Make an Uilleann Pipe "Penny-Chanter"

Copyright 1997 David C. Daye, 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 CLICK HERE

New November 2000: Quiet Medium-Bore Model

New April 1999: Popular Attractive Plastic Outer Shell Version
C/C# Flat STyle Narrow-Bore Penny-Chanter May 1998
Minor Revision Nov. 1997
Minor Revision 10 October 1997
Minor Revision 26 August 1997
Revision 23 June 1997
Minor Revision 27 May 1997
Major Revision 27 April 1997
Updated 8 April 1997
Updated 22 February 1997
Updated 5 February 1997
First edition January 1997


Some tapered-bore pipes can be reproduced well with a very simple, fast, inexpensive and easy construction of telescoped straight thin-walled metal tubing which is sold at many hobby or hardware type stores in different parts of the world. I have already published methods for making tapered, and reasonably well tuned, Irish whistles (click here for description).

The uilleann pipe "Penny-Chanter" is made with the same construction to effectively reproduce the reed seat, the narrower "throat" of the chanter, and the remaining expanding-taper bore down to the bell or bottom. Some sort of exterior covering is applied over the finger- and key-hole region to create the proper depth or "chimney length" of these holes. This is essential for proper tuning and the distinctive uilleann pipe behavior and voice. A wooden top is attached which fits into the chanter cap.

I estimate the cost of building this chanter to be roughly $20 US or roughly 1/2 the cost of a chanter reed!

Table of Contents


These designs are still evolving--yet the basic concept is proving to be very useful and reliable.

I have two slightly different construction variants playing right now, a total of 4 working chanters. These are well enough tuned and comfortable enough to play to state that the design is clearly workable at least for introductory study of the uilleann pipes. I have also demonstrated that a Penny-Chanter is quite useful for medium-quality playing in jam sessiuns and amplified folk-music stage bands.

Although there is not enough information here to allow a beginner or nonpiper to make a chanter and begin playing, there is enough to allow some established pipers to get other beginners started. I hope this can be of benefit to some pipers' clubs and teachers, at the very least to enable practice to begin while a more conventional instrument is on order.

At the present time this information is intended exclusively for established pipers who already have the other equipment (chanter cap, bag, and bellows) and who know how to make the necessary reed. The main intent now is to get other pipers, or anyone who can use the incomplete information presented here, to help improve the design.

Note-- The current Penny-Chanters are playing all the same reeds that play in the wood chanters from which they were copied. The reeds demonstrate all the same features and shortcoming in both chanters. Therefore it is safe to say that the Penny-Chanter construction method can probably be used to replicate other U.P. chanter designs and even regulators--not just the particular dimensions given in the example(s) shown here. For more information see Diagrams and Data below.

The uilleann pipe chanter: It's not just an adventure--it's an OBOE!

News!! San Francisco, USA, and Belfast Tionol Demonstration Results

The original prototype Penny-Chanter was demonstrated at the 1997 tionol in San Francisco (by me), while prototype #3 was taken round to tionols in Belfast and Germany by Wally Charm. These were made with maximum attention to musical playability in an experimental construction. Penny-Chanters intended for sale or serious performing would of course require a more sturdy construction and attactive appearance.

The potential of the Penny-Chanter can be summed up by the reaction of a disappointed Tionol volunteer at San Francisco who had missed the chance to hear the Penny-Chanter. "Not true" said my wife Beth as she pointed a few feet away, "you've been hearing it all day long from that table right over there!"

Reports from the Belfast and German events include spectators giving "shouts of 'what's that?' and 'I can't believe it.'" A number of pipe makers have affirmed the basic utility of the chanter as an entry level instrument, especially in consideration of its very low cost. One testor reported on the uilleann pipe e-mail list that it would be a nice option for playing when one's primary chanter needed to be sent off to a maker for repairs or reeding. The touring Penny-Chanter was even used at Na Piobairi Uilleann by an instructor teaching a group lesson.

This is not to claim the Penny-Chanter as any kind of super-instrument, but it does show that a decently musical and well-behaved chanter, the equivalent of a school-band-quality clarinet for example, can be made by this remarkably inexpensive and easy method. I hope it also advances the acceptability of chanters made in more traditional manner from other artificial materials, as the Highland pipers have done for nearly a generation.

Sound Demonstration Files

The thumping noises are from the bellows. Microphone was set too close to them, very hastily for this demonstration. I believe this proves that the Penny-Chanter concept can be made to work.


The only tools which are absolutely required are:

Materials and Supplies

NOTE: Brass tubing is sold according to *OUTSIDE* diameter. Therefore the vendor's term for a 7/32" i.d. tube is 1/4" (o.d.) tube.

Diagrams & Data

Assembly Instructions

Cut each piece of tubing to length. Use reamer or round file to remove the constriction formed at the end of each piece by the tubing cutter, so that the next smaller sized tube can slide easily through each end of tubing. File or sand away sharp edges at each end of tubing.

Omit the 3 smallest pieces (throat and upper bore to around back D) at this time, since they are involved in fine-tuning. Begin with the 4th smallest i.d. tube, which usually ends below the back D hole. All the larger pieces can be cut and assembled at this time using either superglue or one of the appropriate types of solder. Solder is far stronger and more permanent but for experimental purposes the super glue is quick, inexpensive and easy to use.

Suggested Supergluing Steps:

  1. Slightly compress the bottom of the inner piece so that it snugly presses against the inside of the outer piece (best to compress this rather than the top of the outer piece so that less superglue is scraped off during insertion)
  2. Roughen the outer and inner surfaces intended for mating with fine sandpaper (200 grit or finer)
  3. Mark the inner piece to show destination of top of outer piece
  4. Slide outer piece part-way over un-glued inner piece
  5. Drip superglue onto exposed section of inner tubing, keep away from outer piece
  6. Rotate briefly to allow superglue to run all around the diameter
  7. Quickly slide inner tube up to mark in one quick, firm motion
  8. Rotate outer piece over inner piece for one second or two to spread glue more
  9. Joint will lock immediately
  10. Clean up spilled glue with towel and/or optional superglue solvent
  11. Scrape away hardened glue from exterior by scraping with inside of a larger diameter tubing
  12. Allow finished chanter to sit for 1 hour before drilling

Suggested Soldering Steps:

  1. Use low temperature solder intended for temperatures within reach of an ordinary kitchen oven
  2. Check soldering instructions; flux may not be necessary
  3. Roughen the outer and inner surfaces intended for mating with fine sandpaper (200 grit or finer)
  4. Slightly compress the bottom of the inner tubing before inserting, for snug slip-resistant assembly (better to compress this rather than the top of the outer piece, so that less solder is scraped off during insertion)
  5. Coat the inner tube's outside mating surface with the solder and insert into the larger outer tube to the correct distance
  6. Wipe away any excess solder with paper towel
  7. Repeat until shell is fully assembled
  8. Place in oven upon or propped above sheet of aluminum foil to catch any spills
  9. Heat in kitchen oven set slightly above soldering temperature (roughly 450 - 500 degrees Farenheit, check solder instructions) for 15-20 minutes
  10. Remove, allow to cool

Making the Critical Upper Bore

The simple stepped construction used in the wider lower part of the pipe has proven too crude to use in the upper bore region. Either a very close copy of the original top bore must be somehow cast, bored or rolled from carefully shaped sheet metal (the latter was used for my first successful step-tube chanter), or some more complex shaping must be applied to tubes in the critical region. In any case, the exact dimensions and shapes in this region need to be adjusted to fine-tune the chanter, so we use a construction and installation procedure that will allow us to finish a well-tuned and well-behaved chanter.

The easiest method for home-building is to employ taper-cut tubing. By cutting the bottom of a tube at a narrow angle, the gradually narrowing "tail" reproduces the acoustics of a smooth tapered wooden bore. It also allows for considerable and easy fine-tuning. Varying the shape here creates or solves behavior problems with bottom D (such as gurgling or lack of hard bottom D), excess effort required to reach and hold the 2nd octave, and mistuning between the two octaves, among many other problems. Special thanks to the Australian pipemaker Craig Fischer for demonstrating this construction principle to me!

Click Here to see a diagram of one particular set of 2 innermost tubes which create the throat and the upper bore. The piece at left is the smallest or Throat Tube. On the right is the larger, longer Upper Bore Tube. Dimensions will vary; any dimensions shown represent one particular prototype.

The "tail" on these pieces is designed as follows. Click Here to see diagram. The tube is an intact cylinder down to the location where its i.d. is found within the tapered bore in the original pipe. Just at this point, the side of the cylinder opens up to form the top of the tail. The tail extends down into the intact or cylindrical portion of the next larger size tube, increasingly narrow, thereby creating an increasing amount of air volume as the bottom of the pipe is approached. The tail ends just at the height where the larger tube opens up at the start of its own tail. In theory this creates an equivalent of the continuous taper of the original chanter. It would seem that all the tubes of the pipe should be cut this way so that the entire bore would equate to a smooth tapered bore. However two models I have built this way have tuned and behaved rather differently from the original. The matter is under investigation. Meanwhile a chanter made with straight cut-off tubes for the lower 2/3 or so, and taper-cut tubes for the innermost 2-3 tubes, seems to give a decent replication of the pattern wood chanter.

Making the Actual Throat

If the throat i.d. of the pattern chanter is fortunately equal to that of a particular size of tubing, then a piece of such tubing will be the innermost or throat piece. Most likely the throat on the original will be a straight or cylindrical section of very short length, some 2 - 5 mm, perhaps a bit more. This will be the length of the upper portion of our throat tube. There will be a lower portion opened along one side to fashion a "tail" as described and illustrated above. There will be nothing else inserted in the innermost throat piece if our original throat exactly matches the i.d. of our throat tube.

If however the i.d. of the throat of the pattern chanter is not equal to a particular size of tubing (almost always the case), the next-larger size is used for our throat piece, and an inner lining of some sort is installed at the appropriate location to achieve the desired inner diameter. The throat tube will need to have a short intact cylindrical section, as shown above, followed by a long tail. There are 2 general ways to make the actual throat region which will lie within the short intact cylindrical region. 1) One or two layers of a narrow paper strip can be thoroughly "wet" with modelmaking glue, wrapped around a small drill bit, and then unwrapped while being pressed against the inside of the tubing; or . 2) a partial section of the next smaller size metal tubing can be cut and super-glued into the upper portion of the throat tube. Click here to see a diagram illustrating these two different methods.

I suggest grinding the tails of both the Throat Tube and the Upper Bore Tube to a simple flat slope at first. This can be done very quickly with an inexpensive disk-sanding attachment for a common handheld electric drill, or more tediously with an ordinary flat metal file. Be sure to clear away burrs and thin shards of metal from all edges. While testing the chanter these last 2 pieces of tubing can be given a 1-layer wrap of teflon tape so that they will hold place and remain airtight, until permanent locations are set at which time they may be glued into place.

Once these pieces are pushed down into place within the chanter, the head of the chanter will have a large inside diameter, too large to hold a reed. Length(s) of tubing of the appropriate diameter may be set into place within the top to form a narrower reed seat to hold the base of the reed during testing. Once the upper bore is permanently installed, the reed seat tubing can be glued in place as well.

Making a Top

The top of the Penny-Chanter is now very narrow. A tenon needs to be attached which will fit snugly into the chanter cap for playing. A piece of dowel rod somewhat smaller in diameter than the i.d. than the chanter cap is cut to a length of 1" to 2" and carefully drilled on-center with a hole of inner diameter equal to the outer diameter of the top of the chanter. This should be temporarily installed over the head of the chanter and wrapped with hemp and/or teflon tape so that it fits sungly and airtight into the cap, for testing finger holes & fine tuning in the bag without having to mouth-blow the reed. Be sure to add extra wrapping at the bottom of the dowel (or if turning on a lathe, leave the bottom larger in diameter), so that the chanter cannot be pushed too far into the chanter cap thereby damaging the reed.

Once the fine-tuning is finished, and there will be no additional covering applied to the tone holes, the wooden top can be permanently glued into place.

Making the Tone (Finger) Holes

Design Considerations

The Penny-Chanter shell or wall can be made much thinner than a wood chanter's wall. But this tends to make the 1st octave note a bit sharper than the 2nd octave note, all other things being equal, and makes the notes brighter in tone and less "bendy" or sensitive to cross fingering, more like the Highland chanter which is also thin-walled. If a soft material is used to thicken the shell, the finger- or tone-holes should be drilled through the metal body first. If a hard substance is used, it should be applied first, then the holes can be drilled. I will assume the construction is using a soft outer shell.

Making the Holes

Mount the chanter firmly in a clamp. Use a tap of a hammer on a sharp punch to make a starting dent for the drill, which otherwise will wander off the round surface of the shell. If you are copying an existing design, the holes through the brass shell should probably be drilled full-size or perhaps very slightly over-sized. They can be effectively reduced in size by making smaller holes through the outer layers of whatever form of covering is later applied. Do not force the drill. Use easy pressure and high speed especially as the drill is almost finished, in order to minimize tearing and distortions of the layers of tubing.

Smaller holes give flatter pitch, more response to cross-fingering, a quieter basic note with greater "swell" or increased loudness when the chanter is lifted and/or extra fingers below the hole are removed. Larger-than-usual holes tend to be needed for notes which are (sometimes) fingered with the chanter set upon the knee and only one finger up, such as F# and A.

After the holes are drilled, use a smaller diameter bit at high speed to grind away any burrs from the inside bottom edge of the hole. A long small-diameter bit can be inserted up the bore and used to clean away burrs beneath the holes.

Increasing the Wall Thickness at Tone Holes

For experimental purposes, a quick, inexpensive and easy way to thicken the chanter shell is to apply lengths of electrician's plastic or rubber heat-shrink wire insulation over the outside of the chanter to cover the holes. For a more permanent or commercially sold chanter, the brass portion of the body would be built up to some particular outer diameter(s), and some firmer plastic or other type of tubing would be snugly fit and somehow glued to the body. Color and hardness would be chosen for appearance and good feel under the fingers. The following instructions are for the experimental heat-shrink wrap.

The finished shell must be at least 1/2 to 2/3 as thick as that of the original wood chanter. If only short pieces of heat-shrink are available, a single layer can be pieced together if the joints are placed well away from holes. Cut the heat-shrink tubing to length, allowing 1/8" or a few mm extra length for shrinkage. Position the tubing over the desired region of the chanter. If shrink-wrap has printing or labelling along one side, rotate this towards the back of the chanter to improve the appearance. The wrap can be held in place with a finger or two while heating, or, for short pieces, with a bit of adhesive tape. Apply gentle heat to shrink the wrap into place. Gas flames such as from a stove or cigarette lighter are clean, but matchflame or candle flame will do. Do not get a flame very close to the wrap or it will burn and harden the wrap.

Allow the chanter to cool after each piece is heated or the super-glue or solder may be loosened.

Once the chanter is wrapped, the underlying holes will be quite visible and can be re-drilled (if the wrapping is a hard substance) or punched out (if rubber electrician's heat-shrink) with appropriate diameter of brass tubing whose end has been reamed out from the inside and/or filed down from the outside to make a sharp edge all around. Such edges are easily dulled in contact with underlying brass layers. If the hole is not completely punched through on a first attempt, check the end of the tube and recreate the sharp edge as necessary. A fine pointed hobby knife is also useful for cleaning up holes. The soft rubber material is not suitable for drilling or cleaning with a drill or small file.


Fine-Tuning the Penny-Chanter

Now the upper bore pieces are temporarily assembled and carefully pushed into place. Wrap the outside round portion of each with a small amount of teflon tape so that, when inserted into the next larger tube, it will hold position yet permit deliberate adjustment.

Wrap hemp around the base of the reed staple and/or finish with teflon tape for a snug fit into the reed seat tube(s). Now set this assembly into the head of the chanter. Put the cap onto the chanter and begin testing.

Appropriately reeded and tuned, this chanter will play the 2nd octave at *no more* or even *less* pressure than the 1st octave after the bump up. The behavior (gurgles, hard D, stable back D, octave ability) should generally be optimized first, then tuning of notes after proper behavior has been established. As you might guess, when tuning is manipulated, it is possible for any aspect of the behavior to go awry. Certain note(s) in the 2nd octave may become hard to achieve or hold, gurgles may appear, etc.

Upper Bore Adjustment

The bottom of the throat (which in our case is the bottom of the cylindrical portion of the throat-tube) has an ideal distance from the bell. This can be varied perhaps +/- 3 to 5 mm to suit reeds or the side-effects of other adjustments. The throat position will affect overall tuning of the chanter, gurgles on the bell note, and difficulty attaining and holding the 2nd octave among other things. Therefore it seems best to set the throat position exactly as it is on the pattern chanter. Proceed with other adjustments, and then experiment with throat position to remedy any unpleasant side effects of those other adjustments.

Various Chanter Adjustment Notes

Bottom D Gurgles, Other Gurgles & Howls
Vary throat position up & down a few mm from ideal. Make throat very slightly narrower. Vary the tube and tail dimensions on the Throat Tube and Upper Bore Tube. Most of these steps create tuning changes which may need to be addressed as below.
2nd Octave Not Parallel
Pull Throat Tube out more to flatten the uppermost 2nd octave. Push in to reverse. Or reduce the amount of metal in Throat Tube to flatten the high 2nd octave. Grind center of tail hollow first, then shorten for greater effect. Add metal same places (make new piece with tail longer or fuller) for reverse effect.
2nd Octave Out of Tune Overall
Pull Upper Bore Tube out more to flatten upper 2nd octave. Push in to reverse. Or reduce amount of metal in Upper Bore Tube to flatten 2nd octave overall. Grind tail hollow, shorten tail, and/or shorten main body of tube in any combination. Add metal same places (make new piece with less cut & ground away) for reverse. Make reed staple slightly narrower to flatten 2nd octave.
Make Actual Throat Narrower (smaller i.d.)
Will accept (may require) narrower i.d. reed staple. Bottom and back D's less likely to gurgle, back D more likely to be pressure-sensitive.
Move Hole Up (Down)
Note sharpened (flattened) in both octaves. F#, E and E-flat may react differently due to effects from being close to the chanter bottom.
Undercut Upper (Lower) Inside Edge of Hole
Note sharpened more in 1st (2nd) octave than 2nd (1st) octave.
Enlarge Hole
Make note sharper, somewhat louder, less increase in loudness when lifting off the knee, brighter in tone, less response to cross-fingering below the hole.
Add Layers of Wrap to Make Hole Deeper
Make note flatter in the 1st octave, more responsive to cross-fingering below the hole, mellower tone.
Lengthen Internal Tubing Above Hole
Do this by making a short (few mm or fractions of inch) extension tube to slide into place within the bore. Makes note flatter in the 1st octave, slightly flattening all notes below it in their 1st octave.
Shorten Internal Tubing Above Hole
Makes note sharper in 1st octave and slightly sharpens 1st octave of all notes below.


Making an Optional Octave C-Natural Key

Click here for link to Penny-Chanter twist-key page. Inexpensive, no-solder method works for any uilleann pipe keys.

One method for making the mounting for chanter keys. Some brass U-shaped channel can be made or cut from rectangular cross-section brass tubing. Photo shows side and end view of rectangular tubing, and a key made from square brass stock with a pad soldered at the end, the key is fit in the end of some freshly cut mounting stock.


Although many others have had the basic notion of replicating a tapered bore with segments of straight tube, I never knew this when I created my step-tube simulated taper pennywhistle in 1995. But the Penny-Chanter story actually began with a chance visit from Carla Dundes of Cincinnati, Ohio, to my room during Irish Week in West Virginia in July, 1996. She had acquired a Quinn chanter and wanted to know if it was junk or worthy of pursuit in learning uilleann pipes. I knew the excellent reputation of the Quinn chanters (the pipe reedmaking course at Irish Week was being taught by Quinn chanter player Benedict Koehler) and in hasty testing I found it much better behaved in many ways than any of my own chanters--using my reeds! I referred Carla to Benedict, who forcefully affirmed to her that she had a rare and valuable opportunity with this chanter.

Carla visited me for a reed adjustment and introductory playing session in November of 1996 and I had time to confirm that it played virtually all my reeds very well indeed. I had no trouble adjusting her reed, and I sold her one of my own as a spare. Realizing the poor quality of all the chanters I had been able to buy over a span of 13 years, I prepared to abandon pipes myself, but had one last thought of applying the step tube construction to a chanter I might make myself. There is very little manufacturing in my region of the world, and I had no easy source of lathes and tools for traditional pipemaking or I might have tried making chanters years earlier.

I made one based on my Dave Williams chanter and to my great surprise, before I had even drilled any finger holes, the chanter displayed both a decent bottom D and hard D almost the same as the Williams. I realized that this construction would indeed be capable of making as good a chanter as any it could be patterned upon. Carla agreed to allow me to visit and measure her chanter in detail, and the New York piper Bill Ochs very generously offered to ship me his own Quinn chanter for an extended period of study. Bill was not currently playing this chanter and did not have it reeded. However it had been made for him by David Quinn who was a personal friend. Great care had been taken in its manufacture, the bore remaining very round and straight, and so I felt it would be the best representative of Quinn's work and tooling upon which to base a Penny-Chanter. It has been invaluable to have the Quinn on hand as I experimented with the Penny-Chanter copy of it, to compare reed behavior in my chanters against the original.

The Australian pipemaker Craig Fischer was absolutely indespensible to this project. Most obvious to a user of the Penny-Chanter will be his ideas for construction and tunability of the throat and upper bore, which he showed could be made arbitrarily similar to a tapered wooden bore if the bottoms of the tubes were cut at a tapering angle. This allows the chanter to be completed and fine-tuned using very robust, easy-to-manipulate tubing consistent with the rest of the construction. Craig has also kept up a steady interchange of ideas with me, some of which have been very helpful in keeping me from wandering too far off track. Perhaps his greatest contribution has been to support my morale, which was absolutely broken by years of failure with the instrument I have long wished to play.

Special thanks to Wally Charm, editor of the Pipers' Review in Seattle, who has been very encouraging for a long time, and who graciously offered to ferry the demonstration prototype of the Penny-Chanter to the Spring 1997 Tionols in Germany and Belfast. There is no way that such an unusual and unexpected development in pipe construction could have been recognized and appreciated through diagrams and textual discussion. The chanter had to be presented in person to expert players and makers, and Wally was the perfect ambassador.

My true hope for the uilleann pipe is to see traditional makers using plastic and other artificial materials to construct chanters, for some buyers. But having invented the Penny-Chanter I would also hope that it remains a viable option for uilleann pipe construction by the (would-be) piper himself or herself, especially those who enjoy making things for their own use, and persons of limited financial means such as the unemployed and children who would learn the pipes.

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