There are five finishes to know about for steel pans. Many materials have been tried but these five are most commonly in production today. The least expensive finish for a steel drum is paint. With a steel pan, paint almost always means spray paint. Spray paint is not a very permanent finish. For upper steel pans, which includes lead (tenor), double second and double tenor steel pans, this kind of paint has an unfortunate sound characteristic. This is because spray paint does not bond very strongly with metal. It more or less sits on the surface of the steel drum and restricts the free vibration of the notes. This produces a thunky tone on the lower notes of an upper steel pan instrument. This also allows for much less sustain or length of the steel pan notes being struck. The next finish for a steel pan is called powder coat. These have a much better look than a painted pan with a better more glossy appearance. However, they suffer the same unfortunate sound characteristics of a regular painted pan, with the lower notes having a duller and thunkier tone with poor sustain.
The first finish that can be recommended for a good sounding steel pan instrument is called high gloss black or hi-gloss black. This is not a spray paint or a powder coat. Hi-gloss black is a very hard epoxy lacquer type finish. Because it adheres to the metal with superior bonding characteristics, it freely vibrates with the steel pan notes and produces a brighter and more resiliant tone with better sustain characteristics. This finish is very attractive on a steel pan and it is a very durable and long lasting material. The high gloss black finish is also excellent for the lower pans, which include cellos, guitars and basses. The cost of this finish is usually not much more than paint and yet it has a fuller more buoyant sound for the lower steel drums and is dramatically superior in sound quality for the upper instruments.
The next finish is regular chrome, sometimes called a brush chrome. Chrome is not ordinarily used for the lower steel pans such as cellos, guitars and basses. While a few people prefer chrome on lower steel drum instruments, most steel pan musicians and band leaders consider the sound too bright for those instruments. A steel pan band will have a better balance if the lower instruments have a rich, dark sound to contrast with the bright attack of the upper steel pans. For this reason, most consider a finish like a high gloss black to be a better choice for the lower steel band instruments. Chrome is an excellent choice, however, for lead, double second and double tenor steel pans. While a bigger jump in sound quality may be noticed between a paint steel pan and a high gloss black, chrome has even more sustain and more brilliant sound. This is because chrome almost completely adheres to the metal. Chroming for steel drums has become very expensive, partly because it is not an environmentally friendly process and requires procedures to limit its negative affects. Hi-gloss black steel pans may be said to be the best value, but if enough funds are available, chrome steel pans for the uppers is a good choice.
Next is the high gloss chrome finish. All chrome steel pans have an excellent appearance, but high gloss chrome steel pans have a more mirror like finish compared to the regular chrome. They are a little more like the fender of a Harley Davidson motorcycle since you can see your face more clearly in the skirt of the steel pan and also in the notes. They have a somewhat fuller tone than the tone of the regular chrome steel drums. Many players new to steel pan might not notice this difference but it is highly sought after by those playing steel pans professionally. The high gloss steel drums are considerably more expensive than those with the regular chrome finish. Chrome is an exceptionally long lasting finish on a steel pan as long as the instrument is kept dry, since rust is the enemy of steel. It is good practice to keep a cloth with your steel pan and wipe the note surface after each time you perform or practice. This will eliminate any moisture or sweat from starting to erode the chrome finish.