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Minor Revision 26 August 1997 -- *** In Table of Contents
Minor Revision 23 June 1997 -- Reed Making Link
Minor Revision 27 May 1997--Chanter Cap Added
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.
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!
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.
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:
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.
Caution: super-glue grabs very quickly and will bond fingers to each other, to other body parts such as eyes and lips, or onto the work! It can also cause injury by splashing into the eyes. Protect eyes and fingers! (Not to mention furniture.)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
This should be easy with hobby-store materials. A mounting for the axis
of the key can be cut from thin brass U-shaped channel sold at hobby stores,
or can be bent from thin stock .015" to .02" thick. This can
be attached to the body of the chanter with tiny brass sheet metal screws.
Some sort of mechanical attachment is probably required since there will
be considerable stress put on the joint by accidental bumping during play
or other handling of the chanter.
Make key from narrow .030" or thicker brass stock, hobby store.
Make mounting for keypad from epoxy putty. Wrap piece of leather over chanter body at hole, lay wax paper over it to protect it at this stage, goop the key with putty, press into position & allow to harden. Trim to shape and tack leather onto form with glue. If leather is epoxied during first step it may become saturated with plastic & be too stiff & hard.
Spring for key can be made of rubber O-ring or other elastic wrapped around key and over the front of chanter.
Probably more to say here.
More to come, stay tuned!
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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