Make a Square Wooden Chanter for the Irish Uilleann Pipes

By Craig Fischer

Minor Update 10-1997 Marked ***

Copyright 1997 Craig Fischer, all text, image and sound files presented here.

Feel free to copy this work for desktop use and/or your individual study of piping. You may not republish all or any portions of this work in any form, or distribute it in any form, without permission. You may establish electronic pointers or links to this page. Questions, problems, comments or requests for permission to reprint may be e-mailed to me at cfischer@olis.net.au.***


Table of Contents

  • Overview
  • Tools
  • Helpful Aids
  • Assembly
  • Finger Hole Table
  • Tuning
  • Shaping the Top Tenon
  • Making a Reed
  • Overview

    Here is a method of making a wooden Irish pipe chanter which doesn't require the use of a lathe or any specialised tools. It is not quite as simple to build as the Penny Chanter but if you prefer wood or wood substitutes then this is a good way to start. A little experienced help may be necessary, especially when you get to the stage of tuning and reed adjusting, but this is not an expensive project, and if one chanter goes awry then another can be made. I would recommend making one out of very cheap wood or plywood first, to learn the method.

    This design relies on the fact that the bore of any woodwind need not be circular in cross section and can be made any shape within reason so long as the cross sectional area at a given place along the instrument is the right size.




    What I have done is to take the bore diameters for one of the Quinn chanters detailed by David (makepipe/upquinn.html) and find a straight line which is always the same value or less than the Quinn bore. This is to say that it touches the Quinn bore but is never larger than it. I calculated the cross sectional area which this gives and then calculated a square with the same area. The result is a square cone which has the same or less area point by point as the Quinn chanters do. Using a square bore enables construction of the chanter as a box from 4 flat pieces of wood cut to the right size and shape before gluing. The initial internal dimensions of this cone will be 3.7 x 3.7 mm at one end to 11.5 by 11.5mm at the other, over a length of 365mm. The thickness of the wood used for the four sides will determine the outside dimensions of it.

    Once three sides of this cone are assembled, a small gouge is used to enlarge the bore in a few places on the fourth face before it is glued down. If the fingerholes are drilled and lightly undercut before the chanter is glued together it can be temporarily assembled with silicon rubber and tested. If any changes need to be made to the bore, the 'lid' can be popped off and adjustments made. Tuning the chanter to work well is a process of either enlarging the fingerholes or altering the bore as circumstances require.

    While making a few of these to simplify the process and to make sure it was repeatable, I have changed the design slightly. It is no longer quite a square Quinn chanter. It does work very well though, better than many ordinary chanters. If you wish to stick to the Quinn sizes I have included the neccessary information.

    Click here to see charts and graphs of Quinn comparison.

    The design here is optimised for a wide headed reed with a tubing staple. A few different types of reed should work however, and if you follow the method, you might be able to adapt the design to a reed of your own choosing. I am open to suggestion about which type of reed might be the easiest to make and get going.

    Tools

    This chanter can be made by any competent craftsmen with the following limited tool set:

    Most of these things can be bought from "cheap" shops, adequate for this method

    The reamer: These are quite common and not very dear. The one I use tapers from 3mm to 16mm over about 85mm. This is a nice taper,suitable for a read seat, but the larger end doesn't need to be bigger than 8mm. If you cannot find one of these, you can make one by grinding the same taper on a piece of 8mm (5/16") mild steel rod and then grinding it in half lengthways to make a D section reamer. Leave a bit of plain rod at one end to hold it with. Alternatively you could sharpen the tang of a file or cut one out of flat steel or brass and sharpen the edges. If you can't easily get any of these then use a rat tail file, about 3/16" max. diameter.

    The gouge: like those from cheap wood carving or lino-cutting sets. About 3 to 5 mm wide, fairly shallow, nice and sharp.

    Helpful Aids

    There are some helpers you can build which will make it a lot easier:

    Separate short spacers can also be used, and drill bits glued temporarily to each end of the base to make sure the dimensions are correct.

    The wood required for the chanter consists of three flat strips of hardwood about 370 mm long 28mm wide and 7mm thick. Faced plywood will work, plastic if you wish. Anything smooth, flat and glueable.One of these will be the base, one the top, and one will yield two sides. The dimensions of the sides are those of the inside diameter of the cone. They have a straight taper from 3.7mm to 11.5 mm wide and a final length of 365mm. The other two pieces need to be as wide as this plus twice the thickness of the side pieces, so maybe two of these could be cut.out of one larger piece to save material.

    I have made square chanters from ebony, cherry, maple, zebrano and cocobolo. They all work well. In addition to this they can look very similar to a Taylor chanter, depending on how the exterior is finished. Keys can be easily added by gluing on extra blocks to act as key supports or by digging channels in the back and sides. The outside of the chanter need not be symmetrical, except at the reed end where it is shaped to fit into a chanter stock or windcap. It is best if the reed sits right in the middle of this wind cap. It is a good idea to make the top piece containing the fingerholes no thinner than 7mm, fingerhole depth is a critical variable. If thicker wood than 7mm is used, it can be thinned over the holes from the outside, maybe to give a comfortable hollow for fingers to sit.

    Assembly

    First take one of the pieces of wood to be the base for assembly and ultimately the back of the chanter. If any piece of the wood is a little thinner use it here since the thumb hole can afford to be less deep than the other holes. With a good ruler check that it is nice and flat on one face. If not then work it carefully back and forth on the large sanding block until it is.

    Plane both edges of the piece for both sides until they are as level as possible, check them by eye and ruler. Sand them on the block if they need further levelling. Don't plane them again after sanding though, as the grit will dull the plane. When they are flat and square, rule lines showing the final size for both sides, one near to each straight edge, and cut them out slightly larger than required.

    Rule a straight line on the face of the base piece, near to the edge of it, and after running a line of glue along the edge of one side piece, carefully clamp it down alongside the line, flexing it as you go if need be to keep it straight to the line.

    After the glue has dried remove the clamps. Glue the 9/64" drill bit to the base as shown and put the spacer at its correct position. If you are not using a spacer, glue a 7/16" drill bit at the wide end, about 15mm into the bore.

    Now run a bead of glue along the edge of the other side piece and carefully clamp it in place. Take care that it is snug against the spacers or drill bit, especially at the narrowest end of the taper. This is more critical than the large end. As soon as it is clamped up remove the spacer. Lever it out carefully if it is tight.

    Remove the clamps when the glue has set, and plane the rough edge of the sides to near the final line. Next use the sanding block to level them to the line and get them nicely flat. The piece of wood for the lid should sit on top of these with very little gap visible and requiring little pressure to achieve this. When glued up, even temporarily, this has to make a perfectly airtight seal.

    Now is the time to start forming the round throat or narrow end of the bore.

    Clamp the lid on temporarily with two or three small screw clamps. Check the general alignment of it and put some pencil marks on it in places that will help you to take it off and put it back on again just the same.

    Firstly start enlarging the reed seat with the small tapered reamer, until the outside size of this is larger than 5 mm. Take a 13/64" (5.16mm) drill bit and drill along through this end, keeping it carefully aligned with the center axis of the bore. Drill as deep as the drill can go, you cannot go too far, the cone quickly becomes larger than it. After that, ream the top some more, until the exit diameter is about 6mm. Not quite it's final size, this can be finished after the lid is glued on, out to 7mm.

    While the lid is still clamped on, mark the size of it with a pencil along the sides. Remove it and cut and plane it almost up to these lines.

    Overall length of the chanter is 365mm. The back D' is the thumbhole, all the rest are on the front or lid piece.

    Fingerhole Table:

    Hole
    Name
    Distance
    From Top
    (mm)
    Drill
    Size
    (inch)
    Aprrox.
    Final Size
    (inch)
    Back
    D
    92.5 7/32 9/32
    C# 110 11/64 7/32
    B 139 9/64 7/32
    A 172 3/16 9/32
    G 212 11/64 11/64
    F# 242 7/32 9/32
    E 275 11/64 11/64
    E flt 306 3/16 1/4 to
    9/32

    Nowhere else does the opportunity exist to undercut fingerholes from the inside of a woodwind instrument. The final sizes may vary slightly and include a small amount of taper produced by reaming them to size from the inside face of the lid plus some extra possible undercutting to tune the notes a little higher. This can be done with a rat tail file. There should not be too much undercut. The very edges of the hole, inside and out, may be smoothed with a little sandpaper or a rose countersink.

    Mark the position of the thumbhole on the base piece and drill it to the minimum size, also draw a centreline on the lid, mark and drill the rest of the fingerholes to their starting sizes.Ream them from the inside face a little, to give them an initial undercut. The final size of the thumbhole is slightly larger than the inside width of the cone. This means that it cuts into the side walls a little. This doesn't seem to cause any problems.

    Make the initial enlargements to the bore on the inside face of the lid with the small gouge.

    The darker shaded section on the left of the sketch is the enlargement from drilling out the throat, then there is an elliptical area from about 30mm down to about 90mm down. The maximum depth is around 1.5mm in the widest part, shallower at each end, like an oval dish. Careful with this one!

    The next area is from above the B hole to about half way between the B and A holes. Same shape and about 1.2mm deep to start.

    A similar one is from just below the F# hole right up to the E hole, even cutting into the edge of it.

    The last one is quite large. This tunes the bottom D up to pitch. From below the Eb hole to just inside the chanter and about 11mm wide , 1.2 mm deep at first.

    Now the chanter can be made airtight by gluing the lid down with a little silicon rubber and clamping it on. Put the clamps in places which wont interfere with the fingerholes. It is best to leave them on while making temporary adjustments, removing the lid and replacing it.

    Tuning

    It is a common belief that the bore shape of the Irish pipes is a perfectly straight cone. Nothing could be further from the truth as far as old or new chanters which work well are concerned. There are many parts of the bore where small adjustments have very large consequences and this chanter presents a fantastic opportunity to experiment with these. I will describe the ones that are essential to making this chanter work well, and leave the rest for your own experimentation. All necessary bore enlargements can be made with the small gouge. If you go too far, you can fill some in with epoxy, or even start again with a new lid.

    The most crucial area is in the part of the bore between where the reed sits and the thumbhole. The so-called upper bore. In this design, a round throat opening out into a square one provides the first important detail, a flare into the bore proper where the corners of the square start to exceed the diameter of the circle.

    As soon as this flare is established we need to increase it, from about 30 mm along or so. The size and position of this increase affects the stability of hard D and the ease of the transition from the lower to the upper octave.

    The area 1/2 way to the thumb controls the truth of the top octave of the upper hand. Removing more material here will flatten this upper octave. Hopefully, with the suggested reed, you will find this sharp to begin with, giving some scope for tuning it. This part of the bore can also have a strong effect on hard D. If the upper octave, especially A', is too sharp so will be hard D and it may even become unstable.

    If the bore is too small just above the thumbhole, back D' may be weak, and possibly flat. This bore area affects the strength of this while the size and position of the hole govern the pitch more. If back D seems a little weak, possibly flat, and it's not due to a poor reed, enlarge the bore here. This will have a secondary effect on hard D.

    Below this, in the area of the fingerholes, there are many complicated effects on chanter performance and tuning. If you stick to the size and position of holes and the few simple bore enlargements I've suggested, you will not go far wrong here. The general idea for tuning fingerholes is to enlarge the holes to bring a note up to pitch. This should be done from the higher pitched holes down and the holes should not be made larger than the suggested final sizes.

    A sophistication here is that if you have already got the upper top octave about right, while a note is still a little flat and the pitch of it's octave is sharper, enlarge only the hole. This is equivalent to reducing the depth of this hole, from the OUTSIDE. If the bottom octave of a note seems sharper than the top one and the bottom one is not yet up to pitch, enlarge the bore immediately above that hole, as far up the bore as the edge of the next hole.

    If the octave is about right and the hole is at it's maximum size and the note is not yet high enough, gouge a little wood out of the bore above the fingerhole. This may be especially necessary for the high D', the A and the E.

    It is always better to start from a slightly flat note and enlarge the hole or the bore to bring it up to pitch. If the upper top octave is already flat, and tuning the holes and adjusting the bore doesn't fix it, you may need to fill in the 1/2 way area in the upper bore with some epoxy or glue a little wood back in there.

    The fingerholes can be enlarged with the simple tapered reamer or a 1/4" rat tail file and tubes of coarse sandpaper.

    If it happens that you cannot get the top octave sharp or flat enough for a particular note, then you can make a new lid with the hole moved 2mm up or down. Move it down the bore if the top octave is too sharp and up towards the reed if the top octave is too flat. Don't move it too far though, or you will end up with other nasty problems. If you find you are moving too far from the figures given, it is time to check the internal size of what you have made, and also to test it for leaks.

    You will probably never be able to get E' higher than slightly flat when played on the knee, and moving the F# hole down the bore will not have the same octave flattening effect that it does on other notes nearby, except when it is played off the knee.

    As you might see amongst all of this, there are four main independant variables for tuning a note and it's octave :- The bore size above the hole, the depth of the hole, the size of the hole, and the position of the hole. This is assuming that the upper bore is already finalised.

    For all of the above areas I have suggested a good initial amount of enlargement. If this doesn't produce a chanter which behaves nicely, then follow these suggestions to remedy it. As I make more of these, experiment with reeds and so forth, I will make revisions.

    If you are happy with the result so far, you can clean off all of the silicon rubber, which has probably not even set yet, from all gluing surfaces with some (methylated spirit). When the surfaces have dried out a little, lightly sand them on the flat board.

    NOW YOU CAN GLUE THE LID ON WITH SUPAGLUE !

    Align it carefully. Clamp it well, and run extra beads of glue along outside edges, especially if there are any gaps visible.

    When this is dry, plane or sand any overhangs away.

    Shaping the Top Tenon:

    The chanter now being square or rectangular in cross section, we need to make it circular at the reed end so that it can fit in the windcap. This could be done using a wood lathe, making a square plug for the other end and turning it between centres. IF the wood used is thick enough, the whole outside can be made round, including blocks for keys. However the following method is less hazardous and doesn't use a lathe.

    Mark the length of the tenon around all 4 faces, about 35mm long is suitable here. Draw a circle on the end, centered on the reed socket, slightly smaller than the windcap id if this is small, or as big as possible otherwise.

    With a flat file or a knife, first make the square octagonal, then remove the corners of the octagon and so on, approaching the drawn circle.

    When it is close to this and starts to look smooth, sand it around with coarse and fine sandpaper until it is as round as possible.

    If you are going to use cork to make it airtight then simply glue this on with rubber cement. Rubberised automotive sheet cork is good for this. If you are going to use thread to make a seal, you can score some lines around, known in the bagpipe world as combing. Use a triangular file or a hacksaw blade with the set ground off the teeth to do this.

    It is a good idea to do something like this at the bottom end of the chanter. A short piece of tubing can be fitted there to reinforce the glue joins. You should at least remove the square corners, no matter how you are going to shape the rest of the chanter exterior.

    It may be necessary to fit a wider disk at the top tenon as on a regular chanter, to stop it from going too far into the windcap. Adjust the length of the tenon accordingly.

    Shape the rest of the chanter however you wish.

    Above all else, use your imagination to create ways of making chanters like this!

    Making a Reed

    The overal length of the assembled reed is 78mm and the lowest crow is around G#'.

    The staple is hobbitube with a 4.1mm id, 51mm long. The eye is formed to a 1.7mm minimum diameter and the taper starts at about 1/3 of the way to the eye. The taper starts gently , stays steady for a while and finally gets steeper towards the eye, in the last 8mm. To check the taper, a 3.75mm (9/64") rod should fit to 21mm in.

    The head is 13.6mm wide at the tip tapering to 13mm wide, 15 mm down from the tip, then tapering more steeply to11.5mm wide just above the bridle. After that it tapers to a sharp point under the binding. The total cane length of one blade is 53mm. The amount of cane exposed above a 4mm copper bridle is about 22mm.

    The slip should be worked to about a 50mm inside diameter.*** A slip with a 26mm outside diameter would be suitable.

    The winding goes to about 51mm from the bottom of the reed.

    The usual reed making cautions and caveats apply! There are many well written books on how to make reeds like this one for the Irish pipes.

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