Copyright 2000 David C. Daye - all rights reserved
My chanter reeds are 100% traditional uilleann pipe chanter reeds made of natural cane blades bound to tapered metal tubes ("staples") and controlled with adjustable metal bridles or collars. Click here for a diagram of chanter reed parts.
Note to non-uilleann-pipers: reeds for uilleann pipes are not standardized, although there are some general families of reed designs. There are no standard reeds that will play in most or all of the common modern concert D chanters nor are there any capable of being fit to many different concert D chanters with adjustments after manufacture.
The staple is made from thin brass, either rolled from a tapered sheet or spun by machine. Its dimensions are critical to the performance of the chanter and so I have published its design and include a free spare with chanter purchases.
The cane is hand selected for its mechanical and vibrational qualities. I use stiff cane, usually French bassoon cane, rather than the more flexible Spanish "bagpipe" cane preferred by many pipe makers. The French cane is more difficult to form into the proper shape and vibration, but once formed, this initial inconvenience becomes an advantage helping the reed resist deformation once put into service..
I can build reeds for any climate, even desert conditions, by leaving the partially finished reeds to settle in the expected type of air during the finishing stage. It is always helpful for buyers to report the sort of weather they expect to have for their playing. Uilleann reeds react to the climate, and rarely play well beyond a range of 40-50% variation in Relative Humidity. I can finish reeds for very wet or very dry conditions as well.
For mid-continental North American pipers I try to finish reeds for a Relative Humidity of around 70%. This normally allows the tolerant French cane to maintain performance in our more hot, humid summer air, but will require the piper to maintain some sort of artificial humidificiation in dry air to maintain at least 50% Relative Humidity. In summer afternoons or winter indoor heating, air can rapidly drop below 20% Relative Humidity. Many pipers carry inexpensive musical instrument moisture devices in their pipe cases. Others use modestly priced portable room humidifiers to keep one room sufficiently moist during dry weather. These are common protective measures used by players of many delicate wooden or reeded instruments including harps, guitars and concert oboes.
The main factor affecting reed performance is the amount of moisture in the air, termed "Relative Humidity" which is not easily guessed by personal experience. Some times when a person feels the air to be humid it may be rather dry in actual numeric terms. An inexpensive desktop humidity guage, or one made for storing tobacco or wood or other moisture sensitive products, is more reliable and should be carried by pipers.
Dry air maikes the cane temporarily more stiff. So chanter reeds generally become harder to blow and sharper (higher) in pitch, especially the 1st octave. They beome easier to blow and flatter (lower in pitch, espeically the 1st octave) in humid or damp air.
This creates a compound instability. The only temporary reed adjustment is the bridle. If in dry air the bridle is pushed down to tighten, the easy strength is restored but it is doubly sharp in the first octave. If the bridle is pushed up to loosen, the pitch is restored but the reed becomes doubly hard to blow.
To increase the range of dry weather the reed can tolerate, 1 or more wires (termed "rushes") or guitar strings etc. are inserted into the bore in dry air. Rushes are an entirely traditional way to flatten the pitch of the 1st octave at times when it sharpens, by changing the properties of the internal bore of the chanter. The reed alone is not required to carry all the burden of adaptation to dry weather. When humidity returns and the first octave begins to flatten, the rush is easily removed. Penny-Chanters are shipped with 2 stiff plastic wires of different sizes.
Even though the Relative Humidity is the main factor affecting the reed, temperature can be a multiplier. As the heat rises towards body temperature, exposure to damp or dry air will affect the reed more quickly and more thoroughly. Therefore it is best to store and transport pipes in moderate temperatures. It is especially important not to allow direct sun onto the bag or chanter. Heat on the reed can reach low cooking temperatures within minutes completely destroying it.
Reeds are built by gouging, shaping and binding cane blades onto the metal staple. The internal shape serves as a virtual mouthpiece for the pipe, the first part of the bore. The upper end of the blades are very thin so as to vibrate, creating the pulses of air which react to the bore shape and the finger positions creating the musical sound.
The assembly process places the material under a complicated array of stresses. The stresses are a liability in the early life of the reed. Any mechanical adjustment to the bridle or the cane is liable to upset the existing balance, possibly destroying the reed. Therefoe adjustments in the early days are traditionally advised to be made only in small partial steps, allowing hours or days of playing for the reed to find a new balance. Traditionally these stresses are found to diminish gradually over time, leaving the reed ideally in a state of balance for a long, dependable life.
However, in actual practice this only seems to work out for a small fraction of reeds. Many pipers and quite a few makers find that many if not most of the reeds they begin to make will fail either early in the construction period or soon after going into playing service. Reeds are the most liable to fail due to extreme or rapid changes in weather when they are new.
I began making uilleann pipe reeds years ago in the prime of my Highland bagpipe career. I noticed a common pattern of reports from both types of pipers. Good, well-broken-in reeds are often reported to be largely free from the stresses initially created during assembly. A finger or knife blade, carefully inserted, can often pry the two blade edges apart with ease. When a good reed is untied, the cane blades are often found not to spring apart but instead to remain resting together, thoroughly airtight but not under tension.
By being well fixed in its shape, a good well-broken-in reed is also resistant to permanent failure due to minor adjustments, playing or changes in weather, even though it will still stiffen in dry air and soften in damp air
Putting these observations together with reports from other types of instrument makers about the possibility that exposure to varying humidities might actual cause natural materials to become more stable, I began very early to use moisture and humidity more than most uilleann reed makers do. Most traditional uilleann reed constructions are completely dry, relying solely on the random properties of the cane and long periods of settling time to give the proper formation and vibration.
Moisture and humidity seem to allow the formation to proceed more quickly and the stresses of assembly to be relieved to a great extent before the reed is even able to vibrate. Because there is rather little internal stress remaining within the cane, the voicing can be carried much more thoroughly towards completion in confidence with a relatively low incidence of reeds failing during the finishing period.
Once the reed is playing in a nearly finished condition, it is exposed to several rounds of dry and damp air to identify and relieve most of any remaining stresses. Some reeds are lost at this time--but reeds are always lost in any construction method, so there is no unusual cost to this process. The surviving reeds, which are a high fraction of those begun when the average quality of the cane is good, are set into humidity conditions according to their destination for a day or more, then fine tuned. Just before shipping they are given a treatment of light outdoor wood sealer, which does not prevent but greatly slows the cane's reaction to atmospheric changes. There is no effect on the tone or performance since the sealer is a very light, nonsticky substance that does not harden or add thickness to the surface of the cane.
Except for the sealer, this assembly method can be described as simply to harness, rather than to avoid, the forces of nature and the playing conditions to be expected during the reed's working life. Much of the uncertainty that has typically been left to the buyer is thereby brought forward and resolved during the making where the greatest and most expert control is expected to be found.
This of course is not an invariant guarantee of perfection. Each piece of cane has its own unique properties and resistance to cracking or slow, permanent deformation due to the external stresses of weather, playing and adjustment. These reeds still can't perform well over the full range of Relative Humidity and temperature variation expected in daily life, especially outdoor conditions, concert touring or most any use in mid-continental regions. Although the sensitivy of these reeds is controlled and the incidence of sudden failure has been reduced, these liabilities are not eliminated and so the piper still needs to exercise the level of care and attention required for double-reed instruments especially bellows-blown bagpipes. Regular playing and protection from rapid, large swings of humidity and extremes of heat or dryness (except for reeds intentionally finished for arid regions, which instead must be protected against high humidity) are among the common precautions needed.
New reeds are shipped with their adjustable bridles set for a somewhat high blowing pressure, as a safeguard against unknown weather conditions during transit. They are usually reported to improve during their first week or two of playing after the buyer returns the strength setting to an easier level. Like other makers I cannot offer extended warranties on reeds but I will replace free any that fail due to faulty materials or my workmanship during the first month after delivery.
Unknown to me, at the time I developed my style of reedmaking several years ago, the cane crops were especially well suited to my philosophy. Cane, being a natural material, varies from season to season. Recent changes took me by surprise, requiring a period of readaptaion of methods and a delay as I replaced failed reeds for some unlucky buyers. Early in the winter of 2000 I have conducted considerable testing with cane from a variety of sources. The reeds are once again finishing to controllable strengths with good sound and stability. Most important for the buyer, they are proving quite tolerant of normal variations of weather.
I am now building reeds at a good pace, which will allow me to minimize waiting times for reed, chanter and set orders.
To E-mail David Daye click here
Bottom of Penny-Chanter Reeds Page