Sometime around 30 years ago, a segment on Sesame Street left an impression on me. In the scene, a few kids rolled a steel barrel to a man who hammers away on it and creates a steel drum, then they play a Caribbean-style tune on it.
I don’t see or hear steel drums often these days, but whenever I do, I instantly think of that segment. Are steel drums really made from discarded barrels that kids find in fields? Is it really that simple to make one? After some quick research, it seems the answer is yes and no…
You can see in the Sesame Street video (which itself is an interesting time capsule of 1981 New York), the drum making has been abridged to fit in the short time constraints of the show. But watch the following video – the drum is created by pounding a heavy weight (looks like lead ball) against the bottom of the barrel, denting it inwards. It’s then further refined and smoothed with taps of a hammer.
Once the interior is rounded into a semi-circle, the notes are created. Using small templates that are sized for the note that is desired, the layout is traced onto the drum. The outline of each note is then hammered out, isolating that area and allowing it to vibrate with the intended frequency when struck.
The drum is then heat tempered, and chrome plated. Afterwards, fine-tuning is done by lightly tapping the note area to stretch it appropriately. Tune down, hit it from above. Tune up, hit it from below. That’s the easy way to describe it, but the full tuning process involves making sure the whole note area is harmonically balanced (getting the octaves to match), and a few other things that are described in detail here.
Loads more steel drum info is available on hotpans.se