Uilleann Pipe Octave Trouble

Causes & Cures

 Copyright 1996, 2009, 2010 David C. Daye, all text, image and sound files presented here.

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Updated 28 Jan 2010

7th Draft 8 June 2009
6th Draft 9 September 1996
Original 4 September 1996

Caution: I have tested each of these diagnoses and remedies and found them to work for my chanter, cane, climate, style of reed, and other circumstances. However I do not make reeds professionally nor sell my knowlege (yet), so you should consider all of this to be tentative. If you have found any of this to be in error, or have other comments, please feel free to contact me at CLICK HERE with your ideas or suggestions.




I make a common "generic Rowesome" type reed, as I have heard some reedmakers call it. It uses a standard-taper metal staple (narrower end inserted into the blades). The reed head is roughly 1/2" wide and 1" to 1-1/8" long above the eye of the staple and has sides which are parallel in the top 1/4 to 3/4 of the length of the blades. I use either a low-mount copper collar (bridle) or a sliding type brass bridle which stays in the lower 1/3 of the head and is moved about 1/8" for adjustment. My most common type of cane at present is Rigotti brand French bassoon cane, which is harder than Spanish cane used by many makers and has very hard bark. The "dunk test" shows that this cane varies from slightly to very hard, with a sink percentage ranging from 50% to 70% or more, compared to Spanish cane which I find usually in the 45% to 58% range. I limit my efforts to the softer bassoon cane testing 50% to 60% at this time.

How the 2nd Octave Works

The 2nd octave is achieved by a combination of stiffness along the vertical centerline of the blades and flexibility to either side. Although many different shapes and depths of scrapes can work, the relationship between the centerline and the adjacent areas is rather critical. Self-taught or book-taught reedmakers seem especially likely to have problems with this because the relationship is subtle and not well discussed in existing texts. Scraping methods are also not well described in print nor is suitable cane material (hardness, stiffness) well described either. Making matters worse, the shape of an existing reed does not necessarily reveal the steps by which it was produced. Cane deforms as it is scraped, due to the pressure of binding, so the final shape was created by both scraping and settling which is not always obvious to the self-teacher. So an isolated learner attempting to duplicate a working reed can be misled into scraping too much in critical areas.

There are several main causes for difficulty hitting or holding the 2nd octave, in my experience. They are reflected in the topics shown below, which include remedies where I have found them, followed by some thoughts about preventative measures in future reeds.

Basic Reed Strength

Every reed plays best at some particular basic strength. If its collar or bridle is set so as to open it up for greater loudness and strength than this ideal, the 2nd octave will become disproportionately harder to attain and hold. The first remedy to seek for any reed with octave difficulty is to simply close it down slightly. It may behave perfectly well, if playing somewhat quieter and sharper, when the elevation is reduced.

Future reeds might be designed to play louder and stronger by leaving a bit more cane on the scrape in order to support greater elevation, and also perhaps leaving the blades slightly longer to compensate for tuning imbalance that would otherwise be created by a more open reed.

Bridle or Collar

A second common problem is that the bridle or collar may be at the wrong location on the blades, even if it is holding the elevation to the correct amount. A quick fix is to try re-shaping the collar to allow it to be repositioned a bit higher or lower on the blades (usually higher is better for this) while maintaining the same elevation at the lips. Experiment in small changes; even 1/32" can make the critical difference. There may be side effects, such as gurgling bottom D and sharpened and strengthened back D, which will be more likely and greater the greater the distance the collar is moved.

In truth, if the problem is fixed by repositioning the collar, there is probably a bit of an imbalance in the scrape. If you are satisfied with by repositioning the collar, leave well enough alone. Otherwsie you may wish to read the Scrape Imbalances section below and the notes about avoiding octave problem in future reeds.

Static Leaks

"Static" leaks are any leaks which exist regardless of whether the reed is vibrating or not. These are simple to find and cure, and partly for this reason they receive most of the discussion in existing texts. However after noting that several of my best reeds were distinctly leaky, I have concluded that leaks are probably not the primary culprit in many if not most cases, and that leaks are only an aggravating factor. However:

A reed which suddenly develops octave difficulty may simply be loose in the chanter. Remove the cap carefully--be ready to catch the reed if it has come loose--and check to see that the reed is seated snugly in the head of the chanter. Some pipers prefer to rub a little bees' wax or black wax around the hemping at the base of the reed to make the seal extra airtight. This can't hurt, and although it may not help a really good reed, it may provide a little extra insurance for a problematic reed.

The other common locations of static leaks are the edges of the blades, and the binding around the tails. A good quick test is to seal the lips of the blades by pressing them against a finger (not squeezing them shut) and inhaling through the bottom of the staple. There should be no airflow detected. If there is airflow, try using other fingers to seal the edges of the blades first low near the bridle and then higher in the middle to upper edges. If either of these steps stops the airflow, the edges of the blades can usually be sealed ("staunched") very well and permanently by rubbing them into some heat-softened bees' wax or black wax.

Thick glues or fingernail polish may also work, especially if they retain some flexibility after they set, but "super" glue should not be used. Large amounts of it are drawn into the tiniest gaps, and it tends to become extremely hard and brittle in these amounts.

If the binding leaks, which is likely if edge-sealing does not identify or stop the airflow, one traditional cure is to seal it with shellac, varnish or fingernail polish. Another is to rub wax over the binding and then roll the blinding between the hands to warm the wax and force it into any gaps. Be sure to rub some wax between the highest wrap and the bottom of the exposed cane blades, where small leaks can often occur especially if modern thick binding is used. A fast modern cure is to wrap the binding with plumbers' teflon or PTFE tape. The tape should begin on the cane about 1/8" above the binding and extend to the bottom of the reed (remove the reed-seat hemping first) or else 1/8" below the bottom of the binding if your binding does not extend to the bottom of the staple. The tape is somewhat impermanent (it may need replacing if the reed his handled frequently) but it is clean and nonsticky as varnish.

Active Leaks

These are much harder to detect because they are caused by problems in the blades which do not always appear in the standard inhalation tests. These are much more serious than static leaks because they are related to the way the reed behaves. They occur at the top of the blades in 2 areas:

Corners & Edges

Chips or broken fibers right can create tiny gaps which sometimes aren't spotted by the inhalation test. For upper edge leaks, staunching with bees' wax often works. However if the very upper corners are the problem, wax or glue might interfere with vibration of the lips, or worsen it if particles get inside the blades and thereafter prevent the lips from closing completely. A traditional remedy which sometimes works for leaking corners is to cut away a tiny portion of the corners at an angle (many makers trim the corners of all their reeds simply to reduce the risk of damage from routine handling).


It is also possible for air to leak through the lips during the period in each vibration when they are supposed to be shut tight against the air. There are 3 common causes:

Scrape Imbalances

Shine a light at very low angle across the scrape laterally and down the face of scrape vertically. If the blades are basically flat laterally or crosswise, they have essentially been scraped like regulator reeds. Musical symptoms of this include a very free, pressure-sensitive and responsive 1st octave, and difficulty getting into any of the 2nd octave notes much above 2nd octave E. If the problem is extreme there is no remedy; the reed may become a very nice regulator reed however, where its overly-scraped centerline is essential to keep it from jumping the octave with the chanter.

If side-light shows any shadowed depressions in the center areas, they are likely causes of 2nd octave trouble. A related problem is an excess of curvature at the edges of the scrape with insufficent curve in the center region. Either of these problems can often be cured by a combination of rescraping and shortening of the blades; the higher such depressions are on the blades, and the shallower they are (or the less dramatic the unevenness of the scrape curvature), the less drastic the remedial surgery and the more likely it will succeed.

Fixing Octave Difficulty in Finished Reeds

The general remedy is to thin the upper sides and corners a bit to make them more flexible compared to the center portion of the lips and to the vertical centerline of the entire head. But first we need to inspect the reed carefully to see if any of the corners are too thin for any additional thinning. The picture shows how to insert a piece of thin cardboard or a razor blade between the lips of the reed to pry them very slightly apart, so that you can see which of the 4 corners are thicker and thinner. When thinning corners, first thin those that are thicker than the others.

Only one corner is shown marked here, with the several pencilled lines in the upper left corner, but the areas to be thinned are on both corners of both blades except for those corners that are the thinnest.

If you're lucky, you will ease the mid to upper 2nd octave without affecting anything else about the reed. But more often the corner thinning will result in weakening of the back D, which will often become prone to going flat at a slight increase in pressure. This is cured by trimming the lips very slightly, using a sharp blade against a firm surface such as smooth hardwood, formica or linoleum etc., until the back D is strengthened. This won't harm the octave and may make it even more stable. If the reed has become too sharp, especially in the 1st octave, and/or too ready to jump the octave from the bottom hand, balance can be restored by uniformly scraping the lower 1/2 to 2/3 of the scrape, not changing its shape but removing a small amount of cane carefully from the entire bottom portion of the scrape.

One way to make it easier to thin the sides of the scrape in relation to the centerline is to squeeze the bridle or collar so much that the lips close tightly together. This has the effect of pulling the centerline region of the blades close together, leaving the sides of the scrape more favored when sanding against a flat surface. Of course if you are using a high-mounted sliding type bridle it must be removed to expose the scrape. Then fix a temporary low-mount collar to close the lips. Then either sanding with fine paper or very careful light scraping with a knife can be focussed on the outer edges of the existing scrape, and tapered or feathered in towards the centerline area, with minimal risk to the centerline. Don't leave the reed bridled shut; immediately remove it, squeeze the edges of the reed if necessary to help spring it open, and restore your normal permanent bridle.

Staple Design Flaws

Experimenting with staple dimensions can sometimes cause problems especially with upper 2nd octave notes A, B and above, if the internal diameter of the eye end of the staple is too small. If you have existing staples known to work with a chanter, and you wish to make the upper end of the staple smaller for some reason, proceed in very small steps and be prepared for octave trouble.

Avoidance in Future Reeds

The essential point is to avoid weakening the centerline region of the scrape too much in comparison to the regions on either side. Some commonly advised precautions for those who frequently have octave trouble in their reeds follow:


For the discussion of how the 2nd octave is created I have found nothing specific in uilleann pipe sources. Although several makers I have seen giving demonstrations of reedmaking have made sure to work the sides of the scrape as well as the center areas, (Benedict Koehler and Timothy Britton) none I have met has said anything about this in relation to creating or troubleshooting the 2nd octave. I have not seen anything in uilleann pipe books about this either, in fact there is very little description of how and where to scrape in books I've seen. Of course I may not have been paying attention!

There is some specific information in A Handbook on Making Double Reeds for Early Winds by Keith Loraine, 1982 Musica Sacra et Profana, pp. 17-25. Another useful text is Bassoon Reed Making by Mark Popkin and Loren Glickman, 1969 The Instramentalist Co., with good photographs and discussion of scraping some of which can be applied to uilleann pipe reeds.

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