Make an Uilleann Pipe Chanter Reed
Also contains information on natural and artificial drone and regulator
Latest update 25 June 1997
Copyright 1996 David C. Daye, all text, image and sound files presented
Feel free to copy this work for desktop use and/or your individual study
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- Overview and Disclaimer
- Seth Gallagher's Reed
Making Page (Lots of description of things you'll see here.)
- Tools: Buying and Making
- Staples: Rolled and Tubing
- Forming Blades
- Initial Scraping
- Initial Testing
- Intermediate Scraping
- Artificial Drone Reeds
- Aritficial Regulator Reeds
Overview -- Revised 06 December 96
This work will demonstrate tools, procedures, techniques and tests used
in many of the popular reedmaking methods or "recipes" as I prefer
to call them. There will not be a detailed recipe of my own or someone
else's since there are many published in popular books such as David Quinn's
The Piper's Despair, Pat Sky's A Manual for the Irish Uileann
Pipes, Tim Britton's My Method, Wilbert Garvin's The Irish
Uilleann Pipes, and Dave Hegarty's Reedmaking Made Easy book,
not to mention regular articles in the Pipers' Review and An
What follow here will be photos, diagrams and some diagnostic sound
samples of many of the aspects of reed making and adjusting which are not
illustrated in some existing printed tutors or are not well shown in the
few existing video tutors. No special claim of originality is made for
this material. Most of it is routinely taught by piping instructors individually
and at uilleann pipe gatherings and in the sources mentioned above. I present
it here simply as a service to the piping community, especially isolated
learners who may have difficulty interpreting texts or oral descriptions.
Perhaps authors and editors of future works will find some useful ideas
here for their own presentations.
I am willing to consider sharing this material or its original sources
with authors revising or publishing new reedmaking works but please note
this material is copyright so it may not be used without
my express permission.
These illustrations should be used only as a guide for using
a complete existing recipe which the maker of your particular chanter knows
to be appropriate for it. Many experts have spent painful years learning
the truth that measurements and techniques cannot be freely interchanged
between different recipes, even though radically different approaches can
produce excellent reeds in the end. I am most sorry that I cannot offer
suggestions for designing reeds to suit chanters, that is a topic far beyond
my technical expertise.
It is actually not very difficult to make a reed, even a good reed.
A complete novice can produce a decent reed in 2 or 3 hours' work spread
over several days, provided s/he has complete instructions, good raw materials,
and of course a chanter which is well behaved and tolerant of modest variations
that will occur naturlly when following any chosen reed recipe.
This last statement is more important than it appears. As some very
famous and very frustrated pipers have observed, there seem to be many
chanters in circulation which simply cannot be reeded to play both musically
and comfortably. There is no easy way for a learner to know the quality
of a chanter so it is always best to arrange to spend a comfortable period
of time having an established player or maker examine the chanter in order
to know if the instrument is worthy of purchasing or, if already owned,
is worthy of further efforts.
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- Back -- The lower part of the blades of the reed, left covered
by bark, below the scraped area.
- Bed -- The 2 relatively flat surfaces on the upper half of the
staple onto which the blades are bound.
- Binding -- The wrapping used to tie together the pieces of the
- Blades -- The 2 curved sheets of cane which vibrate to create
the sound of the reed.
- Bore -- The airspace inside any musical pipe or staple.
- Bridle -- Also called a "collar" (see below).
- Cane -- A type of hollow grass plant, latin name of Arundo
Donax, used for bagpipe and other woodwind reeds. It is commonly purchased
from growers in southern France (orchestral woodwinds) and Spain (mostly
pipers) but can be grown in many climates such as southern England, most
of the USA and Australia.
- Chamber -- The airspace between the blades in the lower region
just above the staple.
- Collar -- Any type of adjustable, sometimes movable wrapping
applied to the blades not for assembly but for controlling the behavior
of the reed. Often, a narrow band of thin copper or brass, or several turns
of metal wire.
- Corners -- The upper outside parts of the lips of the blades.
- Elevation -- The amount of opening between the lips of double
reeds or between the tongue and body of a single reed.
- Eye -- The oval-shaped opening at the top of the staple.
- Gouge -- A type of curved chisel often used for rough preparation
of the inside surface of the blades.
- Heart -- The center area of the scraped outside surface of the
- Lips -- The top opening of the reed, where most of the vibration
- Mandrel -- A long, thin and usually rounded piece of metal used
for forming and shaping the staple. Usually at least 2 are required,
a "rolling mandrel" for initial forming of (some) staples, and
an "eye" mandrel for creating the fiinal shape at the top of
- Throat -- The bottom of the staple.
- Sanding Cylinder -- any smooth round cylindrical object
used for fashioning the finished interior surface of the blades.
- Scrape -- Verb, the act of removing bark and cane from the outside
of the reed, either by literally scraping with some sort of tool or also
by shaving or sanding. Noun, the area of the outside of the reed from which
bark has been removed.
- Shooting Block -- a piece of wood or other material with
a shallow trough into which a length of cane is placed for gouging.
- Slip -- A strip of cane split from a natural tube and partially
finished into blades.
- Staple -- The piece of metal tubing onto which the blades of
the reed are bound, and which becomes effectively the uppermost part of
the bore of the chanter.
- Tails -- The bottomost parts of the blades, often slender and
pointed, which rest on the staple and are wrapped under the binding.
- Throat -- usually, the narrowest part of the bore inside a chanter
or regulator. Sometimes, the bottom end of a chanter or regulator reed
staple which lies next to the chanter throat.
- V - The bottom region of the scrape on a double-reed, even if
it is not V-shaped but a more rounded U-shape.
- Waist -- The bottom of the exposed part of the blades and the
top of the binding.
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Tools and Supplies
A modest collection of tools and supplies is required for making reeds.
Generic or Widely-Available Tools
- Sharp knife and/or single-edged razor blade
for cutting shapes in cane.
- Sandpaper - medium, fine and extra fine grades.
- Hammer - small fine hammer, with fairly straight claws, if you need
to make staples.
- Pliers - small needle-nose and also small
cutters for various tasks with staples and bridles..
- Pliers - small flat-bladed needle-nose pliers
for forming the ends of staples (either rolled or tubing types).
- Saw - a fine model-making saw or hacksaw
for cutting cane and possibly tubing to length.
- Tube Cutter - small model-making tubing
cutter, if you make staples or reed tuning-slides from straight tubing.
- Tapered Hand Reamer - small hand tool for
cutting metal away from the inside opening of tubing.
- Files - 2 small metal files, if you are making hand-rolled staples,
or 1 for general use otherwise.
- Gouge - 1 or 2 wood gouges (curved chisels) for rough-carving the initial
interior curved surface of the blades.
Tools That Must be Made or Changed
- Shooting Block - a device for holding strips
of cane as they are gouged to make blades. It consists of a piece of wood
with a shallow trough to hold the curved strip of cane, with a stop at
one end against which the cane rests when being gouged. This one is carved
into a common kitchen cutting board and also includes other features.
- Cane Sizer - hole(s) of various known diameters
used for measuring the outer diameter of tubes or strips of cane.
- Staple Forming Block - piece of wood with
a narrow groove(s), into which the sheet metal blank for the staple and
the forming mandrel are tapped in order to begin forming the staple.
- Sanding Cylinder - any cylinders at least
4" long with straight, smooth outer surfaces ranging from 1-1/2"
to 3" or 3-1/2" outer diameter, for fine finishing of the interior
surfaces of the blades. Sandpaper is wrapped and held onto the outside,
and the gouged cane slip is rubbed back and for in order to finish the
inside surface. Probably only 2-3 will be needed with diameters clustered
near that which is appropriate for your particular recipe.
- Rolling Mandrel - if making rolled staples,
a short thin tapered metal rod around which the sheet metal for a rolled-type
staple is hammered and then shaped, shown here being made in a hand-drill
by filing while being spun against the leg.
- Eye Mandrel - if making any type of staple,
a short thin metal rod with a somewhat smaller diameter and a carefully
tapered end, for use in creating the top end of either tube-type or rolled-type
- "Wax Lamp" - unnecessary but a convenience.
Desk lamp with bees' wax lump on outside of metal shade, to keep it soft
for working with reeds.
- Plumber's teflon tape
- Heavy thread or light string
- Light elastic or rubber bands, and/or O-rings
- Metal tubing
- Sheet metal
- Soldering torch
Special Reedmaking Supplies
Go to Top
Steps in making traditional conical staple
Note: Certain illustrations below will be re-scanned for greater clarity
in early December.
- Obtain thin sheet metal brass (typically .015") or copper (.020"
to .025") from hobby store, roofing contractor etc.
- Cut into modest size pieces 2-1/4" or wider (equals length of
staple) and several inches long (to obtain several staples side-by-side).
Larger pieces of metal may be difficult to raise to high enough temperature
- Anneal (make metal soft enough to bend easily)
by heating to red glow using small plumber's torch or other suitable flame.
It is not necessary to plunge red-hot brass or copper into water to preserve
the softness (as is necessary with steel) but of course it makes the metal
easy to handle immediately.
- Cut into individual staple shapes according
to recipe. Leave slightly oversize. Many rolled conical designs used tapered
blanks, which can be laid out in alternating directions on the sheet metal
as shown in this photo.
- File into exact final shape. Notice metal
appearnce (copper, but brass would look similar at this time). It is black
from the annealing process. Finally, lightly file all the edges to remove
burrs and roughness especially from the surface which will become the critical
inside of the staple.
- Prepare for bending. Lay the metal blank
over the forming-groove, then lay the forming-mandrel over the metal blank.
Be sure everything is carefully centered.
- Tap mandrel and blank into the forming-groove.
The claws of an ordinary claw-hammer are convenient for tapping the slender
mandrel into the narrow groove.
- Tap edges of blank fully around the mandrel.
First remove from groove, then tap edges with modest force using hammer.
Some makers use a wooden block for smoother initial roll. Next
view shows edges sufficiently close at right, still partly open at
- Finish forming by rolling the staple, with
mandrel inside for support, firmly between 2 metal files. The files will
impart a bit of roughness to the outside of the staple, seen at right in
clean area of copper. Section at left has not yet been rolled and remains
blackened from the annealing process. Notice the seam between the edges.
It virtually disappears after a few seconds' rolling between the files.
This seam is nearly airtight at right.
- Notice shape of ends of staple, perfectly
round, and seam is no longer visible. The process of rolling between the
2 files makes this very easy to accomplish.
- If desired, seam can be soldered together to be perfectly airtight,
and to make it easier to form the eye.
- Taper the bottom by filing, to allow staple
to fit farther into chanter. Clean area at right end has been tapered.
- Insert eye-forming mandrel which is a steel
rod whose end is tapered to match the taper of the top end of the staple.
Most modern tapered staples will leave the larger end round, and have the
eye formed at the narrower end. View shows the taper visible from the side,
and the oval-shaped end which is the correct thickness for the finished
eye. The oval must necessarily be much narrower than the width of the eye
since otherwise it would be impossible to insert and remove the mandrel.
- Tap (and/or squeeze with pliers) the eye end of the staple onto the
forming mandrel to begin forming the taper and the eye.
- Notice shape of partly finished eye. It is
generally oval in shape but uneven, often too open at the sides. Often
the the seam re-opens under the stress of forming.
- Finish shaping the taper and the eye by tapping and/or squeezing. If
the seam is open, tap with a glancing blow in order to push the edges of
the seam close together again. Be sure to tap or squeeze towards the edges
of the eye to form the eye into a narrower, evenly shaped oval.
- Notice the shape of the finished eye.
- Tube-type Staple Eye: Staples made of thin
brass tubing are easier to bend. The eye can be finished by inserting the
eye-forming mandrel and then gently squeezing the outside of the eye with
flat-nosed pliers as shown in this photo.
- Finish the staple by filing the tapered surface smooth of any small
bumps. Large bumps must be first tapped away since they will also be present
inside the staple, making the tuning and tone difficult to predict. File
a small taper on the bottom of the staple, especially if the sheet metal
was .020" or thicker, so that the reed will be able to be inserted
fully into the chanter if necessary. This can make an important difference
of 1/4" to 1/2" of insertion for tuning purposes, depending
on the chanter.
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- Dunk Test for grading cane hardness
before starting. This is not a traditional uilleann pipe step but a recent
innovation of concert oboe and bassoon players. In my opinion "soft
cane" will sink 48%-53% of its length in water; "medium"
cane 54%-59% and "hard" cane 60% and more. I suspect that cane
sinking more than 70% of its length is too hard. For more details see the
"dunk test" document.
- Split a tube of cane into strips and cut a sufficient length of fairly
straight, not-twisted strip of appropriate width for your recipe. Many
concert D pitch chanters start with strips 4" to 4-1/2" long
and a little over 1/2" wide.
- Select a Strip or tube of cane of appropriate
outside diameter for your recipe. Photo shows test holes drilled into a
board into which either tubes or strips of cane can be inserted to quickly
measure the diameter. Many tubes are not exactly round, so each strip may
have a different diameter. Different recipes can use rather different diameters
for reeds for the same type of chanter so there is no one commonly-used
- Plane the strip to the exact width required
for the start of the process of making blades. The photo shows a small
hobby style plane but a special tool is not required. Ordinary coarse or
medium sandpaper can be used to finish the edges.
- Goals: different recipes have different requirements.
The photo shows 2 pairs of blades gouged and sanded differently on the
inside but not yet scraped on the outside. The pair at left is thicker,
for recipes which emphasise a small elevation or opening between the lips
when the inside curvature is finished. The pair at right is thinner with
a much larger opening, for recipes which emphasize the thickness of the
slip and do not worry so much about the size of the opening at this stage.
Niether method is "correct," each can be used in an appropriate
recipe provided other steps are taken to accommodate.
- Gouge the strip. First place it into the
trough in the shooting board and then use
the gouge to start the process of creating the inside curve of the slip.
It is not necessary to be perfect at this stage since the final shape will
be created by sanding. Leave the edges and the centerline a bit thick at
first. The next view shows slip after first gouge
pass, edges & center still a bit thick.
- Gouge the edges. Use the gouge to get the
edges very thin (for most recipes, not knife-sharp at this time). Gouge
the centerline but be careful not to go too deep at this stage, especially
in the center 1/3 of the slip which is where the critical top ends of the
blades will be. Leave some cane for the sandpaper to remove. The
next view shows a section of slip, thin part ok, thicker part still
Go to Top
- Sand the gouge. Wrap coarse or medium (#80
to #150 grit) sandpaper around a smooth cylinder of an outer diameter appropriate
to your recipe. Hold or clamp the cylinder so that it does not wobble,
and hold the slip under a finger taking care to keep it closely alligned
with the cylinder as you move it back and forth. You may be able to see
in the photograph traces of bees' wax on the bark of the slip, which can
help provide traction to the fingers. Notice the cylinder is resting firmly
against the white edge of a table. Different recipes vary considerably
so there is no standard diameter for all. Decorative candles, plastic plumbing,
wooden kitchen rolling pins, food or beer cans, many other round cylinders
can serve if they are smooth, free of raised edges, and the correct size.
- Start with coarse or medium sandpaper. Finish
with very fine paper (#320 grit or finer). The center 1/3 of the length
of the slip must be very smooth and free of nicks, grooves and gouges.
The photo shows a rougher surface at left which has had only medium sandpaper,
which is acceptable for the bottom (tails) of the slip, while the
piece at right has been smoothed with very fine paper and is suitable for
the active top or lips of the reed.
- Optionally the inside of the slip can be stabilized with any of several
- Raise the grain. Lightly moisten the
sanded center area of the slip, let dry 20 minutes or so. The
next view shows grain raised at left from moistening, still smooth
at right where no moisture was applied. Then re-sand with very fine sandpaper
(#400 grit to #600 grit). Future exposure to high humidity will not raise
the grain and increase surface roughness after this treatment, whereas
untreated reeds tend to become rougher on the inside over time. The
final view with strong overhead light shadows shows no grain casting
shadows but a dust grain on cane near center left shows clearly.
- Seal the surface. Rub interior surface
on a candle or otherwise rub some form of wax onto finished inner surface.
This tends to make reed somewhat slower to react to changes in the air.
Other treatments include shellac, superglue, fingernail polish, etc. Note: hard
substances such as nail polish or super-glue will make the blades stiffer
and change the behavior and/or the sound of the reed. Be careful
not to scratch or dent the surface!
- Finish the edges. Check your recipe! At this time, if the edges
are required to be sanded to a knife-edge sharpness, the slip has uisually
been left slightly too wide. Place a sheet of fine or very fine sandpaper
on a flat surface and sand each edge for several strokes, alternating between
sides, until the slip is the correct final width (especially in the center
1/3 of its length) and the two edges are the same thickness in the center
- Laying out parallel-sided head and tails
- Laying out a combination parallel-sided / tapered-sided head and tails
- Gouging "room" for staple inside tails
- Gouging tuning/tone chamber inside head above eye-level
- Fitting tails onto staple (side view): The
staple should be inserted into the reed, at an amount such that the tails
are firmly in contact with the staple, especially the ends of the tail.
In this photo the staple has been inserted too far. When these tails are
bound onto the staple, extra stresses will be placed on the blades. This
staple should be pulled out until the elevated ends of the tails lie down
against the staple. If the recipe calls for gouging the insides of the
tails to "make room" for the staple, this step may have accidentally
been omitted, or may not have been sufficient.
- Blades collapsing too much. If the elevation
(amount of opening at the lips) decreases too much after the staple is
inserted, the finished blades may collapse completely or fail to sound
properly. I prefer this kind of assembly, with the blades completely
unscraped after assembly, to remain open about 2-3 times the elevation
eventually desired for playing. The diagram shows how the blades can be
wedged open at one or both ends and then allowed to sit for a few days
for the cane to "set" into its new shape. Often (but not always)
this will allow the reed to be finished with the desired amount of elevation.
Go to Top
- Demonstration of goal: photo showing side-by-side
a professionally made chanter reed and a regulator reed in strong side-light,
to show the differences in scraping. Notice the very flat appearance of
the regulator reed scrape. Above it is the chanter reed. Notice that the
edges of the scrape are not well defined in the slide-light. This is because,
in cross-section, a chanter reed needs to be arched and a bit thicker along
the centerline than a regulator reed, in order to jump the octave. The
regulator of course is supposed to stay in the first octave, so its centerline
is intentionally scraped thinner to prevent jumping the octave. Reeds made
by the English pipemaker Dave Williams.
- Cut away rough scrape. Check your recipe!
This is one way to start the scraping process by removing material that
I believe is removed from reeds made by most methods. In other words this
step is minimal enough that it shouldn't interfere with most of the popular
- Fit a bridle or collar. First view shows
a copper "collar" style, wrapped snugly around base of blades
just above wrapping (top view looking down towards the white wrapping barely
visible top of photo). Click here to see a brass
sliding-type bridle, which usually rides above the binding some distance.
It is shaped so as to squeeze the edges together, opening the lips, more
as it is moved up, and at the same time squeezes the bark sides of the
faces together, closing the lips, more as it is moved down. The loop in
the middle makes this type of bridle very easy to reshape for repositioning.
Click here for a sketch of bridle design ideas.
- For pre-blade-cutting methods
- For blades cut & assembled before scraping
- Sounds: Inhale-type crow
- Sounds: playing in chanter
Dull tone in chanter reeds can appear any
time, even the earliest stages. It is best either to attempt a remedy or
discard the reed and avoid fruitless finishing. Dull tone is often or usually
caused by deformed edges which are most easily seen when the blades are
taken apart and the inside curve viewed under strong side light. The diagram
shows basic principles.
- Methodical scraping with blade
- Methodical sanding techniques
- Hard-collar scrape method
- Bassoon Light Pattern
- Sky / Hegarty Light Pattern
- Sounds: crow
- Sounds: chanter
Go to Top
- Gurgling D
- Sharp bottom D
- Flat back D
- Sharp back D
- Sinking back D
- Breaking back D
- Gurgling /growling 2nd octave E
- Octave Sharp
- Octave Flat
Artificial Drone Reeds
- 2 types of bodies for artificial drone reeds,
one thick white plastic, the other thin metal tubing which has been made
easier to use by adding a 2nd layer of tubing on the outside of the first.
- Sanding the tongue bed onto a body. A long
diagonal is first filed onto the tubing, then it is fine-sanded to be perfectly
flat by holding very fine sandpaper and sanding on a flat piece of glass
- Thin style tongue for artificial drone reed,
1/32" hobby store styrene plastic. More
detailed drawing. Similar (but somewhat different body) to a commercial
GHB reed. Such a tongue must be much shorter than conventional cane or
wooden tongues for artificial drone reeds, and have a greater elevation
than many long-tongued drone reeds.
- Long style wood/cane tongue for artificial
drone reed. Tongue is first finished mirror flat, then a slight curve is
sanded into fixed end to create permanent elevation. Expanded
view diagram of tongue only.
Artificial Regulator Reeds.
- "Scraping" the blades of an artificial
double-reed for regulator or smallpipe chanter. The blades were cut from
1-quart plastic containers (USA recycle code #5 or #6) for yogurt. The
process is very simple, the upper 1/3 of the blade length is sanded such
that the lips are thinned to be 1/2 their original thickness.
- Finished artificial double-reed is shown
with soft elastic band to reduce loudness and make its tone more mellow.
Go to Top
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End of "Make an Uilleann Pipe Chanter Reed"