The first steel pans were beaten with wooden sticks. When the instrument evolved further it was found that damping of the stick could reduce the amount of overtones in the notes and make the sound more mellow.
Nowadays, sticks for steel pans are usually made by wrapping one end of a wooden stick with a strip of rubber from bicycle inner tubing. The sticks are usually made of drumsticks that are cut off to a suitable length. The length and thickness of the stick and the amount of rubber vary for different pans. Sticks for high tuned instruments are short and light while they are longer and thicker with more rubber for lower tuned instruments. Common measures for the different stick types are given in appendix C.
You may choose the length of the stick to your personal preference, but you should be aware how the length will influence your playing. First, power - the longer the stick, the louder you can play. Second, reach - you reach further with longer sticks, which can be a good thing, especially for the lower pans with notes distributed over several drums. Third, skill - it is usually trickier to play with longer sticks.
The diameter of the stick decides its weight, and thus the amount of force you put into the note when you hit it. The sticks are usually thinner for higher tuned pans and a bit thicker for the low ones. The diameter varies from 10 to 15 mm.
The amount of rubber is crucial for the quality of the sound. The contact between the stick and the pan has to be soft, not to excite the higher vibrational modes of the note. These higher modes do usually not have a harmonic relationship to the fundamental, and therefore they are not desirable in the sound of the note. The higher modes are damped if the contact time between the rubber and the note is long enough. The thicker the rubber, the longer the time of contact.
If too much rubber is applied to the stick the fundamental will also be damped, thus making it hard to hear the pitch of the note. The right amount of rubber is applied when the sound of the struck note is mellow rather than sharp, with the overtones coming in somewhat after the fundamental. You may read more about the function of damping in the theory section.
Larger notes need softer sticks to sound pleasant. The larger and lower the note, the longer the time of contact needs to be to damp undesirable vibrations in the note. For instruments with a large tonal range this leads to a problem as you are forced to use the same pair of sticks on notes of very different sizes. Then you have to compromise between the quality of the sound of the highest and the lowest note. Too much rubber weak sound in the higher notes, too little rubber harsh sound in the lower notes.
The rubber for the sticks is usually bicycle inner tubing cut into strips, about 1-1.5 cm broad, and wrapped around the stick several rounds. There is a special technique to keep the rubber strip wrapped around the stick: Begin at the top and wind the rubber round the stick, going further down for each turn. When you come to the end of the strip, roll back the previous winding and put the last piece of the rubber under it while stretching it. This will lock the end of the strip.
Nowadays, it is possible to buy rubber sheets or latex tubing in hardware stores. The sheets can be cut to strips and used the same way as the bicycle inner tubing. The thickness of the wall in the latex tubes varies from 3 to 8 mm, and they are easiest to come by in dimensions suitable for tenors and double tenors. For tenor sticks, rubber tubing for spear-guns is often used. Sticks for basses are usually made by putting sponge rubber balls at the end of the drumsticks. Sometimes, part of the ball is cut off to reduce the weight, see the last bass stick at the right in fig. 15.1.
Fig. 15.1 Overview of sticks for various pan types. From left to right: Tenor, double tenor, double second, guitar, cello and bass.