I will update this information with more detail soon. However, suffice it to say that purchasing a steel drum can be quite a challenge. Then once you get it you also need to take care of it, which also has it's special hurdles. It is of course quite worth the trouble though!
Before you even start considering where to purchase your drum you'll need to get clear on which voice in the steel drum orchestra you want to own/rent. The orchestra has soprano instruments all the way down to bass instruments. Not only that, but this is a relatively newly evolved instrument and it is still changing rapidly as builders innovate and try new things. This means that there are many many different note layouts available.
Without going into all the details of note layouts and the different instruments in the orchestra, I recommend a lead 4ths/5ths pan (the soprano voice) with middle C as it's lowest note. This recommendation is based on 1. portability, 2. relative domination of this pattern (which means you will be more likely to play other peoples pans), 3. use in teaching and understanding fundamental music theory concepts.
Next I would suggest playing around with the patterns of note layouts by downloading an app on your phone or, better yet, tablet computer. Here are the links:
itunes Link: http://itunes.apple.com/ca/app/1-stee...
Android Link: https://market.android.com/details?id....
Really you can even use these apps temporarily to begin studying the instrument. It is simply a layout of the notes on the computer. When you tap a note with your finger correct pitch sounds. You can try at least 3 different instruments in the steel drum orchestra on this app.
My top recommendation for a reasonably priced good pan and an excellent cultural experience is to make a trip to Trinidad and Tobago.
Barring that, there are some other options here in the US.
My pan builder is named Mappo. He lives and works at his home workshop just outside of Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. He is gaining a reputation as a good pan builder who doesn't yet charge the quite high prices that the top builders (such as Eli Manette) charge. If you can find a pan by him in the states I would recommend that. There are some places I have found on line that claim to sell pans by him. You might want to try calling him directly:
Trinidad. Phone: + (868) 675 0918
Here is a link to various pan builders around the world:
In the US I have experience with Coyle Drums. I have ordered stands and accessories from them, but no pans. Based on their great service though I suspect that they would be good to work with and might be able to get you a pan in a timely manner.
Panyard is a very well established business. Their prices are also quite high it seems, but it may be worth it. I have not ordered a pan from them. They have been pretty innovative in research and development to take pan building to the next level.
If you are in the Pacific Northwest and would like meet your pan builder and perhaps watch him build your instrument you can get in touch with Dennis Martin.
Dennis E. Martin, Rhythmical Steel. 3908 N.E. 397th Circle, La Center, Washington USA. 98629. Phone: (360) 263-3141. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Web site: www.rhythmicalsteel.com
Please feel free to come back to the group with questions or comments. Good luck!