought the handpan to Madison.

A musical course

At Isthmus Instruments on Madison’s east side, Jenny Robinson manufactures 22-inch handpans, a relatively new Swiss instrument played with the hand and fingers. Through trial and error, she’s perfected the measurements necessary to create a desired sound. Each magnet represents a note.

Far from the hills, valleys, horse farms, and distilleries of her hometown of Lexington, Kentucky, Robinson, 34, studied natural resources at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin.

In 2008, she visited Madison and, like so many before her, decided to stay. She worked at a string of odd jobs before landing a job at Kraft Foods and working her way up to production supervisor.

But was it the career path she wanted?

“I was in my late 20s and began wondering if this really was my calling,” Robinson admits, so she enrolled in a two-year, machine-tooling program at Madison College “to learn something I had no experience in.”

When she first discovered the handpan in 2012, her career path became instantly clearer. “My worlds collided,” she recalls. “I nearly dropped out of school at that moment!”

She’d always had an interest in playing new instruments, and at Northland College she even researched, carved, and later refined a Native American flute out of a piece of wood as part of a class curriculum. But now that she was armed with a better understanding of metallurgy and tooling, handpans set her on a new course.

“What really intrigued me was that handpans are really rare and unobtainable,” she says. “People travel across the world to get their hands on one.”

Without hesitating, she began figuring out how to manufacture this unique instrument. “I never did a business plan,” she admits, “I just knew I could make this happen.”

She began her quest in 2013.

No playbook

At a metal press, Shlomo Calvo, an accomplished handpan musician, imbeds dimples of varying sizes around the metal bowl to create notes based on measurements provided by Robinson.

What Robinson quickly learned was that there was no playbook for handpan manufacturing; no how-to videos.

Undeterred and on a mission, she decided to create her own from scratch.

How hard could it be, after all?

She found two oil drum barrels on Craigslist, gathered some sledgehammers, and started pounding and shaping the flat barrel bottoms into large bowls. “I couldn’t even fit the barrels in my car,” she laughs, thinking back.

It took months. She sold her condo and even lived in a friend’s basement so she could continue refining the instrument. Madison College’s machine tooling program provided access to some specialized tools, but she also made her own through trial and error.

It didn’t take long to realize that hand pounding flat steel into concave bowls (called stamping) was physically unsustainable, so she developed a prototype and eventually found a New Berlin company to handle the stamping for her.

“I’m 99 percent sure that I’m the only handpan manufacturer using a stamping process,” Robinson states. “I’ve built the process from the ground up.”

As she worked to perfect the little-known instrument, a friend remarked one day that she had seen someone playing an odd-shapped instrument in front of a local Madison store. Robinson had never actually seen or heard a handpan in person, so she asked her friend to get the busker’s information if she ever saw him again.

She did, and not long after, Robinson met Shlomo Calvo, a street musician from Israel who was busking his way across the United States.

“The first handpan I ever played was his,” she states, and when Calvo traveled through Madison again with a slightly out-of-tune instrument, he recontacted her. Even better, he agreed to join her company.



Handpans defined

Most handpans are 22 inches in diameter and weigh about nine pounds each. Their melodious sound comes from slapping, tapping, or sliding fingers across dimpled divots pressed into the convex metal.

Each instrument takes about three to four weeks to polish, tune, and perfect.

With notes dimpled around the inside bowl of a handpan, Robinson uses a pneumatic hammer to flatten the area around each. The metal bowls are rough tuned and then baked in a conventional oven, which creates a patina of blues and purples. When cooled, the halves are glued together and the instrument is secured with clips and set to cure undisturbed for three to four days. Robinson fine tunes a completed handpan with tuning software to ensure that the instrument meets company standards.

“First, we decide which notes to put on the instrument,” Robinson explains. “We can build a range of notes that you might find on a piano, but unlike a piano, a handpan may only have eight or nine notes, so we pre-select those that sound good together.” Extra notes can be added into to the bottom half of the instrument, as well, if desired.

For music aficionados, the highest note might be a C5 or D5, and usually there’s a two to two-and-a-half octave span, she explains.

“Each note has a different ratio as to length, width, or dimple.” The key to excellent sound quality, according to the company’s website, are notes that are soft to the touch and resonate freely with the lightest touch.

Handpans can only be tuned to one particular scale depending on personal preference and mood, but the company makes it easy hear the various differences on its website. Accomplished musicians can play more than one instrument at a time.

Manufacturing music

Inside the company’s Walsh Road manufacturing space, smooth, metal bowls are stacked on shelves like dishes. “There are no magic formulas,” Robinson insists, securing one inside a prefabbed oil drum she created for stabilization.

With a measuring tape and a large protractor, she marks note placement with a black pen to ensure alignment. When flipped over, a large center note on top with an outward facing dimple, called the ding, provides the lowest tone.

Specific notes, represented by magnets with different sized holes in their centers, are placed around the inside of the bowl. How each note relates to one another determines their location, Robinson explains.

Satisfied that all notes are where they need to be, she hands the bowl to Calvo who lowers a large press over the marked points imprinting dimples around the bowl.

With a pneumatic hammer, Robinson flattens the areas around each dimple for resonance, creating a fried-egg effect.

Next, the bowls are baked in an oven, which strengthens the metal and protects it from rust. Baking also gives the instrument its exterior patina of blues and purples.

Once cooled, the instrument receives a rough tuning before the halves are glued together and secured all around by dozens of clips. It will sit undisturbed for three to four days to cure.

A good ear for music is required, but Robinson also relies on tuning software to fine tune the handpans. Holding one near a laptop, she strikes the instrument lightly with a metal tool and the screen responds accordingly, flashing green if it’s in tune. Final adjustments are made through a large hole at the bottom.

The company also makes slightly smaller (21-inch) stainless steel handpans that don’t change colors but provide a more sustainable tone. It’s all about personal preference.

Robinson sold her first handpan in 2014, and since then, the business has sold a couple hundred more. Those listed on its website average about $2,000 each.

Robinson has written her own manufacturing playbook, and now she and Calvo are marketing the instrument through social media, videos, and emails. They also give lessons, perform an occasional concert, and appear at events around town.

“We are profitable on paper,” she emphasizes, “but we do what we do because we’re passionate about bringing this music to the world.”

Then she adds an artistic truth: “There’s no getting rich in handpan!”

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