Colin Foulke, Student of Steel - Part 2

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.

Podcast Transcription

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