Inside Pete Engelhart's Workshop

pete engelhart

Photo: Dave Constantin

Pete Engelhart is a rare breed, a one-of-a-kind old-world craftsman whose penchant for pounding steel into percussive shapes has been a passion for more than four decades. The distinctive metal percussion instruments he designs and fabricates by hand are the prized possessions of many working drummers and percussionists. DRUM! recently converged on Pete to get the lowdown on his metalworking ways and to catch a glimpse of his creative domain.

Sequestered near the train tracks in an industrial area of Berkeley, California, Pete’s shop lies beyond a corrugated tin wall along a pitted road long bereft of maintenance. A gate opens up to reveal a corridor of derelict car parts: Grilles, transmissions, hoods, doors, differentials, and rusting axles rest in repose upon towering steel racks like so many bones populating the catacombs beneath Rome. This gauntlet of salvaged wreckage leads the way to Metal Mecca.

In the midst of this organized melee of bygone automotive drama, Pete’s workshop stands sandwiched between the shops of two fellow metalworkers, one a coppersmith and the other a for-hire metal fabricator. It’s a peaceful place, its stillness punctuated at intervals by the buzzing of angle grinders, hammer strokes on steel, machines whirring and roaring, the passage of trains, and the hearty sound of Pete’s cheery laughter.

The Workspace

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Dreams of steel on the drafting table.

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Dad’s vintage bandsaw.

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Practical applications of a life-long Skippy habit.

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The welding station.

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A rack of mostly finished bells await their fates.

And So It Began

Engelhart cut his teeth on metalworking when he was just a kid growing up on his father’s ranch at the foot of Mt. Diablo, 25 miles east of Berkeley. “We’d have to make stuff,” he says. “The tractor would break, farm equipment would break, and we’d have to fix it ourselves.” The ranch shop was equipped with a band saw, sanders, grinders, and a funky old stick welder and an acetylene setup. Mostly he did repair work, but then he got into hotrod racing and did a lot of metalwork building and modifying drag cars.

In the ’50s, when he was around 18 years old, a friend invited him to go to Brazil and he ended up staying for two years. He got turned onto a lot of music there, and upon his return he pursued life as a jazz pianist for 25 years. Eventually he came to the realization that being a pro musician wasn’t really his calling, so he shifted gears and put more focus into creating his metal percussion instruments.

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His creative metalworking began when he inherited the welding machine from the ranch after his dad died. Around 1973 he ran into Kenneth Nash, who was playing with Weather Report at the time, and Kenneth asked him to make him a bell, so he did. After that, he made some bells for Airto Moreira, and then others. Things started ramping up and he did custom work for people, oftentimes creating incredibly fantastical sonic sculptures for adventurous percussionists. Word caught on.

He started making his famous Ribbon Crashers in 1986 when his business was taking off. “I was really lucky to get some really good metal,” he confides. “I found it at a junkyard — sheets of cold rolled full hard steel. They roll it under tremendous pressure, so it’s a very hard material — it’ll break it’s so brittle. It’s very hard to find. It was so neat that I brought it home and started making Crashers. A lot of care goes into making them — each piece has to be twisted a certain way to have a certain sound. I used to make Crashers with four different sizes for four different tones.”

At some point he could only get the special steel in huge sheets or 5,000 lbs. of coiled strip. While he could still pick up the stuff here and there, it was beginning to be a hassle. Fortuitously, the metal fabricator next door regularly gets large amounts of materials, so Engelhart has been able to piggyback his metal needs on his neighbor’s orders. “Otherwise I couldn’t even afford to be in this business,” he says. “Also, I can use his machinery if I need to. I use the shear back there. We all sort of interchange and work all together here — it’s wonderful. It’s a cool community.”

Shaping And Tooling

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Using the hand shear.

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Rolling the curve.

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Smoothing with the belt sander.

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The final tune-up.

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A finished bell in C before a final polish and application of some protective carnauba wax.

Tooling Around

From its humble basement beginnings, Engelhart’s shop is now well equipped with just about everything he needs to ply his craft. As the years have gone by, he has either acquired or fabricated all the necessary tools for effective production. In the beginning he got cheap stuff from Sears, and then upgraded as his instruments sold and working relationships with companies such as Rhythm Tech and Gon Bops developed, enabling him to fold earnings back into the business. The hand-fabricated devices he’s built along the way emerged out of necessity to help speed up the production process and make things easier.

Three drill presses stand at the ready, each conveniently set up for a particular function so he doesn’t have to change things up every time; one is fitted with a hole saw, another with a drill bit, and yet another set up for smaller jobs. A hand roller for putting the curve into the bells waits against one wall and various hand-fabricated benders of his creation used to manipulate rods and crimp sheet metal are strategically placed on workbenches.

He uses a hand shear for small trimming jobs, but for other cutting duties he has a vintage Walker Turner band saw. “This is when they made tools,” he says with emphasis. “My dad had this in his factory, and when he died one of the guys that worked for him for 30 years took this to his shop. Then he got old and he sold it to me for $60,” he laughs. “It’s a great saw.”

For punching bells in cymbals and shaping metal, he fashioned a hydraulic press by fabricating a square frame and a mold and incorporating a hydraulic bottle jack to provide the pressure. He also built a rolling table for welding by securing four 0.5"-thick pieces of steel plate across a sturdy frame for a flat surface.

In easy reach of his workstations, he keeps his MIG welding and acetylene setups for joining and heating metal. To facilitate work flow, he got a device featuring a cradle for the acetylene torch that cuts off the gas when you set the torch down on it, and starts it up again when the torch is lifted. A pilot light lets him reignite the torch without having to strike a spark.

For finishing and deburring, he has a grinder/brush unit and belt sanders. Two anvils for shaping and tuning — one a two-horned monstrosity and the other a flatter bar with rounded edges — sit on sturdy bases in the middle of the floor. When rods won’t fit in the benders that he’s built, he uses a round piece off a press from his father’s factory to bend fire-heated rod. “I can make a complete turn on it with a hammer if I have to,” he says.

Last but not least, he has a variety of hammers and a couple of angle grinders, one set up with a wire wheel for cleaning up metal and another with a cutting tool to carve shapes. It’s all about streamlining production. “You do a job, you need a tool, and you go buy it and all of a sudden you have a bunch of tools for your shop,” he says. “I could get some more modern stuff, but this is all I need.”

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Playing With Fire

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Engelhart welds another bell to the Bell Blossom cluster.

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The nearly molten metal still glowing.

From Raw Metal To Tuned Instrument: Cutting And Shaping

To start the process, Pete cuts the shapes he needs using patterns he’s created. For trimming and cutting circular shapes, such as for the Satellite Drum, he reaches for the hand shear, which used to be what he cut all his metal with. But these days for larger runs he has a fence, or pattern, that he built to hold the pieces at an angle, and uses his neighbor’s machine shear to cut the metal that way in different sizes.

After the shapes are cut, he hand cranks them through the roller to curve them. With the flatter bells, he’ll form each half, and then crimp the end a bit and weld them together. With the conical bells, which are all one piece, he rolls the basic shape and then has to hammer them round on the anvil to close up the cone and then weld the seam together. “It’s a little harder to do,” he says. “You roll it to a certain point and then you work it down and it brings it together. I’ve gotten pretty quick at these ones — if I’m lucky I can do it in about 20 minutes. If I mess up, then it’s going to take a bit longer.”

He uses a bender that he fabricated to bend little rods to shape — a template welded to the top of the device allows for consistent angles. He initially made the tool to build an instrument called a Triple Timbale Bell, but then he realized he could bend rod to any angle in there by simply eyeballing things, so it’s useful for a lot of odds and ends. A crimper that he built can put a crease in the ends of certain bells with minimal pressure, and another device that a friend built helps bend metal rods into rounded shapes.

Bell Blossom Bliss

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Engelhart happily triple-checks his work.

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The finished Bell Blossom cluster.

Welding

For the standard bell models, such as the Tiburon, cha cha, and agogo bells, there are two separate pieces that he welds together to form the bell. For the conical bell shapes, such as those used for the Bell Blossom, a single piece of metal forms a cone and he makes the piece whole by welding along the seam to close it up. For consistency and ease of welding, he’ll often use fixtures that he’s built to hold pieces of different sizes and shapes in position. “As soon as it starts getting tiring or you have to make a lot of something, you very quickly figure out how to make a tool to help things along,” he says. “What you’re trying to do is get away from anything you have to hold. Otherwise, you can try to do it by hand, but it’s going to take forever.”

In some instances he will simply hold pieces together by hand to tack weld them, and then he can manipulate the fit before welding it fully together. To demonstrate, he sets up to attach a bell to the center of a Bell Blossom, pulls down the visor of his helmet, and welds the bell to the bracket. Sparks fly, blinding white light flashes, and blue smoke wafts up from the melting metal. He adds a little dot of molten steel in the middle of the joint to make it nice. The steel is red hot until it cools. Once the bells are welded to the bracket, he will heat them up again to bend them to the proper angle for the cluster.

Tuning

The size influences the fundamental note of a particular bell, and he has templates for a chromatic scale all the way up to C. Higher-pitch bells typically have smaller chambers, and lower pitches take a bigger chamber. He initially makes the bells so that the pitch is flat from its intended note, citing that it’s easier to bring the pitch up than to bring the tuning down. He’ll hammer around the edge of the two-piece bells, bending it slightly inward on one of the anvils in his shop to tweak its pitch. Testing the sound against an already tuned bell, he’ll check his accuracy using an old-school Peterson strobe tuner above his workbench.

With the conical bells, he grinds them down to tune them. “That’s really tricky,” he says, “because if you miss, then you’re going off into the next bell because you can’t bring them down again. These,” he says, grabbing a flat profile bell, “if I go too sharp, sometimes I can bend them back flat again.” He does this by gently squishing the bell so that it flattens out a bit before putting it back on the tuning mount to bring it to the desired note.

The newest model, the Garrapata (which means “tick” in Spanish), is a six-bell cluster with a flattened profile played with the hands like a hang drum. The bells face inward at each other and it has a mellow, melodic resonance. He tunes each set in a different scale. “It’s really interesting with the higher pitched bells,” he says. “I had to make sure that they didn’t create a nodal point and cancel each other out by vibrating into the other cavity across from it. The angle has to be just right.”

The rounder bells ring more, such as the Blossom Bell sets. “They have a nice bloom,” he says. “Really resonant with some nice beating warbles.” Ultimately the shape, size, and tuning treatment will determine the pitch and resonance of a particular instrument.

Finishing

Once an instrument is built, Engelhart smoothes down the edges with a grinder and the belt sander, and then hand sands it for the finishing touch. To achieve an all-over satiny finish, like for the Garrapata, he’ll rub the entire surface with either fine sandpaper or a plastic brillo-like material. He then protects the instruments from rusting with a carnauba wax-based coating, rubbing the surface down, or using a spray wax for the hard to reach places. The interiors of the bells get painted red, giving them a distinctive appearance.

Each handcrafted instrument is a musical piece of art born from the imagination and metalworking genius of Pete Engelhart, who puts his special spin on traditional designs like the cha cha and agogo bells, and comes up with especially unique creations like the Satellite Drum, the Garrapata, and the Snail. From Engelhart’s shop come well-rendered dreams of steel.