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Interview in the Northumbrian Pipers Society Journal

Back in 2016 I was interviewed for an article for the Journal of the Northumbrian Pipers Society.  Here’s the interview which gives some history about how I got into piping and pipemaking and who helped me along the way.  I’m very grateful for all the help I’ve received – people have been so generous.
1) You first surfaced as an NPS member whilst living at Leaplish up at
Kielder. Can you tell us a bit about how you came to the pipes, where
you’re from, and so on.
I’d been playing for a year or so before then.  I moved up to the North East when I left university.  We used to live in Whickham and I married my wife Lynda, in 2000.  I’m not keen on wearing jewellery and didn’t want a wedding ring, so I asked for a set of pipes instead!  I’d seen David Burleigh featuring on a local TV programme so we went to visit him and placed an order.

2) Did you play other instruments before, or have other musical interests?
I’d played the usual crop of instruments and even sang in the Church choir as a child.  I learned to play the piano and recorder when I was young and the guitar as a student and wanted to learn something new.  I’d always been aware of the pipes but didn’t know a great deal about them.  I think there are a lot of benefits to starting early in life.  I find I can now find my way around most instruments fairly quickly, and bash out a simple tune or two!

2a) (whoops) – who taught you the pipes? How have you found your
interaction with the piping / competition world in terms helpfulness,
progress  etc
When we picked up my set from David he asked if I had a teacher.  He offered to teach me himself, but thought  perhaps it was too far to travel.  Instead, he gave me Roland Lofthouse’s number.  I rang Roland who kindly agreed to take me under his wing and I went to him every fortnight for a year or so.  I really appreciated his tuition.  Nearly all the tunes were new to me and he gave me a really good technical grounding and established a good traditional repertoire.
We then moved up to Kielder.  I was managing an outdoor centre there and I wasn’t able to visit Roland anymore.  We started a family and with two young girls and a busy job I stopped playing too.  One day, my eldest daughter asked me about my set and why I didn’t play them any more, and she said I should start playing again.  So, after a gap of several years I started to play at home and then saw the Whitley Bay course advertised.  I thought this would offer a good route back into playing and might help me make some connections, so I went along and had a great week.
Andy May and Chris Ormston were tutoring and both offered different but appealing approaches, so I went along to see each of them for lessons occasionally.
As with most pipers, when people find out you can play they ask to hear.  I’d really only been playing at home until this point, but wanted to be a confident enough player to play in public and thought the competitions would be a great way to do this.  With this in mind I entered the intermediate and a couple of open class events in 2015 with some success!

3) Tell us a bit about pipers who kayak, or kayakers who pipe! Are you
the only one? You seem to be playing the fiddle as well now, and fit
that in on Shetland courses!
mmm..  I think I’m the only one who plays the Northumbrian pipes although I know of a couple who play the Scottish pipes.  But there are plenty of musical kayakers.  I’ve been on sea kayak or canoe trips to lots of places and we’ve had memorable campfire sessions in Alaska, Norway and throughout Europe.  The pipes aren’t very portable though, so it’s usually been a whistle which can be easily packed away.  I’ve made a lot of good friends in Shetland and many of the sea kayakers play the fiddle.  I started to play the fiddle a couple of years ago to help my daughter learn.  It’s always had the reputation as a difficult instrument, but I found it relatively easy probably as a result of learning to play the pipes!

4) What made you decide to start making pipes. Obviously kayaking must
be a seasonal thing: do the two mesh together well?
I started maintaining my own pipes almost straight away.  After playing for a month or so, one of the cane drone reeds started playing up.  I diligently followed the written instructions which came with my set and passed the reed through the flame of a candle.  After I’d stamped out the flaming piece of carbonised cane and run my fingers under the cold tap I decided it would be useful to learn how to make my own.  I started by copying what I had and soon got the hang of it.
One day, Andy May asked if I was interested in making pipes and I dismissed the idea but I think a seed was planted.  By the time Julia organised a bag making workshop with Jackie Boyce I had already started to make chanter reeds.  I’d reached the stage where I could make the bags and I could make the reeds, so I only needed to fill in the gap between them and I’d have a full set!  It seemed like a logical step to make.

5) What skills did you have beforehand – and what have you had to do a
crash course in?
The main asset I have is a believe that we can all more or less learn how to do whatever we want to if we get on with it.  I’d already learnt how to use lathes and other workshop machinery at school, and my Father had taught me a lot of practical skills too.  I visited Julia, Barry and Andy for start up advice and a shopping list and set up a workshop in my garage.  Luckily, I enjoy problem solving.  For my first set I used the information on Mike Nelsons website and spent 95% of my time head scratching and 5% actually making.

6)  Pipe design and style – what are you hoping to go for? How do you
view the functionality v. aesthetic debate?
My first set was definitely functionality – could I make something that works?  When I knew could I started to think about the aesthetics.  My own taste is for something fairly traditional looking but without being too ornate.  I like a more delicate look too.  The look of my sets is still evolving as I think through new ideas or am inspired by something I’ve seen.  Now, the functionality is paramount, but much of my motivation comes from the pleasure of making something which looks good.

7) Have other pipemakers been helpful – who did you talk to / get
lessons from?
Yes, very helpful.  I was able to see David Burleigh and Colin Ross at work before I started making, and Julia and Barry Say and Andy May have all been really helpful.  Richard Evans and Francis Wood have offered remote advice too which is very much appreciated.  I think most have gone through the same problem solving process as I have, and we’ve often come up with out own pragmatic solutions and preferences.

8) How easy was it to assemble the necessary equipment and materials?
It was very easy.  The main purchase was a lathe.  Once I knew what to look for I went to look at several second hand ones.  Most were deathtraps and best avoided.  I decided not to buy a cheap one offered to me when I counted the number of fingers the owner had and noticed that I had more.  But Andy pointed me to a dealer in South Shields.  They had a few in stock and I was able to buy one there and then.  I bought some materials from the NSP pipe making stock for two sets but now source all materials directly.  Most of the materials  are readily available and many of the tools are standard.  There are some specialist tools needed, but these are often adapted from existing ones or made from scratch, and not too complicated.

9) What are your plans for the future?
I’ve just moved to Byrness and have set my workshop there.  Kayaking is seasonal, and often means working weekends so I do have plenty of time for pipe making.  I have orders for sets ready to go and people are coming to me for fettling too, so I’m just going to carry on doing what I’m doing, but aim to do it better.
Things have moved on a lot since this interview, so for more information about the Northumbrian Smallpipes contact Kim@Northumbrianpipes.co.uk

Northumbrian Pipemaker – Refurbishing a set of Northumbrian Pipes

Northumbrian Small Pipes Fettling

Here’s a 9 key set of Northumbrian Pipes in need of restoration.  The bag was old and leaking and the set needed stripping down and a thorough clean.  A build up of dirt in the bore was deadening the tone and once cleaned and fitted with new reeds the set was singing again.

The set as it came in

The set as it came in

 

 

Stripped down and cleaned. Ready for new reeds and a new bag.

Stripped down and cleaned. Ready for new reeds and a new bag.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more information contact Kim@northumbrianpipes.co.uk

Northumbrian Smallpipes 7 key Set

I’ve just completed the commission of a 7 key set in Blackwood and Brass, with imitation ivory end caps for delivery to Italy.

Turning the Drones

Turning the Drones

 

 

Making the Chanter

Making the Chanter

 

 

Forging the Keys

Forging the Keys

 

 

Hard wear complete and ready to tie into the bag

Parts Complete and Ready to tie into the Bag

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tying Stocks into the Hand Stitched Leather Bag

Tying Stocks into the Hand Stitched Leather Bag

 

 

Stitching up the Bellows

Stitching up the Bellows

 

 

The Completed Bellows

The Completed Bellows

 

 

 

Northumbrian Pipes

Northumbrian Pipes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more information about Northumbrian Smallpipes contact me at Kim@Northumbrianpipes.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Northumbrian Smallpipes – Drone Stocks

When starting a set, I quite like to building the drones from the stocks upwards.  This means I need to make the stock first, then rough out the standing sections and finally the sliding parts of each drone.  Following this plan, I’ve made up the drone stock for the keyless smallpipes set.

northumbrian pipes

Starting with a rounded length of blackwood and a section of brass tube.

northumbrian pipes

The Blackwood is roughly shaped and drilled to take the drones.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

northumbrian pipes

The stock is reversed in the lathe and the taper shaped.

northumbrian pipes

Now the body of the stock is hollowed out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Northumbrian pipes

The brass ferrule is fitted and it’s ready for final polishing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now this is complete I can start turning the drones and build the set up form this base.

For more information contact Kim@northumbrianpipes.co.uk

 

 

 

Northumbrian Pipemaker – New Sets

A busy day in the Northumbrian Pipe Makers Workshop.

 

Today has been a day of preparation, with several projects underway.

Northumbrian Pipe Maker

Northumbrian Pipes – Blanks for 3 sets

I’ve been turning down the wood for three sets and you can see them here.  Each set has a Chanter, and two turned pieces for each of the four drones.  You can also see the smaller pieces above each set which will be the stocks needed to connect the chanter and bellows to the leather bag.  These will each have a metal ferrule which not only looks great but adds strength where the sections join.

At the bottom of the picture are a couple of extended chanters I’m working on.  These will each have 17 keys when finished.

Northumbrian Pipe Maker

Northumbrian Pipes Wood Blanks

Of the three sets shown, two are 7 key sets but I also started today on the Keyless set.  You can see the shorter Chanter and wood for the three drones required for this set.

Now that these have been roughly turned to size, they’ll be rested for a while and given further time to settle.  This step is important, and gives me time to make the bags, the bellows and dedicate some of my time to making the keys for the extended chanters.

 

 

 

 

For more information on buying a set of Northumbrian Small Pipes contact me at Kim@Northumbrianpipes.co.uk

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Northumbrian Pipes Maker – Keyless Set Drawings

Northumbrian Pipes – Making a Keyless Set

 

Northumbrian Pipes

Northumbrian Pipes – Keyless Chanter Sketches

I’m delighted to have been commissioned to make a Keyless set of Northumbrian Pipes.  Most sets now have 7 Keys and 4 Drones.  This set will be different.  The ‘original’ Northumbrian Small Pipes were beautifully crafted with a keyless Chanter which played 8 notes.  Pitched in Pipers’ G (F+20 cents), the 3 drones were tuned to Gdg with no need to change key.  Being keyless, the chanters are slim and elegant, and the three drones complement the simplicity to form a delicate and beautiful set of pipes.

Northumbrian Pipes

Northumbrian Pipes – Keyless Chanter Sketches

My first job is to sketch out some design options.  To accentuate the simplicity of the instrument we’ve decided on slim, clean lines which emphasis the wood, with simple end caps and mounts to provide a subtle contrast.

End caps and mounts are often made from Blackwood or imitation ivory, but we’re going to use Tagua Nut for this set.  Also known as Vegetable Ivory, it was extensively used for small carvings and making buttons but modern materials have largely taken over now.

In keeping with a ‘basic’ and simple design, metalwork will be subtle to allow the beauty of the wood to be most prominent.

For more information about buying your own bespoke set of Northumbrian Pipes contact me at Kim@northumbrianpipes.co.uk

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Northumbrian Pipes Maker – Bellows

Making Northumbrian Pipes Bellows

 

Northumbrian Pipes

Northumbrian Pipes – Bellows Cheeks

Northumbrian Small and often Border Pipes are bellows driven, so each set has a set of bellows.  For this set I’m using Elm for the cheeks.  The Elm is cut to shape and a stitching groove established near its edge.  This groove is then drilled and what will be the inside of the cheek varnished while it is accessible.

 

Northumbrian Pipes

Northumbrian Pipes – Stitching Bellows

The Leather is hand stitched through the drilled holes using Saddlers Stitch.  This stitching takes time and is done in such a way that an airtight seal is established between the leather and the wooden cheek.

 

Northumbrian Pipe Maker

Northumbrian Pipes – Stitching finished and ready for inlay

I’ve finished one side of the bellows here.  Once both bellows cheeks are stitched on, the next step will be to fill the stitching groove and finish the handmade brass fittings

Northumbrian Pipes

Northumbrian Pipes – Bellows Fittings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once completed, the one way air valve will be made and the leather belts, hinge and straps fitted.  The Bellows are then finished off and tested.

For more information on buying a set of Northumbrian Small Pipes contact me at Kim@Northumbrianpipes.co.uk

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Northumbrian Pipes Maker – Keys

Making Keys For Northumbrian Smallpipes

Northumbrian Pipes Maker

Keys are Hand Forged from Brass

Northumbrian pipes are available either with or without keys.  Originally, the instrument had a plain chanter with no keys and a unique and distinctive repertoire to tunes were played.  In the 18th Century, this chanter was developed by makers in Newcastle-on-Tyne and North Shields through the addition of keys. This allowed pipers to explore the fiddle repertoire as well as the older pipe tunes of the region.

Keys are hand made, which is an extremely time consuming job.  However, the results are well worth the effort, both in terms of the tunes which can be played and the beauty of finished chanter.  I’ve been making keys this week from brass sheet.  This is cut, cold forged and filed to shape.  The round head which will cover the hole on the chanter is cut and soldered on before a leaf spring is hand made and riveted to the key shank.

 

 

 

Once finished, the key is drilled to take the pin which attaches it to the chanter and final shaping and adjustments are made to ensure a smooth action.

Northumbrian Pipes Maker

Final Fitting to Ensure Smooth Action

 

 

 

For more information on buying a set of Northumbrian Small Pipes contact me at Kim@Northumbrianpipes.co.uk

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Northumbrian Pipes Maker

Northumbrian Pipes Maker

The finished round secti

Preparing Wood For a Set of Smallpipes

The most popular wood for Northumbrian pipe making is African Blackwood.  This is bought in squared billets and my first job is to turn it to rounds on the lathe.

 

Once turned, each piece is individually bored to the appropriate diameter, cut to length and then returned to the shelf for several months.  This allows the piece to slowly dry and prevents cracking.

Northumbrian Pipes Maker

Cut and turned wood is then slowly dried

 

For more information on buying a set of Northumbrian Small Pipes contact me at Kim@Northumbrianpipes.co.uk

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