In part 2, Colin walks us through his discovery and development of hydroforming, a revolutionary process to shape handpan shells. He also re-visits the roots or the art form and reconnects with his first instrument, the cello.
Sylvain: Hey, it's Sylvain and this is the handpan podcast.
Sylvain: This episode of the podcast is part 2 a conversation I had with Colin Foulke. He makes an instrument called the Æther and we got to sit down and talk story for an hour at his shop in northern California. Part One is about Colin's beginning story, how he was classically trained on the cello, but slowly grew weary of jumping through the hoops of institutionalized western music. In that previous episode, you get to relive the day Colin discovered the handpan and you start to see how he developed a passion that would eventually lead him to pick up the hammer himself. So if you haven't listened to part one yet, hit pause and go back one episode and it will all make sense. Quick refresher as to where we left off last time. After over a year of bootstrapping his way into making handpans, Colin had now achieved a level of consistency that had put him on the map as a handpan maker. It was clearly working. Now, he just needed to go get a real shop, real tools to build upon that foundation. That's where we pick up today with part two. Here we go.
Sylvain: Okay. So you got some tools, but you have the mind of a problem solver and you solved a major problem. Let's talk about hydroforming for a sec.
Colin: Yeah, a hydroforming and uh, as kind of a big umbrella term for an industrial process of forming metal. Um, there's a few versions of it. Sometimes the version that I adopted for our industry, I would put it more under like fluid forming, but that's just a technicality. It's the big umbrella is, is hydroforming. The main idea with ours is that there is no pressurized bladder involved to form the metal. We're going liquid right on the part steel. Um, so essentially it's two big steel plates, one that is just a big plate that hose goes into and the other plate has a big ring cut out of it. This big circle and you sandwich a piece of metal, whatever you want to use to make a handpan. Um, most of us use the low carbon steel. You Sandwich that between the two plates bolt it all together and then pumping pressurized water. And so what happens is the incoming water pressure begins to be stronger than the tensile strength of the material, and so it just blows up a bubble and it pushes the metal that you want to form through that ring. And because of the physical properties of water pressure, it's even across the surface. So it just blows up this essentially perfect hemisphere.
Sylvain: Yeah. And the significance of it is that it bypasses a process which is either extremely physically or very expensive to acquire some big tools physically demanding. If you were to hand hammer a handpan shell, it would take hours and uh, most of us untrained to that type of work could probably not do it in one sitting because your, your arms would hurt.
Colin: Yeah. There's a lot to be said for hand hammering in that. Um, a lot of people find that those slight imperfection super desirable. I made 50 instruments by hand, sinking with air hammers and those imperfections, you can accommodate those in the back end of production in terms of tuning in, tuning around it. Um, yeah, I remember my first shell I tried to sink by hand. It took me two days and then I ruined it. That was like the very first thing I ever tried two days and I ruined it. Now if I do it by hand, I can do it in about two hours. This is like I've just with a mallet, which I visited recently, which we'll talk about. Um, so, so hydroforming, uh, it was introduced in an interesting way in that I had someone that came and visited here and they showed me this video of this process and my immediate thought was why are we not using this in our industry?
Colin: Because from what I saw in that video, it, it seemed fairly achievable. Technically, it didn't seem super complicated. Um, it was, it was far beyond my comfort zone in terms of my current abilities at the time. But so, so this person, his name is Pascal and he was from Greece and after he left we kept this conversation going. Um, I have this rule in my workshop is that if you have an idea, it's my job to try to poke holes in it. Meaning that, not to say it's a bad idea, but let's just try oo figure out a reason that we should not do it. And so Pascal who is an engineer is very much in this mindset. So we just emailed back and forth for a month really debating why we, why I shouldn't do this, and we got to the point where we didn't come up with a reason why we shouldn't from a theoretical standpoint, but theoretical is very different than the actual, you know, the nuts and bolts of it, like how much is it going to cost, how thick to the plates have to be, um, you know, it's silly things too.
Colin: Like can I get one of those plates in through my door, in the workshop? Like, what does that look like? Um, so we got to the point where like, I couldn't not do it. The potential outcome if it worked was going to be so big it was going to be worth the front end risks. So the front end risks were that it was going to be a lot of money just to order the plates. It was going to be, you know, in the thousands, um, there was the risk to have, like I'm out of my depth technically that I don't know what I'm doing, which is very true. It doesn't mean that it couldn't learn, but that was really worrisome. Um, so I think, yeah, fast forward again, I was back at an event in North Carolina. Um, and yeah, that must have been 2015. Um, and uh, like I was at the event and I received an email from the company who was going to water jet, these big plates for me.
Colin: Like this is the final design, is this good? And I sent that email like, yes, let's do it. And then like had a panic attack because it was just like, okay, this is it. It's now or never. And I just said let's do this. So that was probably around early July by the, by, around like August I think I had everything that I needed, a hoses, a pressure Washer, stupid connectors that took too long to find. Um, and then it was, okay, let's see if we can get this thing to work. And the, the issue that I had initially was keeping the pressure in finding a way to seal that whole sandwich of metal and not have water leaking. I spent days mopping my shop because it's water, just go everywhere. And then on a whim I had one last idea. I had kind of run through all my ideas of how to keep the pressure in gaskets and things like that. I had one last idea and so I had set it up the night before and then it was going to be ready the next morning and I came in and attempted it and it worked.
Colin: It was really pretty, pretty big career highlight. Uh, there was a bunch of things that happened. Um, I had no sense of how long it took. Like I, because I, you know, I didn't know how much pressure I was gonna need to generate, there were still some unknowns, so I was hiding behind some barrels that I had stacked up in my shop. I had like a blast shield on and I was like, peeking around it, looking at the shell that was forming and I had set up like a little cross bar above the shell. So that was kind of my desired height for a shell. So the goal was to get the shell the form up and hit this crossbar, that hit it. Then I would just turn it down because I had a switch. Um, and I, I don't, I like, I watched it and I remember it cleared the plate and that was already significantly like, oh, having gotten there yet.
Colin: But uh, that's an inch and a half. I wanted to go to like four and a half inches or so. Um, yeah. And that's, that's like the point where like adrenaline spike heartbeat in my ears, a full tunnel vision, zero sense of how long it took. Like it finished and I was like, I don't know if that was 30 seconds or five minutes, like I really lost sense of time and I was so thrilled and in my workshop is here in a courtyard and there's a bunch of other kind of creative artists and craftsmen that are in the area and I ran out to tell somebody and nobody was here and so I, I knew my wife is at work and I couldn't call her and so I had called my dad and he didn't pick up and so I just had this like very giant career moment and I just kind of fist pumped in the air and then went back in.
Colin: That was a really exciting part, but that was like a mere. It was a, it was a small victory in this. What was gonna be this much bigger battle to, to figure out. I guess I'd answered the first scary question which was, can I even get this to work? I'm like, Yay. I did, but the much bigger question was, will this work? Will this application work for our industry? Can I take this now very perfect form and turn it into an instrument. All things pointed towards. Yes, but I was not at all satisfied. I was not going to all be satisfied or relieved until I had finished instrument so that, so then the time from a that extends way out because I have to not only do one shell, I want to do a batch of shell, so that takes a long time and then the whole processing of that.
Colin: So that was in early August and it wasn't until maybe late September that I had a, like a finished completed instrument and it was a big thumbs up of like, yes. In fact, not only does it work, it seems to work really, really well. Um, so that was, that was like a champagne moment for me in that like, okay, this is, this is big, it worked, I got it to work, this is feasible, that works for my application. And then even beyond that, there were still have quite a few months of wrinkles to iron out within the process and how to keep pressure in consistently in tools and plumbing. There was a bunch of plumbing, I redid the plumbing a ton of times to kind of dial it in and then just understanding the parameters, how much pressure, how long does it take, what's safe, what does it feel safe. Um, so there was, it was great to have that finished instrument, but it's still like, oh, they're still months, months of hard work ahead to kind of dial this thing in.
Sylvain: Yeah. It's important to note that you decided to share this project as an open source project. You did not patent it, you did not monetize it. And it's now being used by over 50 handpan builders worldwide. How does that feel?
Colin: Oh, and you know, that was, that felt like it was going to be a really difficult decision. There were meetings with patent attorneys, there were explorations into options for monetizing it and it was probably over a week after we, at that point, we had one baby. We put the baby to bed and my wife and I would just kind of openly discussed. We had a mental kind of decision tree that we had made which is to share it or not to share it and so for a week we went down the branch of not to share it and what all that could look like, what would it look like to actually monetize it, what does that money look like, what does it mean to get a patent? And so we spent a week kind of discussing that and then it really came to a head that she asked me two questions.
Colin: She said, do you ever want to have to be in a lawyers office dealing with this? And I said, no, I just want to be my workshop. And then the second one was, do you ever want to have to go to court and potentially defend a patent? And I said No. Again, like I just want to be here in my shop working. I'm more concerned about the art form. And so that made those decisions really easy. It was like, oh, and the answer to both of those are no. So we worked our way back up that decision tree, went down the other branch and it was like, what will this look like to share? Which that was. It was a tricky thing to share in that it, it's, it's a big process, there's a lot of moving parts in it. Um, so that decision I had made that decision and probably the goal is to share it again like six months later again, back in North Carolina. The, yeah. The following.
Sylvain: And you made a very thorough and informative video exposé of the whole process.
Colin: Yeah. And it was kind of a multipronged approach to share it. There was actual plans that were shared, like the physical cad files. Um, there was a video where I walk you through how the plumbing works, how you put it together, expectations around parameters, please be safe warnings. And then the third part was that I did a presentation at one of the gatherings that was planned and it was filmed and then shared. I'm kind of a long winded ted talk sort of thing, if you will. I had talked to that event organizer and I said, look, I'm not, this is about as good as I could get my ego in check. I was like, I, I'm good with sharing this. I don't feel like I need anything in return, but I wouldn't mind a round of applause. So, but it was, it was, you know, I think part of it too is like that first six months of me working and really that first year of me working this whole thing of hydroforming was like top secret, we, it was like skunk works, which is means like a very top secret project.
Colin: So this was a skunk works project for me. And so what, which meant that part of my work, it becomes super isolating again. And then I was here kind of working in private and in secret. I'm not, it was not to keep it away from people really. It was more to figure out what I want to do with this. And, and then, and also like if people are going to do this, I want them to be as safe as possible. So, uh, how, how to make that happen or so then, yeah, so the presentation was kind of a little bit for me and that I felt I really now I was ready to share and I was like, oh my gosh, I have had this crazy, amazing, super intense year of developing this machine. I would really just, I want to talk about it. And um, and, and also I think I was, I was hoping I was gonna present it in a way that was fun and interesting to tag along. It was for me it was a good story to present too. But I also just, I just needed to share it in that way too.
Sylvain: There's a proverb that goes something like, the greatest sin in the desert is to find water and not tell anyone. And hydro-forming in the handpan industry in the handpan art form was so well received because it alleviated one of the biggest barriers to making handpans that, that great physical challenge to, to hand hammer. But the reality is forming the shells is just one step of the whole process. It's not a shortcut to making good instruments and I, I really like, uh, a couple of pieces of content, a couple of videos I've seen on your channels recently. One is as a series called, so you want to make handpans question mark, question mark, question mark. Tell us about that. What's the idea behind this series?
Colin: This, is this a good time question? Um, I was and still am and have been guilty of romanticizing the idea of making these instruments. It is, it's wonderfully romantic. It's fantastic to take a piece of metal and turn it into something that is playable and that generates music and gives people joy. That's the romantic side of it. And that's still very real. There was just this other side of that. It's actually really hard work. It technically is an incredibly challenging art form to be in. It's really, really hard to achieve something of high quality. Um, and, and it's, it's, it's really, really taxing on a bunch of fronts. Uh, it can be a force physically taxing, but it can be really mentally and emotionally taxing to, you know, I, I don't have as many unsuccessful instruments as I do successful these days as my skills have gotten better, but what's, what's even so, even now it's hard is when I make something that's unsuccessful, there is no less of me in it.
Colin: I still made as big and great of an attempt as I have. So the success is a really, really high high. But the, the unsuccessful, I'm avoiding the word failure. The unsuccessful ones still takes the same amount out of you. Um, so it can be really emotionally and mentally draining in that sense. Um, and then beyond that, there's just stuff that we in this industry have to deal with it mainly in that, like there's not a lot that's made for this industry. So we're constantly having to come up with our own tools and fabricate or adapt things for our world. And then there's just the stuff, there's just, it's just work. There's days that are hard or stuff doesn't go right. And, and so part of me is sometimes I feel frustrated in that people don't comprehend how challenging it is to make these and also I just don't get asked about my work all that much.
Colin: So I felt like I could share these frustrations and grievances in and help myself process them. But do it in a way that also kind of pulls back the curtain on the Romanticism of, uh, making these, of like, no, actually it's, it can be that, but it can be really hard and it can be, you can have tough days and, and so it's been a lot of things. Um, there's opportunities to share something every single day under the Hashtag. So you want to make hand pans because you know, it's like with all social media, it's great to see this perfect page of all successful stuff and pretty and glassed over. And it's like, oh no, like that's not exactly how it was like A. Yeah, if you go in my other workshop, there's a pile of shells that are just ones that didn't work out. Some of those shells have 10 hours in them. Some of them have 40 hours of work into them
Sylvain: As a player. It makes me so much more appreciative and all the work that goes into these instruments, which I never want to take for granted. Um, and um, and so I think it's a meaningful series and I, I love seeing those, those posts.
Colin: Yeah. What's been fun and when one of my goals was with it is that I, if I'm feeling this way as someone who makes these, I'm sure I'm not the only one who's feeling this way. So the goal of creating that as a Hashtag was that any maker can take that and use it the next time that they have a problem in their shop, they can just air their grievances and throw that. So that's happened. So that's been really fun. A few makers have been like, oh, I had a tough day and this thing broke hashtags. So you want to handpans.
Sylvain: You've also launched recently another kind of challenge, another kind of invitation, the three Hammer handpan challenge, right? And um, so it's an instrument that you have built using only three hammers. The shells were not hydroformed. Now you did not use a press to form the dimples. Nope. You made this instrument from scratch?
Colin: Yeah, I still debate if it was a good idea or bad idea. It's a great idea. Just the act of actual act of having to do it. I, I feared it. No. So the, so rewinding a couple of years, the original company who made this instrument PANArt, they've been posting some kind of old footage of them even pre hung days and so there was one video where the main, one of the main people, Felix was out on tour with his steel pan band and just felt inspired to make something. He went and found a barrel that had just been sitting in a lot and he just made something and a couple of hammers just felt inspired to create. And that was my takeaway from that video. Like he just, it didn't matter. I just wanted to make something and he didn't, he didn't do anything fancy.
Colin: He just got a barrel and hammers got busy by a river. And uh, for me that was the takeaway from that was so inspiring to just leave it all behind and just be creative. Now the fear with that is that it's really hard to do it that way. And so I had been inspired by this video for a long time and I'd been kind of trying to convince myself to do it and I had not been able to. So the idea of not only challenging myself but then putting out as challenge to everyone else made it seem more approachable and tangible and gave me more of a reason to do it. And then putting it under the umbrella of like, I'm only going to use three hammers, which from a making standpoint becomes extremely limiting. Um, mainly because the first two hammers are really obvious choices.
Colin: You have to have a big hammer to sink the shell and then you have to have a very small hammer to fine tune with. I'm in the video that I was inspired by. He made of steel pan. I was planning to make a handpan so the hammers needed to fit through the hole in the bottom. So I could tune from the insights of that is a very specific camera, so to have the hammers are obvious choices and then you're left with all these other jobs within the making process and you kind of have to have this one one hammer to fit all the other jobs. So the third hammer was kind of the harder choice. So it took me awhile to kind of collect the hammers. I bought my hammers from Jimmy James in France from Jimmy's house of Hammers. I bought two wood mallets from him and then I use my standards, a 20 ounce ball pean tuning hammer now.
Colin: And it took me awhile to. I needed a barrel that I could sink on top of to sink these shells to attach my rings too. And so I think it was by October, first of this year, I had everything that I needed and it was all here on this table that we're sitting by and I don't think I started until October ninth because every every morning and look at it and be like, Nah, screw that. I'm not doing that today.
Sylvain: Was it reassuring to know after the fact that you could still do that?
Colin: I was confident that I was going to be able to do it. Um, there were definitely some surprises within the actual act of doing it. I was fearing the reason I didn't want to start this because the first thing had to do with sink these shells by hand and having done that but not done it for a long time.
Colin: That's the part I was fearing the most. And although it was physically strenuous, it ended up not being as bad as I thought it was. Interesting. I was better at it than the last time I did it five years ago because there's been this accumulation of skill sets along the way that happened to be applicable to this process. I was better with my left hand so I could sync with two hands. So that made it go faster. Um, and so that, that was, that ended up being not so bad. It kind of turns into this physical meditation. It's like a that you kind of break through that 20 minute barrier, like a runner's high and then you just kind of get in the groove. There was a moment I'm gonna spoil a little bit of the video. There was a moment where I sink my first shell and I remove the ring that was holding it to reveal that I had failed and I didn't know until I was done in what had happened is the metal that was supposed to being pinched in the ring that will become the flange to glue on had gotten sucked in under the ring.
Colin: So after two hours, extremely strenuous labor, I reveal that the shell is ruined and I'm going to have to do it again now as the person who had just spent two hours sinking that shell who'd been fearing it for weeks mildly devastated. But then as the person who was behind the camera who is also documented in this process, I was like mildly amused of like, that is a great. That sucks for the guy who just sunk that shell. But from a viewer's perspective, it just got a little more interesting. The plot thickens. The plot thickens. So yeah, I came in the next day and sucked it up and did it again and was very cautious to not make that mistake again. And I say to the video, it actually is like, it's a totally rookie mistake when I was aware of and I want to actively try to avoid and still made.
Colin: So, so the, the goal of the three hammer challenge in that sense was to tap back into those rudiments to tap back into those building blocks of what I think it is to be a good maker. I didn't, I didn't use a press to make dimples until I could make a good one by hand. I want it to be, you know, in touch with why a dimple how to be a certain shape or depth or size or proportion of why it worked. And then great, I'll get the tool that we'll just do it every time. But I wanted the, I wanted the tool to be informed by experience. So this process was to go back and get back in touch with the that information process of do I still understand it? Can I still do it? So it was extremely strenuous, but it, it, I was nervous about it because I was worried that it was going to expose weaknesses in my, my abilities and it did, but it also, what I didn't expect is it exposed strengths that I didn't realize that I had or I had accumulated over time.
Colin: Um, and it also, it also up weld old skills and techniques that I had forgotten about because I just hadn't had to use them in a while. So for me that was the major goal of, to, to show that I can do it by hand is important, but also to kind of tap back into those old skillsets and really just go back to the root of why I want to do this in the beginning, which was like, I just, I just want to make. And so let's go back to the origin of that.
Sylvain: Has anyone responded?
Colin: So that was the last, the last part of the challenge was like a. It was, okay, I have done this, so now I am sending that challenge out to every other maker in the world. I have laid a gauntlet and I'm asking you to try to walk through it.
Colin: Not in a competitive way, but in a, in a, as someone who does this work, I feel a responsibility to the art form to both caretake and curate and guide it