The Famous "Penny-Chanter"

History's first home-buildable chanter for the Irish uilleann pipes.

Copyright 1997 David C. Daye

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I. Overview

A "chanter" is a melody-playing pipe which is a component of a bagpipe. The chanter of the Irish uilleann pipe is the most advanced bagpipe chanter in history. "Uilleann" is an Irish (Gaelic) word which means "elbow," since both elbows are used to play the instrument; an archaic meaning may also be "elder [tree]" whose bark was once used to make reeds for the instrument.

Click here for a photo of a full set of Irish uilleann pipes. Click here for a photo of (parts of) me playing the pipes. Click here for extended introduction to the Irish uilleann pipes (go down to middle of page).

Its chanter is a close cousin to the original baroque oboe which developed into the modern concert oboe. Older-style uilleann pipes and baroque oboes have some similar dimensions and geometry, and their reeds are made the same way.

Click here for a back & white photo of 2 ordinary traditional chanters. The one at left is inserted into the brass cap which protects the reed, and is attached to the rest of a bagpipe. The one at right has its cap removed to expose the special oboe-like double-reed which creates the sound.

Until two months ago the only way to make an uilleann pipe chanter was to bore it out of a 15" long stick of expensive, carefully aged hardwood. Unlike other bagpipes which only play in one octave, the uilleann pipe chanter plays 2 octaves, and this feature places great constraints on the internal dimensions of the instrument. Tiny changes of shape can render a good-sounding instrument inoperable, or make a well behaved instrument too badly tuned to be worth playing.

Chanters sell for hundreds of dollars and are usually backordered for 6-12 months. In contrast the Penny-Chanter, being made of metal, does not change shape in response to aging or climate changes, costs under $20, and can be made by the piper in a few casual evenings' time. I coined the term "Penny-Chanter" after the well known Irish "penny-whistle," so named because this cousin of the recorder and flageollette could be made by a common person for about a penny. Since a common person today can make one of my uilleann pipe chanters for the cost of a few meals, the term seemed appropriate to borrow.

Click here for a black-and-white photograph (large 207 kb) of three Penny-Chanters in various experimental configurations, alongside a traditionally made wooden chanter (3rd from the left, dark colored with white decorative mountings at each end).

Click Here to receive a .WAV sound file of a few seconds of Penny-Chanter playing unaccompanied.Requires sound card and speakers in your computer.

II. Construction

Click here for a diagram of how the Penny-Chanter is constructed.

The construction is very simple. Short lengths of very thin brass tubing, commonly sold in hobby or modelmaking stores, are superglued together to create a stepwise version of the tapered or cone-shaped central bore of the pipe. My reasoning was that the sound waves created by the pipe are so much longer than either the distance between successive tube-ends, or the thickness of the step-edges, that the sound could be fooled by this construction and would behave as though it were generated in a smooth pipe. For the most part this seems to have proven correct.

Now, you will see in the photograph at top that the chanter is covered by some sort of dark wrapping over much of its length. In order to get the correct musical tone and to respond correctly to traditional finger positions for the Irish scale, the walls of this cone must be fairly thick. There are important effects caused by the passage of sound through deep, narrow finger-holes as the piper plays.

In my experimental prototypes, I have created an appropriate thickness by wrapping the brass body with several layers of ordinary rubber-based electrician's heat-shrink wiring insulation tubes. The tubes are wider than the chanter. They are positioned over the holes, heated with a candle or torch, and they contract to form a tight skin which is easily deepened or peeled away to obtain the proper musical behavior of each note. If a maker were to produce Penny-Chanters commercially, some more attractive and permanent exterior would be required. The prototypes look rather silly with their alarming caution advising that they are rated to 600 Volts!

Click Here to see a photograph of the rubber insulation in the process of shrinking onto the brass pipe.

III. Debut Tour

I took my first Penny-Chanter to the West Coast Tionol ["tchunnel" or pipers-gathering] in San Francisco in February. A 2nd prototype was sent with a Seattle piper to the great Belfast Tionol in March and another in Germany in April. The chanter attracted a great deal of attention and interest. Some remarks are quoted below.

IV. Comments of Others

These remarks are quoted from public and private e-mail correspondence about the Penny-Chanter.

Hello David,
I have to say I been following your postings and your page about
your adventure with the Penny-Chanter. I even downloaded your sound 
file of you P-C and was very amaze of how close the tembre was 
compared to a hardwood chanter. I even looked at the wave and the 
P-C was little brighter due more upper harmonic but not much diffrent 
from a hardwood chanter. 
However, my hat is off and really like were you doing. I hope 
someday I get to check out this chanter or find the time to 
start super-glueing one together.

This report from a maker of traditional pipes and reeds; the names are other makers

Subject: Penny chanter

just played the penny chanter and you know what ?
I think it is totally excellent. I thought it would be good but it's
much better, it is brilliant and I can't wait to see the faces of
Hughes, Wooff and Rogge when they hear it. 
David, I am so impressed you can't believe it. Great NEW work !
best regards

This posted publicly by a piper on the Internet:

Just sat down and heard the penny chanter being played by our 
fearless leader on a video from the San Fran Tionol. 
In a word, WOW!! It sounds just as good as any wooden chanter I've 
heard. If I wasn't sold before, I am now. It sounds more mellow 
than many a blackwood chanter I've heard played. I really think 
Dave is on to something here. 
Dave, I'm going to try and make my own. Wish me luck! 

This report from an American piper. NPU is the Dublin, Ireland based worldwide pipers' club Na Piobairi Uilleann.

As you must have heard by now the PC was a complete success in 
Belfast plus it got rave reviews from the boys at NPU-[expert teacher] 
played it in his tuesday night teaching class-and 
in the hands of a master it sounded wonderful. All who wanted 
a go had the chance. The same for the Easter German Tionol. 
[another expert teacher] showed it to his class and he also thought 
it was wonderful. 

The overall thought was that it should be produced and marketed 
in some way. I am sending the plans to [maker], he works in 
[European maker's] shop. I believe he will make one for he was 
very interested. 

I believe that if I had some PC'ers with me to sell at a reasonable 
price, they would all be sold. There is not much to say after you 
play one and find out it works and it plays as good as the chanter 
you are now using except, "I want one!"

Ask me any questions that you might have concerning the PC in Europe.

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